The Parochial/The Universal – Questioning the Cipher and the Freestyler

Where is my subject? I have a thesis but no subject? Where are my ciphers? Where are my freestylers? Some have gone to make music? Some write. Some have forgotten hip hop. Some have lost their way? Some have found a new genre to rap inside. Some have gone ‘Pop’. Who? Who has done what? Who are the success stories and why? Who ciphers and is famous? No one. Once you reach a certain level you don’t do improv. Leave the experiments to the amateurs. Fine. This will be a thesis on amateurs. Because the professionals have long since stopped ciphering. But a tiny fraction of the amateurs rapping on the streets and in parties today will perhaps one day ‘go viral’ – they will have 15 minutes of fame or perhaps more.

One thing is for sure: this thesis will mean nothing to rappers/DJs/hip hop heads if I completely neglect to tip my hat to the masters: Flash, Kane, Guru etc.
And there are other progenitors – developers, inventors. Give credit where it is due. TOO MANY NAMES. Well, give credit to the scenes and eras rather than individuals. How do we demarcate – who decides what defines a scene/where one scene begins and another ends? Into all this uncertainty I wade. There are answers. Porco could provide some of the answers. Some guy from Stealth Magazine might provide some of the answers.

Where were the ciphers? There was one at Inkstain’s house today. There was one at Wyldcard’s house. Where Warpa!nt lives. I had a little lunchtime freestyle. I know ciphers have been going down at Flemington Community Centre. Last year I had a great time ciphering out the back of My Aeon. Take a moment to weigh what is actually there in your memory. Has something happened to freestyling your raps OR to spontaneity generally? What problems do we have with spontaneity? What mistakes do freestylers make and why do we forgive them for it? What sins do they commit? Why should we care about some amateur raps on YouTube? WHAT IS WRONG WITH HIP HOP AND RAP? Why is the ego so brutishly expressed (typically)?

What genre has changed the status quo? All have, and all have since been co-opted into the corporation: the global western capitalist culturally colonising machine. What is the status quo in freestyles? The original and loose definition seems to be making a comeback – perhaps indirectly.

Why might we dismiss the freestyle as an art form? Why is subordinated to rap and singing?

My gut is giving me loads of great questions and a few really intriguing potential answers, but I’m making bold statements about ciphers when I don’t have any fully transcribed. Still not sure what is going to be central, included, cited, peripheral and excluded from the scope of this thesis. If ciphers are central then I need a complete cipher. At least one. Preferably 100. Jokes. I need at least 10 ciphers in which each rapper raps twice. I need at least one 5 person cipher. I need at least two different female freestylers. I need to construct a representative freestyle. Is this not bordering on a theatre project?

I need to make sure freestylers shout out their names. I need to make sure the order is not broken. Those are not inviolable rules normally but I’m not really concerned with the dynamic of jumping in. Although cutting in does relate to respect, and a line could be drawn between patterns of showing respect and the identification of possible hierarchical structures.

It is exciting and fucking scary to be thinking of constructing my source material in this way. But the source material are the freestylers themselves. The source material are their vocabularies and rhythm sense, their philosophies and scruples, their egos and performance habits. Their methods.
Now for the fucking scary part: Am I too close to this? Am I breaching some criteria for assessment by having a hand in this. Dare I put my hand on the source material? How might I disassociate myself from these constructed ciphers? I need to resolve this issue NOW.

Well the source material is their existing folios of rhymes. Their texts, so to speak. Their spoken and forgotten and once again recalled literature. The advantage is that I understand ciphers as a participant. I am close to this. I can lead from the heart. The question is will I lead it to a worthwhile place?

How experimental can this get? How do I reference a cipher? Could I be bold and try to break ground here?

Important (universal) idea: how a cipher recontextualises conversation – breathes new life into what is sometimes called the ‘long lost art of conversation’. Performative elements of theatre blend with communicative elements of conversation. Words are shared with the addition of a beat, a set of cultural assumptions and the rest is up to the individual involved.

What am I looking for here? Variety! Novelty! What else do I find? The cheap bravado and mimicry of the mainstream that can be found in so much that bears the hip hop label. Many freestlyers are battle MCs (or have at least entered a battle), others have found their way to the cipher via slam poetry or simply poetry reading. There is a whole category of rappers who avoid sustained freestyles and the all-in throw improv fest of a cipher, rappers who will only deliver rap as a set piece. That is the safer route, the router with more financial options, more productive, enduring options. Better to build something that get notably closer to flawless… that can be tailored to a concept without redundancy or error – something that can be delivered to a microphone to be recorded over and over until it is a satisfactory verse for the studio track.

Variety! Novelty! The potential of rap came to me in varied and novel forms. I personally had a vague dislike of rap from no particular reason. I heard it contained a lot of swearing and I thought Kriss Kross looked kinda stupid. Salt n Pepa seemed aimed at girls and Coolio seemed to take himself too seriously. I never heard Young MC when I was younger. I never heard GMFlash or Kool Moe Dee. Australia was still awash in Rock and rock offshoots.

I heard more about personas than the raps that those personas created. However I still remember when I was converted to rap. Warren G’s Reguate, Wu-Tang, Ghetto Boyz, Ice-T, NWA all these and more came from one camp. But at the same time I was already getting wind of Anticon, Sage Francis, Def Jux, Canibal Ox, Jedi Mind Tricks and locally, TZU, Curse ov Dialect, Organic Intellect, Music vs. Physics, True Live Vibe, Illzilla, Elf and Wasabi, Combat Wombat…

And on top of that came a gradual understanding of some of the progenitors. What a variety. I was bombarded by a great variety of genres within hip hop itself. Different genres of rap. I think hip hop can be employed as some kind of umbrella term that links the indefinitely large variety of rap genres. It designates a roughly yet commonly held set of assumptions – a marketplace/battleground of ideas.

Against this battleground: are freestyles not less varied? Are they not limited by their very nature? I’m not sure if that is a problem I can address. Within the umbrella term hip hop the
definition of the words freestyle and rap could be contested, but in practice the artists who use these terms seldom have any need to contest them. They might instead contest the right of an Australian MC to rap in an American accent. Or to make references to things that are exclusively American phenomenons, or slang typically associated with Americans and specifically black Americans. Culture tend to get contested, not so much terminology. And yet I could touch upon the vagueness that besets the development of freestyles – the web of associations (some might tie it to battles, others to a revolutionaries poem, or a child dancing on the street).

At what point is someone in or out of the cipher? What about someone who only records it, or spectates? At what point does someone stop rapping and start talking? Chanting, singing, instructing, self-consciously imitating, pantomiming – how many layers can we delve into here?


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