What does James Brown have in common with Waka Flocka Flame, Migos, Soulja Boy and a number of other hip-hop artists? You guessed it: the ad-lib.
Waka Flocka has used ad-libs since his first song, “We on the Way,” as a way to subvert critics who said he couldn’t rap. Ad-libs also aided the rapper because, as he said, he had difficulty putting sentences together.
“My grammar was twisted. That’s why you hear certain rappers, when they put words in songs, it’s like, are they saying anything? Because technically, he’s uneducated about literature. Because if he knew proper sentences and proper grammar, you wouldn’t use nouns where they’re not supposed to be at. But that’s what makes you genius, because you go against the norm and make it seem normal,” Waka Flocka told The Root.
Historically, we’ve seen ad-libs—a form of improvisation—in old spirituals and work songs, in the black church and in the music of the iconic James Brown. Today artists like Migos and Desiigner use ad-libs pretty regularly—as in, every song. But the purpose of these improvisations is to add a secondary rhyme scheme, provide lyrical context or just make their unique sound unmistakable.
Professor Marcyliena Morgan, director of the Hiphop Archive & Research Institute at Harvard, says that the meaning of the term “ad-lib” in hip-hop has shifted—particularly when they are used for branding. Still, there is ingenuity on the part of the artists.
“There’s a lot of creativity that’s involved. As long as people are always working to do more and to keep hip-hop fresh, the longer it will stay with us,” Morgan told The Root.
Check out the full video above.