Whether you've seen the comedy-sketch show on MTV or followed underground rap for years, the words "Lyricist Lounge" should trigger a few clicks through your inner slide show: maybe a sweaty, puckered face baring teeth into a microphone, a kid standing in an Ecko hoodie with pen and pad in hand and backpack strapped, a group of freestylers huddled like football players. These are the pictures of hip-hop-emcee culture, pictures encapsulating a concept that was founded in 1991 and has gradually developed into a New York movement.
Started by an organization christened the Lyricist Lounge, the live open-mic sessions welcomed Foxy Brown onto the stage at age 14; Puff and Biggie during Bad Boy's infancy; Talib Kweli and Rah Digga when they were still perfecting their skills. In the summer of 1998, the lounge sessions resulted in the release of the monstrous landmark compilation of the same name: Lyricist Lounge. Featuring a slew of unsigned and independent-label artists, the collection rode in on the swell of a new wave of talent that had gained momentum over the previous few years, a momentum initially generated, at least in part, by the open-mic sessions.
The format goes like this: Rap vets (KRS-One, De La Soul, etc.) host the event to draw the crowd, and a lineup of fledglings get their chance to impress the heads. With the next school in full session, Mos Def steps up to headliner position on the platform that launched him into the public ear, now with several classic 12- inches, the Black Star album (a collaboration with Talib Kweli), and his solo full-length, Black on Both Sides. He has matured quickly as an artist since Rawkus signed him: His debut single, "Universal Magnetic," was a b-boy anthem, and "Umi Says," off Both Sides, is an intimate stream-of- consciousness jazz track. His newest single, "Ms. Fat Booty 2," with Ghostface Killah, signals the impending release of Lyricist Lounge Vol. 2.
Others on the bill include Punch & Words, who appeared on LL, Vol. 1, and Major Figgas, a crew of seven out of North Philly who represent, in their words, "playas straight from the hood." Word has it, however, that the Outsidaz, a rowdy pack from Detroit that ran with Eminem before he went pop, may be replacing them on the tour. Either way, the show will provide a new format and variety that a diet of everyday hip-pop radio rotation may lack.