What Does The Growing Popularity Of Indian Cyphers Mean For Homegrown Hip-Hop?

Dharavi United Cypher
Dharavi United CypherBBC Asian Network

In the world of hip-hop, cyphers have long been the penultimate test of a rapper's ability to think quick on their feet. Whether it's delivering improvised verses with off-the-dome wordplay, or testing their ability to catch a flow on an instrumental beat, these cyphers have been a vital part of the culture since the early days of hip-hop. Originating in 1970s New York, local rappers would gather informally, standing in a circle in a park or around a street corner, delivering verses that were usually 16 bars. As each rapper took their turn to spit rhymes, the energy of the circle would brim with electric anticipation, and the spirit of friendly competition would fuel the cypher. 

Today, cyphers continue to be a cornerstone of hip-hop culture, providing a platform for MCs to showcase their skills, collaborate, and potentially launch their careers as rappers. More recently, social media has played an increasing role in shaping the landscape of cyphers. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have allowed rappers to share their verses in real-time. In the West, cyphers have seen various iterations become mainstream and propel the careers of up-and-coming performers. The XXL Freshman Class is a prime example of this, where rising rappers participate in an annual cypher to showcase their abilities to the world. The results can have significant consequences, helping rappers to gain recognition, build their fanbase, and ultimately blow up in the industry.

The last few years have witnessed a rapid growth of hip-hop in India, with rappers across the country coming together to form a force to be reckoned with. The genre, which was virtually nonexistent in mainstream Indian media, is now gaining significant attention. The emergence of cyphers in India's smaller cities and towns is a testament to the immense talent and potential that is yet to be discovered. 

One of the most notable cyphers in India is the Northeast Cypher. This event, which started in 2016, is held in the northeastern region of India and brings together some of the best rappers from the seven sister states. The cypher has garnered a lot of attention and has helped put the northeast region on the map as a hub of Indian hip-hop culture. A lot of rappers that participated in the Northeast Cypher have gone on to be signed by major record labels. Some prominent names include Jelo, Kabir, and Young Dirrt amongst several others.

SpitDope is another such platform that has gained popularity among the Indian hip-hop community. It was founded in 2016 by Delhi rappers Encore ABJ, MC Kode, MC Snub and Abxom and has since organized several cyphers across the country. What sets SpitDope apart is how the platform gave rise to Delhi’s hip-hop community. SpitDope's cyphers have featured a diverse range of rappers from across the country, each with their own unique style and flavor.

The 2019 Bollywood film Gully Boy, based on the life of street rappers in Mumbai, brought the Indian hip-hop scene to the mainstream. As a result, regions in Mumbai that already had a thriving rap circuit saw a surge in their popularity, and new cyphers emerged. The Dharavi United Cypher is one of the most notable ones to have emerged in the post-Gully Boy era. The cypher has been graced by some of the best rappers from the Mumbai scene, including MC Altaf, Poetik Justis, and MC Heam.

Another city that is blowing up in terms of its cyphers is Bangalore. Despite the city’s striation due to language and other factors, its underground hip hop scene has produced a collective called Wanandaf that hosts cyphers every Sunday in different spots across the city. Wanandaf is home to the city’s freestyling MCs and embodies Bangalore hip-hop in all its different flavours.

The Northeast Cypher, SpitDope, Dharavi United Cypher, and Wanandaf are just a few examples of the growing cypher scene in India. Cities like Chandigarh, Pune, Bhubaneswar, and Kolkata are all also contributing to the cypher culture in India.  As the Desi hip-hop scene continues to evolve, it's going to be exciting to see what new talents and platforms emerge and further cement India's place on the global hip-hop map.

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