Cyphers have come to form an integral part of Nigeria’s rap industry. They originated as part of early American Hip-hop culture, where rappers would get together in a circle and freestyle to a single beat, with many of these lines often directed derogatorily at one another in battle-rap style. These little bouts of rap, combative as they appear, work to enhance collaboration and drive up an interest in the industry, and it is no surprise that this culture follows Hip-hop wherever it goes.
In Nigeria, Rap cyphers are mostly put together by two entities: Cognac brands like Hennessy and Martell, and Chocolate City, the rap-focused record label, and often by a partnership of both. As far back as twelve years ago, rappers like MI, Ice Prince, Modenine, Naeto C and more united under the flag of the BET for one of Nigeria’s first commercialised cyphers; last week, the first two of these artists featured on Chocolate City’s Cypher, in honour of two decades of the label’s existence. In celebration of this, here are ten of the best times Nigerian rappers assembled to create bar-heavy, lyrically potent cyphers.
10. 100 Crowns – The Coronation 2019 Artist Cypher
Rappers: Barelyanyhook, Moss, Tentik, Timi Kay
Memorable Bars: “Niggas rhyme like farm animal stories, a lot of cock and bull” – Timi Kay
In 2019, following a split from Hennessy, MI and his label imprint, 100 Crowns, a Chocolate City subsidiary, thought to organise a cypher to spotlight its incubating rappers. There were in fact two versions, the Battle Cypher (featuring battle rappers), and this, where Barelyanyhook, Moss and Timi Kay, the standouts, spoke to the challenges plaguing rising rappers in the industry, choosing lines that tackle these issues with a stoic resolve rather than despondency.
9. Hennessy 2021 Cypher EP3
Rappers: Ladipoe, MI, Vector, Ycee
Memorable Bars: “My middle finger started acting up again/ Accuracy of the flow like acupuncture with the pen/ They need the boy to lend the hand that I would rather not extend/ But here I am, the rap messiah raising Lazarus again” – Ladipoe
2021’s Hennessy Cypher, like several others that appear on this list, had rappers spread across a few batches, this time called episodes. It was one of the few times Hennessy was partial in their allocation. Where in the past, each cohort starred a rap megastar alongside a number of emerging acts, this time Hennessy’s top-heavy approach meant that Episode 1 featured rising acts like Psycho YP and Barrylane, Episode 2 was headlined by alumni of Hennessy’s VS class, and this, the magnum opus, starred the biggest artists in Nigeria’s (English) rap class. Perhaps this line-up raises anticipations that aren’t quite delivered by the end of the cypher, but slick flows by Ladipoe and Ycee in particular—prioritising delivery and wordplay over abrasiveness—help crown it a fine piece of rap art.
8. Hennessy 2016: Ycee, Fatboy, Vamor, Phlow, Maximum
Rappers: Ycee, Fatboy, Vamor, Phlow, Maximum
Memorable Bars: “And I ain’t talking about going to the mosque when I say I don’t allow wack bars”– Vamor
The 2016 edition of the Hennessy cypher was its second in consecutive years, and Hennessy had kept its commitment to not only crowning established stars but platforming emerging MCs, especially alumni of its yearly Hennessy artistry VS competitions. Each year’s version was therefore broken into smaller cohorts featuring a few rappers trading lines over the same beat. In 2016, Ycee led a group of less popular, yet incredibly talented MCs for a session that many still regard as Hennessy’s finest.
7. Hennessy 2020 Cypher 2
Rappers: Vader, Payper Corleone, Phlow, Barrylane
Memorable Bars: “I’m assassinator, I don’t knock on doors/I pass the chimney but fully gifted like Santa Claus” – Barrylane
The line-up at Hennessy’s 2020 cypher carried a greater significance than the previous years. It was a reconciliation in many ways. MI, who had been in the past the face of Nigerian battle cyphers, had made a two year split from Hennessy, decrying the dropping quality of rap verses being put out by rappers on the Cognac brand’s cyphers. He pitched his tent with Martell for a while, producing two cyphers that appear further down this list. In 2020 it was time to go back to family, and MI made his peace with both Hennessy and Vector, his opponent in a drawn out rap beef. Rappers were once more split into three classes, and this version, featuring Vader’s swaggering confidence, Phlow’s sizzling delivery and Barrylane’s unmissable similarity to Kendrick Lamar, was Hennessy’s best effort since 2016—despite Vector and MI’s big reunion in episode 3.
6. Hennessy Cypher 2022
Rappers: Barelyanyhook, Matosan, Preacher Kingz, PDSTRN
Memorable Bars: “Pedestrian on the VS, I cut through like VVS/ Foot on the gas, no slowing down, no breaks I never hit recess.” – PDSTRN
In 2022, Hennessy made a number of bold changes to their cypher format, but as this cypher’s position on this list lets on, they were good ones. First, Hennessy trimmed its usual catalogue of twelve stars to four, meaning they could all fit on one version. Second, and of much greater importance, Hennessy decided to showcase its VS alumni, meaning that the rappers on the line-up were relatively unknown, but these stars made such great use of the opportunity that it would take the most cynical listener to not take note of their names after the first listen.
