Cypher League

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We just had a huge party on Friday, so sorry it’s so busted up,” says Benjamin Toren, apologizing for the large warehouse like apartment where he lives with his other Cypher League ‘leaders,’ and some of their artists. He’s dressed simply in a t-shirt and shorts, his hair tousled, his eyes bleary – he looks far more laid-back than what the head of a music-label-hype-machine start-up should look like. The apartment itself doesn’t look as much ‘busted-up’ as painted over; the walls are covered from corner-to-corner with bright paint and bold graphics. Undoubtedly the work of more than just a single event. Their space is located at 619 Hancock street in Bed-Stuy, a neighborhood rich in African-American history, from civil rights to hip hop. The area is still predominantly African-American, but has brought in an influx of younger artists and professionals looking for more affordable housing.

The room has the energy of a mellow morning after, with sunlight streaming in from a skylight, dappling through clouds of marujiana smoke, giving the murals new life after the party’s over. The crew hangs out upstairs, smoking in one of the many rooms with DIY lofted beds and various chairs and sofas. Eight people live in the space, affectionately called the Dojo: the five ‘leaders,’ Benjamin Toren, Devaughn Holliday, Tetsu Higuchi, Dylan Brennan and Nick Greens; their friend, Coral Foxworth or FXWRK; and two artists, Salomon Faye, a rapper, and a visual artist, Jay Gittens, a.k.a. The Lovechild. This motley crew of writers, managers, and artists form what is known as the Cypher League, an up-and-coming, pseudo-record label, and media company.

Let’s have the interview on the roof, is that cool with you?” Benjamin is the ring leader of what seems to be a casually organized crew of proactive young men. They all have their parts to play in the League, but Benjamin and Devaughn are the most vocal about the company. Beers and rolling papers are brought with us as we leave their hot and smoky space to ascend to the roof. The entrance to the apartment is surrounded by small mountains of debris from events: lights, broken equipment, what used to be furniture, trash bags full of bottles and cups. They seem like the only tenants to the building. “There aren’t a lot of people in the building but the few neighbors we have give us grief for the events we have here,” Devaughn explains, “I think this is going to be one of our last shows here in the Dojo.” It’s the end of an era, but we discuss Cypher League’s beginnings and future as we sit on the roof. The guys are optimistic, drinking beer and rolling joints in the mid-afternoon sun, despite their impending move.


What is the Cypher League? Where did it start? And what exactly do you do?

Benjamin: I guess, at its most basic, Cypher is a media company. We have our publication and website. We throw a lot of events. We are also an aspiring record label. Ultimately, right now, we’re trying to expand but we’re also trying to bring it all together, as in, everything we do. I’m editor and chief of the website, and Devaughn runs events and handles artist relations. Within those two things is everything we’re trying to progress – our journalism, our studio, recording studio, photography studio, doing music videos, just building connections to help our artists with networking and stuff like that. We started at boarding school.

Devaughn: We all actually met at boarding school, Milton Academy.

Benjamin: We started by writing about the music that inspired us, but then we all went our own ways for our first year of college. We kept Cypher League going at the same time, most of us were living in Washington DC. We were recording freestyles in our apartments, and putting stuff out on Soundcloud. But that wasn’t really serious. We did that for a year. We always felt like we were onto something, and it kept getting bigger and bigger while we were still going to school. Then we decided that we all wanted to come to New York. I’m from New York, Devaughn’s from New York, Tetsu’s from Japan, Dylan’s from Jamaica, and Nick’s from DC. We all come from a lot of different places. So we moved to New York. Tetsu and Devon transferred schools, Dylan, Nick, and I dropped out, to be in the city.


Are you guys feeling that there’s a momentum to what you’re doing that you have to take time away from school?

Devaughn: That’s definitely why I took the time off; I wasn’t trying to putting the amount of time that it took to do well in school. I felt that it took a lot of time away from what I could be putting into Cypher League. This past spring semester that I took off, we started buzzing a lot, in New York, and different people were reaching out to us to work with us. There was definitely a correlation in when we ended up dropping school and Cypher League getting bigger.

Tetsu: We took time off early on. That helped us create more of our own path

Benjamin: Yeah, we’re fairly young, I’m 21, Tetsu’s 21, and Nick, Dylan, and Devaughn are 20.


Why live and work in Bed-Stuy, or why Brooklyn?

