In Kenya, established artistes and music outlets have often used cyphers to introduce new protégées worth discovering to mainstream Hip-Hop fans.
By Frank Njugi
Posse-cut and cyphers have always been one of the cornerstones of Hip-Hop. From when the genre was gaining ground with the likes of A Tribe Called Quest with their 1992 hit song, “Scenario”, the legendary Tupac Shakur’s 1996 diss track “Hit Em Up”, and the annual B.E.T and XXl magazine cyphers in the 21st century, the idea of having revered emcees featured together in one track has always been received with thrill and delight.
In Kenya, established artistes and music outlets have often used cyphers to introduce new protégées worth discovering to mainstream Hip-Hop fans. A perfect example is the renowned Wakadinali duo comprised of Domani Munga and Scar Mkadinali who were first spotted in the Khaligraph Jones Presents Cypher in 2016. Artistes such as Steph Kapela and Katapilla were also first introduced to audiences through the second iteration of the Khali Cartel Cypher.
This year, Hip-Hop turned fifty. While there is a conversation to be had about how old Kenyan Hip-Hop on its own turns in 2023, it is still optimal to celebrate one of the central practices of the genre as seen in the East African country over the years. In no particular order, I have put together, a list of ten of the best Kenyan Hip-Hop cyphers.
Khali Cartel 2 (2018)
Khali Cartel 2, released in 2018, was the second iteration of the famous Khali Cartel Cyphers conceptualised by rapper, Khaligraph Jones. Featuring five artistes, Steph Kapela, Tweny Eights, Timmy Blanco, Katapilla, and Xtatic, alongside Khaligraph himself, the cypher was a showcase of some of the finest emcees at the time, navigating through subtly squeaky beats from one of the most sort after Kenyan producers, Motif Di Don.
Rong Cypher 2.0 (2022)
Rong Cypher 2.0 is probably the most daring Kenyan Hip-Hop cypher of all time. Rong Cypher 2.0 was released in 2022 as part of the trio Wakadinali’s LP, Ndani Ya Cockpit 3, and it brought together eight emcees, alongside the trio. It displayed how the difference in sonic and vocal range by distinct rappers can be used to an advantage. From the basses voice of HR the Messenger, to the spoken word rhyme of the veteran and former Ukoo Flani collective affiliate Kitu Sewer, Wakadinali featured an array of rappers with different styles who made it one of the best Kenyan cyphers of all time.
Hennessy Cypher (2021)
The first Kenyan version of the popular Hennessy Cyphers, Hennessey Cypher 1.0, featured a lineup of Wakadinali’s Sewesyder and Scar, Steph Kapela, Breeder LW, and a newcomer at the time, Steph, whose intro verse proved to be the main attraction of the cypher. Steph showcased a distinct precision to posse-cut rap never seen before from other Kenyan artistes. The beat was produced by Tim Rimbui.
Khali Cartel 3 (2019)
Since the video of the cypher was released on YouTube, it has amassed a staggering 5.3 million views. The third iteration of Khali Cartel brought together Bey T, Breedar LW, Silverstone Barz, Rekles, and Chiwawa alongside Khaligraph Jones. In the cypher music video, Khaligraph Jones who role-plays as a lawyer, nudges the other artistes (who role-play as witnesses on a court’s witness stand) to rap on their experiences, their prowess, and their relevance in the Kenyan music industry. This gave the cypher a unique flair, presenting a rare concept for the Kenyan Hip-Hop scene.
The Khaligraph Presents Cypher ( 2016)
This cypher introduced Kenyans to two of the three artistes who make up the best Hip-Hop group in East Africa currently, Wakadinali’s Domani Munga and Scar. The two joined forces with the likes of Ridiq, Ares66, and Khaligraph Jones in what was later realised as a prelude to the Khali Cartel Cyphers.
AD Family Presents Shrap Gang Mafia Cypher (2018)
Also known as Khali Cartel 2.1, the cypher was released in December, 2018. The AD Family Shrap Gang Cypher was a response to Katapilla’s verse in Khali Cartel 2. Katapilla controversially voiced out his displeasure at Shrap music, a Kenyan version of trap music which combines the aesthetics of mumble rap with the popular Kenyan cant, Sheng. The cypher featured the AD Family members, Boutross, Dope-I-Mean and Kay Green, alongside non-AD family members, Breedar LW and Barak Jacuzzi.
Crush Groove Cypher 666, Volume 3 (2012 )
The 2012 edition of the Crush Groove Cypher 666 sought out to bring together some of the best underground emcees at the time. It featured Kimya, Khaligraph Jones, The Pride, Smalls Lethal, and Kyvo K-Force. The cypher was produced by the legendary Black Muntu, who did so at the behest of the record label, Fardeen Productions.
Drill Digest Underdogs Cypher EP 1 ( 2022)
The Kenyan drill music cypher was the first of its kind in the country. The 2022 Drill Digest Underdogs Cypher EP 1 is best known for introducing the Drill artiste, Bueno, whose memorable verse, delivered in a rather distinct accent over the usual off-kilter drill 808 beats by oddz Music, put him on the map as one of the most promising up-and-coming Drill rappers in the country. The cypher was also a preamble to similar Drill cyphers by Drill Digest, as two more editions of the Underdogs Cypher, an Ep 2 and an Ep 3, were released in late 2022 and 2023 respectively.
Boomplay Gengetone Cypher (2022)
The only Gengetone Cypher in this list, The Boomplay Gengetone Cypher was an attempt by the African-focused media streaming and download service, Boomplay, to showcase the unique genre of Gengetone which is exclusive to Kenya. The cypher was released in 2022 and it featured Nelly The Goon from the Ochungulo Family, Ssaru, Trio Mio, and the Ethic duo of Rekles and Swat, with the beat delivered by the revered DJ Lyta.
16 Bars Kenyan Cypher (2012)
The handiwork of veteran Kenyan DJ, Joe Mfalme, 16 Bars Kenyan Cypher saw the coming together of Virus, B-Reign, and one of the most known Hip-Hop artistes in Kenya, Octopizzo. This 2012 cypher was unique in how it aimed at upholding the traditional aesthetics of rap, as each participant in the cypher dropped 4 bars of 4 beats each to make a 16-bar verse.
Frank Njugi is a Kenyan who has written on Culture for Debunk Media, The Moveee, Afrocritik, Africa in Dialogue, The Cauldron, Salamander Ink Magazine and others. He tweets as @franknjugi.