Beats and bars: CMU Cyphers make rap a lifestyle


Without pausing or even setting his backpack down, Oliver Liburd walks up the cement steps to his friend’s porch, where a deep bass beat is pulsing.

Still in his CMU Engineering T-shirt, Liburd steps into the loose circle of his friend and launches into a freestyle rap, forming the next line in his head as he goes.

“I got my two friends here, yeah, we’re three musketeers, and I’m eatin’ my candy bar while I’m spittin’ bars. You can’t kill this cause I’m shootin’ for the freakin’ stars, and I’m from Mars — nah, from Venus, ‘cause I’m a genius.”

Liburd, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and a member of the Carnegie Mellon University Cypher club, is a freestyle rapper. Cypher is an organization for students interested in learning how to freestyle or continuing to hone their rapping skills. Members use rap as a hobby, a path to a career goal or a way to relieve stress from the daily grind of college life.

Every Friday evening beginning at 4:30 p.m., the CMU Cyphers meet up in the basement or under the relaxed brick foyer of a friend’s house to escape into freestyle rap. They stand in a loosely packed circle around a small stack of four Sony speakers with someone’s iPhone plugged in and relay words back and forth to the background of a hip-hop or EDM beat.

This evening, they’re on a front porch on Beeler Street in Squirrel Hill, crowded in a loose circle around Liburd.

“Yeah I’m at my summit, I’m never gonna plummet,” Liburd continues. “I freakin’ want it, but I’m never gonna summit … I can’t summit.”

Three other Cypher regulars nod their heads and sway emphatically as Liburd lets loose a steady cascade of words.

“Bars! Bars!” They shout to acknowledge his flow and then explode into laughter and applause when he reaches the inevitable end of the freestyle cycle and runs out of rhymes.

Warm-up: Where it all started

CMU senior computer science major Jacob Buckman founded the group in fall 2014. Once they gathered enough interest from other students, the Cyphers took off as an official club second semester of that year. It started out with only four members, but has grown to see about 15 people at any given Friday meeting and has become an open group with new members constantly passing through.

Liburd initially heard about the club through the Student Taught Course in freestyle rap, which Buckman and junior finance major Marcus Plenty began in the fall 2016 semester. These self-designed courses offered through the Student College at CMU may be taught by any CMU student and offer Satisfactory/No Credit elective units in a variety of topics.

Buckman and Plenty’s mission for the class is to help students learn about the inner workings of freestyle, without the frustration of repeated failed attempts at trying to learn the art independently, which Buckman vividly remembers.

Jacob Buckman freestyling at the Cypher Club’s weekly meeting. Theo Schwarz | Senior Staff Photographer

“I took the skills that I learned just through sheer practice and trial and error … then presented it to them in a structured format,” Buckman said. “I hope that by giving them that structure, it allows them to advance in the relevant areas more quickly.”

The weekly 80-minute Freestyle Rap class, which Buckman and Plenty still teach, includes a lecture about the fundamentals of rap and the structure of freestyle, followed by drills such as sporadically cutting the beat to encourage students to keep the rhythm in their heads.

The course tests students’ knowledge with a midterm and final freestyle rap presentation or recording. Buckman and Plenty’s grading criteria is based on delivery, content, enthusiasm, “hypeness” and “dopeness.” The class naturally funnels students into the club.

The increasing popularity of the class and his own apparent progress is what hooked Liburd and prompted him to begin practicing everywhere he could. In fact, some of his best freestyling comes from unexpected venues — like the shower.

“It’s a perfect time to multitask because no one can hear you, so you put on the speaker and just rap,” Liburd said.

Background music: The freestyle community

In addition to their basement rap sessions, the Cyphers have also performed at a few open mic nights and CMU events for prospective students. So far, the Cyphers haven’t battled any other university clubs because there are no other schools in the Pittsburgh area — and very few nationwide — with freestyle rap organizations.

Though there may not be clubs at the university level, there’s a budding subculture of freestyle rap in Pittsburgh, extending beyond the CMU Cyphers.

