‘The Cypher Documentary’
shines light on underground
hip-hop in the Triangle

"Free Expression Tunnel" by Surrahwall - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Free_Expression_Tunnel.JPG#/media/File:Free_Expression_Tunnel.JPG

Shep Bryan and James Huang made this amazing short film. Go ahead. Watch it. I know you want to. I’ll wait. You’re already skimming these last few words as you prepare to push play.

So if we were in Hollywood, this would suddenly morph into a major motion picture starring Eminem and about how he battled his way to fame and wealth (and isolation). But a cypher is not about competition, it is not beating down or out the other participants, it is not rap battling.

James Huang

James Huang

Watch Bryan and Huang’s film again. Feel the love of the community, the dedication to each other, the joy of the participants.

Shep Bryan

Shep Bryan

The other day a young friend told me about participating in a paint party rave down in Wilmington. He said it wasn’t for him. That it was too wild, rough, violent, too much of an uncontrolled mosh pit. It wasn’t the first I’d heard lately of EDM crowds being aggressive and unpleasant.

Which is so sad because when I traversed the EDM scene in San Francisco in the nineties peace, love, unity, and respect were the central themes.(1) Much like the way the sixties and seventies love music culture was subverted, EDM has been captured by the dominant paradigm and it will be a long time before it is the same. The dominant paradigm today glorifies a “Bro and Ho” mindset that ignores self-respect and respect for others, that presumes war, cultural and otherwise, and that can hardly believe in love and unity.

While they are Hip-Hop kids, not EDMers, Shep Bryan and James Huang are subverting that paradigm. This is different than the Jay-Z or McCartney model, becoming the best at the greedy capitalist game, winning by cashing in within the system.

Instead the cypher says, we don’t want to and won’t play the game by your rules. The cypher isn’t about competition, it is about plurality, support, community, communication, and commonality. It isn’t even a “my community is better than yours” comparison that we have sometimes been lured into making here in Durham. Huang and Bryan and others have helped start new cyphers, as you saw in the film in Greenville, Boone, Asheville, and Chapel Hill and are actively trying to share the tenets of community supported music elsewhere.(2)

They told me in our interview at Durham’s Scratch, when they started attending about two and half years ago, the NC State-Raleigh Cypher was at a low ebb. Maybe seven people were coming back in September 2012. The cypher is always held in the Free Expression Tunnel at State and as you can see in the clips, the numbers can broach one-hundred these days. (pictured in the header photo by Surrahwall)

Huang and Bryan fittingly met in an Arts Entrepreneurship class, bonding over Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City. The cypher united them.

James Huang

James Huang

James Huang had been a hip-hop head at East Chapel Hill High School. He was watching BET before his parents even know what that meant. James was freestyling at the cypher or “cyph” as he and Shep frequently shorten it in dialogue.

shep bryan

Shep Bryan


Shep Bryan had been beat-boxing since middle school. He had been attending the cypher for about three months and feeling great about the compliments and support he was getting for his vocal work when he and James started getting close.

There are no power outlets at the Free Expression Tunnel so beat-boxing and a capella are de rigueur. Huang and Bryan say that lots of videographers regularly attend the Raleigh cypher and there are always participants and audience members taping on their phones. It was one of the reasons they were able to crowdsource up such good footage beyond what they shot themselves. They also set-up a Go-Pro camera on top of the tunnel to help capture the scale of the crowd.

The cypher itself is run by something of a Jedi Council, though Huang and Bryan concede even in that context, “run” is something of a misnomer. The cypher is organic. But there are Bojangles meet-ups that involve chess, life, and cypher moves.

The participants in the cypher, crowd-policed, must uphold certain core tenets “Respect, Project, (keep the) Peace, Be Original, Fuck the Camera.” The code is well-adhered to in Huang and Bryan’s view. The camera is always there is part of the nature of this generation’s lives, but it is important for Φιλαδελφία: the love one’s comrades in the tribe that one not be cravenly, preeningly, addicted to it.(3)

The film might have always been in the back of Shep and James’s minds but it was a contest that kicked it off in earnest. The Campus Movie Fest, billed as “The World’s Largest Student Film Festival,” gave them six days to make a film. The result is what you watched.

