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R.A.W. Cypher brings freestyle parties to North End Halifax

Local hip hop talent gathers on Gottingen Street

by Rana Encol

Woozy Blanks grew up in Uniacke Square, spent some time in Dartmouth, but has always called north end Halifax home. (Photo: Rana Encol)
Woozy Blanks grew up in Uniacke Square, spent some time in Dartmouth, but has always called north end Halifax home. (Photo: Rana Encol)

Martez Wiggins, a.k.a. Woozy Blanks, is setting up his second cypher night when hot pink lights flood the Alteregos cafe on Gottingen Street. DJ Hot Cue is behind a laptop and mixer where guests usually check in to the adjacent hostel.

It was the night after Ghostface Killah hit up town just up the street, but one didn't need to stray farther to find the heart of Halifax's local rap scene paying homage to the core element of hip hop: the freestyle party!

“Did you see Ghostface last night?” Woozy recalls someone asking.

“No, but he's opening up the weekend for me!” he cheekily replies.

Whether it was J Pimpin rapping sly, boastful verse for the ladies (rapping “make the people jealous next door” over Wu-Tang's C.R.E.A.M. Instrumentals), or Micky Blanks bringing the party and persona, the night was a showcase for local artists from Dartmouth, from North Preston, from Uniacke Square.

A cypher is pure fun – a few drinks and a few people combine to make a freewheeling, freestyling good time. It's a chance for MCs to feed off each others' energy with sometimes written, but more often improvised rhymes.

22-year-old Woozy affirms how it's a building block of the craft: “People used to stand around on street corners and pass around verses for hours,” he says. “It's a lost religion.”

Nowadays, Woozy will meet up with his brother (Alvero) and best friend (Micky) at their apartments, sometimes with a case of beer to get the verses flowing. On one such occasion he got the idea to host this event: “we're not as big as we think we are,” he humbly admits. The cypher is his step towards that kind of artistic community – to challenge one another and forge connections amongst artists.

It's an energy everyone wants to be a part of – people in the crowd really want to spit, he says, even if they're not part of the lineup.

I meet Native Son, MC for the Lost Boys (rap group who signed to Arista Records in the 1990s), while waiting for the cypher to begin. He was part of that early East Coast hip hop sound, and remembers his own cyphers with Special Ed (later member of the Crooklyn Dodgers; “I Got it Made”).

Though he says he's more into slam poetry these days, he kills it when he steps up the mic and delivers some deep, soulful verse with a bit of beat boxing thrown in for good measure – drawing some admiring “oh, that '90s sound” oohs and ahs from the crowd.

Local filmmaker Michael MacDonald is producing the documentary tentatively entitled “R.A.W. Cypher,” and says he'll follow the musicians making street art and poetry throughout the summer with a crew of camera and sound technicians, who are mostly student apprentices through the Centre for Arts and Technology.

Fateh Ahmed is directing the film, which will be financed through crowdfunding.

MacDonald met Woozy in the cafe when casual conversation turned to the idea of a film documentary spotlighting Woozy, his life, and his music. 

The young rapper says he can only work on his craft between 11pm-4am – with a full-time work schedule and a baby on the way, he has to pay to be in the game: “Rap's not paying me.” Whether it's studio time or purchasing the rights to a beat, it all costs money.

It's harder to establish oneself in a small city, where the pool of record label executives scouting for raw talent is much smaller. “Businesswise, I'd like to follow the business model of Jay-Z,” Woozy laughs: “He came from nothing and now has everything!” He also admires Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar for their pure talent and commitment to the craft.

Hip hop means so much to him: it's the one thing that helps him focus on something while escaping life stresses at the same time.

He started playing around with the craft at 14, and only got serious after his sister passed away. He credits the L.O.V.E. program for providing a family which encouraged creative expression like photography and poetry for kids who might otherwise get in trouble at home or on the streets. Considering himself fairly fortunate, it was a humbling experience to witness others' life struggles, he says.

His moral motto?

“Learn as much as you can from anybody else.”

He's excited to keep the cyphers going on a monthly basis, and looks forward to holding an open-air concert in September. 

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Topics: Arts
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