The Best Ad-Libbers in Rap History

Ethan Davenport breaks down the history of ad-libbing.
By    March 25, 2018

Ethan Davenport is a Phelps guy.

In 2012, American swimming’s greatest douchebag, Ryan Lochte, attempted to trademark his favorite word, “geah.” This is, of course, disrespectful to a true American, MC Eiht, who popularized “geah” well before it was being printed on overpriced sunglasses. After threatening to file a cease-and-desist, MC Eiht told TMZ, “Why try to trademark something his ass didn’t even create?” The trademark was never officially filed.

If you’re new to hip hop—as Ryan Lochte clearly is—“jeah” is an ad-lib. Essentially a catchphrase, it’s a space where the rapper can fill space between lyrics and add emphasis to a previous line, but do so with whatever creativity they feel necessary. Rap ad-libs accomplish the same essential principle as an ad-lib in jazz; allowing a performer to improvise where the music allows it.

Coming from the early hype man days of hip hop, ad-libs were most often delivered by someone else during live performances. Kid Creole was Grandmaster Flash’s hype man and one of the very first to introduce the concept. Then, in the late eighties, Public Enemy took over with pre-VH1 Flavor Flav dropping a “Yeah boyeee!” wherever he saw fit, and giving the listener a break from the blitzkrieg of political lyrics. It was always a stylistic choice, rather than an accident or filler on the beat.

A majority of popular ad-libs came from New York, Northern California, and the South. It’s not as if SoCal rappers didn’t ad-lib, but their lyricism comes more relaxed than other regions. Snoop Dogg, Eazy-E, and Suga Free didn’t need to ad-lib as much within their songs, they filled the beat’s space on their own, no interjections necessary. New York, Bay Area, and Southern rappers have historically put more stock into eccentric ad-libbing. DMX has a more authentic bark than a Labrador retriever, the Bay Area’s Hyphy Movement made us quote ad libs, and Lil Jon’s “YEAHH!” is almost too absurd to come from an actual human.

It’s is relatively obvious that different regions have their own accents, but when applied to ad-libs, those accents add another layer to the track. Lil Jon wouldn’t elongate that “yeah” if he was from Chicago, but for the native Georgian that vowel sound breaks down into two syllables. The same rule applies to Master P’s “ugh” with all of its deeply Southern dialectical beauty. It’s an easy tell as to where a rapper is from if the music itself wasn’t enough.

Somewhere along the line, ad-libs became less of a luxury and more of an abundance. It’s not a well-documented feature of hip-hop, but it seems like a pre-requisite for contemporary rap. You don’t need a list of popular ad-libs to catch the drift of how ubiquitous and overwhelming they’ve truly become. Some rappers aren’t necessarily inventive (aye, yeah, & uhh x 100) and others teeter toward overuse (I went to a Madeintyo & 24hrs’ concert once, that’s all we need to say about that), but there are many that still utilize the tool well.

Starting a verse by yelling “ESKEETTIT” is genius if your fan base is teenagers with self-diagnosed ADHD. 21 Savage on “7 Min Freestyle” utters “21” sixty times, but it works because he’s so committed and we love hearing him fill the space. Drakeo the Ruler, the best at the moment at talking on the outro, does it so well on “Big Banc Uchies” that it feels like an aside; as if he breaks character for a moment to assure us that everything he just rapped is fact. Each type of ad-lib deserves respect in its own right.

With every form of ad-lib, and the history behind their use, overstating their importance would discredit what rappers do outside of each “ugh” and “yeah” to make a song what it is. But there are quite a few rappers who have changed ad-libbing forever. These are the ones who’ve let their artistry shine through with interjections and ultimately created an extra layer of enjoyment in listening. Music is supposed to be fun isn’t it?

This list is in no order because it felt too trivial, but please understand that I have gone on far too many rap forums while compiling this. So, if you think Jeezy, Rick Ross or Travis Scott deserved a nod here, my email inbox is always open to accept your 1000+ word rebuttal ad-lib writings.

DIDDY

Whatever he wants to be called, Mr. Ciroc has eloquence with each ad-lib. Hearing Diddy’s “Talk to ‘em” is the exact feeling of receiving a direct deposit—wealth and power for three minutes. What Diddy is best at, in order: 1. Making money, 2. Ad-libs while other people rap, 3. Rapping.

E-40

When his rap career is over, which it may never be, E-40 could be employed by Merriam-Webster. I’m not sure of the best way to type it out phonetically, but his “ooouhh” sounds like throwing up if heard out of context. In context, it’s an outlandish representation of his character, just as ending and beginning a verse with a high-pitched “BIATCH!” Uncle 40 Water has no equivalent in rap, and certainly not in ad-libs. Please respect your elders.

LIL B

You know how many kids started saying swag because of Lil B? All of them—Justin Bieber included. The BasedGod ad-libs, are so ridiculous it’s genius and represent another aspect of his style that’s been used and abused by everyone around. No one has ever, or could ever, yell “Woop!” or “Martha Stewart!” or “You’re going to jail!” so earnestly in a song.

FLAVOR FLAV

The nicknames Flavor Flav gave the women of Flavor of Love (By far VH1’s best dating show) is god-tier ad-libbing. Ad-libs are best when they’re fun and genuine, which is what Flav has been his entire career. We know what he did for Public Enemy, but as he was one of the first popular ad-libbers, people like Playboi Carti owe Flav some credit for paving the way for ad-lib features.