Benjamin: Bed-Stuy is so famous for its hip-hop culture, that had a lot to do with it. But because there was so much talent in and around Brooklyn, its been our focus, We like to bring it all together, I guess [these artists] all… need a voice essentially. Which is how the publication operates; it’s an opportunity for promotion. We always have different artists perform at our shows.

Devaughn: Now we have the recording studio, we have decent rates, and we’re always open to negotiation on the prices, but thats there for the artists that we’ve made these connections with. We have a place that they can always come and record, which is hard to find for a lot of artists.

Benjamin: We definitely create a lot of mutually beneficial relationships with these artists. We fill a niche or a necessity that wasn’t there before.

Devaughn: We have an engineer, who is also a Cypher League artist, so he’s going to be handling most of the recording, and some of the mixing in the studio, and as for other artists, we met them through going out to events and meeting them through other artists, or having artists perform at our events. We’ve just been able to build this network of different artists that we can go to and have them make music and ask them for help, because we supported their careers by writing about them on our website or have them perform at our shows.


With the studio in place, can you talk about your business model?

Benjamin: Well, the studio and all the financial stuff is something we’re starting to figure out right now. We really are a start-up, and part of the process is how you’re going to build your revenue stream. We’re relaunching our website on July 1st, with that we’re going to be opening up more revenue streams.

Devaughn: We charge at the door at parties. Price of events is based on the cost – but we try to keep it reasonable to keep people coming. The bigger our events get, the more exposure that is for our artists. When we see a profit we put it back into the company. So we can do more events, take care of Cypher League expenses. We’re really trying to start our merchandise revenue.


Can you talk about your artists and collaborations? Why is your focus Hip Hop?

Tetsu: Hip Hop is the core.

Benjamin: And its values; we are more than just Hip Hop music. We include other types of music. But Hip Hop is a very inclusive culture, its messages are really strong. I guess there’s a lot of other stuff we want to include, but ultimately through the lens of Hip Hop. The original messages of Hip Hop are sort of the values we live towards and the strongest way in which we identify ourselves: truth, originality, community, hard work, and knowledge. We all really believe in Hip Hop I guess, and what it can do.

Devaughn: There are artists that are a part of our ‘record label,’ when it becomes a real thing, later. Right now, we just work with these artists and we provide promotion, for their mix tapes or any of their music; writing about them and having that sent out to all of our readership. And putting them in shows. There are a few artists: Presidencee, he’s from Cambridge MA, and we’ve been working with him since 2012 – since the beginning of Cypher League and the beginning of his career. There’s HD, he’s from Brooklyn, we’ve been helping him the same amount of time, and Skinny, from Washington DC. He’s also been around since the beginning of Cypher League. Nicholas Hunt, he’s been around since 2013. He’s the engineer of the studio that we have in Bed-Stuy. He’s also a singer and a rapper. We work closely with the illUZiON, even though they have their own record label. We’re really close affiliates. Salomon, who founded the illUZiON, he lives here. That relationship is mutually beneficial. Preston, he’s the executive editor of the website, but he’s also a rapper and he’s very talented. So those are Cypher League official artists. There’s also and array of other artists that we are very close with and we work with, who we offer the services that we have.


Can you tell me more about your events and shows?

Benjamin: It’s hard to describe – its not like anything else, its very underground.

Tetsu: Its a showcase of talent – from rapping to visual art, and its a celebration at the same time. What’s unique about our events is how many different people came. People all across the industry in hip hop, but there was really no discrimination of who came to our events, so it was really cool. That’s one of the best parts of our shows – the people who show up. And the performers. We always try to put underground performers who would do really well, to give them some showtime and help them excel. The only issue we’ve had are cops; there have been fights at our shows but otherwise they’re mad chill and a good time.

Benjamin: We’ve had lots of problems with the police, the last show we threw here on Friday is going to be the 2nd to last show we have here. But we throw [parties] elsewhere.

Devaughn: Like the Palisades, a new venue in Brooklyn, we’ve been working with them recently and plan to work with them in the future; we’ve also done stuff at 3rd isolation, which is a small community art gallery in Bushwick; Another spot in Brooklyn called Freecandy; and SOB’s. We did a really big celebratory show that was filled with our closest affiliates, with the opportunity for them to get money from that show. That was a really cool experience, what with SOB’s being a really well known venue with New York hip hop and to have these local talents and artists we’ve been messing with perform there in front of their fans. It was a really dope night.

