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R6 Cypher: The Hip Hop Revolution.

September 5, 2011

Text by Sofiya Ballin. Images by Brittney Bowers.

A small crowd of men gather outside the Premier League sneaker shop on Girard Avenue. They seem relatively relaxed, slightly aloof, as they lean against the store’s large windows. But there is excitement and a slight nervous energy in the air.

The MC known as Too Much Raw stands in the middle of the pack, laughing. But his brow is furrowed from the weight of responsibility – he’s one of the founders and organizers of the R6 Cypher, a bi-monthly cypher that is filmed and packaged, then broadcast online, showcasing Philly talent for the world to see.

“Our number one goal is to get every MC, Producer, DJ, Graffiti Artist, B-boy/B-girl, skateboarder, photographer, videographer and host in Philadelphia and surrounding counties on the R6 to showcase,” Raw says. “It sounds impossible but it’s not at all.”

Raw started R6 with Nadira Rae Williams and Mic Stewart. The mission was simple: they wanted to reinvent, reintroduce, redefine, rejuvenate, revamp, resurrect hip hop in Philadelphia.

“There aren’t enough MCs in Philly getting the credit they deserve,” says Raw, a 26-year old MC from West Philadelphia. “There are a lot of DJs and a lot of producers that nobody knows about. This is an opportunity to build a platform for those cats to get their name out there and get the credit they deserve. It’s also giving us a chance to build a platform for our city.”

The performers wait outside the sneaker shop for the cypher to begin. A clique of young men stand near the corner – Bucky Da Heartbreaka, Blizzy Beat da Beat up, King Skitzoe and Standin Cannon. Collectively, they’re Soul Rock Entertainment. They all grew up together in the Logan section of Philly and they’ve been rapping for six years as a collective. They found out about R6 through YouTube and submitted their music for consideration. Now, they’ll be part of an episode.

“This is really giving up and coming Philly hip-hop artists a chance to get recognized and network with each other or collaborate,” Blizzy says emphatically. “It’s bringing back that hip-hop feeling of unity.”

Heartbreaka adds, “It’s giving people with different styles a chance to shine because we have the hardest city to please.”

Raw begins to usher people inside and the artists line up in a semi-circle, surrounding a microphone on a stand. Sneakers line the walls behind them. Some of the performers bounce slightly on their heels as if ready for a boxing match.

“I mean it’s just like any other sport,” Cannon explains.  “Everyone has their way of getting ready. Me, personally? I like to zone out in my own way.”

Raw preps the ten rappers who will freestyle as the camera rolls. The boutique becomes a temporary refuge from the summer heat. Then DJ G-Buck starts the beat and Montana Blak steps up to the mic, delivering rhymes with extreme intensity. He scowls behind a pair of white sunglasses, spitting lyrics at a furious pace. Though this isn’t a battle there is an undertone of competitive edge.

“Hip-Hop is a competitive sport,” Blak says later. “You always want to bring your A-game because there are younger guys like Soul Rock killin’ it.”

However, the R6 Cypher wants to make it clear that there is no battling involved.

“Battling is overrated,” Raw says. “We don’t want to see a bunch of insults. We want to showcase talent. We want to know who you are. I don’t know who you are from a battle rap!”

Nadira Rae Williams agrees, saying, “There are already enough negative ideas about Philly. The foundation of the R6 was more networking and community. We didn’t want it to be about the individual.”

The community element is evident as the cypher continues and each artist takes a turn in front of the mic. If someone stumbles, the others push to continue. All heads bob and eyes stay steady in concentration listening to each other’s words as they take part in this lyrical séance.

King Skitzoe, the first of the Soul Rock crew, begins rhyming at the mic.  Where he was quiet and reserved, he now transforms, rapping with a deep, guttural power.

As the cypher continues, people outside begin to stop and press their faces against the glass window, curious as to what’s going on.

“It speaks to every demographic,” Raw explains of the R6 performers. “We have your backpackers over here, you have your conscience rappers, your hood rappers, and your Christian rappers. You might not think you can collaborate with someone because ya’ll are not from the same genre but this is breaking down the barriers, all of the barriers.”

The R6 Cypher project launched last spring in reaction to the direction mainstream hip hop has traveled. It’s boring, stereotypical and without soul, the R6 founders say.

They released six videos in four months. Today’s session will be the seventh episode, though only Raw is here of the three founders. Already, there are personal and professional differences pulling the three apart.

“We didn’t see eye-to-eye on certain things and that’s really it,” Raw states.

But he thinks the project is important enough to continue.

The shoot comes to a close after each of the performers gets mic time. But the beat doesn’t stop. DJ G-Buck continues to spin. As the cameramen pack up, everyone slowly filters outside. Then another cypher erupts. The energy doesn’t stop.

“The ghetto gonna be the death of me if I don’t make it out of here,” Montana Blak repeats solemnly with DJ G-Buck’s muffled beats emanating from inside the store.

Everyone nods their heads in understanding. Each has their own story, hungry for a platform to tell it.

“You mad?/ My bad/ but I don’t have to thank you/ my name holds the weight a fat kid’s ankle!“ rhymes rapper Rich White, who sports an elegant script tattoo of his 8-year old daughter’s name, Jocelyn.

“I go out of town and I hear about our city,” Raw announces. “They look at us like we’re just a bunch of gang bangin’, hip hop, bullshit’!”

The founders of R6 say they’ll put aside their differences in order to continue pushing Philly’s talent out.

“People from other countries comment on the videos saying it’s bringing hip hop back,” Williams says. “That’s all we really ever wanted.”

Click here to read about O.H.M., an artist who appeared in the first R6 Cypher video.

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