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.

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Adam Heimlich