What’s the Best Cypher in Hip Hop History?

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It’s funny that now, I can, sort of, take pride in being a Hip Hop nerd in the 1980’s and 1990’s. Back in the day, the strange tech guys that were into video and Hip Hop, like myself, were an eclectic bunch. Some of us wore glasses, dressed weird, traded obscure Hip Hop facts and all shared a love of documenting the culture. Recording everyday street life or better yet, ‘all down’, candid moments with familiar Hip Hop personalities was something new in the 1990’s because video technology wasn’t as accessible. Among the hours of tape I recorded during that time, are some classic pieces that have embedded themselves in the fabric of the culture. One of those sessions deserves special consideration (each year) because it may be a singularly unmatched piece of Hip Hop history. It will also allow me to finally pose the question; Is the Shades of Hip Hop’s Cypher, the best recorded rhyme cypher in Hip Hop history?


Every December I reminisce on one of my favorite memories in Hip Hop. This past December, I finally realized how to classify that moment. Sometimes I’ve flirted with the idea that I lucked out and recorded the best cypher in Hip Hop history, but it wasn’t that. The one I recorded is #2. The best cypher in Hip Hop history was the one many still might not have seen. It was from the finale show of Arsenio Hall. The eclectic group of emcees he had on stage, all in their prime condition, will never be matched again. It featured Yo Yo, MC Lyte, Treach, Phife, Q-Tip, Chip-Fu, CL Smooth, Guru, Das EFX, GZA, KRS ONE, and Mad Lion. Admittedly the mic quality and caliber of rhymes may not have been the best, but at the time it was revolutionary on a whole different level. Arsenio allowed regular underground emcees to populate his performance section long before it was wise to do on mainstream TV.

The cypher I recorded was much more intimate and personal. On the level of talent and significance of the rhymes, it was top notch which is why, to me, it’s a strong #2. The place where it is #1 is this fact I just realized. Back in the day of analog video tape, cameras weren’t as readily available. In those days, there were a lot of one camera shoots and editing sessions to cut out the boring spots, framing shots, awkward pans and focus adjustments. There is a clever way of chopping up an interview to make it look fluid and continuous while editing out significant portions of the content. The Hip Hop cyphers I recorded back then were raw and real though. There were no editing tricks or nifty plug-in filters in my finished products. That kind of realistic underground atmosphere had never fully been captured in an uncensored way until Shades of Hip Hop. So, the cypher I recorded was a traditional one person, one camera, viewer perspective witnessing the scene. However, the rhyme cypher is only part of the dopest one camera shot in the history of Hip Hop Kulture.

When you realize that the video you see, and the angles you get, from the start of the conversation to the end of Canibus’ rhyme, is all one long shot from one camera, you know just how unique this footage is. People post glowing comments about the rhyme cypher portion itself on bootlegged YouTube copies that have millions of hits. However, the rhyme is made more significant because of what they discussed prior to spitting their verses. There was also an underlying friendly tension of competitors that some may not have noticed outside of the room. Also, the weight of the rhymes spit by Mos Def and Big Pun were from their vast arsenal of gems, but probably ranked as their personal favorite to rock in just this kind of situation. The final point that solidifies the ranking, is the rhyme Canibus spit for the first time in public; 2nd Round KO, the LL Cool J diss.

I’m constantly reminded about this footage because so many people on so many platforms post it as an example of the 1990’s top emcees. Also, whenever there’s a documentary about Big Pun, they use my recording of the Dream Shatterer verse. (BTW) The guy in black clothes, behind Pun, was my deejay at the time for Shades of Hip Hop video mix tapes, DJ Spunk. He mixed the instrumental bed behind video tapes like Shades of Hip Hop vol. 3: Time 2 Shine. He went on to deejay for the Outsidaz and tour the country after mixing Shades of Hip Hop vol. 4: Hot 2 Def. Still, beyond the rhyme, the most important part of the recording was what they discussed. They broke down the art of emceein by answering some deftly prepared questions from Village Voice reporter, Toure. What’s recorded was a true master-class in emceein. The topics discussed are some things that every rapper needs to consider if he/she wants to build their skill.

Topics discussed:

  1. How to separate the real lyricists from ones who don’t know
  2. Competition vs. Intimidation
  3. Why is ego important?
  4. Do you need to qualify with a Hip Hop authority or be co-signed?
  5. How do you prove you’re the illest?
  6. What makes a great emcee?
  7. How do you tell a rapper they’re whack?
  8. Slang words and setting trends
  9. How to make adjustments between music projects

If artists commonly discussed all these topics, we would probably have a different caliber of music today. We would already have a respect for the culture enough to pursue growth of the Hip Hop community, not just sustainability. With the display of skills at the end, every point they made prior is solidified. Their truth is revealed in how expertly they present their rhymes and articulate their points. In the end, what the culture has, is a tool to enhance and inspire the best from its participants.

On a side note, before there ever was a Beef DVD series documenting the details of rap beefs and how they started, I’m sure QDIII watched Shades of Hip Hop vol 4: Hot 2 Def, and saw the following footage.

Kurt Nice

Kurt Nice aka Kurtiss Jackson is a behind the scenes pioneer in the Hip Hop Kulture, creating the first nationally distributed video mix tape series, Shades of Hip Hop, in the late 1990s. Since touring the country with the Stop the Violence Movement and the Temple of Hip Hop as KRS-ONE's National Marketing Director, Kurt Nice has been a constant commentator on conscious Hip Hop and its relevance to the new rap music of today, through radio and cable appearances. contact Kurt at info@hiphoplives.net

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