The Flesh Made Word

Eventually Lyricist Lounge relocated to a Greenwich Village club called the Muse, where in the fall of 1992 a then-unknown fourteen-year-old rapper calling herself Nefertiti performed. (Nefertiti morphed into national rap sensation Foxy Brown.) After only a handful of showcases, the Muse's capacity of 300 people also proved insufficient to accommodate the crowds. Castro and Marshall elected to forgo their own performing in order to concentrate on full-time promotion.

In March 1993 Lyricist Lounge debuted at famed Greenwich Village jazz venue the Village Gate; rap legend Doug E. Fresh hosted. Castro and Marshall contacted him through the successful dance troupe the Mop Tops, with whom they had been associating and performing since the Lounge's early days. Before shows the pair demanded demo tapes from would-be participants, selecting for the bill rappers who seemed to possess not only raw ability but also the discipline to practice and develop it. Among those who passed muster and performed at the first Village Gate gig was the now hugely successful Mobb Deep.

That Village Gate premiere was marked by another Lyricist Lounge first: sponsorship. According to Marshall, Paisley Park, the record label started by the Artist Formerly Known as Prince, kicked in about $500 for the right to advertise its products. That edition of the Lounge, adds Marshall, birthed "a format that we could stick to: a dope host everyone knew, a showcase of unsigned acts that came prepared to do a show, and a sponsor that allowed us to keep going and offset our expenses."

Two months later the teens hooked up with an emerging young rap industry player named Sean Combs, a.k.a. Puffy, who had just convinced Arista Records, a major label, to help him start a rap imprint that would concentrate on signing New York-based artists. Through a mutual friend Combs met the Lyricist Lounge principals; together they decided to launch the new label, Bad Boy, with an unsigned artist extravaganza at the Village Gate hosted by Combs's top artist, Brooklyn rapper Notorious B.I.G.

It almost didn't come off. As Marshall remembers it, three days before the May 20 date the manager of the Village Gate learned that one of Combs's previous events had resulted in tragedy. At New York's City College during Christmas week 1991, a celebrity charity basketball game turned into an ugly stampede in which nine people were killed. A city investigation found that promoters Heavy D (a rapper) and Combs (at that time a 21-year-old executive at Uptown Records) had not provided adequate security. (A civil suit brought by eight of the nine victims' families against City College, the two promoters, and the State of New York resulted in an April 1998 out-of-court settlement for the reported amount of $3.2 million.) According to Marshall, the Village Gate manager feared a similar catastrophe could occur at his club, and he called off the show.

Marshall says he knew they had to persuade the manager to change his mind -- and fast. The manager, he points out, didn't know that he and Castro were teenagers. They had never met him face to face. "We were not old enough to legally rent the club, or to come in the club, for that matter," he remembers. "We had to get a friend to dress up in a suit and pretend to be our lawyer."

Marshall tried to soothe the manager while the "lawyer" emphasized the "verbal agreement" the man had made regarding the show. Ultimately he relented. (Marshall swears this story is not apocryphal. The Village Gate has since closed.) Everything went off without incident, although latecomers had to be turned away when the room quickly filled.

In the months after that performance, Lyricist Lounge moved to even larger venues -- the Supper Club, the Marc Ballroom, the Grand, and the ballroom at midtown Manhattan's Sheraton Hotel -- attracting more than 1000 people. No longer scruffy free evenings with performances of wildly varying quality, the Lounge became known as the place to catch up-and-coming hip-hop talent. Hosts during that period (May 1993 through July 1994) included Kool Keith of Ultramagnetic MC's, Guru from Gang Starr, and KRS-One. Emerging stars Bahamadia, Ol' Dirty Bastard, Cella Dwellas, and the Coco Brovas graced the Lounge's various stages.

Asked if there are any current New York rap stars who have never performed at a Lyricist Lounge event, Marshall nods his head. "There's a few," he allows. "We don't claim to have everyone -- we just stand for what we stand for: a dope showcase. If you get in contact with us and get a tape to us and it's hot, most likely we will give you the stage. And if on-stage your shit turns out to really be as hot as it seemed to be, it's likely you will get a record deal."

The primary aim of Lyricist Lounge, according to Castro and Marshall, was and is to present new rap acts, not to make money. But in the wake of their early-Nineties successes, they started to direct attention to more profitable pursuits, which they refer to as "hustles." Under the umbrella of Kalodge Projects, which until 1993 had promoted only Lyricist Lounge, they hustled as publicists for hire. Castro and Marshall found that their experience with hip-hop culture and commerce made them ideally suited for street promotion, a form of record-biz publicity that aims to get materials into the hands of influential fans. The pair also found work as representatives for "streetwear" clothing labels such as Ecko Unlimited and Headhunters, earning commissions for every downtown boutique they could convince to stock the garments. As these hustles increased, Kalodge became too unwieldy to be run by just two people. In 1993 Wise Dred was brought in to coordinate sponsorship deals for Lyricist Lounge events; two years later Blue Davis took over the street-promotion wing of Kalodge (the company is no longer involved in clothing sales).

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