In the beginning: the cypher

It’s Friday at 4 p.m. on the campus of NC A&T University in early April.

In one of several YouTube videos commemorating the event, the legendary hip-hop emcee KRS-One strides onto the plaza. He towers over everybody else in sunglasses, a Nike athletic jacket and blue jeans, with Terence Muhammad, a Nation of Islam member who often provides security in Greensboro, following about three paces behind. KRS-One’s stature and magnetism give a sense of what it must have been like to be in the presence of Marcus Garvey or Booker T. Washington a hundred years ago.

A voice off camera summons the students milling around.

“Everybody gather ’round. Teacher has something to say. Gather ’round everybody.”

Just then, a white van bearing the university emblem and the word “facilities” pulls up, and everyone looks a little startled, as if the gathering is about to be disrupted.

The driver steps out of the van and hands his cell phone to a bystander so he can pose for a photo with legend.

“This is the foundation right here,” he exults.

Without getting into detail, KRS-One makes passing reference to his concert at Dynacon Event Center coming up that night before getting down the business at hand.

“The point of the matter is you never know when you’re in history until it’s too late,” he says.

“What you want to be is a friend to your future self,” he continues. “Your future self is depending on you…. You’ll never be 15 again, but you will be 30. So the 30-year-old you is hoping that the 20-year-old you is doing it right.”

He makes an argument that knowledge depends on having a large vocabulary to describe the world.

“That’s why emceeing is so important,” he says. “Where the spitters at?”

He commences: Right now the cypher just begin/ KRS-One, we gonna do it again and again/ My man got the camera on me/ You watchin’ a real emcee from 1983/ Dude, I’m gonna pass the mic/ I want to see who’s ready to get down/ Not in the day, but tonight.

Before the breath of KRS-One’s last word is exhaled, an emcee named Mani Parris is on it.

I’m the voice of the oppressed like a rebel in protest.

The Teacher clasps his chin between his forefinger and his thumb.

On the corner with hustlers, Parris continues, in the streets with the homeless/ Y’all worshipping Yeezus? Boy please, I’m Moses/ I was sent by God to come and lead the hopeless.

“Mmmm…” KRS says.

My squad’s skinny, but we push weight like we muscular, Parris says, and KRS roars his approval.

I’m just connected to the plug, Parris says, gesturing towards the legendary emcee, like a USB, and KRS acknowledges the gesture with an outstretched hand.

Next up is G-$antana, wearing a Knicks hat and a green backpack loaded to capacity.

Knowledge reigns supreme over nearly everyone, right? he begins, enunciating the words in the acronym that forms KRS-One’s name. So I should get the mental wealth, increase my fight.

He raises his fists in a defensive posture, as his friend, Kiing Spacely beat-boxes an accompaniment.

Told the Crips in the hood, ‘Back off my back’/ I’m just trying to get home and not move in no pack/ I’d rather go to the stu’, mix up some beats, freestyle off the dome.

He pauses.

Do you like what I speak? $antana asks, clasping hands with KRS. As the freestyle continues, KRS nods with the beat, laughing. A minute in, KRS is looking visibly amazed, dropping his jaw. Then, before KRS can fully absorb the moment, $antana switches up, recounting an adventure with Kiing in Queens when they spent their last dollar on a slice of cheese pizza, and then found they didn’t have enough money to catch the bus.

Talkin’ ’bout Lucky Charms, I was too broke for cereal/ Serial rapper, who the f*** like venereal….

KRS bobs his head like a punch-drunk boxer, delight playing across his smile, as $antana starts the next stanza with the word “diseases.”