Subject matter varies. There are the standards boast about sexual prowess and comparing rhyming ability to NBA stars. Blake drops a reference to Shakespeare and Iambic pentameter, which another rapper later brings back to talk about his soliloquies. There are maybe three or four references to President-Elect Donald Trump, a topic that, according to the resident MCs, hasn’t been brought up as often as you might think (“Hip-hop started from struggle. Racism will never be over. Right now, it's just giving more fuel into racism,” Hustle says with a shrug. “This is just another cycle of the same thing.”) Gentrification, police brutality, incarceration, addiction, depression, and death all get their turn in the cypher, giving it a feeling of group therapy. But it always comes back to love, as directed by the MCs in charge.
After all, Legendary Cyphers is all about inclusion. The residents are black and Hispanic, hailing from the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, and LA. The freestylers are mostly black, with white, Latino, and Asian rappers of both sexes joining in. Some of them are on their way home from work, decked out in suits and ties, or at least the business casual wear of a modern media company. As subway commuters and pedestrians walk by, there’s a white family of three, with their daughter nestled in her pink stroller, watching alongside a woman in her 70s next to some preppy gawkers who are trying to figure out if anyone famous is rapping tonight. (The answer is no.)
There’s a 19-year-old named Josh from Maine who’s here for the first time with his pal C.J., saying he can’t believe he’s actually going to freestyle tonight. A little girl, holding the hand of her older brother, giggles shyly and shakes her head when he says, “This is how people rap. Do you want to move closer?” Another aspiring MC named Joe, a fifth-grade English teacher in the Bronx, moved here from Houston. Decked out in a winter hat, glasses, and NASA sweatshirt, he says a friend, knowing Joe was looking for a place to share his rhymes, hipped him to the cypher a few weeks ago. “He pointed me over here, and that was that. I'm hooked! It's how this Jewish kid spends his Shabbats.”
Though Black Friday is the last cypher of the season, due to the fact that it just gets too chilly to hang outside and rap past midnight in the winter, the crew still has plans to stay active, mostly working with students and teachers. “The educational program is one of our primary focuses, get into schools and teach young people about hip-hop,” says Philoz. “If we're able to use to uplift young people and help them learn better through hip-hop, then by all means we're happy to do that. We basically do Legendary Cyphers in a much more different way that's tangible for academia. We'll do a seminar and then have a cypher at the end.”
As they all tell it, Legendary Cyphers went from Majesty’s loose idea to a “movement” to educate, uplift, inspire, and empower those willing to engage. “The love we spread goes to anybody,” says Hustle. “We don't discriminate. All we care is if you got bars, if you got flow. That's it.”
Now, the crew is galvanized by growing international recognition, thanks to press and social media, and the desire to honor the Majesty’s legacy. “The beautiful part is that before Majesty passed away, he was almost preparing us to work on it without him,” says Black. “He left us in a good space.”
“He instilled in us the tools, the confidence, the determination to keep this thing going,” says Philoz. “The resident MCs are up for the challenge. We here. We working.”