MIGOS

Rap groups usually excel at ad-libbing and Migos are no different. What they excel in is chemistry and knowing when to ad-lib on each other’s verses, giving the impression that an entire song was perfectly cyphered at times. On songs like “Plan B” the ad-libs are the punchline (see: “I gave a bitch a Plan B (Open your mouth) / ‘Cause she was my plan B (Side bitch)”) and on “Bad & Boujee,” well we should know by now.

PLAYBOI CARTI

“Summer Bummer,” a song where Lana Del Rey and A$AP Rocky discuss what love is like when you’re rich (a really unique concept for those two), is only worth anything because of Playboi Carti’s ad-libs setting the ambiance. To be a great ad-libber, it helps to have a multi-genre presence and perhaps getting feature credits to say “what?” a hundred times on an album that also features Stevie Nicks is…truly making it.

GUCCI MANE

“I feel like a Gucci ad-lib, Burr!” Lyrics written about your ad-libs qualify you for list pieces about ad-libs. My personal favorite. No one else on this list has their ad-lib tatted on their face, and therefore no one else is really living their ad-libs. Even if we disregard the signatures like “Burr,” “sGucci,” and “Lemon!” for a moment, Gucci’s drawl gives the most mundane grunts a sense of allure.

THE DIPLOMATS

Pressure makes diamonds and whatnot in the same way chemistry creates the purest ad-libs. The Diplomats’ signature ad-libs shine individually. They complement one another when together. The ad-libs effortlessly occur, as if Jim Jones has a tick forcing him to blurt out fragments whenever someone finishes a lyric. Dipset tracks sound like perfect freestyles and their radio freestyles would make charting songs, not thanks to the ad-libs, but thanks to the group’s chemistry that materializes.

JAY-Z

Virtuosity is: calling yourself “Jay-Hova” and then shortening it to “Hova” and then shortening it again to “HOV” because you need something to yell on guest verses. Most of his ad-libs are noises he makes while getting ready in the morning and it works so well, but only if the lyrics hold their own. Jay-Z walks into the kitchen for breakfast: “The Roc’s in the building!” Jay-Z sees Blue Ivy drawing on the walls in crayon: “Hold up!” Jay-Z sees his children: “Young Hova!”

BUSTA RHYMES

Busta Rhymes blurting out “Woo hah!!” a thousand times would’ve qualified him for this list, his entire catalogue is littered with ad-libs that are ridiculous enough to supplement his lyrics though. There’s a video of him remixing Big Shaq’s “Man’s Not Hot,” ad-libbing where he saw fit, and making believers out of everyone who thought 40-year-olds couldn’t make hard club tracks. Busta’s ad-libs create a sense of reckless power, they’d be war chants if hip-hop fans were ever to go to war with the Grammy committee.

CHIEF KEEF

During a Breakfast Club interview, Angela Yee said Chief Keef was only 16, to which he corrected her in the most deadpan manner by saying he’s actually “three-hunna.” Confidence. Timid and bashful people don’t whisper-shout “bang bang” all over a track. To further detail Keef’s prowess, he ad-libbed “’sgetit” on “Understand Me,” a song that was released nearly six years ago when our favorite “Gucci Gang” rapper had just turned 12. Something about imitation being flattery would apply here, but no one could successfully imitate Keef’s nonchalant utterance of any ad-lib.

Young Thug

Is he human? There’s no way. This Earth does not feature another person—never mind, another living being—capable of making any noise Young Thug has ever uttered. I wouldn’t be surprised if the lines without ad-libs were actually Thugger just hitting a pitch human ears are incapable of processing. He is the only one on this list to ad-lib “yeehaw!” I’d spell out every important ad-lib he’s ever rapped (Screeched? Yelled? Howled?), but there’s too many, so here’s three favorites: “Quan voice” to add subtext to his lines on “Lifestyle,” when he yells “Lean” seven times in a row on “2 Cups Stuffed,” and when he sings “yeah” on “Best Friend.”

M.O.P.

This might be excusable because I’m 21, but the first time I ever heard Lil Fame was in John Cena’s walk-up music. I am just as embarrassed for me as you are. After educating myself and discovering who M.O.P. truly were, it became clear that they deserve better than WWE fans butchering “Amadou!” into “Rapadoo!” That is Fame and Billy Danze’s most mainstream ad-lib, but barely captures how prolific they are. Every one of their ad-libs is shit talking to the tenth degree. Billy Danze shouting “Zap him,” “We’re Dangerous,” or any other phrase would start a brawl between pacifists. “Follow Instructions” could play over a loop of Richard Spencer getting punched out and it’d win an Oscar for best soundtrack.

Juicy J

The G Herbo track with Juicy J’s “yeah hoe” looped as the beat should be enough evidence for including him, there’s an excess though. Juicy J is incapable of surprising us with his presence on a song, each of his guest verses is prefaced by his “we trippy mane,” “SHUTDAFUCKUP!” or a different expletive altogether. What we continue to love about Juicy J is this consistency. In 2018 he’s ad-libbing “on the ‘gram” with the same intensity he gave us on the early Three 6 albums.

Bonus ad-lib content that needed to be mentioned:

  • This video of Famous Dex
  • In ten years, every rapper will have their own Metro Boomin producer tag  
  • If we’re being honest, Trap-a-holics Mixtapes is the only tag I want to hear, keep the rest
  • Waka Flocka on “No Hands” yelling “BOW BOW BOW BOW BOW” for a minute
  • Drakeo the Ruler saying, “I’m a sore winner n***a/ Like when I leave I take the scoreboard with me,” at the end of “Out the Slums”
  • Bad & Boujee (Ad Libs Only)