Live

Q: What do Tori Amos, Nick Cave, and Lyricist Lounge have in common? A: Nothing.

-- Dave Clifford

Lyricist Lounge
Maritime Hall
Wednesday, Sept. 16

The words "Hip hop is no longer homeless" flashed on the walls above a sold-out crowd at the Maritime Hall last Wednesday night. Amateur MCs stood at stage right, dank smoke swirling about. For the MCs, this was a chance to bust lyrical windmills in front of 1,000 hip-hop heads, including such notables as De La Soul, Black Eyed Peas, and surprise guest Wyclef Jean.

The concert was called Lyricist Lounge, and it was making its premiere, after several years of existence on the East Coast, in San Francisco. Virtually unknown MCs given a chance to flex their skills in front of such a large crowd is rare in hip hop, and generally nonexistent in the underground. Hip-hop acts have never enjoyed the support network that rock bands get from small clubs. Reports of violence and gang activity at shows in the late '80s tainted hip hop's reputation and it became near impossible for underground acts to put together a nationwide tour. Organizers of Lyricist Lounge posit themselves as the remedy for that problem. The series began seven years ago when Anthony Marshall and Danny Castro created an open-mike night in a small New York studio. The simple event, which gave MCs a chance to perform and hone their talent, quickly evolved into an underground institution. Renowned MCs like KRS-One and A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip -- who regularly preach the positivity of a hip-hop community -- became regular hosts for the event.

As Lyricist Lounge grew in renown, the organizers decided to take the show on a 12-city tour with the hope of expanding the original premise to a nationwide scale. True to the stated mission, four new -- but signed -- acts are receiving the sort of large audience usually accessible only to the show's hosts De La Soul and perhaps the headliners, Black Eyed Peas.

The evening started with an open-mike session that invited anyone in the hall to participate. By the time that local amateur Top Ramen took the mike it was already clear that the crowd was at the Maritime to support hip hop in its pure competitive nature. The heads obviously did not anticipate a De La Soul show buttressed by irrelevant openers. Instead of trickling in midshow to avoid the early acts -- a common scene at almost any rock gig -- the entire venue was filled beyond capacity a half-hour before the first rhyme dropped.

For the rest of the night, the crowd would act as judge, jury, and executioner over every performer, regardless of notoriety. They sent out peals of approval and shuddering boos. Top Ramen stepped onstage with a swagger, and backed up his posturing with a barrage of machine gun rhymes about everything from sneakers to Santa Cruz. The audience rewarded him handsomely. Unfortunately, the following open-mike performers either suffered from monotone delivery or a serious lack of lyrical gymnastics -- that is, the ability to switch tempos and jump from one beat to the next.

The showcase itself was more consistent. A dreaded Castro introduced the Last Emperor and Emenem and told the audience that the two would have 15 minutes to perform their routines. "Let's get ready to rumble!" shouted the Last Emperor before launching into an awe-inspiring set of creative rhymes. His second rhyme posited what it would be like if comic book characters battled against famous rappers. He deftly mimicked Common Sense vs. Colossus, then G.I. Joe vs. Cobra. Again, the audience roared.

Despite the tough competition, Chicago rapper Emenem twisted his vocal chords around "I Just Don't Give a Fuck." The crowd flipped him off with approval. Near the end of the session, Ras Kass -- a Coolio associate from L.A. -- jumped onstage. All three of the MCs let loose a furious freestyle session.

It wasn't all cheers and guest spots. New York duo Rah Sun were stunningly average. The crowd knew it and booed them offstage. It wasn't planned, but the mediocrity made De La Soul and Black Eyed Peas look even better.

De La Soul, as expected, turned in a strong performance with a short mix of old and new school -- "Jenifa Taught Me," from their first release, and a short series of tunes from Stakes Is High. At the end of the show, the entire night rolled into one collective moment that seemed to capture everything that Lyricist Lounge is supposed to be about. Just as Black Eyed Peas finished their set, rap superstar Wyclef Jean popped up and challenged the group to a freestyle battle. "You may see my shit on MTV, but I came from the old school," he announced. The flurry of rhyming karate chops floored the house.

-- Robert Arriaga

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