Legendary Cyphers: The Pedagogy of Rhyme

Introduction: Ciphers in the Park

It’s Friday night and you’ve just ascended the stairway leading to Union Square Park in New York City from the subway below. Car horns, conversations, dance music, these are some of the many stimuli that try to attract your attention. In one corner of the park, you see a circle of people, nodding their heads in unison. As you get closer, you hear the bassline of J. Cole’s “Fire Squad” and a commanding voice rhyming to the beat.

Legendary Cyphers, a group of MCs that come together every Friday night to spit bars, was born in a flurry of nostalgia and egalitarian reciprocity. In an effort to maintain the original conceptions of hip hop music, which revolve around public spaces, community uplift, unity, and the expression of communal grievances, Legendary Cyphers emulates earlier practices of impromptu rap performances in public spaces. Whether these public spaces served as proving grounds, lyrical boxing matches, free entertainment, or a release from the humdrum monotony that defined the disenfranchised urban lived experience, hip hop culture functioned as an interface for private and public life to unite through music in these spaces. Unlike a concert hall or even a typical hip hop venue with its stifled atmosphere and the highly restrictive social roles that accompany one’s seat or place, public parks offer no such delineation, giving rappers and audience members the agency to negotiate their own social status within its borders.[1]

As a hip hop artist, I am able to remark on the underground oratory exercises and performative apprenticeships that embody the struggle for authenticity and MC proficiency. I seek to provide participant observation accounts of a less renowned, yet thoroughly significant aspect of hip hop culture—the cipher, which remains an important stepping stone to attaining hip hop validity, credibility, and aptitude. I have administered interviews to MCs at Legendary Cyphers, one of the few troupes who retain hip hop’s fundamental theme of having a cipher in public spaces. They perform in Union Square Park, where not only hip hop heads can join in, but the unknowing public can also fall prey to their infectious flows. Through my own participation in the cipher, along with my observations along the sideline, I hope to deconstruct what it means to practice, live, think, and embody hip hop culture.

Legendary Cyphers. Photograph courtesy of Arash Noori


ABC’s: Artists, Battles, and Ciphers

Hip hop identity formation revolves around narcissistic strivings to assert and preserve one’s own authenticity, usually seen in recording artists, who remain public figures. Rap battles are very individualistic as well, relying on braggadocio, machismo, and insults to maintain power over one’s opponent. Ciphers, on the other hand, are communal practices in which rappers willingly pass the microphone to other lyricists in an improvised, yet orchestrated performance of call and response. Ciphers are kinship building practices that are derived from original hip hop conceptions of identity, community, and anti-corporate cultures. The reinvigoration of these practices through Legendary Cyphers exemplifies the dynamic hip hop identity and challenges the corporate hegemony that seeks to revise it.

Other hip hop events like concerts, battles, and competitions all operate as mediums of education for the norms and principles of hip hop culture, but emphasize a much stricter hierarchical relationship between the people at these proceedings as compared to the democratic model of the cipher. The free flowing exchange of energy, intensity, rhyme schemes, punchlines, and knowledge is grounded on the premise that some artists are more skilled than others, but no one is superior to another MC. Each and every artist is there to learn and teach simultaneously, which is unique to the cipher.



The practices that define hip hop on the underground level can illuminate many of the nuances and tropes that inform discourses and performances within the culture. I have developed an understanding of the state of contemporary hip hop scholarly debates while negotiating the actual hip hop domain as an aspiring MC. However, I notice a fundamental omission of the lived experiences and practices that have defined hip hop as a movement, culture, and music. This can easily be explained by the fact that many prominent hip hop scholars do not hold positions as practitioners of hip hop, rather they meticulously examine its superficial practices from the periphery, commenting on the highly commercialized forms of rap music that the record industry strives to protect.[2] Many have referred to ciphers as merely parts of a broader context, but leave their analysis of the culture wanting without investigating this phenomenon. Without this crucial point of view, how are we to fully comprehend a culture with such pervasive force? 

Legendary Cyphers. Photograph courtesy of Arash Noori


Authenticity and the Cipher

Legendary Cyphers holds a unique position as gatekeeper of the seemingly lost art of MCing to the public world. Like ciphers before it and many contemporary competitions, the dialectical exchange of rhythmic flows, intensity, and performance styles function as a proving ground for amateur MCs while placing a premium on the verbal dexterity of the “OGs."[3]

