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Legendary Cyphers Bring Hip-Hop Back to Union Square Park

MC Elijah Black Freestyling at Legendary Cyphers
MC Elijah Black Freestyling at Legendary Cyphers
Eddie Soto

"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.

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.

See also: The 10 Best Male Rappers of All Time

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.  

There's also been some pretty high profile hip-hop heavyweights who have swung through.

Majesty: Diddy came through, man! Let's quote Diddy on this, "Yo, I'm hearing about the work that you're putting in in the street. I'm hearing about it from my office, I had to come out." When that happened, it definitely accelerated our development. The ripples went out even father.

Davy: Diddy came out last year, Saul Williams came out this year. Mickey Factz came out this year. YC the Cynic has been a regular supporter. Once we realized the hashtag was alive and started seeing pictures and videos we didn't post, we were just like "wow, it's working."

Majesty: It's really, really cool for people to hashtag things. We didn't push for it, I just remember checking to see if anyone posting anything online and there was tons of stuff. Everything is fully organic, no two cyphers are every the same. The evolution has been organic and continues to move forward. Saul Williams came by and spit. For him to feel the energy enough to want to partake, that's big for us.

With the one-year anniversary of Legendary Cyphers quickly approaching, do you have any particular favorite moments?

Davy: I have to say my top-top moment is a video we have out called "When keeping it real goes wrong" which shows us working as a team. The later it gets on Friday nights, the more likely we are to run into people who are intoxicated. When people are intoxicated and want to rap, their ego takes over and they get really brave. We had a situation where a gentleman came in and didn't respect the idea of not looking at the camera, and started threatening everyone in the cypher. He starts interrupting and not letting anyone else rap, so Majesty starts addressing it and starts battling him in a sense, politely, telling him it's a family event. So, Elijah Black, who isn't a confrontational person, stepped up and got in that guy's face. For me, the fact that the guy backed up and left shortly after Elijah Black addressed him and lit him up, it brought more people to us. He couldn't take that we weren't willing to violently engage him and walked away. The energy changed completely.

Majesty: He ended up having to get battled out of the cypher. That was a great moment.

Davy: We've always stressed one thing: "Don't look at the camera." The reason we stress that is we don't feel hip-hop is about a single person, it's a movement and if you're staring at the camera, you're not sharing energy with the rest of the MCs. We encourage everybody to participate, but if you're staring at the camera, we're not going to use the footage. Being in the crowd in the cypher gives you a lot of perspective, and we have a lot of supporters in other cities online who see the footage and say they feel like they're there. We want to give that point of view that you're just an observer. It humbles a lot of MCs when they don't have to look at the camera and just vibe off one another.

Majesty: For me, some of the great moments are when we have live instruments. At one point, we had a beatboxer, a live guitarist and a four piece brass section rocking the beats for us. Those moments when we have those collaborations is a unique once-in-a-lifetime experience. When else are you going to see that kind of accompaniment rocking in a hip-hop cypher?

It's hard to have a weekly hip-hop show in New York City. Not including End of the Weak and Freestyle Mondays, which have been around over a decade, the only weekly hip-hop events to emerge in the past five years that have maintained any sort of following have been The Lesson at Arlene's Grocery and Legendary Cyphers. Why has Legendary Cyphers managed to be successful?

Davy: I have to say, dedication. You put together a team of dedicated artists and people that recognize you can't buy hip-hop via an outfit. We live it. For a lot of us, this is what we do everyday. We put together the team to make sure we can be consistent. We start in the summer and we don't end until November. It gets cold. The only time the cypher doesn't happen is when we get rained out. We recognize keeping culture alive is something that has to be done. Nobody's doing it in this fashion for free, and we're trying to set a bar.

Majesty: The level of enjoyment and fun that everybody has is really the glue. Nobody's getting rich off of Legendary Cyphers, it really is a community. I think the fact that we always enjoy it so much is what's conducive to dedication. There's an immense amount of dedication it requires to do a weekly event. If one of us can't make it, someone else picks up the slack. Davy and I founded it, but it's much bigger than us or any one individual. That sense of community is what keeps us running.

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