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A Dope-Ass Decade at The Cypher

In Culture, Music
STARS & BARS: The Cypher has been a place where locals and legends, like Zion I, mingle.

STARS & BARS: The Cypher has been a place where locals and legends, like Zion I, mingle.

A pair of sneakers hangs from the rafters in Dirtbag Dan’s studio. He won them years ago at the Wednesday night Cypher, then held at Johnny V’s. At the time, another emcee had been challenging Dan for his title as the best battle rapper in San Jose.

After “doing the dance” a few times, Dan challenged his rival to a battle for sneakers. The loser would walk out barefoot. Word spread. That night, 100 people stuffed the tiny venue and dozens more clamored outside. And then…

“Dude lost, handed me his sneakers, I walked out with them on my neck,” Dan recalls. “I didn’t realize how much of my reputation I had put on the line until it was actually going down. But that moment, that was what the Cypher is all about. It is a big part of the scene in San Jose. If one emcee wanted to call another emcee out, everybody came to the Cypher.”

The weekly show is now held at the more roomy BackBar SoFa. And next Wednesday, Dan—who over the past year has transitioned from hip-hop to stand-up comedy and podcasting—will be coming out of rap retirement to do a set for the Cypher’s 10th anniversary.

Though his quintessential moment revolves around a battle, he attended the event’s first shows and later became part of the regular Cypher Squad. He says the weekly event is more of an “informal rap jam session” where DJ Audio Dru spins beats and local rappers hop onstage and perform.

“It was really designed for us to sharpen our swords as far as our ability to freestyle, not necessarily our ability to kill each other,” he says. “I always looked at the Cypher as just like exercise. This ain’t a show. So I don’t need to spit my writtens. I’m here to kick it with my friends.”

Performers ranged from professionals to guys that worked 9-to-5s and rapped in their free time. Many a local rapper, from Kung Fu Vampire, who will be hosting the show, to Rey Res got their start unfurling freestyles in front of the welcoming crowd. The open format provided valuable exposure and networking to those more serious about their craft.

“When I was first coming up, I used to go to any open mic I could find just to have a place to rap,” Rey Res says. “When you’re beginning, you don’t know how to book shows, how to get out there and find other people. I used to go when I was younger, (and) you get up and rap when you feel like it, or you can just hang around and watch and meet other emcees and producers from the scene.”

Despite humble beginnings, the Cypher stuck around, providing a convenient venue for rappers who wanted to perform somewhere larger than a bar but smaller than the SAP Center. Many emcees who first dipped their toes into rapping at the event later debuted their first completed project with a live show. After a few years, the session gained a reputation as an institution in the city. And touring underground rap crews, like Hieroglyphics, stopped by, capping off the evening with a performance of their own.

“If you’re on tour and you need to fill a Wednesday in the Bay Area, chances are you’re going to be at the Cypher,” Dan says. “Plus there’s so many people who we didn’t know were going to be famous—Jeff Turner is a prime example of someone who would just come there and rap. He’d get onstage at 9 and there’d be no one there. He’d just be rapping by himself. And now he’s got hundreds of thousands of views (on YouTube).”

For the 10th anniversary, the nationally renowned Zion I will be headlining the evening, after performances by a stacked slate of local rappers, including Turner. The Cypher remains and will continue to be a place where stars and unknowns mingle on a stage open to anyone with bars.

“You come to the Cypher and you can get onstage and rap. Then you can watch a true legend do it, then hop back onstage and rap again,” Dan says. “Where else can you do that? It’s a place where anybody can go be dope.”

The Cypher: 10th Anniversary
Dec 14, 9pm, $10
BackBar SoFa, San Jose

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