It is a telling indictment on the flimsy state of Hip Hop right now that emcees and the music they create are inescapable, but The Cipher, where all the great rap craftsman honed their skills, is a fading institution. There was a time when ghetto streets were perpetually filled with the sweet sounds of beatboxing overdubbed with sharp, rhythmic staccato flows. The Cipher was hip hop's training ground, where the architects of the renaissance learned to express in different ways, and the crowd was always the final arbiter of talent. Now modern technology allows anyone to have a studio and a dream in the comfort of their own home, and rarely do you experience the art form live outside of a formal venue. There's nothing inherently wrong with this, but it means this week's Ghetto Pass is an old-school edition, as we flashback and examine hip hop's communal dojo, The Cipher. The beat drops after the jump.
Planning A Trip - Ciphers are not totally extinct: You can still occasionally stumble on a good one, particularly outside of hip hop clubs. But the truest ciphers are located on a stoop in front of someone's house, or have just popped up on a city street far removed from clubs or formal venues of any kind. Like unprotected sex, these ciphers are born of a recklessly carnal impulse that demands sating no matter the circumstances. Also, authentic vintage genuine cipher-hair is made of only 100% pure vocal percussion/instrumentation.
Are We There Yet? - You need at least three people to have a cipher, otherwise you're just standing on the street rhyming with your friend. Once you got three, someone lights the Olympic torch by dropping a beat, and the cipher has begun. You'll probably want to ease in to your segment with a "yo I'm gonna take this one, check it, uh, uh,... [insert your lyrics here]." Cipher sophisticates will often space their intro out, play to the audience, if the beat is hot you usually let it ride a good four bars, let the crowd get a good crisp head nod popping. Then commence to — wait for it — drop it like it's hot.
The Cipher Leagues - This is the basic stratification of ciphers, evaluate your skill level and participate accordingly:
Slow-Pitch Softball - In this cipher you'll see three girls, a couple dorky-looking white dudes, maybe the Pakistani guy from around the corner, the Asian gay guy just having some fun; everything goes, everyone is welcome in the Slow-Pitch Softball Ciphers. You can be horrible and still get to finish all your material. The worst case scenario might be a slightly muted enthusiasm when you finish, perhaps some polite clapping, but that's all. Most people should play here.
Minor Leagues - In the next level up, you get a more challenging array of demographics. More black guys, and white guys with some actual hip hop history under their belt. No novelty attempts from your grandmother on Christmas here. These are still relatively safe to your ego however, participants are courteous, but you will get silence and some brushing off if you're not up to par. But you'll always get your turn.
The Majors - Pro level Ciphers qualify as fiscally viable forms of entertainment. Participants are rappers you would definitely hear on records ... or should. These ciphers will attract non-cipher people who just want to peep out what's going on, cause it sounds good. Any person who likes hip hop will be physically compelled to stop. Those who stumble or screw their verse up in egregious fashion are at immediate risk of getting skipped and subbed out. If you do get another turn, and once again fail to hold your own, other emcees may likely turn on you, to the enjoyment of the crowd, and the chagrin of your pride. The combination of crowd and aggression may leave you embarrassed and emotionally scarred, so you're advised to approach pro ciphers with caution. Make sure you're ready to play.
Do or Die - These are the most serious ciphers, also the most exclusive. Filled with hardcore street types, these are not necessarily tied into a certain skill level. The big variable here is that you could lose your wallet and other valuable possessions if you don't please the participants. If you're in doubt, don't be a freestyle hero, just keep it moving.
Cypher Demographics - These are some of the people and rappers you may find in your cipher:
• The beatboxer - The uncelebrated hero of the cipher, and hip hop in general. Like the drummer in a band he makes it all go and keeps everything on beat.
• M.C. 2Long - This guy gets a turn and raps for a couple hours, or until the cops come, whichever comes first. He sucks.
• The God - When a true emcee who has honed his skills enters the cipher, everyone knows the god is present.
• Freestyle Femme Fatale - Everyone looks forward to ladies rhyming in the cipher, but they typically disappoint. For the most part female rappers compare to their male counterparts as WNBA players compare to the NBA. You might watch for a little, especially if they're pretty, but they rarely are pretty and even less likely to be worth a ticket.
• Strictly Writtens - Strictly Writtens never go off the head, they always recite premeditated verses. Depending on the vibe this can be a good or bad thing.
• 1Verse - 1Verses have one verse they spit over and over again. If they have friends you'll know when they all chorus in on all the punchlines.
• Big Punnabees - These are the Hispanic guys kicking the Spanglish. Always a nice change of pace if you can pull it off.
• Educated Rappers - Like metaphysical editions of Ghetto Pass, these participants only turn off the crowd through their earnest attempts to demonstrate their intelligence.
Know Your Audience - Are they feeling active or bored? Are they white or black? All these things can influence how you rhyme, when you rhyme, what you rhyme about. Be prepared to adjust.
Female Factor - If there are pretty females in the audience prepare for the cipher intensity to increase exponentially. Ciphers are charged with testosterone, the presence of a potential prize only raises the stakes.
• Did you know fake freestyling is the cardinal sin of cyphers? You can go off the head or written, but don't pretend it's off the head and then recite the Gettysburg address in your rhyme.
• Did you know rap ciphers are not to be confused with smoking cyphers? There is only one rule for smoking cyphers: take two and pass.
Ghetto Terror Alert - While ciphers can get very heated, unless you fake-freestyle there should be little serious risk to you. Be careful with physical contact if you start going at someone in the cipher, it can trigger violence.
Slang Check - There's plenty of slang, but all that matters is keeping it on beat.