Last Sunday, another compelling chapter of the Champaign-Urbana hip-hop story played out, as a competition concert brought out the best of area talent. The Champaign Cypher Series, run by Robert Kjev of Robert K. Multimedia, is accustomed to doing this by now; it’s old news if you know anything about the local scene. They’ve been platforming hip-hop artists in C-U through competition-style events since 2016, even through the pandemic. In this installment, the “Bless The Stage” show offered an electrifying display of hip hop music by charging the performers with the incentive that the winning artist will earn a spot opening up for Duke Deuce when he comes to Canopy Club on February 10th.
Kjev has been running The Champaign Cypher Series, in parallel with a symphony of other live music and entertainment operations, since 2016. The Cypher Series began as a traditional battle rap platform; with events featuring two artists battling head-to-head, round after round, in relatively high-stakes competitions of lyrical wit and improvisational skill. This is a classic hip-hop pastime where emcees prepare material weeks in advance for their known opponent on a night that culminates in several rounds of lyrical attacks and undressings of each other; it’s rap in shades of boxing. It speaks to the skill and mental fortitude it takes to be successful in hip-hop, as the rappers must carry out their verbal duel in full view of a crowing audience.
Through all the ways the platform has evolved over the years, it’s always offered some kind of outlet for hip-hop culture to live and breathe and walk around in Champaign. Notably, it ran live successful rap events over Zoom calls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Post-pandemic, in rebuilding the C-U music scene, the Cypher Series has been lately running a “Cypher Saturdays” show: a showcase-style concert that invites local rap and R&B artists to perform prepared ten minute sets with the kinetic idea being that it’s a networking opportunity. These were among the first hip-hop events I personally performed at in C-U, since moving back to Champaign as a hip-hop artist in October 2022. “Cypher Saturdays” have shaped my Champaign hip-hop experience more in terms of serving as the meeting place between me and my most frequent collaborators than anything I’ve gained from the performance experience (although that is appreciated as well).
This new iteration, “Bless The Stage,” attempts to recover some of the Cypher Series’ original glory — those dynamic elements of competition and improvisation that were such a driving force for the success of the rap battles and freestyle competitions.
Early on Sunday evening, a dozen or so hungry and talented C-U rappers congregated at Canopy Club, with their best two songs in their heads, and the burning fire of competition in their hearts. They would perform back-to-back all night, while fans cast their votes on the paper ballots they were handed out upon entering the club, into the ostentatiously physical ballot box featured on the edge of Canopy Club’s Red Room stage.
The show turned out to be all it was billed to be. The artists, richly incentivized, gave high-energy, entertaining performances throughout the night. As we say in hip-hop, “they were rapping like the rent was due.” It was interesting to observe how votes were cast, with people walking up to drop their selection in the ballot box throughout the night. With the box being right up front on the stage, it always felt like a vote for the currently performing artist, and the performer seemed to notice, too (getting a short confidence boost from the gesture), even though the vote could have just as likely been for any other performer. Either way, this recurring scene seemed to reinforce the idea that this event was competitive. And everyone seemed on board and excited about the idea.
In a design move meant to recover even more of that spirit of competition from his history of hosting battle rap events, Kjev didn’t give any of the artists set performance times. Being a performer myself, I was intrigued by the potential of this approach to heighten the stakes and intensify the challenge of an already demanding event. However, the actual execution of the random selection process exceeded my expectations, impressing me with its effectiveness.
Kjev had a stack of folded sheets of paper, and after each performance, he would ask an audience member to randomly select from the pile in his hands. During the show, it all seemed straightforward enough, and I assumed the folded piece of paper had the artist’s name on it. The really nice touch, though, the chef’s kiss of this whole thing is the way Kjev used that opportune moment, just before his performer would hit the stage, to offer a message of encouragement and assurance.
That was truly the spirit of the night. It seemed that every artist on Sunday had something positive to say about the scene, the other artists in attendance, and the event itself. This theme was palpable throughout the event, eventually outshining the theme of competition, even finding expression through the victor of the competition: Jayoo Da Boss, who was careful to remind fans to call him “the Twin City GOAT” throughout his time on stage. This was a night where “blessing The stage” emerged as a priority, as a focus. A night where one artist’s victory marked a win for the town.
This night, overflowing with hope and positivity for the future of hip-hop in C-U ended on quite a high note. After the votes were tallied and Jayoo Da Boss was crowned and awarded, several of the artists who had just left everything on the stage to compete against each other minutes before, joined together for a classic freestyle cypher session on the Canopy stage. DJ Belly, the consummate professional and event DJ, had beats ready for the performers, as a cypher seemed to materialize organically on stage following Jayoo Da Boss’s acceptance of his prize. Mary Jane and Wooder Moe kicked off the cypher with great energy and some catchy “off the top” bars, and they were soon joined by Moe Pesci, Femi Ishola, Nayiaa Official, and more.
I asked Nayiaa Official for comment about the impromptu closing cypher circle:
“The cypher at the end was dope. We all fed off each other’s energy, we all went until we couldn’t no more. It took me back to my high school days freestyling all day, everywhere we went. The vibrations were high; we all brought our A Game.”
It was the high point of the night; especially since most of the crowd was still there, and they were able to see it. Be on the lookout for more from the Champaign Cypher Series as they look to continue to be a powerful catalyst for the hip-hop community in Champaign-Urbana.
Congratulations to this event’s winner, Jayoo Da Boss. He will open for Duke Deuce, along with Trouble Chasin’, on February 10th in the big room at Canopy Club.