Hip-hop lends itself to collaboration more than any other genre. You're not likely to find a rock, pop or country song with four lead singers from different bands, a scenario commonplace in rap music. When information is first released about a new song by rapper A featuring rapper B, it can spark immediate buzz before a single bar is released. This is an ideal representation of the camaraderie and competition, both friendly and adversarial, that distinguishes hip-hop from its counterparts.
An ideal example of this distinction is the phenomenon of the hip-hop cypher. The concept of the cypher was introduced by an Islamic-based organization, the Five Percent Nation, also known as the Nation of Gods and Earth, which was an offshoot of the Nation of Islam and formed in Harlem during the mid-1960s. The Five Percent Nation's influence in many ways laid the foundation for East Coast hip-hop during the '80s and early '90s. Much of hip-hop's lingo, including people referring to themselves as "Gods" and "Earths," and the use of words such as "supreme," "mathematics," "science," "knowledge" and "cypher" (in a certain context, of course) is largely influenced by the Five Percent Nation.
Rap artists from New York active during the '80s and '90s were the first generation to grow up with teachings from the Five Percent Nation since birth. The word "cypher" has many definitions. The Oxford Dictionary defines cypher as “a secret or disguised way of writing a code.” Cypher can also mean a circle or the number zero. In the early days of hip-hop, it was used when a group of rappers, typically standing in a circle, would take turns exchanging verses for competition, practice or sheer entertainment. The cypher, despite what form it appears in, has been a permanent fixture within the culture.
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The spirit of the hip-hop cypher also lives through what's referred to as "posse cuts" or "posse tracks." It's an original song or remix that features typically four or more rappers, such as Drake's "Forever," TI's "Swagga Like Us" or Yella Beezy's "That's On Me" remix. Traditionally the difference between these types of tracks and a cypher is that posse tracks largely maintain the form of a regular song, typically with a recurring theme and a chorus. A cypher tends to be more raw, with less structure, subjected to the style and subject matter of each rapper's verse.
The cypher has evolved to become an effective tool to increase fame for up-and-coming artists and a convenient way to combine the talents of rappers both new and established who otherwise might not have the chance to collaborate. Examples of this can be found within the local hip-hop community. In May of last year, veteran hip-hop executive and artist Prynce P of Pohectic Life Records landed a hit with "The Triple D Cypher" produced by Billy Syn. It featured a diverse mix of 14 rappers, including local legends Big Tuck and Mr. Pookie alongside up-and-comers Alsace Carcione, Eclipse Darkness & Bobby Fisha.
The song racked up enough online buzz and streams to be picked up by the producers of a documentary titled Dig Deep: The Pathway Beyond the NFL Draft, released in December, which documented the College Gridiron Showcase that takes place in Texas.
"I felt this cypher was much bigger than just a song," Prynce P says. "It showed that when you unite instead of divide you can create greatness. We came together with different voices, different styles, different flavors, for one cause: the love of music."
Prynce P is working on piecing together another cypher, "Reloaded," with Dallas rappers and set to be released this summer. The roster of emcees comprises DQ Hampton, Flexinfab, Flower Child, Motian, IQ Muzic, Eclipse Darkness and Prynce P himself.
"The new one I reduced it down to seven emcees," the producer says. "Each verse has 24 bars with three emcees (with) eight bars each. I wanted to experiment with this formula. Not many people are crazy enough to do what I do," he adds jokingly. "It's a unique song, and we're about 80 percent done with it."
The curation of a cypher is often spearheaded by a producer, DJ or media entity. Local independent hip-hop blogger and hip-hop critic Rodrick Rules has taken his first foray into creating music by executive-producing a cypher titled "Beat CD & Pack of Blacks" produced by Mousequake and featuring Anonymous, Jui$e Leroy, Rakim Al-Jabbaar, Colby Savage, N8, C-Thru, Kemist Da Kidd, Yola Franklin and Jroc Obama.
The idea of unification was also at the forefront of the creation of this cypher.
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"I put this together first and foremost as a way to help connect artists with each other," Rules says. "A lot of artists on this project knew of each other but never worked together. I got the name from Kendrick Lamar's 'Backseat Freestyle,' when Kdot gets a call and someone says, 'I got a pack of blacks and a beat CD, get your freestyles ready.'"
Rules also says this cypher serves as a trial run for bigger aspirations he has within the music industry. "I'm currently working on a new single and another cypher; all of these songs will be featured on a compilation I'm putting together called Sometimes the Internet Lies. I made a vow that everything I drop from 2019 and beyond will be epic," he says.
Fortunately for hip-hop fans, regardless of other trends that may come and go, the "three C's" — collaboration, camaraderie and competition — are embedded deep within the roots of rap music. This ensures cyphers, posse tracks and the like will continue to be musical events all generations will continue to enjoy as an integral part of hip-hop culture.