What’s a cypher? A brief look into hip-hop’s enduring tradition

20 June 2018

In the decades that form hip-hop, a tradition that is an unshakeable part of its origins is the freestyle rap, or freestyling.

An exhilarating part of the culture, freestyling celebrates its wordsmiths and their abilities to craft sentences — or "bars", as modern hip-hop heads would deem it — that flow into a slick tirade of rhythm.

Old-school hip-hop rapper Kool Moe Dee explains it best: "There are two types of freestyle. There's an old-school freestyle that's basically rhymes that you've written that may not have anything to do with any subject or that goes all over the place. Then there's freestyle where you come off the top of the head."

Gathering a few of these determined rappers into a group is a cypher, and it's something that's been carried on to present day, no matter the artistic direction of hip-hop music.

On Yo! MTV Raps, we've hosted our own cypher, featuring (in the word of host Joe Flizzow) "five MCs representing four countries speaking three languages". The machine-gun precision of some of these MCs may seem intimidating, but give it time and you'll come to love the raucous energy that comes with cyphers.

Yo! MTV Raps Cypher featuring G2, Twopee, Zamaera, Airliftz, Fariz Jabba and Joe Flizzow!

Here are three more lit cyphers to help you get acquainted with this side of the hip-hop world.


XXL Cypher Series

Arguably the most-watched cypher series today, US hip-hop magazine XXL gathers a class of explosive up-and-comers for a series of profiles every year, which will culminate into a cypher session.

Place one DJ with a fiery beat and a handful of hungry rappers into one room and you get instantaneous freestyling magic.

Filming these rappers early on in their career, right when they're at the precipice of a huge break, also allows fans a look back into the past when now-iconic rappers like Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper (above) had to prove their worth as much as anyone else. 

Eminem on the BET Hip Hop Awards

While cyphers are rife with braggodociousness, Eminem's surprise freestyle on the 2017 BET Hip Hop Awards Cypher proved that there's plenty of space for explosive politics that the 45-year-old locked in with a freewheeling (and unabashedly angry) precision.

Unlike XXL's crop of young talent, BET's cyphers allow space for both newcomers and veterans. Watch our Fear Factor host Ludacris jump back into the game with this classic 2011 cypher.

JME, Meridian Dan and Bossman on BBC Radio 1Xtra

BBC Radio 1Xtra is an incredible hotbed of British talent. Not restricted to hip-hop, the station covers anything from reggae to R&B, drum and bass to dubstep. But one of the most popular styles of music from the UK has to be grime, an aggressive, jagged genre that draws from electronic music, ragga and hip-hop.

This means there's plenty of rapping, and cyphers abound — they are incredible. Take for instance, this freestyle session with grime artists JME, Meridian Dan and Bossman — although Bossman caught some heat for appearing to rap off lines from his phone. Definitely not peng.

Catch the encore of Yo! MTV Raps on Sunday, June 24 at 5:30pm (SG), 6:30pm (MY), 4:30pm (WIB)
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