Rhyme Calisthenics, an MC Competition that combines rap battles and game shows, has made its way to Pittsburgh on two separate occasions: the Kelly Strayhorn Theater in 2009 and the Shadow Lounge in 2012. Twelve different rap challenges, called the “Wheel of Skillz,” test the performers and their flow.

Pittsburgh has also hosted the largest hip-hop battle league in the nation, Grind Time Now, which held freestyle competitions in its “Steel Town Smackdown” in 2010 and 2011 — although it’s more recently held competitions in Orlando, Florida, and Kansas City, Missouri.

For now, the Cyphers’ primary goal is to provide a welcoming space for both beginner and experienced rappers to assemble and improve their freestyling skills together — whether that be on the open cement porch beside a street of passing cars or in just about anyone’s basement.

“The door’s always open. There’s no being late to Cypher,” Liburd said.

Backing Liburd’s statement, professional and creative writing double major Christian Zeitler rolls up about a half hour into the jam session in a blue Aztec-patterned button-down shirt and khaki pants. Zeitler, a junior at CMU, skips over every other cement step, trying to get through the door quicker, and jumps into the spirited crowd.

He passes around his Goldfish crackers to the other members and begins swaying to the music, spinning his Animal Rescue League sunglasses around his fingers when the beat drops.

Zeitler said the Cypher community is encouraging to all its members, whether they’re veteran rappers or just beginners. For instance, if any of the rappers gets into a lull and their words escape them momentarily, the group makes other sounds with their mouths and hands to provide a cushion of support.

“Something that’s really cool about the club is that we’re actually like, hella supportive. And what’s more is we get hyped for you on your level. The reason you hear people freak out frequently is not because everyone’s really good … if you’re new here and you get four bars out, people lose their shit,” Zeitler said. “I think because of that, people feel comfortable returning.”

Chorus: More than just music

Senior engineering and music tech major David Buzzell, one of the club’s newer consistent members, wasn’t interested in freestyle or rap when he was growing up — Mozart and Beethoven were more his speed.

But a whimsical dabbling in rap — mostly to make fun of his friends who regularly freestyled — after a concert last semester paved Buzzell’s way into freestyle.

“[My friends] thought it was amazing, like the best thing that they’ve heard,” Buzzell said. “I was like, ‘No, calm down,’ but they encouraged me to keep with it.”

Buzzell isn’t the only one who stumbled upon freestyle by chance. In fact, many of the Cypher members are pursuing starkly different studies at CMU, including writing and finance, but they each prioritize making time to integrate rap into their lives.

As an engineering student, Liburd has to fit freestyle in around his other academic commitments, even if it means sometimes turning assignments in late.

Rap stretches beyond just a Friday night rouse for Liburd — it has become an outlet for him in trying or stressful times.

“Some people work out for their form of self-expression or their form of coping, and some people dance, but neither one of those has done what rap has done for me,” Liburd said. “It’s where I talk about my life.”

Others in the group incorporate freestyle into their lives because they plan to use these skills in their future careers.

Buckman, a prospective Ph.D. student studying natural language processing, has also found ways to weave freestyle into his career goals.

“Nobody who is citing my future papers will ever know that I freestyle, and nobody that I freestyle with will ever read one of my scientific papers,”  Buckman said. “It’s related only in that it’s about words, and I love words.”

Buzzell is exploring career options that will incorporate both his engineering degree and his passion for music. He hopes to be the mind behind the music, the one who makes and connects the circuits that allow for that stack of speakers to provide the background EDM music that the Cyphers rap to on Friday afternoons.

On the Beeler Street front porch, Buzzell takes center stage under the flickering porch light, as the beat blasting from the speakers begins winding down.

“I don’t know, I’m tryna keep the flow. You think that it’s stopping, but I wanna give ya more,” Buzzell raps to his fellow club members. “I’m feelin’ so fly cause I wish I could get some high, and not off the weed but off the music life.”