A Freestyle Hip-Hop Revival at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room

Return of the Cypher and DJ Kevvy Kev on the Marquee outside San Francisco's Boom Boom Room.

Return of the Cypher and DJ Kevvy Kev on the marquee outside San Francisco's Boom Boom Room. (Lynn Friedman/Flickr)

Every Sunday night for the last two years, San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room has played host to Return of the Cypher, or ROTC for short.

The event’s website describes it as a show that “features amazing local freestyle artists taking the stage in improvised sessions, known as Cyphers, where emcees, singers, beat-boxers and musicians collaborate in a spontaneous combustion of pure skill.”

Hip-Hop artist Flo J Simpson takes the stage at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco. The Sunday night Return of the Cypher event draws rappers from across the Bay Area.
Hip-hop artist Flo J. Simpson takes the stage at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco. The Sunday night Return of the Cypher event draws rappers from across the Bay Area. (Alex Cwalinski/KQED)

I checked it out one Sunday night to see for myself.

Under a pink neon sign advertising “Live Grooves, Cocktails and Dancing,” music bursts onto the sidewalk as local emcees with varying skills take turns on the mic, honoring the hip-hop artists who came before them.

Opening DJ Kevvy Kev has been spinning records in the Bay Area for over 30 years.

“ROTC is something that needed to happen, so we built it,” Kev explains. “And the response has been really, really cool. It’s been gratifying to see the response. It’s my favorite thing that I do every week.”

DJing wasn’t a part of Kev’s plan when he moved to California in the early 1980s to attend Stanford University. His initial goal was to graduate with a degree in chemical engineering, but everything suddenly changed when he studied abroad.

“My junior year I went over to France for a quarter. This was the year hip-hop was exploding overseas,” Kev says. “So my timing was exact. I went over there, and it was the first time that anyone reacted to me as the hip-hop guy. It meant something to be a DJ, an emcee or a B-Boy. They were really into the culture over there, so I started thinking in terms of maybe this isn’t the plan B, maybe chemistry is the plan B.”

DJ Kevvy Kev
DJ Kevvy Kev (cgnsfo/Flickr)

Kev hasn’t put the turntable down since. After returning to Stanford he began DJing for the university’s hip-hop radio show, “The Drum,” where he continued DJing for 27 years.

Back at the Boom Boom Room on Fillmore Street, Kev wraps up his first set and makes room for the Gemstone Band, who take over and keep the rhythm going for the rest of the Cypher.

Cyphers are unique events, dating back to the late 1970s when rappers, beat-boxers and dancers would gather in a circle and take turns showing off their skills in one big open jam session.

ROTC’s Cypher works a little differently. Rappers get one minute to freestyle onstage. A head emcee keeps the time on an old school hourglass sand timer and passes along the mic to the next rapper when time runs out. Performers can go back on stage, but they’ll have to get in line among the many waiting. Meanwhile, the band just keeps playing, seamlessly changing the beat every few minutes.

A local hip-hop artist takes the stage at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco at Return of the Cypher.
A local hip-hop artist takes the stage at the Boom Boom Room in San Francisco at Return of the Cypher. (Alex Cwalinski/KQED)

There are also some great dancers who bust out some impressive moves. “Just about every week there’s somebody that gets open on the floor and starts spinning on their neck,” Kev says.

The event is very inclusive and I didn’t see anyone getting turned away from the mic.

Local hip-hop artist Flo J. Simpson has been coming to ROTC for about a year now, and he told me why he keeps coming back.

“I really believe it’s the positivity and the atmosphere that’s created, where everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves, however they do it,” he said.

A Freestyle Hip-Hop Revival at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room 4 March,2016Alex Cwalinski

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