It was a rainy November day at Northland Mall, where I had to stand under the bus stop shelter, always an uncomfortable situation. When it rains, that’s where everybody waiting for the bus wants to be, so there’s rarely a seat. More than likely you have to cram into this small space, and since this particular shelter is slightly downhill, you may find yourself dodging the small creek that runs underneath when it rains like it did on this particular day.
So I was standing there with my hands in my pockets, continually shuffling my feet in an attempt to keep warm and avoid those puddles, when I took note of one young brutha who managed to find himself a seat. He took out his smart phone and put it on speaker mode, and a distinctive hip-hop beat blared out of it (as much as those bassless speakers can blare, anyway). The “thump-tap thump-thump-tap” caught my attention and, before I knew it, my head was bobbing, my hands came out of my pockets, and I began to subtly move to the beat. Another thing that caught my attention was the fact that it was an instrumental, which meant … FREESTYLE!
In New York, when I was comin’ up, we called it a cipher, which is when a group of bruthas would spontaneously form a circle and start flowin’ (rappin’). It’s a combination of brotherhood and the testing of one’s skills in this particular game. Some choose to “flow” from the “top o’ da dome” (improvisational) or flow a verse they’ve written to show their skills. Either one is acceptable unless strictly unwritten freestyle is called out (for those of you who already know, thanks for bearing with me).
Now if strictly freestyle was called, I probably would have opted out of the “cipha” ’cause it’s been a while, and I haven’t been up on my “verbal calisthenics” so to speak, but judging by the written verse the first cat put out (the one with the phone), all forms were acceptable. So this young man, who, like everyone else there was probably in his early 20s (yeah, everyone but me), popped off a verse with such conviction and aggression that it felt like he was attackin’ the beat ’cause it did him wrong. He did his thing, finished his verse, and then immediately the young buck to his right took over with a slightly higher-pitched but equally brutal delivery, weaving words between, on top of, and straight through the beat, showing more than acceptable skills. After about 16 bars (lines) or so, he came to the end of his verse and the next cat took over. This continued in a counter-clockwise fashion, and for that moment I was part of a communal artistic expression I had long been without, and I was amped. Now I have to say (being a most discriminatory connoisseur of this particular art form) that the young heads weren’t bad with skills and delivery, but I did notice that the subject matter of all of their lyrics was about the same. You know: drugs, guns, girls and other assorted self-proclamations that may or may not be true. My turn was coming, so I knew I had to shake things up and represent them conscious lyrics to fullest.
Now up to this point I wasn’t officially part of the “ciph” but the beat and the energy was callin’ me to act, so when the opportunity presented itself, I ripped into that beat like a savage … “the one, who drops the jewels or communicates the knowledge, denominator livin’ life the numerator college …” I attacked with equal strength and conviction, remembering ages ago when I ripped mics and commanded stages in similar fashion.
I continued my delivery and could see and hear signs of approval; heads bobbin’ and the occasional “OOOOOOO” when I made a particularly poignant point. At one point, I even heard, “Uh-oh, Old School gettin’ in … get it, Old School,” which simultaneously charged and shocked me ’cause I never saw myself as old school … but there it was.
I kept doin’ my thing and ended the verse with a bang, “Now how are you, gonna step to, this mighty brutha, ’cause you can’t take the kick from my message to your mentals, not gentle, nor weak nor soft, if that’s your opinion of the positive, my brutha, then you’re lost!” “OOOOOOO,” they all exclaimed in unison and proceeded to give a brutha “dap” — some givin’ me the pound and others sayin’ things like, “Yeeaahh, Old School” or “That’s what’s up, Old School” or “That’s how you do it!” For a minute, I felt like a champ lettin’ the young heads know. They didn’t expect it but dug it, and for that moment we shared camaraderie in our love of hip hop that, for the first time in my life, spanned across two different generations — and the “cipha” continued.
I don’t know if I inspired the young men to broaden their horizons as far as hip-hop subject matter goes, but if I had any questions as to whether I made an impression or not, soon all doubt was erased. While goin’ about my daily routine the following day, I saw one of the young heads in the cipher walkin’ in my direction. As he came closer I recognized him, but before I could even fix my mouth to greet him he blurted out, “What up, O,” coupled with a respectful nod to boot.
Now I don’t know if I would like to be called that on a regular basis, but coming from this young man and the respectful way he said it, I’ll certainly take it as a badge of honor. Whatayaknow? “Old School” can still flow!