The “Who Run It” Challenge Is Redefining What’s Freestyle-Worthy In Rap
The “Who Run It” challenge is imminent. Following G Herbo‘s freestyle over the Three 6 Mafia song during an appearance at Dallas radio station K104 — and the official release of the freestyle — numerous rappers have also taken on the track. A$AP Rocky, Lil Yachty, Trippie Redd, and CupcakKe. Lil Uzi Vert also has a freestyle on the way, which will be a part of a remix of Herbo’s “Who Run It.”
Herbo’s freestyle had all the necessary parts for virality: a dance (the subtle, arms-folded shoulder bounce alongside K104 DJ Bay Bay); a catchphrase (the punctuation of “or something” at the end of every line); a charismatic, compelling freestyle; and an incredible beat. But this wasn’t the predictable boom bap classic or current hot beat of the moment. This was a beat from Three 6 Mafia, one of the most important — but underappreciated — dirty south rap groups.
Three 6 Mafia’s influence on rap has been apparent throughout the 2010s. Their gritty and lo-fi aesthetic served as a blueprint for A$AP Rocky when he made his debut with 2011’s Live. Love. A$AP mixtape. Now, a number of current rap songs interpolating tracks from members of the group (Juicy J‘s “Slob On My Knob” is referenced on A$AP Ferg‘s “Plain Jane” and G-Eazy and Cardi B‘s “No Limit“) are some of the biggest hits out.
And even though they’re the first rap group to win an Academy Award for Best Original Song (Hustle & Flow‘s “It’s Hard Out Here For A Pimp”), Three 6 Mafia isn’t heralded like other rappers or rap groups who are considered great.
Produced by Juicy J and DJ Paul 18 years ago, “Who Run It” stands out against its 2018 contemporary counterparts. Bouncy, chaotic and fast, it’s a reminder of the crunk sound that became mainstream in the mid 2000s. The track sounds refreshing, new even, in comparison to the slow pulse of current rap. The triumphant horns; the low rattling synths; the upbeat 808 kicks; and the skittering sixteenth note hi-hats. There’s an exhilaration and ferocity to this beat because of its difficulty; it’s not easy to catch on, let alone stay on. It demands whoever is rapping over it not only be good but bring that same energy.
Herbo not only started this trend but set a precedent as well with his freestyle. He makes it look effortless, the rapper changing his delivery throughout and dropping notable rhymes that range from wanting to add Paris to his passport stamps to convincing a judge of his innocence. For those who are fans of Herbo his lyrical prowess isn’t surprising. Since releasing his debut mixtape, Welcome to Fazoland, as Lil Herb in 2014, the Chicago rapper’s lyrical ability has only gotten better.
The freestyles that have come after Herbo’s have varied in quality. Rocky is so monotone that the intensity of the track overpowers him. Lil Yachty is energetic but messy, never seeming to really be comfortable on the beat. CupcakKe is animated and precise, effortlessly bouncing back and forth between punctuated rhymes and triplet flows. Then, there’s Trippie Redd.
The Canton, Ohio rapper surpasses Herbo with his freestyle, maintaining a momentum throughout that’s enthralling. “Who Run It” becomes a rap endurance test for Trippie, firing off as many rapid fire rhymes as he can before literally gasping for breath.
Although Trippie may have the best freestyle so far, Uzi may actually take that from him. Herbo’s snippet of the Philadelphia rapper’s freestyle has fans anticipating its full release. The preview finds Uzi using an exuberant and wild flow that’s unlike anything he’s done recently. The liveliness of Uzi’s flow is fascinating, especially when considering his contentious history with freestyles.
Two years ago, the rapper faced criticism for not wanting to rap over DJ Premier‘s “Mass Appeal” beat during an appearance on Hot 97.
“If you put on one of them old beats, I’m not rapping on it,” Uzi told host Ebro, who looks on in annoyance at the artist. “It’s gonna be a lot of young guys coming up in here, and they not gonna wanna rap on that. I’m trying to tell you, bruh. It’s changing.”
Viewers of the video were divided; some accused Uzi of being disrespectful, while others understood that it was an inevitable generational divide. Uzi wasn’t raised on the same beats as the rappers who came before him. Still, this moment spoke to a number of issues regarding rap, most notably the romanticization of golden age rap (the late ’80s to the early ’90s) as the last great era of the genre.
Because of who produced it and who rapped on it, current rappers, whether they grew up knowing it or not, are still expected to freestyle over the track. By expecting this, hosts are basically telling artists “You’re only credible or good if you can rap over this beat that is a staple of rap music.” That most of the beats chosen sound similar and are from the same era, create something of a rap hierarchy. It’s a reinforcement of the idea that boom bap was the most important iteration of rap music, and what’s come after is not only insignificant but unimportant.
That’s what made DJ Bay Bay’s choice of “Who Run It” that much better. Unintentionally, it was a challenge to what is considered rap’s best. That the song was from an under appreciated rap group from a region that’s often disregarded in contributing to the genre’s innovation isn’t something that should go unnoticed.
As Lawrence Burney wrote in a recent piece on the “Who Run It” trend, there’s an “educational twist” with it. It’s introducing rappers and fans to Three 6 Mafia beyond their hit songs, as well as inciting a productive generational exchange between new and old rappers. It’s also showing that there are other great rap songs that deserve to be acknowledged as freestyle-worthy.
The tradition of the rap freestyle is so integral to the genre. But by forcing artists to rap over the same beats it loses some of its luster. The “Who Run It” trend has revitalized the freestyle, showing that the beats of rap’s past aren’t the only examples we should look toward to incite compelling off the top rhymes from rappers.