It’s around 9:00 on a Tuesday evening in East Quad’s Abeng Multicultural Lounge. A few students sit in comfy armchairs listening to hip-hop beats, reciting poems to each other and discussing a mixtape they plan on recording. Kinesiology senior Walt Lacey begins freestyling and the people around him begin to clap. As the clapping gets louder, the energy in the room builds. People cheer in response to certain lines and jeer at others; a few guys start dancing and the beat gets more complicated as The Cypher’s Tuesday meeting comes into full swing.
After a few minutes of one or two people rapping, everybody joins in with a chorus of “Tell them to get back!” The flowing energy continues, and then the group quiets down as a female voice comes in, humming softly while gradually getting louder. People begin rapping over her, taking turns and making sure that her voice is still audible.
It’s remarkable how in tune everyone is with one another. They slow down, speed up and switch the beats and harmonies at the same time, like a perfectly rehearsed orchestra — except the synergy is all created in the moment.
The Cypher is a hip-hop collective dedicated to perfecting the art of both spoken and written word. Lacey founded it in 2004 when he saw the need for a safe space for Michigan’s student hip-hop community to practice its work.
About 15 minutes pass, and the freestyle circle — or “cypher,” as it’s known in the hip-hop community — breaks. After a few minutes of chatting, Lacey walks up to a chalkboard and scrawls a few words on it: passion, legacy, heart, love, struggle, life, movement, hip hop, music, rhythm, bass and soul. These words act as prompts for a free-writing exercise, which concludes The Cypher meeting.
Engineering freshman Alex Wyszewianski and LSA junior Isaac Boachie-Ansah are two regular Cypher attendees. Wyszewianski heard about The Cypher when he went to a freestyling event on the Diag during Welcome Week. Boachie-Ansah discovered The Cypher by randomly running into a group of people freestyling on the Diag during his sophomore year. For him, attending Cypher meetings was originally just a creative outlet. But now it has become something more.
“The Cypher became a family for me,” he said.
Though The Cypher’s members all joined the group for different reasons, it’s clear that they’re held together by a common thread: a love for hip hop.
“It’s what I was raised on,” says Boachie-Ansah.
While he still listens to other genres of music, Boachie-Ansah likes hip hop because it addresses everyday struggles. For Lockett, who grew up listening to Gloria Estefan and Billy Joel and didn’t become interested in rap until high school, it’s the creativity that draws him in.
Wyszewianski views hip hop as a tool to further a social agenda. He says that hip-hop artists not only express their opinions, but also tell people what they think should be done to effect change.
“A lot of other music doesn’t have this,” he explained.
The kind of hip hop the members of The Cypher are talking about, they insist, isn’t the kind students dance to at college parties. Wyszewianski explains that there are four elements to “real” hip hop: emceeing (freestyling and rapping), graffiti, turn-tabling and breakdancing. Some also add a fifth element: the message.
Much attention is paid to the message in The Cypher’s writing exercises, which are Lockett’s favorite part of the Tuesday gatherings. Although he likes freestyling, he says it’s not as enjoyable for him as writing because he’s “not as quick a thinker as the rest of the guys.” He writes about whatever comes to mind at the time — being broke, school and family issues — explaining that the last thing he penned was a Peter Pan-esque rap about how he doesn’t want to grow up.
LSA freshman Cholton Price, another avid writer in The Cypher, said, “I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.” Usually he jots down the first thing that comes to his head, sometimes touching on more personal subject matter like his father, who passed away in 2003.
But whatever The Cypher’s members choose to write about, they take pride in writing and rapping for themselves instead of for executives and mainstream audiences.
“I’m not talking about rap on the radio,” Wyszewianski said. “Not some greased-up, bulletproof man staring at you thug-mugging on the wall selling records that were made with money earned from selling crack-cocaine.”
Wyszewianski blames the mainstream media for the studio gangster image. He says that people are spoon-fed negative stereotypes perpetuated by record executives and the media, influencing the general public to equate hip hop with violent, drug-dealing gangbangers.
For these reasons, the Ann Arbor hip-hop community is kept underground. But members of The Cypher don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. Lockett explains that hip hop has to be underground in order to stick to its roots, because “once an artist gets signed, it becomes more about what sells.”
Boachie-Ansah agreed. “If you want to keep an art form pure, you have to keep it from becoming something that will turn into profit,” he said.
Although hip hop might be underground as far as the masses are concerned, to the members of The Cypher, it’s a lifestyle. LSA senior Sean Riddell says that he feels most comfortable with others who are involved in the hip-hop community, equating it with a brotherhood.
But The Cypher is not the only organization on campus supporting the hip-hop community. Freestyle Fridays, an offshoot of The Cypher, is a more informal group in which anybody who is interested can participate in freestyle rap battles. During warmer months, this happens on the Diag around 2 p.m. every Friday, and when it’s cold outside the group meets by the posting wall in Mason Hall. Several members of The Cypher also attend The U-Club Poetry Slam every other Thursday.
Hip hop in Ann Arbor is not limited to campus. In addition to frequent hip-hop shows at The Blind Pig, The Firefly holds an event called Elevator Sundays, featuring an open mic with the world-renowned DJ Graffiti.
While the hip-hop community might appear to be underground to the general public, it’s very much alive for those involved. Groups like The Cypher, along with bars and clubs around Ann Arbor, support a thriving scene of artists who are destroying negative stereotypes with their words, beats and harmonies.