It’s Goin’ Down at… The Lyricist Lounge

By the 19-naughties hip-hop had opened its doors to a wide array of sounds, techniques and styles, both mainstream and underground. While the boom-bap New Yorkers were taking back the rap reins from their West Coast counterparts, the emerging alternative hip-hop collectives on both coasts were laying a foundation for the underground circuit. One of the areas in which rap began expanding was the art scene. Open-mic nights at local cafes and clubs became a hotbed for raw, unadulterated talent, and unknown artists were given the chance to showcase their work to an audience of other young and aspiring lyricists. Like poetry reading circles or songwriter sessions, rappers were organizing themselves in these collective workshops, honing their craft like true artists—true professionals.

On the West coast, the open-mic nights at the Good Life Café became the breeding ground for some of the most impressive lyricists ever caught on wax. One of the acts to emerge from amateur night at Good Life Café was the criminally underrated Freestyle Fellowship, frontrunners for most talented rap group of all time (but they warrant their own piece altogether… hint: stay tuned).

In New York, however, there was no Good Life Café, nor was there a Freestyle Fellowship. Instead, there was the East Coast equivalent to Good Life, a tiny studio apartment on Lower East Side Manhattan which acted as a workshop for artists, new and old, known loosely as the Lyricist Lounge. Founded in 1991 by Anthony Marshall and Danny Castro, the Lyricist Lounge became a hit in the underground New York City circuit, a popular place and hangout for young artists to share their music on the open-mic stage.

Fast forward to the new millennium. It was the year 2000, and the Lyricist Lounge had just gained enough of a following—after a compilation album and two separate tours involving artists from Mos Def to KRS-One to Slick Rick—for a television series. That’s right, MTV agreed to a proposal by Marshall and Castro to bring the Lounge on air—only, a twist of humour would be added to tie the rap acts together. And with a diverse cast of underground rappers and comedy actors, music producers and comedy writers, the first ever hip-hop sketch comedy was born, dubbed The Lyricist Lounge Show.

To those who remember watching the show, it was groundbreaking in its demonstration of how hip-hop could be used as a viable musical media. Most episodes comprised a series of often hilarious sketches, featuring characters conversing only in rapped dialogue—most of it written, some of it even freestyled to a live studio audience—over minimalist and non-invasive background beats. The three artists especially instrumental to the show’s creative direction were Wordsworth, Master Fuol, and Baby Power, all members of the ensemble cast and writers of the show. Frequent guest appearances were made by fan favourite Mos Def, as well as Q-Tip, Cee-Lo, Common, and Erykah Badu, among others. The strong cast of lyricists and All-Star rappers made each episode not to be missed.

Yet sadly, The Lyricist Lounge Show failed to survive beyond two seasons, and like our other favourite hip-hop show Yo! MTV Raps, the program was promptly canceled (another reason to ignore television beyond HBO, Showtime, and the occasional NBC Comedy). Conflict between MTV and the show’s producers—no doubt a creative difference between network and creators—coupled with high production costs and a deflating audience, resulted in the shows termination. In short, we fans were screwed out of what could have been a hit television series, and the first of many forays of drama into hip-hop. I remember staying up late as kids with my older brother, watching Mos Def trade rhymes with characters like “Mayor Fuoliani,” just soaking in all the music with our young ears glued to the tube. For years we wondered where the show had gone after it left the air. I have yet to see another hip-hop based musical production add the same amount of depth and versatility to its lyrical content, while matching the biting wit of The Lyricist Lounge Show.

Today, the Lyricist Lounge has evolved into a rappers’ showcase. An always-changing cast of emcees from all over the hip-hop world, both unknown and established, tour through various venues across the United States to perform live shows. Sponsored by a wide array of companies and hosted by many respectable rappers, these live performances are all we have left after the termination of The Lyricist Lounge Show.

In 1998 before the show was created, members and affiliates of the Lyricist Lounge released a compilation album featuring various artists including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Ras Kass, Words, Saul Williams, and Jurassic 5, titled The Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1.

The Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1

Disc 1:
1. Wise Guy- “Street Promoters (Skit)”
2. De La Soul & 88 Keys- “Intro”
3. Cipher Complet- “Bring Hip Hop Back”
4. Diaz Brothers with Matrix & Abutta- “Keep Pouring”
5. Sarah Jones- “Blood”
6. Q-Tip, Mos Def, & Tash- “Body Rock”
7. Hazadu, J-Treds, Thirstin Howl III, Kwest, & I.G. Off- “Bathroom Cipher”
8. Punch & Words- “Da Cipher”
9. Word A’ Mouth- “Famous Last Words”
10. Prime- “No Mater”
11. Ras Kass & O.C.- “Action Guaranteed”
12. Mike Zoot- “All in My Own”
13. Wiseguy & Words- “The Phone Call (Skit)”
14. -Black Thought, Common, Pharoahe Monch, & Absolute A.K.A Xtra Kredit- “Live From the D.J. Stretch Armstrong Show With Your Host Bobbito the Barber”


Disc 2:
1. Saul Williams- “Ohm”
2. Kool Keith & Sir Menelik- “Intro”
3. Natural Elements- “Mayday”
4. Talib Kweli (Reflection Eternal)- “Manifesto”
5. Bahamadia & Rah Digga- “Be OK”
6. A.L.- “Lyrics”
7. Talib Kweli, Shabaam Sahdeeq, Wiseguy, Building Blocks, Mr Metaphor, & Lil Sci- “Outside the Lounge”
8. Lord Have Mercy More & D.V. Alias Khrist- “Holy Water”
9. Jurassic 5- “Jayou”
10. KRS-One, Zack De La Rocha, & The Last Emperor- “C.I.A. (Criminals in Action)”
11. Problemz- “Society”
12. Indelible MCs, Company Flow, Juggaknots, & J-Tred- “Weight”
13. Words, Rise, Punch, Jedi, & A.L.- “After the Show”

During the show’s run, a Lyricist Lounge Vol. 2 was released, featuring more established rappers of the game. It is worth a listen, though it isn’t quite as strong as the first album. Much of the Lyricist Lounge flavor is missing from this set, as the CD tries to cross over into a mainstream sound, probably in anticipation of a growing audience.

Not to be confused as music used on the show, both of these albums were showcases of the diverse talent found in hip-hop, while still leaving fans hungry for more of the actual television series—which, of course, no longer exists.

The Lyricist Lounge Vol. 2

1. Notorious B.I.G.- “16 Bars (Live at the Lyricist Lounge)
2. Mos Def, Pharoahe Monch, & Nate Dogg- “Oh No”
3. Q-Tip & Words- “Makin’ It Blend”
4. Cocoa Brovaz- “Get Up”
5. Beanie Sigel- “Get That Dough”
6. Royce da 5’9- “Let’s Grow”
7. Mos Def & Ghostface Killah- “Ms. Fat Booty”
8. Redman & Saukrates- “W.K.Y.A.”
9. Talib Kweli & Dead Prez- “Sharp Shooters”
10. Kool G. Rap & M.O.P.- “Legendary Street Team”
11. Big Noyd & Prodigy- “The Grimy Way”
12. Erick Sermon & S. Scott- “Battle”
13. Da Cipha, Punch, Cobra Red, Planet Asia, Guilty, & Phil Da Agony (Consequence & Menace)- “Interlude”
14. Big L. & C-Town- “Still Here”
15. Dilated Peoples- “Right and Exact”
16. The Last Emperor & RZA- “He Lives”
17. Master Fuol, J.T. Money, & Pastor Troy- “Watcha”
18. Macy Gray, Mos Def & Gang Starr- “I’ve Committed Murder (Remix)”
19. Q-Tip- “Outro Live at the Lounge”


Now wherever you may be at, take a few minutes, sit back, relax, and check out these clips from the show:

Enjoy these old clips. If anyone has old episodes of The Lyricist Lounge Show taped anywhere, please feel free to post them in the comments or on the forums, so other readers can experience them too.

— Teddy C.D.

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