The Flesh Made Word
"You know that feeling when you're in big trouble and you know it, but you just feel like laughing?" Mos Def asks from the stage at El Flamingo, a club on the western edge of the revitalized New York City neighborhood of Chelsea. Indie rap's rookie of the year laughs again. "I'm not in trouble," the new star adds giddily, "just very, very happy."
Mos Def invites his friends Anthony and Danny up on stage to take a bow. Everybody in the house knows that these are the two young entrepreneurs whose vision enabled Mos Def and other rap notables (Mobb Deep, the X-ecutioners, the Alkaholiks) to attain widespread exposure. Posdnous of De La Soul, one of the hosts at the packed, invitation-only May 12 performance showcase and CD-release party for the new multiartist compilation double album Lyricist Lounge Volume One, leads the crowd in a round of cheers. Then a beat kicks in, and Mos Def, still beaming, launches into "Body Rock," the album's first single.
Over the past seven years Anthony Marshall and Danny Castro have nurtured the growth of their scrappy open-mic hip-hop sessions for unsigned artists -- Lyricist Lounge -- into the biggest, most-respected, and star-studded rap performance series in New York. In the process they have helped to create an informal network through which struggling talent can be seen and heard. They have also established a party and concert promotion company that has been hired by major record labels and successful clothing companies. This spring Lyricist Lounge makes a bid for national attention with Lyricist Lounge (the debut release of Open Mic Records), which includes some of rap's brightest stars and most promising newcomers. The collection features previously unreleased songs by the well-known (KRS-One, Q-Tip, the Roots, Common), the newly famous (Mos Def, Company Flow, Ras Kass, Bahamadia), and still unknown (Jurassic 5, Cipher Complete, Sarah Jones.) And this summer the show will hit the road, giving Miami and eleven other U.S. cities a taste of the flavor.
Marshall and Castro, both 24 years old, are two of five CEOs who run Kalodge (pronounced "collage") Projects -- a parent company that presents Lyricist Lounge and functions as an independent publicity firm -- and the new Open Mic Records. The five (Marshall and Castro, along with Perry Landesberg, Blue Davis, and Wise Dred) specialize in making unknowns known. They have already engineered their own ascent from obscurity.
A lineup of ambitious young acts from the compilation appeared at the CD-release party. Each MC, accompanied by a house band or DJ, was allotted only about ten minutes. Between acts, two of De La Soul's three members (Posdnous and Mase) bantered wittily with each other and the crowd until it was time to introduce the next performer. The El Flamingo show resembled many of the Lyricist Lounge showcases held in New York since 1991 except for one big difference: Every "lyricist" who graced the stage had a recording contract. For Castro and Marshall, it was the culmination of a project that has consumed almost a third of their lives -- the nourishing of rap talent.
"I was brought up in a community that was hip-hop-oriented from the beginning," Castro notes of his youth on Manhattan's Lower East Side. "I was born when hip-hop was born. They used to set up jams outside every weekend by hooking up equipment to lampposts."
Marshall, who grew up in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, recounts a similar tale of a childhood immersion in rap culture: "We wouldn't have been playing any other music. Not some pop shit or the Beatles or Rod Stewart or something; not even reggae was that big. Hip-hop was the only music I could relate to."
As teenagers both Marshall and Castro were aspiring performers, concentrating on dance as their preferred method of expression. They met in 1987. Castro was attending the Urban Institute, an alternative Manhattan high school. It was there he befriended Michael Thompson, whose father Charles ran (and still runs) Sound Business Institute, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to teaching business skills to city kids. Charles Thompson, also a jazz musician, encouraged Castro's ambitions. He allowed Castro and Marshall to use his Lower East Side studio apartment -- unoccupied at the time -- as a rehearsal space. In 1991, though still in high school, the duo began hosting open-mic music and dance sessions at the space one evening per week. They called the gatherings Lyricist Lounge.
The two remember that early incarnation of the Lounge as a ragtag assemblage of determined young artists. "At that time," recalls Castro, "we only had three microphones, a messed-up cassette player, and a drum set."
"It was like a jam session," says Marshall. "As jazz musicians come together and improvise on instruments, we would come together and just rhyme." During a four-month period in 1991, attendance at Lyricist Lounge events jumped from a handful of regulars to about 30. "We surpassed the capacity of our space," reports Castro.
"Our anyone-can-get-on-the-mic vibe wasn't being offered anywhere else," explains Marshall. He posits that participation grew because word of his and Castro's unusual determination and organizational skills got around. "Also," he adds drolly, "it was a free show."
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).
Throughout 1996 the Lounge continued its exponential growth. Hosts that year included Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, the Roots, and Jeru the Damaja. Kalodge received more and more tapes, while Lyricist Lounge increasingly became a liaison between the bedrooms where hip-hop dreams are born and the boardrooms where those dreams are (sometimes) made manifest.
"Before we started the Lounge," Marshall explains, "there were just records that kids would hear out, a rap video here and there they could catch. Parties were going on, but the majority of music in the clubs was house. It didn't feel like an artist vibe -- not that I knew of, at least. There was no scene. Hip-hop DJs were mix-tape DJs. There was stuff going on in the Bronx [where hip-hop culture first emerged in the Seventies], in Harlem, but we didn't know about it. When we started Lyricist Lounge, we wanted to put people on to what was going on and kinda make a scene for it. Now you can tell there's mad shit going on. There's an awareness that there's an unsigned following out there, and kids that are into hip-hop for the lyrics."
The recent creation of Open Mic Records means that the ranks of the unsigned are shrinking. The idea for a Lyricist Lounge-affiliated record label originated with Perry Landesberg, who approached Kalodge with the concept in 1996. They came to terms, and Landesberg signed on as Kalodge's fifth (and only white) CEO; he began brokering a distribution deal with Rawkus Records that would make Open Mic a reality. "The label is just an extension of the Lounge," Landesberg notes. "We're just showcasing artists on a broader scale."
This summer's Lyricist Lounge tour of the United States, adds Landesberg, is yet another extension. "We're gonna have a twelve-city tour and showcase artists from each city that we go to," he says. Each stop (a Miami date is confirmed for sometime in mid-August) will feature a celebrity host and a few marquee performers (Redman, De La Soul, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli are expected to appear at three or four shows). Unsigned performers will be selected from demo tapes. "A lot of up-and-coming artists around the country don't have an outlet for their creativity," explains Landesberg. "We're gonna bring it.
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