“Cipher” refers to either a code—a language known only by adepts, impenetrable to outsiders—or the figure zero.
“Cypher,” meanwhile, refers to both a code and a circular shape. The difference is that the code is ethical as well as linguistic, and the circle connotes fullness rather than emptiness.
To the outside eye, a cypher is a group of rappers standing in a ring and freestyling—improvising rhymes, whether coming completely off the top or ingeniously arranging prewritten bits and impromptu transitions on the fly. It’s a space to boast and brag, a high wire on which to hone your rep and skills.
To the inside eye, it’s all of that and more: a cultural tradition with deep roots in struggle, survival, memory, community, and knowledge of self.
Cypher Univercity has been rocking weekly at N.C. State’s Free Expression Tunnel since 2012. Its founders don’t claim they invented the form, but they’re proud to have put their distinct stamp on the tradition with a number of innovations.
Usually, cyphers are spontaneous, popping up after shows or in the streets on a moment’s inspiration. But Cypher U turned them into a consistent main event—the party, not the afterparty—and built a community around it. Then they exported it to college campuses across the state, sowing seeds that would sprout around the world.
Most important, before they shared what they’d built, they developed a code, polished by hard experience and battle-tested. It says a lot about Cypher U (and about hip-hop) that this code, as its adherents saw when they fanned out through the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations in the Triangle, effortlessly transposes from the cypher to the protest.
Respect, project, be original, fuck the camera, keep the peace.
Jrusalam is a 33-year-old MC from Raleigh with two albums under his belt. He started writing rhymes when he was 10 and then turned to poetry as a teenager. Around 2009, he started getting involved in the slam poetry scene in Durham and Chapel Hill, but he wasn’t really a slam poet.
“I was writing ballads in a way, trying to write epic poetry I could commit to my memory,” he says. He frequented spots like Mansion 462 in Chapel Hill with the Sacrificial Poets. “Me, G [Yamazawa], Kane [Smego], CJ [Suitt], we’d go back to their apartment afterwards and have the cypher for hours.”
Jrusalam felt tugged back to his first love, hip-hop, and he came under the wing of the 1100 Hunters, a hip-hop crew in Raleigh.
“These guys were super lyrical in my opinion, boom-bap golden-age hip-hop, which is what I fell in love with,” he says. “I remember we had a cypher after one of their shows, and that’s how it goes—spontaneous. I would go to shows with the intention of going to the cypher where I could show and prove.”
Though Cypher U didn’t become official until 2012, Jrusalam dates its origin story to 2010, when the 1100s held a cypher at N.C. State’s famed Free Expression Tunnel for an album-cover photo, then did it again the next week, and the next, and the next, for the good part of a year.
“The first one was just them, and the second one it felt like all the artists from the city came out,” Jrusalam says.
As organic, leaderless movements risk doing, it fizzled out in 2011. Jrusalam had lost interest in music through conflicts in the cypher and gone back to school. But then he heard from some friends that they wanted to bring the cypher back. Thinking he might as well see what happened, he filmed it and promoted it online as #NCStateCypher.
“Before we knew it, the whole city showed up, and a lot of students got involved,” Jrusalam says. The movement was reborn.
By 2012, some core participants—Jrusalam, Eshod Howard, Shep Bryan, and others—had instituted the code, based on what they’d learned the first time around, and come up with the name Cypher Univercity. Hip-hop communities across the state, from Durham and Chapel Hill and Greenville and Boone and Charlotte, were flocking to Raleigh for the cyphers, whose members then traveled to universities in those cities to help get Cypher U events going there. Most faded out over the decade, but the core Cypher U event at N.C. State’s Free Expression Tunnel still goes down at 10:00 p.m. on Mondays, and more recent but related cyphers at UNC-Chapel Hill’s The Pit and Durham’s CCB Plaza are going strong.
“A lot of people involved over the years have spread out over the country, and we’ve started seeing similar things happen,” Jrusalam says. “There’s the Legendary Cyphers in New York, the Soul Food Cypher in Atlanta—this similar idea of an event that’s just a cypher, doing that every week and growing the community. Working with Next Level, which is federally funded, Rowdy took it even farther, so in Mexico City they’re saying ‘cypha cypha.’”
“It’s a place where we not only bring people together, but we resolve conflicts, and the cypher always comes back,” he adds.
Like jazz—like any form of improvisation—freestyling requires internalizing techniques so deeply you can forget about them and get out of your own way. You’re tapping in, but you’re also blacking out.
“What’s beautiful about freestyling is that it’s a completely different state of mind as opposed to reciting from memory,” Jrusalam says. “They’ve done studies where a person who’s reciting activates a certain part of the brain, but freestyling lights up a whole bunch of the brain. When people improvise off of different signals around them, that’s the moment I’m always looking for, to have a direct channel to my unconscious. I’m not thinking, I’m kind of expressing a dream, verbally.”
