Mike “Mic Live” Greene spends his days working at the Trader Joe’s on Wake Forest Road in Raleigh, but every Monday at 11:30 p.m. he can be found underneath the railroad tracks at the Free Expression Tunnel.
The 27-year-old emcee, is one of many people who congregates at the entrance of the tunnel on Monday nights to showcase free style (improvised) raps at what has come to be known as, the N.C. State Cypher.
The N.C. State Cypher was founded in 2010 by Mic Live and his friends who call themselves Uno Cero. Initially consisting of about 10 local rappers standing in a circle and “spitting bars,” the N.C. State Cypher has grown in proportion, with an average of 30-40 spectators and rappers showing up, weekly.
“I like that everyone continually raises the bar, but at the same time ain’t no real crazy sh*t popped off,” Mic Live said.
Cyphering, a fundamental aspect of hip-hop and rap culture, began as a way for rappers to lyrically battle one another and discover whose poetic prowess was best. A breeding ground for creativity, the cypher has often been viewed and depicted by mainstream media as an incubator for rap beef and confrontation.
Despite the deviant stigma often associated with the cypher and underground rap movement, the N.C. State Cypher completely undermines this stereotype.
“it’s a judgment free zone. If you want to recite poetry, if you want to rhyme, if you even just want to say something—we’re open to expression,” said Farouk Bseiso who goes by the stage name Say So.
Since its humble beginnings in 2010, the N.C. State Cypher has become a movement with the social networking site Twitter providing for it a lot of momentum. Twitter is also where music industry executive and N.C. State alumnus, Patrick Douthit learned about the N.C. State Cypher.
Douthit, who goes by the stage name 9th Wonder and attended Monday’s cypher, has produced records for some of hip-hop’s finest including Jay-Z, Nas, Drake, J.Cole and Ludacris.
“Before record deals, World Starr, BET or anything that’s where it all started, is rapping in the park,” said Douthit. “The cypher—emceeing is one of the four elements of hip hop, so it’s always important to keep that going and make sure students know that’s where it all came from,” said Douthit. “For students to do that… it’s kind of refreshing to see. It seems like the cypher is almost a lost art, but N.C. State is bringing it back.”
Freddie “Skyy Walker” Staton, a junior majoring in anthropology is one of the original N.C. State students helping to revitalize the art form.
“I heard about the cypher through word of mouth, and I just started going maybe the third or fourth time they had it. Back then there were only like five people who would be out there,” said Skyy Walker.
A rap artist with a strong local fan base, Skyy Walker has had to put his musical aspirations to the side in order to focus on his academics. During this time however, the N.C. State Cypher has remained his musical outlet. “I took a rest from [rapping] because of school, but the cypher helps me keep my love of music and also it helps keep me focused on what I’m really in school for.”
The N.C. State Cypher has inspired the creation of organized cyphers on the campuses of North Carolina A&T State University and North Carolina Central University. Those students and local emcees who pioneered the movement hope that it continues to spread.
“The Cypher is a type of culture that we have here at N.C. State and it’s becoming a big thing,” said Skyy Walker. “It’s living up to what culture does. Culture lives outside of you and me, and [as it spreads] it’s living outside of our campus now.”