Hip Hop Apocalypse: The Dying Art of the Cypher

by Jason Lin 11.20.18

 

 

 

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Picture resources: http://barklyarts.com.au/cypher-hip-hop-dance/

 

The era is the 1970’s and we are in the Bronx, New York. African American and Latino youth are gathered in DJ Clive “Kool Herc” Campbell’s house for the first ever hip hop house party. Inside, music is booming and a cypher is forming, where bboys and bgirls can showcase their freestyle talents one by one in a circle of shared energy to Herc’s revolutionary record scratches that broke the flow of music. This energy is the birth of the earliest hip hop dance form known as breakin’. There is a great culture behind the dance form that we see in media and on streets today; breakin’ was created in extreme poverty and was even used in a battling context between gangs as a non-violent means of settling disputes. The importance of the cypher is in the sharing of positive energy in what seems like a negative environment and lifestyle. Coming from poverty, the cypher was a way to bring troubled youth together and keep them away from crime. Furthermore, participants not only taught each other the dance form and innovated different ways to move, but they also were able to pass down knowledge and wisdom to the younger generation. In Marisol, Jose Rivera illustrates the poverished ghettos that Marisol lives in: “Marisol crosses herself, opens her eyes and lies down. Then the noises begin. They come at Marisol from apartments all around her. Doors are slammed, bottles smashed, radiator pipes pounded, stereo played loud.” (Rivera 9). This image sharply contrasts the setting of Marisol’s workplace, which is much more pristine than the chaos that ensues in the streets. The culture in which hip hop dance was born draws a parallel to the chaos depicted by the apocalypse in Marisol. In some ways, the environment that created hip hop dance can be seen as apocalyptic due to poverty, crime, and discrimination. The cypher can be seen as a safe haven from the apocalypse and a way for troubled youth to find salvation in their peers and the culture of hip hop.

 

The modern day introduces different ways for hip hop dance to be spread to the masses. Different forms of social media such as Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook as well as the recognition of hip hop dance forms in television shows such as MTV’s America’s Best Dance Crew and NBC’s World of Dance have made the isolated artform easily accessible by all. Furthermore, the fusion of hip hop dance with hip hop and pop music have brought about the featuring of hip hop dance in music videos and concerts, boosting its mainstream exposure. Some may say that the availability of the dance forms in modern society helps spread them to different demographics and shares the soul of hip hop dance forms with others. However, there have been many adverse effects of the rise of technology to hip hop culture. With the ability to learn dance moves and techniques by watching videos online, there is no reason for young dancers to go to cyphers today. Information that used to be passed down by word of mouth are now delivered in the form of compiled videos. The culture of hip hop dance is being lost since there is a trending decrease in attendance at classic hip hop events such as cyphers and battles. Although there is still an innovation in hip hop dance forms, the performance of these dance forms is losing the meaning and direction. The technicality behind the dances are advancing, but the aggression behind the execution of the dance forms and the soul of the dance forms are slowly being lost. Hip hop dance is going through a renaissance of sorts which some of the first practitioners of the art may consider an apocalypse. 

 

The Unplugging by Yvette Nolan features a society that has become overly dependent on technology. A direct allusion to the path that our modern day society is taking, Nolan’s world relies on the internet for information. The apocalypse for this group is the destruction of technology around the world, forcing survivors to revert to primal instincts to rebuild their communities. Grounded normalities, the concept of common knowledge being passed down for generations, is stressed since it seems like the most consistent antidote for the poison that technology grasps our society with. Before times of technology, people would need to learn practical skills from their elders; the indigenous people of America passed down methods of hunting, gathering, and building to their children. Now, information is so accessible on the internet that we resort to “Googling” everything that we don’t know. Furthermore, if there are tasks that require practical work, such as plumbing and gardening, we can hire specialists to perform those jobs for us. There is no need to have practical knowledge sine every possible fact that we need to know is just a simple click away. In The Unplugging, the removal of this privilege causes communities to struggle with completing practical tasks. Hip hop consists of five key elements: breakin’, rapping or mc-ing, graffiti, dj, and beatbox. These five elements together create the culture of hip hop as during gatherings, there are usually more than one of these activities being performed at the same time. With all five aspects of the culture being readily available on the internet individually, there is a decrease of emphasis of the five elements being strung together. Young dancers today can go on the internet to learn a breakin’ power move such as a flare without having a clue of what the other four elements of hip hop are. 

