Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation
Edited by Paul Watkins and Rebecca Caines
To cypher is to rap, break, beatbox tightly together in a circle where each person just might get a moment in the spotlight. To cypher is to borrow and to lend, to playfully freewheel through whilst taking an exacting care for each word and carefully considering all the sounds, meanings, and interpretations. It is to fight back, to borrow, to steal, to represent, and to collaborate, whilst suddenly—surprisingly—at times aggressively claiming your own voice, your own right to speak. A cypher is a gathering of rappers, beatboxers, and/or breakers in a circle, extemporaneously making music together. In recent years, the cypher has also grown to include the crowd and spectators who are integral to maintaining the energy of a given cypher. In a cypher, one emcee will rap about a certain topic, which is quickly taken up or flipped by another emcee who plays off the prior words and themes. Each artist takes his or her respective turn, much like in a jazz solo. Cyphers flow freely between diverse performers who improvise their words, sounds, or movements to create a complex matrix of sharing. The circle can go on continuously, as long as emcees, beatboxers, dancers, and the crowd keep the fluidity of the cypher going. The cypher is welcoming and thus models a pedagogy that is inclusive and improvisational in nature.
This issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation/ Études critiques en improvisation aims to act as a cypher, engaging with the embodied practice of locally specific yet globally implicated hip-hop, as we consider the cypher as a metaphor for the complexities of critically thinking about improvisation more broadly. Appropriately, our theme of “Cyphers” attracted a wide range of analyses with many points of intersection. Our final selection ranges from discussions with historically significant scholars and practitioners in hip-hop and Black expressive culture to newer texts at the intersections between hip-hop and other art forms, as well as those tracing the improvisatory affects of hip-hop across cultural and technological boundaries.
Each paper in this issue addresses specific responses to the improvisatory impulse in hip-hop. We start the issue with a number of interviews. We are honoured that George Lipsitz agreed to interview Tricia Rose for this issue, bringing two significant scholars in Black Studies into conversation. This interview emphasizes Rose’s vital contributions to the field of hip-hop scholarship and addresses the broader importance of improvisatory Black expressive cultural practices as “sites and sources of knowledges, as repositories of collective memory, as sights of moral instruction, as ways of calling communities into being through interaction and through performance.” Rebecca Caines’ interview with leading Canadian hip-hop researcher Charity Marsh focuses on Marsh’s creation and leadership of the Interactive Media and Performance Labs in Saskatchewan as an innovative, exploratory space for disenfranchised communities to meet and learn about themselves through hip-hop practices. In conversation with Vancouver-based poet/scholar/DJ Wayde Compton, Paul Watkins addresses Compton’s work on history, identity, and race, exploring the idea of improvising Blackness from within both local (BC) and transnational contexts. This audio interview is then remixed a number of times to allow the conversation to interact with Compton’s readings of his own poetry and with a number of different music samples. Watkins then continues this exploration of critically engaged approaches to artistic practice with his review of Flying Lotus’s (aka FlyLo, born Steven Ellison) 2014 release, “You’re Dead!”
Jesse Stewart examines the form of “jazz-rap” that emerged in the 1980s and ’90s. He charts the use of improvisational jazz forms in this type of hip-hop music and perceives this act as a kind of cultural memory practice that “mobilizes the musical past in the service of a socially progressive cultural politics of difference.” Niel Scobie addresses dissonance and “noise” in improvisation and in hip-hop music, with special attention to the music of Public Enemy. For Scobie, “anti-musical” aesthetics allow the group to create lineage with the “discordant cries” of African-American past practices whilst developing a potent improvisatory musical urgency and a call to arms.
Both Marcel Swiboda and Mark Campbell address technological mediation in hip-hop practices. Swiboda addresses “the break,” developing a new critical history of electronic tools for beatmaking to supplement existing scholarship, which has tended to focus more on the use of turntables for isolating and manipulating the breakbeat. Swiboda suggests that technological and material histories of improvisatory beatmaking practices can be “technologically driven, idiomatically specific vernacular modes of critical knowledge practice” and can also bear an “intimate link to improvisatory practices.” Campbell, on the other hand, focuses on current digital DJ practices. His ethnographic project is to discover how newer digital interfaces affect younger DJs in live performance and in radio settings. He argues that digital DJ interfaces might represent “ways to continue to humanize technology as a subversive afrosonic activity, while evolving the practice of DJing.”
Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation is generously supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (through both its Major Collaborative Research Initiatives and Aid to Scholarly Journals programs) and by the University of Guelph Library.