The Cipher
Gig Seeker Pro

The Cipher

Austin, Texas, United States

Austin, Texas, United States
Band Hip Hop Spoken Word


This band has not uploaded any videos
This band has not uploaded any videos



"The Cipher-Austin's Hip Hop Project"

due large photos- please copy and paste the link below into your browser.

- Good Life Magazine

"She was just 17"

The Cipher Crew wants you to know it isn't your ordinary rap pack. It's a mixed-gender project promoting socially responsible hip-hop and supporting the East Austin community. The local Cipher Crew is based on an NYC effort, captured in 2006's The Hip Hop Project, a documentary produced by Bruce Willis and Queen Latifah.

That's fine by T-Fly, Charity, AROC, Sonja, and Johnetta, the five young women who meet twice a week with the boys of the crew to rehearse and rap. Much like the underlying message at Girls Rock Camp Austin, empowerment is a big issue with these young women. Their environments often mean additional challenges, such as the high incidence of teen pregnancy and school dropout rates. For them, rapping and performing allows them to acknowledge these issues creatively.
"Being a woman doesn't mean we can't rap, because we can," offers pretty, exuberant 17-year-old Cora Lee, better known as AROC. "We're rappers too, and we've got hot rhymes. The first time I got onstage, I loved it – it was poetry.
"I started writing more and more, and with the response I got, I thought, 'Okay, maybe I'm good at this rapping thing!'
"So we can do it just as good as the boys can." - Austin Chronicle

"Schooled in Hip Hop/ Changed for Life"

Schooled in hip-hop, changed for life

By Deborah Sengupta Stith
Sunday, June 28, 2009

The air conditioning in Shannon Sandrea's modest, midcentury Allandale home cranks away valiantly, but the stifling 4 o'clock heat still manages to seep into her lime-green living room, where seven members of the Cipher prepare tonight's CD release show. Six young emcees, four male and two female, are in a circle, some sprawled on couches, others cross-legged on chairs. A third young woman sits beside a home entertainment system and plays DJ, pumping out beats from Sandrea's iPhone.

The atmosphere in the room is casual as the rappers run through their material. The sound is distinctly Southern, sparse, grimy beats laced with soulful melody and punctuated by the occasional slowed vocal or heavy artillery metaphor. Many of the songs share a central theme of uprise through struggle, articulated with surprisingly consistent vocal dexterity. These kids, ages 17 to 20, are no joke.

Founded by licensed counselor Shannon Sandrea and poet/rap artist Chris "Gator" Ockletree, the Cipher is a hip-hop empowerment project for East Austin youth.

After seeing the 2007 documentary "The Hip Hop Project" about a New York City nonprofit agency led by a formerly homeless youth who guided a group of underprivileged high school students to write, produce and release a hip-hop album, Sandrea and Ockletree were inspired to re-create the project in Austin. The two drew together a coalition of community partners including performance poets Zell Miller III and DaShade Moonbeam, musician/producer g.LeDaris and hip-hop artist Saul Paul, and they developed a teaching curriculum based on the tenets of old-school hip-hop culture.

Referred to the Cipher both through community and school counselors and word of mouth, the emcees have been meeting twice a week for nearly two years. They usually gather after school at the Southwest Key East Austin Community Development Center, which now is closed for remodeling as the building is being turned into a new fifth grade charter school. Along with instruction on writing techniques and free writing sessions, a variety of hip-hop related workshops has covered everything from beat production to the Brazilian martial art form capoeira.

The young wordsmiths are unequivocal about what the project has done for them, including boosting their confidence and giving them a new sense of purpose. They began to think of themselves as a family.

"Even thinking about Cipher I went to school every day, never got no more referrals, stopped fighting and all that," says Chi-town, one of the emcees. He graduated from high school this spring and plans to attend Huston-Tillotson in the fall.

One striking thing about the Cipher is the group's emphasis on gender equality. In contrast to a mainstream rap industry rife with misogyny and under frequent fire for bombastic sexism, this group of young hip-hop artists puts respect for women front and center in their guiding philosophy.

"We're trying to bring the femcee movement back," says T-Fly, a tall, slender woman who is both soft-spoken and adamant. "We want the same respect that a male emcee would get. It doesn't matter what sex you are; if you're a lyricist, you're a lyricist. That's what we gonna change."