 

The cypher is such an important cornerstone of hip hop culture as it allows young members of the community to learn about the culture through the practices of other members of the hip hop community. Every cypher has a dj that plays breakbeats consisting of record scratches to determine when bboys and bgirls begin dancing. If this surge in the use of technology continues in the education of hip hop dance, the cypher will continue to die and hip hop culture will become diluted with it. However, if the cypher is revived, the essence of hip hop dance can be brought into the mainstream performances of these dance forms and spread the hip hop culture in mainstream platforms. Since The Unplugging is a direct reference to the future of our technology-dependent society, we can learn a lot about how to counter the inevitable end brought by the absence of technology. The cypher provides information passed down among generations similar to the pre-colonial information that Elena has learned from her grandmother: “She never really trusted technology. Never used a bank card. Drove an ancient truck with a standard transmission. Fixed things instead of throwing them out.” (Nolan 312). Elena is able to use the practical skills that she learned from her grandmother to survive the apocalypse. In order to counter Nolan’s imagined apocalypse, our society must limit the use of technology and exercise the importance of grounded normatives. Similarly, in order to counter the apocalypse of hip hop culture, young dancers must limit the use of technology to learn the dance form and rather emphasize the act of learning from attending cyphers in order to obtain information about both hip hop dance forms and hip hop culture. 

 

Another interesting aspect of the effects of information spread through technology in The Unplugging was the way Bern and Elena interacted when Elena did not understand a popular culture reference. In the scene, Love, Elena says, “I had to look it up. In a book. Took me ages ‘cause I couldn’t figure out how to spell Eeyore. And I had no idea what I was looking for. How do you look for something you don’t know,” and Bern replies with, “you never read Winnie-the-Pooh?” (Nolan 315). The use of technology in our lives and the accessibility of knowledge on the internet creates a prejudice against those who do not know certain things. A parallel can be drawn to the accessibility of hip hop dance on the internet. Since information is so readily available, it is very intimidating in this age to not know something. The cypher can be a place to learn, but for today’s youth, the cypher can also be a place to not know. Although hip hop culture does not discriminate against the uninformed, young dancers looking to learn the art may be deterred from showing face at these events due to the risk of being embarrassed. In reality, the cypher is a safe space for people to share their crafts and connect in a type of intimacy that is derived from a mentality of people from poverty looking out for each other. Young dancers are not able reap the benefits of the cypher because they are too scared to experience the cypher for themselves in the first place. Therefore, both the culture of hip hop dance is diluted and the dancers are not being educated about the ways of traditional hip hop dance forms to pass onto other generations. If society continues to let technology dictate its standard for knowledge, it will deter people from actually learning. The counter for this is to encourage learning and embrace the paradox of not knowing that allows us to search for answers.

 

Our modern day education systems are also culprits in our society’s dependence on technology. Of course computer programs make communication, distribution of materials, and completion of assignments easier, but they also sometimes strip the essence of learning from education. For example, there are studies that prove handwriting notes is more helpful for retaining information than typing notes on a computer. Furthermore, availability of ideas and concepts online can prevent the use of critical thinking in problem solving. The use of technology in education has put an emphasis on information rather than highlighting the importance of thought process and creativity. Similarly, in the education of hip hop dance forms, there has been an emphasis on techniques behind certain movements. In breakin’ the general public has become infatuated with the acrobatics and athleticism of power moves. The key elements of breakin’ contain top rock, get down, floorwork, flow, and finally power moves. Power moves are essentially supposed to act as the exclamation point at the end of a breakin’ set. The top rock, get down, floorwork, and flow are the moves that allow bboys and bgirls to showcase creativity in their thought processes as well as exhibit the soul of hip hop dance. When these elements are taken away from the dance form, hip hop culture is also stripped away from the performance. Without the soul of hip hop dance forms, the movements become empty and dry. In order to combat this phenomenon, the education of hip hop dance forms needs to change to emphasize the culture behind the dance form. There is a saying that diamonds are created in the roughest situations. Hip hop dance is a diamond created in the midst of poverty, crime, and violence. Without the acknowledgement of the culture that birthed the dance forms, how can dancers perform the dance forms with the essence that they were meant to be shared with? In order to counter Nolan’s vision of technology rendering our education systems useless, we must change the way that information is delivered in order to stress the importance of individuality and creativity in solving problems. 

 

Another context of the apocalypse that we have explored in class is the conquering and invasion of indigenous people and their land. The conquering model shows indigenous cultures being diluted and “white-washed” for the gain of other cultures. In Adios Ayacucho, we see the disrespect and disregard of indigenous cultures in the form of letters written by those suffering from the apocalypse and destruction of their traditions and beliefs. By neglecting the validity of the traditions of indigenous people, colonists are able to bring upon the seeming end of times for these victims. Similarly, in the context of hip hop dances, outsiders have taken hip hop dance, stripped it of its personality, and reproduced it in their own way. For example, classical dance studios that focus on European dance forms such as ballet and modern dance hold hip hop dance classes that teach generic hip hop movements. However, these studios do not teach the history and culture behind hip hop dance forms, parallel to colonizers taking aspects of indigenous civilizations that they find worthy and stripping away all meaning behind them. Thus, hip hop culture is facing an apocalypse parallel to that of indigenous people being stripped out their traditions and beliefs. In his paper, The Black Beat Made Visible: Hip Hop Dance and Body Power, Thomas F. DeFrantz observes, "Subsequent reproduction of dances by people looking only from the outside leads to the flat, militaristic repetition commonly viewed in the commercial music video sphere." (DeFrantz 7). This quote explores how the manipulation of the dance form by those who are not a part of the culture can destroy the soul and essence of the dance forms. Without indulging in the culture of hip hop dance forms, dancers cannot reproduce the dance forms to the greatest of their abilities. From this, we can see that the clear counter to the apocalypse brought about by colonization is the recognition, respect, and indulgence in the traditions and beliefs of different cultures. 

