The Manhattan Project

N.Y.-bred Lyricist Lounge explodes on the hip-hop nation with a national tour

But despite all the success, the original purpose of Lyricist Lounge continues to be upheld: a safe and supportive meeting of the minds and party for performance. The events have been uniformly incident-free and professional. Artists are encouraged and nurtured before and after they hit the stage, receiving "counseling" between the cuts. Posdnous explains, "You have to present yourself and your skills in a professional manner. The Lounge system or way of doing things is extremely organized. To even be a part of it, you've gotta have your shit together. You can't just hop up on stage and start rhyming."

Like a vocational school, Lyricist Lounge offers a program of sorts where MCs hone their skills and work toward a "degree" and a good chance at "job placement." Many artists contend that their record signing was a direct result of such "training."

But Lyricist Lounge hasn't been free of problems. It lost $4,000 from an unscrupulous promoter during a New Music Seminar in '94, but the Zulu Nation helped the crew to secure an office in the New Yorker hotel. The Nation's efforts helped the company proceed toward recovering the losses without interruption.

In 1996, Lyricist Lounge connected with Perry Landesberg, a co-founder of Ecko Clothing Unlimited, to start Open Mic Records with the hope of releasing a Lyricist Lounge compilation. Volume one is a two-CD set with 28 tracks far more raw than sushi. Kalodge Projects wished to move hip-hop from the West Coast back to its New York roots. The package puts the focal point on lyrical content, the fulcrum of hip-hop.

Nonetheless, Castro argues that hip-hop actually needs highly commercial artists like "Puffy," Jermaine Dupri, and Will Smith to provide contrast. Lyricist Lounge Volume One is the real product--a shelter from such constant radioactivity.

"It's kinda like yin and yang," Posdnous says. "Each force acts upon the other, creating an existence for the other."

Indeed, Volume One has no Lexus lyrics or jiggy jargon--it's not hip-hop for those who like MTV's images of MCs pushing Hummers with champagne and cigars.

De La Soul, which is also the host of the first CD in the Volume One set, embodies the aesthetic of Lyricist Lounge perfectly. The genre was certainly in a better place in 1989 when the living legends released the classic 3 Feet High and Rising. The CD's first song, performed by Cipher Complete, sets the stage: "Bring Hip-Hop Back." They rap, "Peace to real soldiers of this hip-hop culture/Devil got this whole game fixed and that's the industry's rule number 666/And it's real 'cause lyrically you've gotta have skills/If I start naming names, brothers wouldn't have deals." Apparently, somebody's listening, because Lyricist Lounge concert attendance is steadily growing.

Naturally, touring is the next strategy to spread this philosophy across the country. Landesberg says, "We do the whole thing--the fliers are printed, delivered and/or distributed, and tee shirts, mix tapes and radio spots are all handled in house."

Thinking large is considered to be the key to living large, and that's why this Lounge act has progressed from the testing grounds of a Manhattan apartment to the entire hip-hop nation. And just like that other underground project, the Lyricist Lounge had no idea just how big it would blow up.

Lyricist Lounge featuring De La Soul is scheduled for Tuesday, September 15, at Pompeii in Tempe, with Black Eyed Peas and others. Showtime is 8 p.m.

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