Every Monday night at 11:30, roughly 100 kids cluster at the Free Expression Tunnel, rolling up on skateboards, drinking hemp tea, ready to spit gritty poetry off the top of their heads.
They call this gathering the N.C. State Cypher, an invitation to rap, recite, incite or otherwise stir things up verbally – backed by the rattling of spray-paint cans.
The invitation is so open that a quasi-homeless man once showed up playing a Pan flute. Another time, a guy arrived toting a didgeridoo. But for the most part, this is a stage for freestyle rappers – artists equipped with only a brain and a voice, shouting to the sky about race, God, war, peace, money, machismo and tomorrow’s math test.
In a half-hour there, I heard somebody rhyme ISIS with priceless. I heard the word “alchemically” put to a hip-hop beat. I saw a guy empty his wallet, let worthless slips of paper fly into the night and yell, “This is an example of a broke bastard!”
Often, their lyrics are seasoned with words unprintable here. But just as often, they turn playful and clever couplets: “I’ll suck you up like a street sweeper / and chop you up like a cheese pizza.”
In short, I stayed out way past my bedtime just to tell you that college campuses still cultivate inventive minds and do-it-yourself mindsets. You can stop knocking this generation for its ever-present earbuds, its texting habits and its Reddit.
These kids are obviously interested in words, which you can quickly gather by the flier posted for Cypher’s fourth anniversary, promising an event “whose potent omniloquence is unfathomable.” In a week of Cypher immersion, I’ve borrowed enough slang terms to start a new dictionary. They might not be new, and I might not understand them in the purest usage, but I guarantee you I’ll be the only dad in the Hunter Elementary car pool line who can remark, “These ninjas go HAM!”
When Cypher started at N.C. State four years ago, the Cypher might draw a dozen people. Two weeks ago, it attracted more than 200 people, all of them out past midnight. The idea has since spread to East Carolina University, Appalachian State University, N.C. Central University and downtown Asheville.
I talked to N.C. State super-senior and Cypher veteran Shep Bryan, who described himself as a singer, beatboxer, quintessential dude’s dude and raging mutton chop-haver. He explained the growth:
“It’s organic,” he said. “It’s authentic. People see that and they recognize that. You’re almost obligated to tell a friend. Different characters bring their own energy. One person will bring a guitar. One person will bring a harmonica. One person will bring their crazy self.”
The term cypher refers to a cyclical line of rappers, taking turns improvising, surrounded by a ring of onlookers. At the Free Expression Tunnel, N.C. State’s blank palette for spray-painters, the crowd sits either on the stairs, the boulders nearby or on a 15-foot wall, legs dangling.
It’s an encouraging vibe for the novice, something sophomore engineering major Taha Arif discovered the summer before his freshman year at N.C. State. He entered the fray a bit timid.
“I just kind of spit,” he told me, using the lingo which, for the uninitiated, means to bust a rhyme. “The nerves kind of got to me, so I didn’t spit as well as I meant to, but I like to think I made a little bit of an impression. The energy there was just so welcoming. They encourage everyone who wants to spit just to spit.”
The weekly ritual has persisted through four years, including Christmases and summers, when, as the Cypher regulars put it, the whole campus is ghost.
Whether a dozen people are watching or 100, the idea is to nail your routine the same way a gymnast sticks a dismount. When it’s right, everybody can feel it.
“It’s a feeling of when a person is completely in their zone and they’re freestyling effortlessly,” said Andrew Weaver, 27, who goes by Jrusalam. “At that moment, they’re the God cypher divine. They’re the God MC. And when they reach that moment, that moment is theirs.”
And when the Cypher is complete, all rhymes spit, the ritual unfolds further: wind-down and reflection at Waffle House.