Legendary Cyphers Bring Hip-Hop Back to Union Square Park
"Hip-hop was set out in the dark/ They used to do it out in the park" begins MC Shan's classic rap track "The Bridge." But while the almost 30-year-old track refers to rap's park days in the past tense, hip-hop in the park is more alive than ever thanks to Legendary Cyphers.
Eddie Soto MC Elijah Black Freestyling at Legendary Cyphers
Started in August, 2013, Legendary Cyphers has quickly become one of New York's most beloved hip-hop institutions. Every Friday from 8 p.m. - Midnight, Union Square park comes alive with beats and rhymes as rappers take turns exchanging lyrics back-and-forth. With crowds typically reaching numbers in the hundreds, the free weekly all-ages event has drawn a mix of rap scene regulars as well as curious visitors who want to see what all the hip-hop hubbub is about.
We spoke to two of Legendary Cyphers co-founders, rapper/host Majesty and videographer Dayv "Mental" Cino about how Legendary Cyphers came to be.
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There's bootlegs of rap cyphers in Union Square Park going back to the late-70s and early 80s. Why do you think Union Square's always had more of a hip-hop presence than any other park?
Davy: You know, it's like, like Legendary Cyphers, rapping in Union Square just happens organically because of the foot traffic there. All you really need is two MCs to start spitting. The train stations are right in the park, so anyone leaving the station sees a small crowd, and all it takes is a handful of people to stop by and make a crowd. Hip-hop's always been able to capture people's attention, and Union Square [makes it] easy for people to get together so quickly. Legendary Cyphers starts at 8:00, and by 8:05 we have 20-30 people without even trying. We don't advertise the cyphers much, we don't do it indoors. We do it outside to keep culture alive and keep that natural vibe. I feel bringing the cypher indoors feels really forced. Out there, we've met over 300 different MCs since we started, and that's because of Union Square.
Majesty: Union Square is such a community grassroots activism kind of park, and on a lot of levels Legendary Cyphers mirrors all of that. In our first season, what was so perfect about it was the visibility and the foot traffic. We had like ten people come out, and it was up to us to magnetize that cypher to attract more people, and that was key to our development. Now, in season two, the crowd is 60/40 people who come to the park strictly for the cypher. Every week, when Davy starts setting up the tripod, you see people who came to the park to partake in or watch the cypher just start coming close.
How did Legendary Cyphers become an official weekly event?
Davy: It just happened, really. Me and Majesty were at the park, we ran into a couple mutual acquaintances. We thought, there's a lot of MCs here, I do media, let's see what happens. A mutual acquaintance was trying to organize a cypher, as we thought to do one giant cypher. I remember the high, and late that night getting a call from Majesty around 1:00-2:00 in the morning, everything aligned and we mutually came up with the name Legendary Cyphers to keep the culture alive for MCs. For up-and-coming MCs to basically practice and create that venue so, a 16-year-old MC who's heavily influenced by MCs on commercial rap radio gets exposed to artists like MC Elijah Black, Majesty, positive artists that are not detrimental to the culture.
Majesty: The first time we were out there all together, it was very organic. That was dope, the energy was amazing, and on the way home I had a huge brainstorm. I thought we were on to something. For us, everybody that's involved in Legendary Cyphers is not new to hip-hop. Davy has his clothing line, I've been rapping since I was 13. We wanted to take the time to produce something with a concrete benefit. We look at Legendary Cyphers like a platform, and we want that platform to just keep getting bigger. When it comes to the resident MCs, you can't talk Legendary Cyphers without talking MC Elijah Black, Born Majestik, Mickey Hustle, it's a platform where these MCs can benefit, at least promotionally.
Davy: For us, I feel the biggest success story is not even the artist or MCs, but the people who get entertained by what we do. When I hear stories from people who say "I had the worst day at work today. My boss was riding me, I was getting in arguments with customers, I got out of work at 8:00 and when I saw your cypher I told myself 'Naw, I'm just going to go home and be mad.' Next thing I know, it's 12:15 and I realize I've been standing with you guys for four hours. Thank you for creating this." People can't look away when they see something like this happening.