As a genre-agnostic listener of music who recently began to explore hip-hop, I have to say one thing (and it’s hard to deny): Of all the types of music, hip-hop is the most “social” genre. Know what I mean? There’s a sense of community in hip-hop culture, be it the industry’s style of working, or the societal impact they aim to bring about through their work. This realisation piqued my curiosity and the next second I was Googling about it. Apparently, there are 3C’s integral to hip-hop: collaboration, camaraderie and competition. Any work of hip-hop involves one or more of these C’s.
Just like how rap battles are an embodiment of the competitive spirit, a cypher is one of the best examples of camaraderie and collaboration. It could be called an informal gathering of rappers (applicable to dancers and beatboxers as well) who typically stand in a circle and jam together. Cypher does mean zero or circle, but the more accepted etymology is that it comes from “decipher”, suggesting that the ‘messages’ are cryptic, and can be decoded only by people who are hip to the culture. It tends to be more raw and less uniform, varying with each rapper’s style.
The concept was born in the streets of Harlem in the 1960s, thanks to a group called the Five Percent Nation. In the last decade, it has found its footing in India, with works like Gully Gang Cypher soaring in popularity. More recently, the trend has reached Kerala as well. It’s not surprising, considering how the Kerala underground community has been growing at a subliminal rate in the last few years. Let’s check out these cyphers!
Street Academics Cypher
Considered the pioneers of rap in Kerala, it’s no surprise that Street Academics released the first-ever cypher here. In 2015, when Mumbai rapper A-List came down south and met up with the boys, they decided to release a raw track recorded impromptu. RJV (Pakarcha Vyadhi), Earthgrime and Imbachi drop their verses while A-List freestyles along. Interestingly, there are no beats per se; it could be termed an “acapella rap”, where the rhythm is provided by the rap verses themselves.
Trivandrum Rap Cypher by Kala Man Collective
Kala Man is one of India’s fastest growing artist collectives that focuses on promoting independent music. In 2017, when producer Jay Stellar sent Earthgrime a beat, the latter thought it would totally work as a cypher beat. And they approached rappers who were in and around Trivandrum: Thirumali, Rakz Radiant and Z’Laxz.
After pre-recording their verses, they shot a video version, standing at the iconic Manaveeyam Veedhi, which stands for all things art. This cypher managed to create a significant impact, inspiring lots of people to give rap a shot.
Quarantine Conference by the Malabar Hip-hop Movement
The Malabar Hip-hop Movement is a hood that aims to promote hip-hop culture in Northern districts like Kozhikode, Wayanad, and Malappuram. A week after the group was formed, the lockdown was announced. Inspired by how effective the awareness telefilm featuring Amitabh Bachhan (and others) was, they decided to produce content online, and that’s how the idea of an ‘online cypher’ came about. The beat was produced by Amani KL10, and the verses jump from Hindi to English to Malayalam.
The MFC YouTube Cypher
MFC is a platform that has been recently created to promote budding underground rappers, as well as provide hip-hop education to folks who are interested. This May, MFC brought together 11 upcoming artists from all over Kerala for a digital version of the conventional cypher format. The beat and theme for the cypher were sent via email to the artists. The idea was conceived on 21st May and within six days, the video was out! The common theme was “We shall overcome this health crisis and normalcy shall prevail”. In fact, there’s one (hidden) set of words common to all the 11 raps. Figure that out yourself!
Lockdown Rap Cypher by Kala Man Collective
The latest addition to the list is Kala Man Collective’s YouTube Cypher, which dropped last week. It features an exciting lineup. Exciting not just because it’s a mix of established and upcoming talents, but also because of the healthy mix of male and female rappers – a rarity in the scene.
Fun fact: Apart from the showrunners Jay Stellar and Arcado, nobody involved knew who else was taking part in the cypher, including beat producer Dan Pearson! Jay Stellar believes the format is first-of-its-kind and expects this trend to continue, considering the uncertainty in outdoor shoots for a while now.
You may have noticed that three of the five cyphers we talked about were produced during the lockdown! This means two things: one, this format is giving a fair playing ground for lots of rookies to hone their art as well as network with the more established players in the scene. And two, a physical lockdown doesn’t seem to take away the spirit of the underground community, which is relevant and booming now more than ever. (And three: we are treated to dollops of insanely good music! :D)