New American Songbook: The Cypher
One of the most fundamental forms in hip hop, both metaphorically and physically, is the cypher. Dating back to the earliest days of hip hop, the cypher is the term used to describe a group of rappers or emcees, formed in a circle, delivering their rhymes in a frenzy of rhythm, improvisation and boisterous crowd participation. The cypher is both the primordial soup where new rhymes are born, and a coliseum where weak rhymes go to die.
Recorded cyphers are more like mixtapes, but done well they can at least provide a close rendition of actually being there. I was happy to recently discover a local project called Wichita Cyphers: a series on YouTube featuring local and regional rappers and emcees. There are dozens—too many to name here, but the entire series is worth exploring. This verse from Sevel Johnson, on volume 4, is a stand out:
I’m not sure how much the hip hop meaning of cypher (cipher) has to do with the original meaning—a code, a secret or disguised way of writing—but it’s not a terrible connection. In any poetry, there is a certain amount of de-ciphering the reader must do to get at his or her interpretation. In this sense, Wichita Cypher is a codebook for our city, a map where the stories and voices of artists are the topography, and the legend is hip hop.