Authenticity in hip hop is normally derived from the hyper-masculine, territorial, violent, and criminal personas artists portray, which is supposedly a reflection of their own lives in lower income urban environments (Kelley 1995).[4] In essence, to be considered authentic in the mainstream hip hop community, a rapper must be violent, territorial, hyper-masculine, hyper-sexual, lyrically gifted, materialistic, misogynistic, struggling in some sense,[5] and most often, ascribed as racially black (although the urban demographic is often associated with minorities in general, hip hop is associated with a black experience) (Perry 2004, Rose 1994). These are the parameters that corporate hip hop has placed upon an organic culture, and it has had a profound impact on how artists want to present themselves, even at the lower levels and underground performance arenas.[6]


The Pedagogy of Rhyme

Even in improvisation, there is an art to twisting stereotypical depictions of criminality and secondary citizenry to create empowering images. With every art, there are students and teachers. In the cipher, both amateur rappers (the students) and veteran MCs or OGs (the teachers) are engaged in an egalitarian discussion of how this deliberation should take place based on the audience’s reactions.

The audience is especially important within the cipher because a significant proportion of the spectators are also practitioners of the art. This creates a dialogue of constructive criticism among rappers, but also provides the frameworks of respectability prevalent in hip hop. These norms are not clearly delineated, instead, they are learned through participation, which is why the cipher is the ultimate educational model. It is a distinctive experience allowing amateurs and veterans alike the ability to both hone the craft of MCing and pick up cues, mannerisms, and style from the unspoken dictums that validate one’s genuineness as a rapper. The dynamic social environment that hip hop occupies means that its lessons and scriptures constantly evolve, and they are only taught on a social plane, granting gatherings like ciphers the title of educational institution within the culture. Legendary Cyphers offer a venue for innovation on a weekly basis, allowing acceptable styles to flourish and wack rhymes to be forgotten and enhanced.

With this in mind, there is a multidimensional approach to mastering the art of MCing. This requires an explanation: Rappers are different from full blown MCs because of their level of skill and commitment to the art. A rapper may record albums or perform in rap battles, but may lack in some of the other aspects of lyrical mastery. A rapper is an apprentice to the trade while MCs are the well-rounded lyrical masterminds that have conquered the different elements of verbal dexterity including “writtens,” “freestyles,” and “battles.”[7] An MC is a journeyman of hip hop, safeguarding its trade secrets in an attempt to educate the apprentices in an appropriate setting like that of the cipher.


Lyrical Mastery: Oral Exams

According to my respondents, there are many different ways to measure proficiency depending on what kind of rapper one aspires to be. In the cipher, it is a combination of writtens, freestyles, and battles (in jest, not necessarily as serious as actual rap battles) which make it a particularly useful pedagogical model. Moreover, the lack of a microphone requires that artists must utilize skills translatable to the broader hip hop scene, but must also learn to negotiate the specific acoustic environment of the park. Vocal projection is a priority in a cipher. OGs may stop an amateur in his tracks (in rhyme of course) to remind him/her that he is not vocalizing sufficiently and that if he wants to be heard he needs to increase the volume of his voice. More importantly, the ability to captivate an audience of highly critical artists is a daunting task for an amateur and prepares a rapper for any setting he may find himself in during his music career.

MC expertise is measured in different ways, but often follows a model of progression from beginning to end, without a clear demarcation of perfection. One rapper, Lameek, described his “steps to success” in six steps. Here we can see the apprenticeship at work, with different levels of expertise and proficiency in the expressive art. We have 6 steps of lyrical mastery: 1. Energy, 2. Writtens, 3. Freestyles, 4. Multi-syllables, 5. Technical rhyme schemes, and 6. Getting the crowd to feel you. 

Energy is a common trope, commented on by many different respondents on a variety of levels, addressing the energy of a recorded track, venue, or specific artist. Essentially, this puts a premium on the performative aspect of rap as opposed to its lyrical counterpart. Energy is equated with stage presence, vocal intensity, and the ability to captivate an audience. It is the capacity that a rapper should have to elicit some sort of emotion from his spectators and/or listeners, which varies based on the type of rapper one aspires to become/maintain. However, there are certain moods that are anticipated in rap, an expectation of aggression and wittiness among the most prevalent. These dynamisms fuel the vitality and efficacy of an audience filled with artists, it both encourages others to participate while offering the potential for active listening as well.

For example, Mike Mezzle is a regular at Legendary Cyphers who focuses on creating a presence that can only be described as “hype” in the hip hop vernacular.

