Fundamental to the Hip-hop culture is rap battles. Rap battles are premised on off-the-cuff freestyled verses. Sometimes too, rap battles are more than just simple face-off between two warring lyricists and barring heads.
The term 'kill' became a Hip-hop colloquialism to define excellent performances off New York pavements, University of Lagos rap battles, and cassette aided freestyles in Jos and Kaduna, either in simple face-offs or even when the circle expands to threes and fours.
Thus, as the advent of documenting Hip-hop on vinyls and cassette tapes for capitalism to tap into its potential as a mainstream culture that transcends just DJing, B-balling and street level freestyles gained impetus, the fundamentals of Hip-hop also spilled over with it into the mainstream.
Asides the concept of features, battles and the need to claim supremacy and promote the positivity of ego were revamped in mainstream capitalism with rap features, posse cuts and and rap cyphers.
Though now, it is not entirely about claiming supremacy at freestyles anymore, but who has the most money, the idea is still there.
As discussed by Big Daddy Kane and Myka 9 in How Top Rap, “In the ’80s when we said we wrote a freestyle rap, that meant that it was a rhyme that you wrote that was free of style... it's basically a rhyme just bragging about yourself."
Myka 9 adds, "Back in the day freestyle was bust[ing] a rhyme about any random thing, and it was not a written rhyme or something memorized."
Divine Styler says, "In the school I come from, freestyling was a non-conceptual written rhyme... and now they call freestyling off the top of the head, so the era I come from it's a lot different.”
What then is a rap Cypher?
A rap cypher is simply a revamped, rebranded freestyle battle on inner-city street corners, sidewalks and project pavements.
Premised on the idea of 'freestyle rap', cyphers are then a more controlled freestyle rap session featuring more than two people, with time limits defined and with rappers having time to write before delivering their bars when called upon.
Adarsh Singh, a software developer dropped a cogent definition on his Quora page. He defined it as, “an informal gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or break-dancers in a circle, in order to jam musically together. The term has also in recent years come to mean the crowd which forms around freestyle battles, consisting of spectators and onlookers.”
Usually, it's just a bar-fest with punchlines and with one intention, 'kill' or be better than anyone else in sight, but the idea is also to rap on a myriad of topics to deliver bars.
Though similar, a posse cut isn't rap cypher
A posse cut is more often than not a track with two or more rappers than just a freestyle session that a rap Cypher is - though they can both be based on random topics.
A posse cut could also have a hook or chorus while a rap cypher mostly doesn't have a hook.
Basically, a rap cypher is a rap freestyle, posse cut without a hook.
So why is this shade of rap freestyles called a 'cypher'?
Replying to a question on discussion platform, Quora, Jorge Banuelos, a professional of Religious Studies said, “The use of the term “cipher” stems from the influence of Five Percenter beliefs. Also known as the Nation of Gods and Earths (NGE), The Five Percenters champion the beliefs of Clarence 13X.
“Their genealogy stems back to the Nation of Islam and W. Fard Muhammed. The cipher is a concept. It’s to relay esoteric knowledge to only those who are hip to it. The cipher is intentionally esoteric so as to be only understood by those enlightened to its knowledge.
“So, when MCs spit in a circle, the cipher is meant to be a way of spitting knowledge and facts only readily understood by those in the Hip-Hop tradition. Other popular phrases of the Hip-Hop Vernacular like “Dropping science”. “What’s up, G”, “Arm leg leg arm head (ALLAH)”, “Sugar Honey Iced Tea (SHIT)”, etc., stem from the Five Percenters.
“The Five Percenters were able to influence Hip-Hop to such a high degree due to their proximity to the culture in its nascent stages. Back when DJ Kool Herc, Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash, etc., were having their parties, they brought in 5%-ers to act as community police by keeping the peace between the warring gang sets of NYC.
“Thus, the 5%-ers would spread their Supreme Wisdom during music breaks and in between sets.”
The book, The Five Percenters: Islam, Hip-Hop, and the Gods of New York (2008) by Michael Muhammed Knight was also instructive on the art of freestyling.
Meanwhile, on the same thread, Omar Judah said, “Black people slang words. Cypher via cipher comes from “de-cipher”. As in to reveal the meaning of. It was first used to mean I encode my lyrics with esoteric meaning.” The rap was a cypher—a coded message.
‘It later became associated with freestyle, esp. with emcees with beast mode lyrical game.It quickly morphed into a sort of Dream Team-like group of freestyle gurus, who often could elegantly finish the other guy's former bar.
“Like almost all things innovated by black rappers, white culture has diluted the original meaning intended by us.
“We originally used it to mean “a nigga in an organized neighborhood alliance/gang. White culture now uses the word to mean: anyone who exhibits aggressive behavior. WTF. Yes, because WP throw the word around liberally on anyone who doesn't act like little Susie & little Johnny.”
In modern times, the culture of rap cyphers is majorly showcased on the platform of Black Entertainment Television (BET) and its yearly cyphers, sandwiched in between stops and extras of the BET Hip-hop Awards.
Nigeria’s first major cypher was the BET Cypher 2011 featuring Naeto C, M.I. Abaga, Ice Prince, Vector and so forth.