It wasn't always this way. In the early days of the Cipher, T-Fly and fellow female emcee Aroc kept to the sidelines. But over time the young women gained confidence and began to stretch their skills. In addition, the attitude of the group underwent a gradual transformation. In one of their classes the youths watched the documentary "Hip-hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes," which examines sexism in the rap industry. It had a profound impact.

"This man was explaining what the difference was between a sista and then a b word, a female dog, whatever, and his explanations were so bizarre and crazy ... they weren't legit at all," says Aroc, getting a little heated remembering it. "It was really disrespectful the way they were treating all these women. After we watched the documentary we had a talk within the Cipher about what was acceptable. How are you supposed to talk to young women and how do you show respect. And what are we going to do about the disrespectful things that are going on right now."

"That changed a whole lot of male opinion for me," rapper J-Redd interjects. "My whole perception of the way hip-hop was going and how my idols speak about women. My idols, the people I like doing rap —- and I was like naw man, we gotta change this up. And that's what happened?these two did it."

Sandrea hangs out in the background throughout The Cipher rehearsal in her home. She occasionally pops in to offer suggestions, but mostly lets the students run the show. She is quick to emphasize that the students themselves have handled every aspect of this CD release from selecting beats to writing the songs to finalizing aspects of producti - Austin American Statesman

"J'walkin and other Teen Beats"

J Walkin' and Other Teen Beats

Heidi Narum Hyatt didn’t really need to send me this video of 13-year-old Rose Hyatt singing in honor of her father Walter to inspire me to think further about teen bands. But here is darling Rose last February in Nashville, giving her best for a father she never got to know. Sure, Hyatt’s voice wavers around the mark more than once, but what you hear in it is more than just good genes: She’s already got style and personality to go along with what will obviously be fine vocals.
The notion of what makes a good performer was on my mind at the Austin BlastBeat finals on Saturday at Momo’s. Teen bands from around Austin competed via the quasi-record companies set up through local schools by BlastBeat, and the four winners competed for a $1,000 prize. Every one of those bands deserved the prize, and all for completely different reasons.

Rappers Team Next showed up sporting their retro style resplendently. They are all about choreography and attitude, and match it with irresistible beats and lyrics too catchy to miss. Young’un takes the lead because he’s so easy to watch but they’ve got a secret weapon in one of their six singers. His sweet tenor as he sang a ballad “to the ladies” melted my heart.
“Hey, where’d you go? I’m from the ‘hood! I’m from ’23!” Luis Soto razzed Team Next’s fans as they exited the front row. His quintet Hero to the Villain sported equal attitude, blasting Texas death metal through the amps at max volume. The mostly Latino lineup notably features Soto’s roaring vocals and Veronica Carrillo on drums, launched by a killer guitar army lead by Anthony Gilbert and Jonathan Garza with bassist Isaiah Perez.

The Cipher, a team of rappers with themes heavy on the social conscience, walked away with honors. Their earnestness and cool beats, T-Fly’s smooth delivery, and AROC’s sassy stepping gave a stylish appearance to the team’s already strong show. I don’t know the names of the young men as I do the young women in the group, but they carry in them muscular voices that rose above the rest.

Mother Falcon, however, absolutely made me swoon. Somewhere out there where the Decemberists meet the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra and wave to Poi Dog Pondering comes this divine aggregation. That would be Westlake High School, for the moment, where this 12-piece band (who performed with only eight of their members) attend school. They cite Ravel and the Strokes among their influences, but unlike the other three groups excelling in established genres, Mother Falcon is braving unexplored baroque-pop territory.

Like Escovedo, it helps that lead singer Tamir Kalifa is handsome, charismatic, and sings as beautifully as he plays mandolin, accordion, or guitar. Claire Puckett provided lovely accompaniment, but Kalifa’s voice is so well-developed and soaring, the women accompanying him must match that power to be effective. Likewise, this is a band whose symphonic sensibilities require more practice, practice, practice. But if they do it and stick with the gorgeous vision they dangled in front of me, this band is the future of Austin music.
- Austin Chronicle


"Lyrical Lessons" 2010
"From Soldiers to Warriors" 2009



Inspired by the New York Hip Hop Project, we use music to create social change in our community. We are empowered, authentic, and connected to the Austin music and poetry communities. Most importantly, we provide opportunities for all youth to share their stories while creating social change that inspires others and highlights our love for hip hop. Visit