5. LAMB Cypher 3
Rappers: Loose Kanyon, A-Q, MI, Blaqbonez
Memorable Bars: “When I put this raps out I bet they pass out/ They asking me the source of the beef, I told them cash cows/ These rappers tried to put me on a leash and stop my cash count/ I snapped, they start disappearing like fifty cents eyebrows” – A-Q
The Martell Cypher was created after MI’s public split with Hennessy in 2019, but two years later, when the weapons of that war had been set aside and Chocolate City and Hennessy were back in an embrace, the four rappers who had created the Martell Cypher thought to make one final edition without Martell. In came L.A.M.B., a smart acronym from their names. Here, a feisty Blaqbonez opens with an unbothered superciliousness, while the more senior members of the cartel speak on bags that don’t stop coming. MI in particular is not the rap speedster we know he can be, but A-Q more than makes up for it with stellar word play that elicit subtle cheers when meanings are decoded—except for those to whom they are addressed.
4. Hennessy Cypher Africa
Rappers: Octopizzo (Kenya), M.anifest (Ghana), A-Reece (South Africa), MI and Vector (Nigeria)
Memorable Bars: “I’m not in it for the attention or Twitter mentions/ The likes don’t keep the lights on or pay you pension/ The agenda I dey push be pure it’s no malice/ But every word I breath it feels like Dracarys” – M.anifest
After Hennessy’s 2022 Cypher released in November with its top class of artists noticeably missing in action, it was revealed a month later what they were being saved for. MI and Vector represented Nigeria in Hennessy’s inaugural Africa cypher, squaring up against their contemporaries from across Africa. If there was ever going to be anything to better a selection of the country’s finest, it would be the continent’s finest. This crew prove themselves worthy of that tag, especially between M.anifest’s slick flow delivered in a delectable cocktail of pidgin and English, the musical quality of Octopizzo and A-Reece verses, and MI’s attempt to hold his own against the best of Africa.
3. Martell Cypher 2: The Purification
Rappers: Loose Kanyon, A-Q, MI, Blaqbonez
Memorable Bars: “Every move is planned and my shit going accordingly/ Your move is to wait for my move I get it honestly, bruh/ In your defense, you were just searching for hype/ In my defense, I got Van Dijk and Godin on the side” – Blaqbonez
For a cypher series that came about as a result of MI’s dissatisfaction with the quality of Hennessy’s cyphers of 2017 and 2018, Martell was brilliant in ensuring the primary reason for that split was rectified in its own cyphers. Here, MI joined ranks with past and former Chocolate City associates. The first edition in January 2019 had established them as a formidable group, this one, tagged “The Purification”, was visualised as an apology to the Nigerian rap fans for the subpar performances of their colleagues, and a purification of the rap scene. Apart from their association with 100 Crowns, where Blaqbonez was domiciled at the time, these rappers also share deep-seated egos that they convey with a patronising cockiness.
2. Chocolate City Cypher
Rappers: Blaqbonez, MI, Ice Prince, Jesse Jagz, Loose Kanyon, A-Q
Memorable Bars: “Jesus said turn your left cheek, y’all know it’s biblical/ That’s what I told your girl last week when we was frictional/ I don’t do back and forth with no chick, unless Serena though/ I could lose every point, but you know I’m gon’ serve” – Blaqbonez
Twenty years of surviving as a record label in Nigeria’s fast-changing music industry is impressive, but to not only survive but thrive in this environment is worthy of celebration. This, as well as the milestone of hip-hop turning fifty in 2023, influenced the release of the Chocolate City Cypher on the 8th of January. Incredibly, it is the first of its class, for although every one of these rappers had featured on similar battle-rap cyphers, and often with one another, they had never united under the umbrella of their record label. Blaqbonez spends the first few seconds of Jayslim’s trippy production cruising, before ushering in this band of reunited friends, as they deliver a quip-heavy history of Chocolate City in only ten minutes.
1. Martell Cypher
Rappers: Loose Kanyon, A-Q, MI, Blaqbonez
Memorable Bars: “We arrive to help you pussies out/ My niggas are Gynos/ How we do it isn’t fair, seems you guys are albinos” – MI
The inaugural edition of the Martell Cypher featured four rappers and a Cognac brand looking to prove a major point with this coalition, but that is only half of the explanation for the quality and success of its end product. The other half was due to the ingenuity and skill of the creatives themselves. Blaqbonez appears here in characteristic vituperative form, while Loose Kanyon slows his flow to ensure every stinging word is heard by his opponents. A-Q has no problem displaying brilliant lyricism with no sacrifice to rhythm, while MI’s not-so-veiled shots at Hennessy land the sucker punch at the end of one of Nigeria’s finest displays of rap craftsmanship.