Here are four definitions of the term cipher or cypher:
- A code often created by an encryption algorithm
- A secret language
- A zero
- A circle made by a group of hip-hop performers especially rappers, in which each member is given time to rap, beatbox, break, etc.
The density of slang within a lot of North American rap for years served a strong, poignant purpose. It excluded most people. It included just a few. This encrypted conversation was for and by poor mainly young African-Americans.
It was made up of generations of regional slang terms and cultural references layered on top of each other, making the cyphers different in each area. Now thanks to online slang dictionaries the code has been broken. This secret language is no longer a secret. Something that was special and exclusive has been dissected and fed to white pop stars for cultural appropriation. However in many other parts of the world, rap has retained its protective slang barrier where the overworked and underprivileged can speak freely to each other.
Anton Serra is part of Lyon hip-hop collective L’Animalerie. His lyrics are strewn with ‘argot’ slang; something Victor Hugo called ‘the language of misery’ in his 1862 book Les Miserables.
‘We can hardly recognize it,’ Hugo exclaims. ‘Is it really the French tongue, the great human tongue?…The words are uncouth, and marked by an indescribably fantastic beastliness.’
Anton Serra’s words are uncouth AND brilliant and dexterous. His intense, wide-eyed delivery is absolutely captivating. I think his vocal inflections and phrasing are amongst the punchiest and most beguiling in rap music history, despite me understanding only a fraction of the poetry.
I love Serra’s confidence and wit. To me, he’s the most accomplished rapper within L’Animalerie by a country mile. In the various music videos featuring the whole crew though he doesn’t showboat. He seems content to play his part and enjoy the fraternal energy.
On this song ‘The Lions Are Solitary’, which Serra shares with Lucio Bukowski, he talks about his past failures, adversaries made out of plaster, his wolf-like eyebrows and questioning himself on who the real pillars in his life are.
This example of Serra’s awesome delivery features the lines: ‘Even my psychiatrist had a hard time following me – He thinks he knows everything, but doesn’t know his own future’
Here he starts his verse: ‘I go Piano Piano and this without Herbie Hancock – You’re listening but missing an ear like Van Gogh – You won’t find a booty-call in Bangkok’
‘Zairo’ is an ode to his graf friends and his city
This acoustic version of ‘Love Kills’ retains all of its melancholic bite
Here he contemplates old age, hoping to spend time with family and friends but fearing incontinence and arthritis and Scrabble games alone:
I get the feeling that Serra and his L’Animalerie team don’t care what’s going on in Paris or Marseille or New York for that matter. They have carved out their own niche and speak in their own cipher. We as outsiders have the opportunity to look in on a master in the craft of rap, despite most of Serra’s lingo going over most of our heads.
Only those who fully immerse themselves in argot, who fully enter this special cypher, get to experience the full impact of our 33rd Elevator and that’s the way it should be.