Benjamin: That was our only Manhattan show. We’re sort of a part of a circle of people: a second generation of hip hop culture. some of those people would be: ScienZe and Dope League, Salomon Faye and the illUZiON, the Apostrophe kids, and a lot of others; the party on Friday night was for [Apostrophe].

Devaughn: Apostrophe was a dope art gallery in Bushwick, that our friends ran – it was a very underground space, but it was completely illegal. They had been there for a full year and had become really important in the underground party scene in New York. They got shut down last year. So this friday we had a free event at our spot for the start of their Kickstarter. It was like a passing of the torch back from that role in this movement that exists between us, all the artists, and Apostrophe. There’s a culture of people striving to be heard and to change the world, and Apostrophe’s role in that was hosting events, getting everyone fucked up, and promoting good art and music. We took on that role for this last year. But our real role is to help the artists to get everything they need and to get exposure for them, covering it all. We focus a lot on that, but we’re still doing our events, just moving them out of our living space.


What does the future of Cypher League look like?

Devaughn: We have this event called: Art Release Therapy, which has become our signature event. We try to do it every month. Its a showcase of underground talent mostly from New York and some from upstate, but mostly our own artists, and we work with different art collectives and their artists and they showcase their visual art. Like either hanging up piece or doing live painting. And some of the artists we work with like Ryan Bock, or Sam Seeger, the Lovechild, they show their work. and its a showcase of art and also great hip hop music. Now that its become more regular, we try to do it on the last friday of every month and we find a venue. We’re looking at this place called silent barn for the next one. There will be an Art Release Therapy at the end of July.

Tetsu: We’re working on a big event: a one-day-festival on August 9th. It’ll be right off the Shepherd stop on the C train, from 12 noon to 10 pm, musicians artists, and dancers will perform. It’s a big celebration for the end of the summer involving everyone we worked, with lots of food and drinks.

Devaughn: We’re looking to expand, outside of Brooklyn; we didn’t start here in Brooklyn – we started in Boston, out of our prep school, and we all went our own separate ways. But because we went to different areas: Boston, DC, they both know about Cypher League. This year, coming up, this fall, and next year, we’re really trying to build up other places that have small Cypher League communities and make them bigger and do events there: Boston, DC, Chicago. We’re building a small team in Chicago as well. We want to have the same impact in other cities like we have right here in Brooklyn. While continuing to help Brooklyn and its artists. Other than the US, almost half of our 5 man team is International. So naturally, we have international connections.

Benjamin: But our team is a lot bigger than 5 people, and its continuing to expand. We’re going to be throwing parties, events, and shows. Even after we move out of [the Dojo].

Devaughn: Wherever we live will be the Dojo.


Check out Cypher League’s new website for more information on events, people, and new music:


Interview: Shira Knishkowy

Shira Knishkowy is 26, lives in Williamsburg and works as a publicist at Partisan records, which is based in Brooklyn. Growing up in Connecticut, Shira went on to attend a prep school, where everyone was a republican, and wore salmon-colored shorts. Music set her apart, but drove her ambition when she went on to Wesleyan, where she started booking shows and realized she wanted to work in the music industry. She interned at Vice Records, and Surefire, and worked at William Morris. She went on to work at Big Hassle, where she attributes her education in being a publicist. She has worked with Gillian Welch, Ben Folds Five, Dawes, Say Anything, and many more before her current roster at Partisan. In this interview she talks about her PR beginnings and her experiences at Partisan records and their success story: Sylvan Esso.


How did you get involved with Partisan Records and what do you like about it?

Through Big Hassle I worked with a few americana bands: Deer Tick, and Heartless Bastards, who were with Partisan. I got to know those bands and the people who run the label and really fell in love with them. They sort of snatched me over and created a job for me to be their in-house publicist at the label. So I’ve been there about a year and a half. I do all the PR for all the bands on the label. Partisan was founded by two guys: Tim and Ian. and Tim was in a band for 10 years. He was really dissatisfied with his label for various reasons and I think he’s brought a lot of that mentality to this label. Which is unique, because he’s able to talk to artists in a way that I never could. That helps me pitch artists because Im able to look at it in a different way.                         


Why did you choose to switch from such intense environments at those bigger companies to work at a much smaller and more private firm?