The film is all the more poignant and heart-grabbing due to the references to one of the cypher’s catalytic members, Farouk Bseiso aka Say$o. Shep said, “Saso would bring like 50 bars every time.” He was precocious and prodigious. James said, “[he was] a dreamchaser.”

And as you saw, he was chasing his other dream, playing professional soccer in Finland, when this cypher demi-god, a man who in conversation had a stutter, but could flow like liquid gold, died of a carbon monoxide poisoning accident.

The story weaved together around this tragedy, the cypher community, and it’s perseverance, growth, and communitarian ethic won Huang and Bryan the contest. And the next and the next and the next. May 10th they headed to Cannes. Yes, that Cannes, in France. Yes, they had to do a Go Fund me to get there.

But for something this community oriented, it made perfect sense. They noted you see every kind and then some at the Raleigh “cyph” : nerds, frat boys, rappers, real life hustlers, dealers, made men and women with good day jobs y mas y mas.

Huang and Bryan are storyboarding for a bigger film for this project. They have helped foster a judgment free zone, a natural aura of tolerance and even encouragement.

It is every Monday 11.30pm, free and open admission. Just “Respect the Cyph, Keep the Peace, and Project/Speak up!”

Free expression. Literally. In a self-regulating state.

They hope to take this project nationwide to build cyphers across the country. They want to achieve a critical mass of support for artists in communities. They want to create a psychology where achievements and outcomes aren’t judged on the merits of how much money you make from it, but rather on the quality of the work and the joy it brings to the performer and the audience. They believe that these cyphers are performance talent incubators for leaders of the next generation.

They have a Ted X Talk coming soon to NC State. They are filming their time in France as part of chronicling the larger story. They hoped to remote hook up with the Raleigh/NC State “cyph” from France, too.

School will be over soon for these fellas. James intends to continue on as a filmmaker but in true millennial fashion is also running a start-up media company called, “MadeNew,” doing media production. Shep is doing consulting, brand management, arts marketing, and rapping.

They will continue to be regular cypher pillars in Raleigh for the foreseeable future.

Stay tuned to these pages for what’s next. We are riveted by the story of James Huang and Shep Bryan.


(1)Even the pick-up scene was strongly discouraged. It was a safe space almost transcending sexuality.

(2)Fight club without the fighting.

(3) It’s not the selfie per-se, it’s the gratuitous selfie.

Great Raleigh Cypher background story here from Nancio Bishop.

Follow this link the Cypher’s official Facebook page.

Aaron Mandel

Aaron Mandel is a writer and an accomplished public speaker. He is the publisher of the Clarion Content. For more than a decade, the Clarion Content has covered Durham’s arts, politics, music, and cultural milieu. From breaking news stories to the hottest local acts, the Clarion Content is on the scene. The Clarion Content published more than twenty distinguished guest columnists and garnered nearly a million views. Mandel is a volunteer for the Durham Mighty Pen Literacy Project and serves as the President of the Board of Sustain-A-Bull Durham, a local small business collective with more than 200 members. He writes regularly on the Clarion Content and has been quietly writing fiction since the 4th grade. Mandel has been published in the Raleigh News and Observer. He has also produced numerous art shows, including, “Durham under Development”. He was a featured speaker at “The State of Publishing” conference. He has presented to Durham Chamber of Commerce, “Chamber U” on the “New Media”. He has also served as the play-by-play announcer for the D.B.L., a Durham youth basketball league. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in History and Religious Studies from Indiana University in Bloomington. An avid policy debater at Indiana and a Nation Debate Tournament qualifier, Mandel was also a member of the New Jersey State Champion two-person Policy Debate Team. He has lived in North Carolina, New Jersey, California, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, Indiana, and Baja California, Mexico.

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