It’s the last Friday night of the month, and you emerge up the concrete steps from the Central Square T stop. Once your head rises above ground, not only will the stench of Chipotle and other spots fill your nostrils, but the amplifying sound of words rhyming in patterns finds your ears.
As you stride down the block, the rhymes get louder and the thumping of a kick drum and snare starts to become recognizable; then, a group of guys in a disfigured circle starts to come into view. Right in front of the renowned Graffiti Alley, MCs and a beatmaker assemble to worship the art of freestyling, combining the visual and oral elements of hip-hop.
This is the Bridgeside Cypher, a free and open event daring any self-proclaimed rapper to hop on the mic and demonstrate their wordplay… with the absence of intimidation. There is no taunting or challenging or hyper-aggression but rather a collective, “Yo, you got it!” and praiseful “aye” and “oohhhh” sounds from fellow freestylers. Aaron King and Lukas Dow, the founder and co-founder of Bridgeside Cyphers and wordsmiths themselves, couldn’t have envisioned a more welcoming platform for artists to showcase their talent.
“Bridgeside is very much about positive energy, community, and good vibes, which I think is something people really like because it’s different,” Dow says. “Cyphers in general often become rap battles where people are just trying to out-rap each other and dis each other. That’s fun and all, and it’s fun to be in that environment, but it’s also not always so fun. It can feel very hostile in terms of artist to artist, but with Bridgeside, everybody is lifting everybody up.”
Bridgeside follows the simple system of MCs huddling together listening and bobbing their heads while one MC kicks an off-the-top or prewritten verse. Depending on the rapper’s discretion of when their turn is over, they pass the mic off to the next MC where they begin their own rhymes or in some instances bounce off the concluding words of the one before. The alternating method gives the rappers full range of expression while respecting the presence of the MC next to them, which discourages the hogging of the mic. Guidelines and censorship can get in the way of the art of rap, but at Bridgeside there is one golden rule: respect women.
“The street performer license I have from the city of Cambridge doesn’t really talk much about swearing, so I don’t say, ‘Oh, don’t swear,’ but I do think that line is if you’re really being disrespectful to women. If I say please be respectful to women, people will understand that there is a certain level of censorship,” says King. “When people are drunk and have all that masculinity pumping through, a lot of times people are not respectful to the audience or women.”
Even though rap is predominantly a black male sport, that’s not a hard and fast rule in this cypher either. From a white suburban father in an olive bucket hat and open-toed sandals to a young hispanic girl in a white T and Jordans, Bridgeside encompasses the unpredictable demographic that rap has inspired from the start. As a teenager in a Shake Shack uniform proved when he started flowing sophisticated anti-establishment bars at a recent Cypher, anyone can grab and rip the mic.
“When we do the cyphers, there are nontraditional artists, whether female artists, or anyone who isn’t your typical straight male,” Dow said. “We’re always trying to steer them and promote them and hear different voices. That’s what the cypher is for, having people’s voices heard.”
King and Dow created the Bridgeside event out of their pure love for hip-hop and freestyling. Like any high school head and weed smoker, freestyling was essential to their youthful sessions. Years later, in March 2018, the concept sparked to take a group onto the streets of their hometown of Cambridge and to begin spitting. On social media and via word of mouth, they then started spreading the news throughout Greater Boston and wherever eager artists sought to be a part of something bigger than themselves.
“We’ve gotten to a point where we are able to provide production quality that people can’t provide or a lot of artists can’t afford,” said King, who films the throwdowns. “Obviously we’re not at a professional level yet, but I think it’s a nice stepping stone for artists who are ready to get some videos produced and have something to promote themselves.”
There is potentially more in store for the Bridgeside Cypher, including possible location changes and even a “compliment battle.” Already, King has incorporated outside talent to boost the entertainment of the cyphers, including but not limited to Berklee College of Music trombone player Cus Campbell, who for one cypher brought in a five-piece brass band. World-known beatboxer Honeycomb has also made an appearance in which he formulated drum and bass beats on the spot.
“In the end, the Bridgeside Cypher is just an event, but all the artists and their hard work and their lyrics are what’s making it become something that’s cool and high quality,” King said. “I think it’s been a great place for people to come together.”
Catch the next Bridgeside Cypher on Fri 9.27 at 8pm in Central Square, Cambridge.