The Manhattan Project

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

When it comes to hip-hop artists, nicknames are the norm, but "Little Boy" and "Fat Man" are not rappers.

The Manhattan Project was the code name for the U.S. effort during World War II to produce an atomic bomb. In 1942, four scientists convened in New York with calculations and chemical formulas, attempting to produce a secret weapon that would "instill" peace. Their discoveries were perfected in the bombs, "Little Boy" and "Fat Man." When the bombs were detonated, Hiroshima and Nagasaki experienced massive destruction, and the project had surpassed all expectations.

In hip-hop terms, history has seemingly repeated itself. The genre often looks like it's at war with itself, plagued by violence, instability and crass commercialism. In 1991, four ambitious minds came together to create a formula for a safe and peaceful showcase of underground and unsigned talent. Their creation known as "Lyricist Lounge" has exploded with major impact and continues to send shock waves throughout the hip-hop nation.

Traditionally, Lyricist Lounge shows are hosted by one of the performing acts. A national headliner also performs. The showcase currently offers a huge helping of veterans from hip-hop's army, including De La Soul, GURU, Q-Tip, KRS-ONE, Lost Boyz, Common, Fat Joe, The Roots, Foxy Brown, and Mobb Deep. True to its origins, it also features unsigned talent. The original Lyricist Lounge is currently being replicated within a 12-city tour that includes Tempe. De La Soul will serve as the host here in the Valley, while newcomers Black Eyed Peas will be the headliner.

Actually, when it all began, Lyricist Lounge was devoid of turntables, so the minuscule production couldn't even start from scratch. Two young kids, Anthony Marshall and Danny Castro, met as 16-year-olds, hanging around outside New York clubs like Studio 54 and Octagon. The couple were enthusiasts, not entrepreneurs. They were concerned with establishing an intimate environment for aspiring artists to just hang out or perform. Originally called "Session," the first location was a small studio in Manhattan. Even if they had been of legal age, there was no need for alcohol; the studio was packed at 25 people and the rhymes flowed with positive vibes and energy.

Without the industry present, this kind of loungin' allowed hip-hop to chill without the sheen and opulence that the genre succumbs to in a more corporate establishment. The duo realized that hip-hop is not just music, it's a genuine culture. Therefore, raw talents must be detached from mercenary considerations. That separation became their foundation, much like the first steps to building the bomb required seperating the essential and rare uranium from the more common uranium.

Soon after, word of mouth also began to flow, and a larger following moved to the club once a week. Open-mike policies were too "hit and miss" for the impatient club owner and were quickly eliminated. Marshall and Castro began to request demo tapes so that they could select the artists to perform. At this point, the Lounge was reaching its own kind of critical mass, resulting in a chain reaction.

Funding came from their first sponsor, Cat Jackson, a former VP of A&R at Pendulum Records, while The Source magazine printed a column on the event. With $500, the enthusiasts formed Kalodge Projects and began to feature promising talent. By March 1993, then-unsigned acts like Mobb Deep and a 14-year old Foxy Brown both performed to a crowd of 300. Attendance had doubled by the next performance date two months later, hosted by Sean "Puffy" Combs. The headliner? The late Notorious B.I.G., also unsigned at the time.

Promotion was an extensive part of Lyricist Lounge's success, and an aggressive street infantry still distributes 20,000 fliers before each show. Blue Davis, a Boston underground promoter, joined the effort, and shortly thereafter a marketing and networking manager named Wise Dred came on board. The Supper Club and the Marc Ball Room in New York City became the next venues to host the Lounge with at least a thousand in attendance. By then, the promoters claimed to be able to pack a crowd with a mere five days of word of mouth. The project began to benefit from sponsorships, lined up like Yellow Pages listings. The Source, URB magazine, Girbaud Jeans, Mecca Clothing, Stress magazine, Rap Pages, and Loud Records are just a few active supporters.

Although industry types looked long and hard for the next talent to scoop up, it was--and still is--the hard-core hip-hop fans that kept the whole concept fresh.

"The whole idea is based on the uncompromising talent and pure hip-hop," says Posdnous of De La Soul, during a Lyricist Lounge tour break. "All the real fans are anticipating every new breath and word and the excitement comes from being centered around the point of origin."

Nevertheless, more than 300 record label executives showed up for the Lyricist Lounge show being held at the NY Sheraton Hotel's Grand Ballroom in July of '94. The crowd of 2,000 is still the largest attendance to date for a Lyricist Lounge show. Channel Live, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Das Efx all performed, and a battle took place between classic freestylist Craig G, and Supernatural, who held the freestyle title at the time. Undoubtedly, everyone involved was having a blast.

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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