At any independent publicity firm you’re getting hired by a record label to do a campaign. Let’s say Columbia records calls me up to say: “hey, we want you to work this band for three months.” You’re doing it for those three months, then its over. Whereas at a record label, I’m there forever, so when you’re building a developing artist, you’re not thinking: “let’s do what we can in this short period of time where we’re getting paid.” This is what you’re doing for the long-haul. You’re really focusing more on the career of an artist, rather than how can we get as much as we can in a small period of time. I worked with this artists named John Grant, he’s not very well known here but he is in the UK. He’s a really incredible artist; he’s gay and has HIV. He writes these beautiful and epic, orchestral songs. Its a hard pitch over here. A year after the record came out, he finally played Letterman and started getting more attention over here. But if I were still at a PR firm, it wouldn’t have gone that far. I would have focused on working those 3-4 months that I was getting paid, and then we would have moved on to the next.             


Sylvan Esso has been getting attention for their last album. What’s their story and did the press play a part in their success?

They’re an interesting band; they’re a duo. The female singer was in Mountain Man, this acapella, Appalachian, folky, almost country act. The guy is from Mega Faun, who is associated with Bon Iver. They came together and came up with a straight pop record – its electronic and has big dubstep-like beats and choruses. It’s not usually my taste, but it’s a perfect album. It doesn’t sound like anything else, yet its addicting. As for the press effect, Will Hermes discussed this record on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” When that ran, the effect was instant: you could see on the charts; the sales exponentially rose. A band like this comes along very rarely, I think anyone in the music business will agree, it’s a bit of a ‘right place, right time, right sound’ thing. They’re also doing something different and are incredible live.        

Celebrate: Janelle Monae


The crowd roars its approval as a petite Janelle Monae is wheeled onto the stage in a straightjacket. She is dressed to the nines: her signature coiffed hair and uniform tuxedo-inspired outfit match her monochrome clad band and set. Her presence is magnetic; as soon as she’s in view, her fans, ranging in age and race, from toddlers to white dreaded old heads, from fashionable black hipsters to scruffy white men, begin to break it down, grooving to the opening song – Givin’ Em What They Love. Marijuana perfumes the air as people jostle to find a better view. Fabulous young black men dance and sing along to every word, hoping she can hear them.  I’m enjoying the spectacle of the audience: old men bop their heads, families with young kids on their shoulders sway, teaching rhythm by example. Janelle Monae is a subtle master of theatre. I’m mesmerized by her set. The smoke and cool colors chosen to light her performance (magenta, cyan and yellow), emphasize the fact that they are all wearing black and white. The set is stylized, and looks both futuristic and retro. Like the idea of a time machine in the 60’s, or something.

Her songs flow smoothly into one another; her set list has been curated to what her fans want to hear. She’s taking most of it from her latest album The Electric Lady. She sings punchy dance-inducing songs, one after the next, pausing for a breath with a spoken word interlude. “My message tonight… is to be victorious… take your time; it is not a waste.” She’s an inspiration; people cheer and hoot with every line she speaks about acceptance, pain, and love. The band plays a couple bars of an intro we all know. I’m waiting for the brass to kick in, confirming my suspicions. Yes. She’s covering a Jackson 5 medley – the effortless mix of I Want You Back and ABC gives the audience something to sing along to if they don’t know her music (which, at a free event, isn’t wholly unexpected). Her more famous songs, Cold War, Tightrope, and Q.U.E.E.N. have her hardcore followers trying to distinguish themselves. They try to out-sing and out-dance everyone there. She exits the stage leaving us in the dark, cheering, begging for more. A spotlight suddenly brings our attention to a the guitarist’s solo, slowly her band member reform. Everyone is happy for one more song, but I can see  people leaving, hoping to beat the crowd. Monae returns, her hair down and out, and wearing a more casual outfit. Her next song Primetime, gives the audience something to sway to, “It’s the primetime, for our love, ain’t nobody peekin’ but the stars above,” she croons. The energy is infectious, and her encore becomes the better part of a second act. I’m surprised as she continues, feeding off the momentum of Primetime, she keeps on playing. Her set returns to its upbeat beginnings. I’m perfectly content from my post, munching on a roasted eggplant bun from the extensive menu at the food stand, catered by The Farm on Adderley. Good food, Good music, Great crowd. I can’t help thinking, Damn, Janelle Monae knows how to put on a good show.


