Part fan, part historian, part journalist, John Cordero is a walking encyclopedia of Miami’s hip-hop legacy. And this year, he’s decided to make his knowledge part of South Florida’s permanent cultural history with the upcoming release of his book The Cipher: A History of Hip Hop in Miami, due out in the next two to three months.
“Cipher” or “cypher” is a term used to describe groups of freestyle battlers. Cordero’s initial connection with cipher was with his now-defunct newspaper by the same name. Using a combination of memories, interviews with artists from the '90s, and back issues of The Cipher, Cordero has crafted what he believes to be a comprehensive narrative that runs the gamut of Miami neighborhoods — “from Fontainebleau to Wynwood, from Kendall to South Beach, from Tamiami to Hialeah, from South Miami to North Miami Beach, and on and on.”
Originally from Venezuela, Cordero comes from a military family that saw him move around a lot, including a stint in Orlando, before settling in Miami in the summer of ’95 at age 17. However, his love affair with hip-hop and the culture surrounding it began much earlier than that.
“Ever since I was a little kid. My earliest memory was my cousin taking me to see the movie Beat Street… From there, I was in elementary school, but I was listening to LL Cool J, Run D.M.C., stuff like that. And of course Yo! MTV Raps and Rap City came out, and I was watching those, and it just grew from there.
“It was just something that as a little kid, watching the big-screen movie, everything seemed larger than life — the dancing and the graffiti and everything that happened at the time. When I listened to it, it sounded new and fresh. At the time, it was still a new art form, not like it is today. It was still new and exciting. It didn’t sound like anything else on the radio or MTV.”
Upon arriving in the Magic City, Cordero immediately entrenched himself in the scene, visiting underground landmarks close to his home on a regular basis.
“Yeah, when we got here, we lived in the Fontainebleau [in Doral], and about five blocks away was the Malibu Penit, an outdoor graffiti gallery. There’s an apartment complex there now, where the Dolphin and Palmetto [expressways] meet. It was an abandoned development, and it was full of graffiti. All the big crews in Miami [went there] at the time: the Inkheads, BSK, MSG, and, of course, other writers. That was my first exposure to the scene and then tuning in to the underground shows: the Saturday Night Funk Box, the Hip-Hop Shop from WVUM. From there, I would hear all the local stuff.”
The burgeoning scene needed a voice, and Cordero’s free newspaper, The Cipher, looked to fill that void. His forthcoming book features a selection of articles from the paper as well as “unpublished photos, memorabilia, and original artwork.” Lasting 14 issues, The Cipher began for a very simple reason, one that seems to extend to his book.
“It started in ’98, and the main reason was we felt, me and the staff, that Miami hip-hop wasn’t getting the coverage it deserved. The big magazines at the time – The Source, Rap Pages, Vibe, etc. – weren’t really covering Miami. Of course, they were covering the big, major-label artists. But we had a very prolific scene here. We had all the elements: DJs, graffiti, dancers.”
That included local legends such as DJ Craze and the late Mic Rippa. In fact, it was the passing of the latter in 2013 that spurred Cordero to undertake this new venture.
“That pretty much planted the seed for the book because it almost felt like he wasn’t here. I don’t see him being covered. Of course, when it happened, I think New Times wrote about him, and there was a benefit concert for his family, but as time goes on, they become forgotten, him and many others. People move on, people move away, people pass on, etc. Record stores are nonexistent now. All the graffiti that was out there is all gone now. Miami in general moves very fast... That’s the history of Miami: We’re not really big on history here. Everything just gets paved over, and we remodel and redevelop. And so that’s the main reason for the book.”
The Cipher: A History of Hip Hop in Miami will contain modern-day interviews from those in the know, such as DJ Raw and Speedy Legs and the “best of” from the paper, including DJ Khaled’s first interview from when he first moved south from Orlando.
Some from our humble scene, like Khaled or Pitbull, have made it big, achieving widespread acclaim. But one important question lingers for Cordero, a man who has spent so much time looking backward: Has Miami hip-hop peaked with the likes of Khaled and Pitbull, Rick Ross, Trick Daddy, and Uncle Luke?
He thinks not.
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“There’s plenty of artists in the underground, still coming up. I’m thinking of artists like Wreckonize or ¡Mayday!; they have their own following. They’re not as big as Rick Ross, but they still tour and do shows. There’s always going to be a kid in school, in the cafeteria, and that’s how it starts. All these major artists, they didn’t come out overnight. There’s always new development, and there’s always new talent. It’s nonstop."
In the end, young or old, anyone who reads Cordero’s book should, he hopes, take away several basic lessons from it.
“The main thing would be that Miami, for all its faults, the image that people have of it, it’s been a hotbed for talent... In hip-hop, we’re talking about someone like DJ Craze, who has won three world titles. He’s from here. He went to Braddock High School. We’re talking about someone like Pitbull — he went to Coral Park, and look at him. There’s always been talent here."
Cordero also wants today's Miami to look around and realize this didn't happen overnight. "DJ Raw, he helped prepare the scene for what Wynwood is today. Wynwood back then was a dangerous place. He planted a seed with Hoodstock, and look at Wynwood now. I think he deserves a lot of credit for that. When I interviewed him, he talked a lot about what he thinks happened to Wynwood, and he said it’s great. That’s the main thing I want people to get; when they go to Wynwood and hang out, it didn’t always used to be like that, and that’s what the book covers. There’s a lot of talent, a lot of blood, sweat, and tears, and a lot of effort to make the scene what it is today.”