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De-Cyphered 

Getting a handle on The Cypher, Raleigh's monthly gathering of underground artists

"What's the meaning of a Cypher? Green lights, rhyme writers, the beats, the lighters/What's the meaning of a Cypher? Many styles ... Many styles .... "

So sayeth Mr. Rozzi, emcee and emissary of the Dominion crew, through call and response, call and response, in the middle of his open mic set last Friday night at The Cypher, a gathering of underground artists held monthly at The Berkeley Café in Raleigh. I know the meaning of a "cipher." Without irony the dictionary co-defines it as a zero, nothing, a non-entity, and as a verb meaning "to ascertain by mathematics." I know the meaning of a cipher. Within the codified realm of the Nation of Gods and Earths (known colloquially as the Five Percenters or 5% Nation of Islam), the cipher is where you show and prove your lessons, reciting "actual facts" in a circle of gods. I know the meaning of a cipher. Hip hop jacked the term from the NGE--call it a sample--and flipped it so that in popular parlance, a cipher is a circle of MCs congregating, concentrating and consecrating language, spitting lyrics to show and prove skills, enjoined in rhythm and love of the craft. I know the meaning of a cipher. It "be expanding" constantly, in concentric circles that circumscribe your peeps, your beliefs, or signify a non-linear, you-and-I-verse-all connectivity to everything that has come before you or will come to be after you do your 360. R-evolve until your positive progression is revolution. I know the meaning of a cipher.

But, "What's the meaning of a Cypher?" I had to go to know, on a sojourn for truth, seeking the cats that made the art official. Web documents gave a glimpse (www.officialcypher .com), so instinctively I traveled, laying footprints. The Berkeley was innocuous enough at first glance, decorated in early bar. A few bucks and canned goods are bartered for passage (since The Cypher's inception in '97, they collect canned food and other items at every event and donate them to local shelters) as you step into the realm. Back, past the bar, chicken wangs and other delicacies, I made my way to the room where, "up against the wall," as Baraka would say, was the humble wooden stage, adorned with an unassuming black drum kit and some monitors. To the right was some DJ equipment, manned by DJ Kool Sh Sheed. Front and center was a mic standing alone, at attention. As I entered, the music went from hip hop to house. The continuous 4/4 of house music is urban tribal, the bop and sway obligatory atavistic ritual. At 8:45 p.m. the room is about 20 deep with peeps sitting at tables, some scratching purposefully at notepads, polishing prose or recording new inspirations. The vibe demands that you create here.

I black out to the music, blink, look up again from the spot I've copped near the stage, and the tables are almost completely taken. The place is adorned now with people, transforming the drab environs into a colorful collage of beads, beards and braids, in shades of browns and occasional beige. They give pounds, exchange greetings. In this coffeehouse the brew is Heineken or Red Stripe or fruit juice. They sit and sip as the night draws nigh. Rufusxaviersasparilla takes the stage, bombastic poet, licorice stick laden host and general character-at-large. He breaks down the house ground rules: "Respect Poets." The One Commandments. Regulars pay it the same reverent attention that frequent flyers provide flight attendants' safety schpiel. He introduces the house band for tonight, Jook House, from Durm, proceeding to wax eloquent on comparative cultural etymology, tracing Juke House to Juke Joint, and other permutations of the ebonic persuasion. Sasparilla masters the ceremonies, ushering in the first few poets to grace the stage.

These brave artistic souls step up, step, step up, step up to the mic, unleashing their words on the growing crowd, which, when feeling the performer, becomes part of the creation, their gasps and unh's and "I heard that's" providing rhythmic accompaniament. The circle is inclusive. Five percent gods grace the same stage with Jah Rastafari, who defers to disciples of Christ (this sista named Verse-atile tore it up with a trinity of tight verse, exhorting the "congregation" to seek salvation).

A young woman in an evening dress hands a CD to the DJ before beginning to sing. Another brother, toting alto sax, blows like Gerald Albright to the delight of onlookers. One Sun Lion Rah, from Tarboro, ripped it, delivery and cadence reminiscent of vintage KRS. Erick Sermon's "I'm doing my thing if you feel me, do your thing," is the ethos. It's flowtime at the Apollo, and performers range from the quivery-voiced novice pausing to consult pages, to accomplished griots, the stage's grand mages who redirect words from the ancestors to rain on all within their circumference. I fiend, Rakim style, for the mic--freestyling in my own mental cipher. "Uhh, how deep is the list?" I venture to ask Sas, who replies that the bill is filled. Dag. I knew that, my query was akin to rolling up on a new b-ball court with heads 40 deep on the sidelines and asking, "Who got next?"

The throng has now swelled to a standing room conglomeration, partaking of the vibe, waiting in anticipation, their presence testament to the ancient African concept of nommo, the transcendent power of the spoken word. We speak unity into existence. We connect in this semi-sacred space, each face strung, like a cowrie bead along a never ending beat that joins us all. One.

Crescendo is reached in the form of Queen Sheba, featured speaker, who, along with her brother Thirteen, scorch the stage, leaving a blackened circular stain filled with more joy and pain than a Frankie Beverly concert. From Virginia, they took the gold in a poetry slam at the famed Nuyorican Café, but Raleigh had nothing to give them but love. But that's not the full circumference.

According to the vision of Matthew Sherman, The Cypher's founder and architect, spoken word and music are only two aspects of what jumps off here. In an open air courtyard in the back, a "canvas" is provided during each episode. This time a large rectangular swath of denim is the backdrop for the visual collab (check the tight Web site for past creations). Whoever feels the urge can pick up one of the many brushes waiting invitingly in cups of color, splash up a quick tag or download your vision, it's all good. Add on to the cipher. On occasion, emcees spill out here. Or circles of drummers. Tonight a video is playing on a projection screen. Other times, the grounds are swept by adepts of Capoeira, an Afro-Brazillian martial arts form eerily reminiscent of breakdancing. Three hundred sixty degrees of black culture.

But "What's the meaning of a Cypher?" Many styles. Many styles. Mr. Rozzi's quote encapsulates the meaning, his esoteric answer references the completion of Milo's rhyme from A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario"--arguably the dopest posse cut of all time. In that quintessential collabo, Milo makes the call and the response provided, in unison, from the other emcees in the cipher, elevates his rhyme to the memorable. It's hip-hop HTML, a hyperlink to 9-year-old standard, simultaneously invoking the spirit of a Bird or 'Trane who did the same within a familiar horn riff. This is strong conjur. Co-creation. Collaboration. Completion. Connection with what it is, what it been and what it gon' be.

In the words and ways of my mentor in the ways of words, the late J. Otis Williams, May The Circle Be Unbroken. I know the meaning of The Cypher. EndBlock

  • Getting a handle on The Cypher, Raleigh's cyclical gathering of underground artists.

More by Derek Jennings

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