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'The mission is to be real': Meet the student rappers who freestyle in the Pit

Michael "Lord Goose" Seethaler and Justis "Justis Ryan" Malker, members of the weekly freestyle group Cypher, rap-off in the Pit at UNC-Chapel Hill on January 15, 2020. “We don’t care if you’re Jay-Z or if you don’t even consider yourself a good rapper,” he said. “Like, there are times where the mission is not to be good. The mission is to be real, to be authentic.”

By 9:25 p.m. each Wednesday, campus is usually quieting down for the night. 

And then, a little black speaker in the Pit powers on.       

Hip-hop instrumentals echo between the Frank Porter Graham Student Union and the Undergraduate Library. Members of UNC Cypher form a loose circle, bobbing to the beat. For the next two hours, they take turns rapping entirely off the cuff, using environmental cues and word associations to construct spontaneous verses.

“You know how you’re supposed to think before you talk? I don’t when I freestyle,” said Cypher alum Michael “Lord Goose” Seethaler. “I mean, there’s a little bit of thinking, but it’s really like free-flowing consciousness, you know? Which is really fun. It’s really freeing.”     

Adam “AuD” Dixon (center), president of the weekly freestyle group Cypher, listens as Udhay "Day" Khullar (left) raps in the Pit at UNC-Chapel Hill on January 15, 2020. It’s a place for free expression – a place for you to kind of just, after a long day of classes, of working, kind of let off some steam and let your creative energies flow, your creative juices flow. Just come out and rap, listen, hang out with friends, anything. This is really a collaborative space, and a free and open environment," he said.

A cypher is a gathering of rappers who freestyle, meaning they don’t prepare lyrics in advance, said UNC Cypher president Adam “AuD” Dixon.

“I would say it’s definitely a formation ground for a lot of rappers who you may see on the Billboard charts or who are famous,” Dixon said.   

Cypher has freestyled in the Pit on Wednesday nights since 2014, when Kenan-Flagler Business School graduate Joshua “(J) Rowdy” Rowsey founded the group. But this year, in addition to maintaining its tradition of freestyling, Cypher is trying something new: recording music together. 

Titled “Pit Preachin’,” Cypher’s 12-track debut album is coming soon to Spotify, Apple Music, Google Play and other streaming platforms. The album features original work from Cypher’s rappers and producers.  

Michael "Lord Goose" Seethaler freestyles in the Pit at UNC-Chapel Hill with the rap group Cypher, which meets every Wednesday, on January 15, 2020. “It’s given me some of the best friends I’ve ever had," Seethaler said about the group.

“It’s really, really versatile,” said sophomore Justis Malker, Cypher’s vice president. “There’s R&B influences, there’s conscious rap influences, there’s pop influences.”   

The album follows the release of Cypher’s first single, “Hydrogen Bomb” — a fast-paced track that incorporates an electric guitar loop and techno-distorted vocals.  

Cypher members then put on the “Hark the Sounds” showcase, which took place on Jan. 24 at 7 p.m. in the Great Hall of the Union.    

“The showcase stands as a debut for that album,” Dixon said. “But it’s also a showcase for individual members of Cypher — for their songs, and for the group songs on the album.” 

Among the talent featured on Cypher’s recordings is that of first-year producer Eben Guenthner — whom the Cypher rappers sometimes call “Ebb and Flow.”  

Guenthner already had some production experience before discovering Cypher at UNC’s FallFest last semester, but he said working with the group has improved his skill. 

“It’s just a sense of community,” Guenthner said. “It’s not like we only meet up Wednesday. I see these guys constantly, all week. It’s pretty much like a family.” 

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Even when they’re freestyling, Cypher’s family-like dynamics are apparent. They vocally cheer for both established members and newcomers. First-year Sarah Rodgers encountered this while walking back from cheer practice on Jan. 15. When she spotted her friend, Seethaler, rapping in the Pit, she decided to watch. Soon, Rodgers found herself rapping with Cypher — an experience she described as “exhilarating.” 

“Even when you’re bad, they make you feel good,” Rodgers said. 

Malker said that aside from basic rules like “respect the mic” and “be loud,” there is no strict structure for the group’s functioning — and no skill or experience requirement.  

Carter Ruff, 28, a member of the freestyle group Cypher and the co-founder of Poetic Labs, a company dedicated to the exploration of spirituality via hip-hop, raps during a gathering of the group in the Pit at UNC-Chapel Hill on January 15, 2020. "“I will say, with all due humility, my life goal is to become enlightened and be an enlightened rapper, and bring those teachings into hip-hop," he said.

“We don’t care if you’re Jay-Z or if you don’t even consider yourself a good rapper,” he said. “Like, there are times where the mission is not to be good. The mission is to be real, to be authentic.”  

Malker and Dixon said Cypher is open to any member of the community.

“If they just want to watch, they can watch,” Malker said. “If they want to give us words, they can give us words. If they want to play beats, they can play beats. If they want to hop in and rap, they can hop in and rap. Just a place where they feel free to express themselves or be themselves or take a break from, you know, whatever stressor they feel around here.” 

As the Jan. 15 cypher came to a close, member Carter Ruff, 28, called the group to attention. 

“This is my second-to-last Cypher ever,” Ruff said, who was soon leaving for India to start a hip-hop workshop. “I just want to say, you guys are all amazing, and the one thing that I just felt so strongly tonight was love.”

Ruff thanked the group, and someone started to clap.

“Love thy neighbor!” Malker rapped. “Turn to your side and hug thy neighbor.”