When I composed my 2012 wish list, I made eleven pretty lofty requests and one that was pure snark. Among the sincere wishes, perhaps none was more of a stretch than to see underground hip hop gain a foothold in North Texas. At least that’s why I thought it was a stretch. It turns out five Dallas emcees struggled with the same goal about a year ago and decided to direct energies toward that end. The fruit of that struggle is now known as DFW Cypher, a grassroots collective with one goal: to lend a bullhorn to underground hip hop in DFW.
A cypher is nothing more than a huddle of emcees trading freestyle rhymes. Unlike a battle, there is no face-to-face exchange of ad-hoc insults, but there is the same rawness of being put on the spot. A good cypher gets at the root of what makes hip hop so engrossing: individuals out on a verbal tightrope. DFW Cypher’s aim is to use that tool as a way to promote the area’s hip hop.
DFW Cypher formed in the late winter of 2011 when Frank “ASAP” Torres, Justin “GOAT” Griffith, Julio “Kilo Art-of-Fact” Corderro, Kyle “Molek Ular” Elrod, and James “Jack Rabbit” Clark decided to film a cypher and upload it. That first video, filmed in a Kitchen and produced by Molek Ular, went so well that the same group decided to do it again, with a new roster of emcees. This time, they had the help of veteran videographer Teddy Cool, the only non-performer of DFW Cypher, who came on board after finding the first video. “I saw this cypher concept and [thought], ‘That’s dope. That’s exactly the kind of music I want to push forward in this community. It’s simple. It’s hip hop.’” To date, the group has produced five cypher videos and don’t plan on resting any time soon.
The operation is intentionally simple. The six members of DFW Cypher either produce or purchase a beat and send it to a hand-picked group of about half-a-dozen artists. “We try to find the most hard, in-your-face, grimy [beats], to keep that underground feel,” says ASAP. The emcees are then asked to record lyrics and send it back. Finally, all the artists show up to the shooting location, also picked by DFW Cypher. The video is shot, edited, mixed with the audio and uploaded. No one person in DFW Cypher has autonomy. Every decision is made by the six-man committee.
Emcees are given only two essential rules: the audio must be confined to one vocal track and the swearing should be minimal. The first rule only ensures there are no overdubs or extra voices. The second, as it happens, has less to do with prudishness than it does quality. “We want to keep it about lyrics,” says GOAT. “If you’re cussing every other bar, it’s kind of like cheating and it’s uncreative.” With videos featuring knife-waving and passing references to Kennedy’s exploding skull, DFW Cypher clearly has no problem with provocative material. What they do have a problem with are stilted rhymes. “How hard can you go with one vocal track,” GOAT says is the message intended with the rules. “We don’t want to seem like we’re willing to lower the quality of hip hop,” adds ASAP. “If it’s not quality hip hop, it’s just not something DFW Cypher is interested in.”
The results have been nothing short of stunning. The videos, which are filmed in black and white, are confined to a single shooting location. Beyond the first kitchen set, subsequent videos have been shot in a living room, an alley, beneath an overpass, and atop the new Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. The locations give the videos a palpable rawness and put the focus where it belongs: on the individual personalities of the emcees. The videos are high quality and edited with an attention to detail. From the stripped-down locations to the stripped-vocals to the rules for lyrical quality, it’s all engineered to do what DFW Cypher thinks is most important and that is to put the spotlight on DFW’s best underground rap artists, especially those who would otherwise go unnoticed.
Despite the professionalism of the finished product, the video shoots are sometimes harried events. The shoot on Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge ranks high on that list. The crew shot without a permit and thus under the persistent anxiety of being shut down at any minute. Teddy Cool says, “I was at the parking spot before the shoot, waiting for the call from the crew to say they’d already been busted.” They weren’t. “Maybe it was because everybody was still eating turkey,” GOAT theorizes about the Thanksgiving holiday shoot.
Plans for the equally frantic Mavericks cypher started rolling just as an overwhelmed Nowitzki loped back to the locker room after game six of the 2011 Finals. The six members were texting each other that night to set up the celebratory cypher. The rushed production, filmed in GOAT’s living room, perfectly captured the headiness of championship revelry. (The rap also contains several hilarious, lyrical barbs directed at Dallas-native Chris Bosh. Getting dissed in a DFW Cypher video by your own people is now just another peril of free agency decisions. Tread carefully, Deron Williams.)
DFW Cypher is clear on a couple of things. First, the group is not out to make money. They make these videos out of pocket with no eye to recouping. It is purely for the love of the art and the desire to find it in our metro area. Second, the members do not see themselves as combating highly successful commercial, dance rap inDallas. There is, they insist, a place for that. They only insist there is an equal place for underground rap, an art form built purely on quality rhymes and delivery.
“Basically since PPT and since Final Fridays ended, the underground hasn’t really had a very good platform to speak on,” says Teddy Cool. As he sees it, those two events were a major setback to the area’s underground hip hop that DFW Cypher intends to rectify. They also have an eye towards recovering Dallas’s image. “I think that Dallas has been painted a certain way,” says Art-of-Fact, “and DFW Cypher lets you rip it any way want and represent the city.”
DFW Cypher is already building the community they envisioned, one that has actually exceeded their expectations. Other than the five emcees that help run DFW Cypher, many have neither met nor even heard each other before the day of the shoot. GOAT likens it to a “spider web.” Connections and cross-connections are being made with every additional cypher they shoot. The group wants to pool the collective talent of the entire metro area: Dallas, Fort Worth, Denton and every mid-city and suburb around them. “It’s called ‘DFW Cypher’ and we have yet to shoot one in Fort Worth,” Art-of-Fact admits, “but I guarantee you we will.”
At the genesis of the project, DFW Cypher’s six architects were worried about hitting the local talent wall. It only took a matter of weeks before the wealth of adroit DFW emcees obliterated that concern. To date, twenty one emcees have participated across the five videos and at least two cyphers’ worth are on deck. The group has discovered so much talent, in fact, that DFW Cypher has taken the extra step of matching emcees to particular projects. “Every time we do one, it’s evolving to a new level,” says Teddy Cool.
All six maintain that they are, by no means, the saviors of underground hip hop in DFW, merely facilitators of existing, if disparate, scenes. But to see the fruits of their project, to catch even a whiff of their unflagging eagerness, it’s hard not to think of them as caretakers of the DFW underground; moreover, to rest easy with that thought.
All images are screen shots of DFW Cypher’s videos, which you can watch below.
Here’s a list of DFW Cypher’s upcoming shows:
Friday, January 20th
Poor Vida Productions presents “Get Your Own Dallas-Houston Showcase”
The Green Elephant
5627 Dyer Street, Dallas
Thursday, January 26th
Neva Dug Disco and Riches Music present “Hip Hop and Hookahs”
House of Poets
580 W Arapaho Road, Richardson
Saturday January 28th
Spew Media presents “KNEW”
2826 Elm Street, Dallas
Friday, February 17th
Poor Vida Presents “Mozez Tha Great ‘AIM’ Mixtape Release”
The Green Elephant
5627 Dyer Street, Dallas
Saturday, February 25th
A.S.A.P.’s “Better Late Than Never” Album Release
2800 Main Street, Dallas
Saturday, March 10th
grIMP’s Release Party
2826 Elm Street, Dallas