 

In the case of colonization, rather than having any one culture assimilate, it is important to keep an open mind and celebrate our differences. Moreover, in the case of discrimination among minority groups, we should acknowledge our cultural differences in a respectful way and maintain awareness of basic human rights. This means that in order to combat the rising hate resulting in apocalypse-like situations for minorities such as Trump’s wall, we must avoid becoming a colorblind society at all costs. Color blindness in society has led to phenomena like yellow peril in the past, where the disregard of aspects of Asian cultures produces the misrepresentation of Asian Americans. Discriminating against the distasteful aspects of hip hop culture and reproducing hip hop dance forms in contexts free of the struggles of the minority groups that hip hop originated from is not the answer. It is true that hip hop can seen as an advertisement for violence and crime, but without acknowledging that part of the culture we cannot fix the problems of poverty in troubled areas while maintaining the heart and motivation that young practitioners of hip hop have. We, as a society, can do a better job of celebrating the culture that hip hop comes from to encourage young hip hop dancers, rappers, djs, and artists to become successful masters of their craft and good representations of their community rather than trying to suppress this culture. The cypher is important in supporting these communities and allowing people to experience and appreciate the culture behind hip hop dance.

 

Capitalism in America and the motivation of money propelling big businesses to exploit less fortunate entities is also a path to the apocalypse pondered through this course. In Jose Rivera’s Marisol, the woman with furs suffers from the bank and police exploiting the poor: “Last month, I was two hundred dollars over my credit card limit [...] The police came. Grabbed me out of bed, waving my credit card statement in my face, my children screaming, they punched my husband in the stomach.” (Rivera 44). Hip hop has suffered similar effects due to the commercialization of certain dance forms. For instance, many artists have used hip hop dancers in their music videos. From television shows to product advertisement, hip hop dances have been used for entertainment without acknowledgement of the hip hop culture. Although the effects of this exploitation is not seen in physical abuse, the cypher is suffering from similar consequences. The lady with furs is shown being greedy, and she pays the price by biting off more than she can chew. It is important to spread hip hop and help it grow, but by being too greedy and spreading it in a simplified form, we are preventing hip hop dance from being spread in its purest form. In order to preserve hip hop culture by eliminating monetary motivations to exploit the dance forms, the cypher is very important in celebrating hip hop dance forms in the absence of ulterior motives. In order to counter this phenomena in our society where communities are exploited for money, we need to remove the factor of capital from the equation and acknowledge the purity of these traditions and beliefs.

 

The era is the 2030’s and all over the country, people of all walks of life gather at parties to celebrate the history and culture of hip hop dance. There are dj’s playing music, mc’s rapping and facilitating cyphers, and, of course, hip hop dancers freestyling. The revival of the cypher would bolster the relationship between the different facets of hip hop and bring a higher level appreciation to the culture around hip hop for all. In class, we discussed how Julio Ortega got his inspiration to write Adios Ayacucho from news articles about people being burned by the police. The indigenous people are fighting colonization by rejecting the religion of the colonizers; they reject the system that the colonizers have developed, resisting their colonization. At the end of the play, Alfonzo says, “Inside the wide coffin my voice sounded like someone else’s. I heard myself in the echoes, and I realized my time was near. Before long I would rise up from this earth like a column of stone and fire” (Ortega 300). Alfonzo is asserting that despite the violence and brutalities of colonization, the indigenous people will not die and will continue to fight colonization despite the post-apocalyptic traits of their society. In the hip hop dance community, pioneers are constantly fighting to keep the cypher alive to continue the traditions of hip hop culture. Although times are changing and emphases are shifting, the indigenous people of hip hop culture will ensure that the culture itself does not die. As a society, we should continue to fight for these basic beliefs that will always outlive and overrule technology and miseducation. In doing so, we can ensure that we don’t lose the essence of what we actually live for.

 

 

 

Works Cited


DeFrantz, Thomas F. “The Black Beat Made Visible: Hip Hop Dance and Body Power.” MIT,
Jan. 2004, web.mit.edu/people/defrantz/Documents/BlackBeat.PDF.


Nolan, Yvette. “The Unplugging.” Playwrights Canada Press, 2014, pp. 1-80.


Ortega, Julio. “Adios Ayacucho.” Stages of Conflict: a critical anthology of Latin American
theater and performance, University of Michigan Press, 2008, pp. 291-300. 


Rivera, José. “Marisol.” Marisol and Other Plays, Theatre Communications Group, 1997, pp.
1-68.

 

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