Freestyles are performed a cappella, over beatboxing and over instrumental versions of recorded hip hop songs. Impromptu, non-narrative raps in this style are often called freestyles even if entirely pre-written and memorized. Note that a degree of improvisation will commonly remain in the latter two cases, since the performer usually must match the syncopation of his rhymes to the rhythm provided in real time.
Freestyle battles sometimes bring mainstream attention to previously unknown rappers. This type of rapping also proves useful when an argument arises between two rappers. A diss can include attacks on credibility, threats of violence, or simply bragging that one is better than the other. Disses can also be recorded over the rival rapper's beat to add further disrespect. Allegations of sleeping with the another rapper's significant other have become increasingly popular in disses (such as 2Pac claiming to have slept with Biggie's wife, or Jay-Z claiming to have slept with Nas' baby's mother). Many times the audience wants to hear an immediate response from the two people involved in the conflict. This makes way for so-called freestyle records. One artist takes a beat that is already out in the mainstream, and raps over it so that they can quickly put something out to insult the other rapper involved.
Due to the improvised nature of freestyle, rules for meter and rhythm are usually more relaxed than in conventional rap. Many artists base their set on the situation and mental state, but have a ready supply of prepared lyrics and rhyme patterns they can use as filler or even around which they can build their set. Often, freestyling is done in a group setting (called a cypher) or as part of a freestyle battle. In these cases, freestyle verses are often prepared in the rapper's head as the other rappers in the cypher or the opponent in the battle take their turn. Freestyling is also often used by many rappers when beginning to write a song, in order to get a feel for the beat and to brainstorm lyrical ideas.
Well known and highly accomplished freestyler Supernatural appeared on the DVD "Freestyle: The Art of Rhyme" and said that reading both a standard and a rhyming dictionary helped him improve his freestyle ability and his vocabulary.
A live audience is critical to a freestyle battle. Each MC must use skill and lyrical ability to not only 'break down' his or her opponent, but to convince the audience that they are the better rapper. Appointed judges have been used in formal contests, but even when no winner is announced, the rapper who receives the best audience response is viewed as the victor. In addition, it is considered an act of dishonour to recite written and memorized raps in a battle, because it shows the rapper to be incapable of 'spitting' spur-of-the-moment lyrics.
The cipher is the crowd which forms around the battles, consisting of spectators and onlookers. This group serves partly to encourage competition and partly to enhance the communal aspect of rap battles. The cipher is known for “making or breaking reputations in the hip hop community; if you are able to step into the cipher and tell your story, demonstrating your uniqueness, you might be more accepted. These groups also serve as a way for messages about hip hop styles and knowledge to be spread, through word-of-mouth and encouraging trends in other battles.
Freestyle battling is a prominent part of hip hop culture.
In the early 21st century, freestyling (particularly freestyle battling) experienced a resurgence in popularity of sorts as successful freestyle battle competition TV shows were shown by both BET and MTV. In addition, Eminem's movie 8 Mile brought the excitement of the freestyle battle to mainstream movie audiences. Freestyle Friday is a watered-down battle segment on BET's popular show 106 & Park. Two rappers compete in a freestyle battle before the studio audience and three celebrity judges (the DJ sometimes acts as the 3rd judge). Each competitor alternates freestyling for 30 seconds in each of the two rounds (originally only 1 round when the segment first began). The rappers are not allowed to use profanities or sexually suggestive lyrics, punishable by disqualification. After the battle, the judges decide the winner, per majority vote.
Traditionally, a battle usually takes place before live audiences. Recently, however, the Internet has been used as a forum to hold online battles. Proponents of this developing artform that some call "text" say that the Internet provides a safe environment for artists to practice their skills. Without being hindered by beats, an online writer (or 'netcee') may use the full range of their imagination and vocabulary in a battle. When the online writer is writing everything that comes into their head, this is often called a "keystyle".
In Cuba, freestyle battles often follow organized concerts and juxtapose composed songs with ‘flowing’ lyrics that are relevant to the present situation. Freestyling can allow audience members to integrate into the performance stage. This provides a forum for up-and-coming underground artists to engage in a musical discussion with already prominent underground Cuban rappers. Freestyle battles often turn political when artists incorporate perspectives on social disparities and issues plaguing the Cuban population.