Reviews: Ellen Willis on Janis Joplin

The story of Janis joplin is founded in romanticism. She represented for many people some sort of fantasy. She evolved from an “ugly duckling,” as Willis decribes. She represented celebrity – being famous for being yourself – and being a sexually free woman who didn’t conform to typical beauty standards. Willis is concerned with portraying Joplin as a symbol of culture as a woman who perhaps didn’t fit into either ‘feminist’ or ‘not-feminist’ catagories. The article focuses on profiling Joplin as a potential phenomenon who died before she could carve out a deeper position in the mostly male-dominated music world of that time. 

Reviews: Robert Chistgau on Bob Dylan and Lou Reed (various articles)

Robert Christgau loves to grade his subjects. He defines each of the albums with a hard letter grade. For example, for Bob Dylan, “Time Out of Mind” (Columbia, 1997) got a solid A- whereas, “Dylan” (Columbia, 1973) got a disappointing E – which he further elaborates is a “set of rejects.” The upside of this system is that while it is highly subjective, it does give us a clear view of Christgau’s opinion: Dylan’s music has only gotten better with time – and his early work cannot stand up to his newer music. Although he seems to be a fan of the Band as he gave them A’s (even an A+ to The Basement Tapes Album).

Similarly, Christgau has reviewed Lou Reed’s career. Its hard not to look at his grading system as a long term analysis of the artists’ career rather than solely their music. Lou Reed looks to be a strong B musician with a few successful A’s here and there. There isn’t as strong as a trend as with Bob Dylan’s career. The takeaway is that Christgau obviously respects Dylan and Reed and admires their work enough to award them with high letter grades. Clearly he has written and analyzed many of their albums.However its hard to believe Christgau’s authority on Bob Dylan or Lou Reed, since his reviews are brief and he gives letter grades; it’s hard to believe that he has delved deeper than the surface of their music when he reduces it to a few sentences and a grade.

you can find all his reviews on Bob Dylan and Lou Reed here.

Reviews: Lester Bangs on Astral Weeks

Lester Bangs seems to have been going through a hard time in his life when, as music often does, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks came into his life. It isn’t a new album, even when Bangs reviewed it, but he relates the ambiance created by the music and the feeling of the vocals rather than the meaning of the lyrics. He refuses to interpret the songs lyrically and instead quotes them at length in verses. Bangs is more concerned with the themes in the songs than literal translation. Bangs uses many descriptions of opposing ‘forces’ like, for example, he describes the characters in various songs as, “transfixed between pure rapture and anguish.” He rants on about mysticism and ‘meaning-of-life’ tropes, and evewn writes about S&M and pedophilia in relation to Van Morrison. Clearly, Bangs is feeling ostracised and with the help of this album, was able to justify his lonliness. This review truly tells us more about Bangs than Morrison’s music or the album. 


the original article can be read here.

Frank Ocean


There are few artists for whom I have unconditional admiration. Frank Ocean is one of them. I still recall the summer that his highly acclaimed album “Channel Orange” dropped. That summer I had the album on repeat.

I’m not going to lie; I didn’t know of Ocean before “Channel Orange” came out, but after listening to his album a few (hundred) times, I looked into his previous work. ‘Novocane’ is a particular favourite. It has a strong narrative and satirizes life in the LA. Its smart but isn’t overly clever. But its more obvious than most of his work on Channel Orange – which feels more honest and vulnerable.

Ocean’s music compels me with its poetic storytelling, and undeniable soul. The music draws from so many different genres making it unique. His soft and easy vocals make his songs seem easy to sing along to, which makes you want to. But ultimately its pretty hard to imitate that kind of easiness and emotion that he so effortlessly combines.

Like in ‘Bad Religion,’ Ocean sings about an “unrequited love,” lamenting “ I could never make him love me.” His echoing voice haunts you as his voice trails into a repetition of the words, pleading: “love me.” The song is already powerful opening with a narrative of a man in a cab treating the driver as a confidante; a stranger who knows his pain rather than those who know him: “I can’t tell you the truth of my disguise” he sings, “I can’t trust no one.”

Maybe some of his themes are clichéd. When you break it down who hasn’t sung about unrequited love (Thinking About You, Bad Religion, Forrest Gump). But somehow when Frank Ocean tells us his stories, they don’t seem contrived and I believe him.