Special Issue of Critical Studies in Improvisation on Hip-Hop is Now Live

Cyphers: Hip-Hop and Improvisation

Vol 10, No 1

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.”

See the full editorial and issue, here.


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.

Call for Papers: “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation”

I am guest-editing a special collection of essays on Hip Hop and Improvisation. The Call for Papers is below.

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Critical Studies in Improvisation / Études critiques en improvisation invites submissions for a special issue with the theme “Cyphers: Hip Hop and Improvisation,” guest-edited by Rebecca Caines and Paul Watkins. This special issue of CSI will draw together artists and academics to investigate the crucial role improvisation plays in the international field of Hip Hop, and in the related field of critical Hip Hop studies. We seek contributions from artist/practitioners and from scholars working across the disciplines.

Derek Bailey’s notion of improvisation as being the most practiced, yet the least understood, of all musical activities, is particularly pertinent to the immense and constantly burgeoning field of Hip Hop praxis from around the world. Although most scholars are aware of the integral nature of improvisatory practices in Hip Hop, few critically explore how improvisation is a viable form of analysis in Hip Hop, as well as a model for social change. Improvisation plays a central role in African-American, Hispanic, and Caribbean based Hip Hop practices in the US, and continues to be a core element in Hip Hop music, dance, and visual art across the globalized forms of this interdisciplinary art practice. We encourage contributors to pursue new conversations, interventions even, about how we think of improvisation vis-à-vis the larger milieu of Hip Hop. Critical academic essays are encouraged, and the editors also welcome for consideration artist statements, commentaries, reviews, interviews and experimental textual forms. We intend to showcase a variety of live artist performances and invited papers at a launch event for this Special Issue. CSI/ÉCI encourages the submission of audio and visual content to accompany texts. It is the responsibility of the author to ascertain copyright and gain permissions.

Potential topics include:

• How do Hip Hop artists combine idiomatic and non-idiomatic improvisation in their work?

• What artistic, social, and economic pressures face Hip Hop artists who foreground the improvisatory in their work?

• How does improvisation in Hip Hop reflect, develop, or contrast the social practices and pressing political issues of the communities in which it appears?

• What role does improvisation play in the creation of academic disciplinarities and “Hip Hop pedagogies” both inside and outside educational institutions? How might the ubiquity of improvised DJ performances inform knowledge formation, and provide critical tools for pedagogues?

• How does scholarship in Hip Hop studies respond to the improvisatory nature of the practice?

• What role does improvisation in Hip Hop play in the recontextualization of cultural and intercultural identity?

• How do Indigenous communities across the world improvise, translate, transform, and indigenize the US form of Hip Hop arts practice?

• Since Hip Hop has often traditionally been described as “noise” by many conservatives and academics who uncritically profile Hip Hop artists and fans of all genders, races, and classes, might dissonance compel us to think about how disruption can function as a model for critical practice?

• How are the five primary elements of Hip Hop—dance (notably breaking), urban inspired art (markedly graffiti), deejaying (turntablism), beatboxing and emceeing (rapping)—negotiated under improvisatory practices and amalgamations?

• In what ways are orality and textuality (what we might think of as recording) tied to Hip Hop and how might either form limit or broaden the art?

• Houston A. Baker Jr. argues, poetry, like rap, is intended to be a “disruptive performance […] as an audible or sounding space of opposition” (Rap 96). In what ways are Hip Hop and poetry related?

• What are the relationships between technology, accessibility, and Hip Hop culture?

• How do DJs improvisationally rework archival material that is often dormant, thus creating new repertoires from the past?

• While misogyny is bigger than Hip Hop, we welcome papers that explore how gender is improvised and performed in Hip Hop.

Submissions should be 4000-6000 words (shorter essays may also be considered at the discretion of the editors). Please submit completed essays to the journal website by April 16, 2014. Information on the submission process and examples of previously published work can be found at www.criticalimprov.com. Inquires can also be directly made to csi-eci@uoguelph.caCritical Studies in Improvisation/Études critiques en improvisation is an open-access, peer-reviewed, electronic, academic journal on improvisation, community, and social practice housed at the University of Guelph.

Cypher photo by AFP from here.