The cypher is a training ground as much as an arena. When Jrusalam was the new guy on the hip-hop scene, he asked Lazarus, a hot local artist in the cypher whom he greatly admired, how you got on a hip-hop show. Lazarus pointed him to Ghost Dog from the 1100s, who was running a weekly showcase at Glenwood South.
“That was my first set, and from there I started picking up shows,” Jrusalam says. “The older guys we had showed me things about performing and showmanship, and it basically became a network where I was able to go perform all over the state. Down the line, when young artists come to me, I do the same thing for them.”
But for Jrusalam, the most powerful incarnation of the cypher is as a vessel for shared memory. When he looks around the circle, he sees not just the people who are there week after week, but also the people who used to be there but died, whether they were in construction accidents or motorcycle crashes during police chases.
“A really strong bond forms, and we have this collective memory of moments, certain nights and people, especially the people who died,” he says. “That’s really what has made it sacred to me over time. The last time I saw my godbrother was at the cypher.”
It’s not hard to connect the idea of the cypher as a vessel for lost lives to the protests sparked by the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and many other Black people.
Jrusalam says that being mixed-race and reading as white has colored his experience with the police in a certain way, who are usually white men dropped into communities they don’t understand, and perhaps, fear.
He can pass under their radar if he’s calm and flare up on it if he’s not, as he learned viscerally some 12 years ago, when he says an officer kneeled on his head until he thought it would pop while responding to a noise complaint about a children’s birthday party. Thinking of that and his friends who were gone, he went out into the tear gas and rubber bullets of downtown Raleigh. He carried the cypher’s code with him.
“The cypher doesn’t have any leaders, but we try to empower young artists and cultivate leadership,” he says. “When people rap, we always encourage them to project so everybody can hear them. We don’t use equipment, so you have to use what you’ve got and speak to the people way in the back of the crowd, so everyone stays in tune with the cypher, captivated and motivated. It’s basically the same thing you do when you go to a protest: use your voice, use your body, be present, and take care of each other.”
And yes, fuck the camera.
Originally from Brooklyn, Cypher Univercity cofounder Eshod Howard (aka Eternal the M.C.) moved to North Carolina in 2006 to study psychology at Shaw University. He’s gone on to lecture at UNC, N.C. State, and other universities about how hip-hop can address mental-health and social-justice issues of our day. It’s all enclosed in the fullness of the cypher.
“Our code starts with respect and ends with keep the peace, so it’s circular when you think about it,” he says. He remembers one event where Rapsody and 9th Wonder came to make a video, drawing 400 people with no drama. “The way we act in cyphers is a microcosm of how we live in life. Even if we’re not moving as a collective, we uphold the code within ourselves.”
Beyond participating in the current protests individually, Cypher U members are starting to build for the future collectively. Howard says they’re working on a march for July that will end in downtown Raleigh with Cypher U performing as a unit.
They’re also working on an initiative called Wellness to the Elders to help them with errands, shopping, yard work, and more. Just as Jrusalam invokes the cypher’s sacred nature, Howard describes it partly as a secular church.
“If you go back to the origins of hip-hop, it was built out of a rebel culture where people felt like they were outcasts,” Howard says. “They created this space where they could commune, have fun, and talk about oppression, and they built it into a worldwide phenomenon. We’re carrying on the tradition, and within it, you have people that don’t necessarily identify with the church that still need a place to go and look for precedence in a higher power. Even if you come with negativity, if we stand by the code, we know how to dissolve that into a peaceful resolution.”
And if you want to go deeper than the origins of hip-hop, you’ll find the cypher there, too, and why it connects so powerfully to the current struggle for Black liberation.
“The very essence of the cypher, before it was a hip-hop ceremony, it started as a teaching circle,” Jrusalam says. “Before the mode was rap, it was the direct transmission of lessons and the Five-Percent Nation of Gods and Earths. That’s where the term originated. A lot of Five Percenters became involved in hip-hop, and it crossed from a more spiritual pursuit to a more cultural, musical pursuit. But the roots of it are specifically in Black Islamic nationalism.
“I didn’t know that when I arrived at the cypher,” he continues, unfolding the lesson. “It took people informing me. It led me to the realization this was always a political weapon, a vehicle for social change. It’s to bring in people who are lost and downtrodden and uplift them. To give them knowledge of self, wisdom, understanding, and be a more upright person. Ideals of love, peace, justice—those are all equally entrenched in the underlying philosophy of the cypher. I think we all recognized as soon as the protests happened, this is what we had been training for, in a way.”
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