“Promo video.” Legendary Cyphers

Mike draws his stylistic influences from rappers like Lil’ Jon and Ludacris, who emphasize party music and facilitate the movement of the crowd. He has created an expectation for himself in the cipher, often arriving and telling Mickey (who is in charge of the beats) to put on a specific song for him to rap over because he wants to create a certain mood with a trap beat (“Hot Nigga” by Bobby Shmurda last year, this year it’s “Panda” by Desiigner). These songs are special because they are some of the only trap beats that are used in the cipher, which is usually comprised of old school and faster paced beats than their contemporary trap complements. He Bogarts the cipher when his song begins, leading audience members into a call and response as he raps his verses.[8]


Conclusion: Energy, Humanity, and Hip Hop

Of course, the other five steps of MC mastery are essential in the cipher, but these will be discussed at another time as I finish my work. Energy is the foundation of performance in hip hop and belies the fundamentals of sociability within the cipher. Furthermore, as many of my friends have established through interviews, it seems to be the single most important factor in holding an audience, especially one that is as fluid and critical as that of a cipher of MCs. Energy is the initial foray into innovation and style, which was the basis for the hip hop movement.

Lameek concluded our conversation on energy in the cipher by equating the practices of the cipher to an innate human capacity:

When you get that confidence, it’s like, you know, when you’re getting into it, people are gonna stop before they hit the train station because his energy is ridiculous. People are definitely, we’re attracted to energy, that’s just how we are. We are just attracted to good, positive, energy. It’s a human thing. We can’t deny it. (Personal interview, October 16, 2015)

Although we can realize a beginning, there is no clear culmination or completion of one’s skill. After Lameek mentions that one has become adept, he goes right back into the energy debate, reiterating the cycle of learning. This is representative of the cipher in general. It is characterized by a fluid motion, perpetual and demanding, yet merciful and understanding. Within the incessant rhythmic collaborative efforts of artists and music are subtle cues describing how to properly maneuver through the continuously fluctuating milieu of the cipher. The negotiation of the cipher is merely a microcosm of an ideal world based in the teachings of hip hop practice. For many hip hop heads, this is an effigy of their own life as they wish it could be, filled with performance, creation, expression, and democracy on their own terms.



Chang, Jeff. 2005. Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Kelley, Robin D.G. 1994. Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class. New York: The Free Press.

Perry, Imani. 2004. Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Hanover, NH. University of New England Press.

_______. 2008. The Hip Hop Wars: What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip Hop—and Why It Matters. New York: Basic Books.

Small, Christopher. 1998. Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.



[1] For more on the setting of music practices and its relationship to social hierarchies, see Small (1998).

[2] Some major scholars include: Michael Eric Dyson, Tricia Rose, Mark Anthony Neal, Bakari Kitwana, Jeffrey Ogbar, Murray Forman, Craig Watkins, Michael Jeffries, and Jeff Chang, whose monograph Can't Stop, Won't Stop (2005) stands out. Largely, these scholars have commented on hip hop culture at large. While their analyses are useful and encourage further research and debate, there is much to be learned within more specific hip hop contexts, especially in embodied practices rather than very famous artists.

[3] OG is a term of respect, meaning “original gangsta,” which validates one’s lived experience within the context of "the struggle." These OGs are survivors of the concrete jungle, and having proved their worth through their endurance, act as teachers for those who are newly adopting the lifestyles that hip hop culture embodies and represents. They also symbolize progression in these economically neglected communities, addressing issues and demanding accountability while commanding responsibility and imbuing those qualities onto the younger generation.

[4] Kelley (1994:209) describes authenticity in hip hop as inexplicably linked to blackness and ghetto culture, dubbing this phenomenon a matter of “ghettocentricity,” which largely dictates what authenticity has been in hip hop and where it continues to flourish.

[5] The idea of the “struggle” is a common trope in rap lyrics and is accompanied with a certain experience and societal outlook, which is the essence of hip hop culture. However, the negotiation of this experience is what makes hip hop culture so appealing. This negotiation is often stifled by corporate interests who use sex, violence, and hyper-masculinity for profit. The cipher offers a democratic reconciliation through improvisation. Improvisation allows for MCs to stumble, stutter, and ultimately offer imperfect representations of self without the social responsibility that recording artists have, especially because for the most part, their rhymes remain in the cipher and are not widely disseminated.

[6] For more on the commercialization of hip hop and its widespread effects, see Rose (1994, 2008).

[7] “Writtens” are lyrics memorized prior to a performance. “Freestyles” are improvisations of rhymes to a beat or a capella. “Battles” are duels in which rappers/MCs compete with lyrical boxing gloves to claim victory.

[8] “To Bogart” is a hip hop term, derived from earlier countercultures like stoner culture, for displaying so much talent as to steal the spotlight for himself.



Ediz Ozelkan graduated from SUNY College at Old Westbury with a B.S. in sociology in 2015. Currently, he is pursuing an M.A. in American Studies at Columbia University. His research interests revolve around economics, race, and authenticity in hip hop culture. As an aspiring MC and hip hop scholar, he strives to bridge the gap between hip hop practice and academia through participant observation.

"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.