"Mos Def, I'll have a n*gga bury ya carcass, for a Kool G and I'm not from Rawkus..."
There was a point in time when I, along with many other rap fans, thought that Rawkus Records was an indomitable force to reckon with within this volatile music industry. A powerhouse of a record label that soared over the terrain of both indie and majors, and to think, Rawkus was also an indie label in it's early years. Established by childhood friends Brian Brater and Jarret Myer in 1995, with $10K from their combined savings account, the two Brown University graduates struggled with brand identity, putting out a variety of music genres that ranged from drum-n-bass / jungle to rock and other forms of electronica. Luckily for the two, they were friends with creepy media tycoon Rupert Murdoch's son, James. Brater and Myer drew up a business plan that eventually landed them some financial stability with the help of James Murdoch, and the label would go on to sign their first Hip-Hop act, Company Flow, despite slight uncertainty from the group.
Co-Flow (El-P, Mr. Len & Bigg Jus) had already recorded an EP which would later become the full-length album, Funcrusher Plus. The former EP (Funcrusher) was released on indie label Official founded by El-P himself, with 8 Steps to Perfection already getting steady burn on the streets of underground NYC. With "Murdoch money" now on the tables, Co-Flow signed to Rawkus and recorded a few more tracks to officially lengthen Funcrusher Plus from an EP to a 19-track-deep LP. Graff heads welcomed End To End Burners as an anthem of sorts, and the streets immediately embraced Rawkus & Co-Flow and cosigned the rawness of the album which was as cold as the steel blade of a loose box cutter sliding across skin. Ah, I can still recall hearing the unorthodox flows and screwing up my face and nodding to the idiosyncratic beat of The Fire In Which You Burn, like "What?!"
Acting quickly on their new buzz, Rawkus proceeded to put out singles from indie MCs including RA the Rugged Man, Shabaam Sahdeeq and a young Mos Def & Talib Kweli. Mos was just starting to establish himself, working with Trinidad-to-Brooklyn transplants Da Bush Babees, as well as younger brother DCQ and sister Ces, under the moniker Urban Thermo Dynamics. Kweli had already appeared on more than a few cuts on Mood's Doom LP, which would become the catalyst to a long, and healthy relationship between Kweli & Hi-Tek (Reflection Eternal).
In 1997, Rawkus put out their first official compilation project, Soundbombing Vol. 1, with DJ Evil Dee of Da Beatminerz at the helm of DJ duties. The continuous mix included many one-off and obscure previously released Rawkus 12" singles, with a fix of some Black Star & Reflection Eternal material. (If You Can Huh, You Can Hear, anyone?) This first installment of Soundbombing gained a small buzz when it dropped, but it wasn't until the second installment that they would really start to make some noise. In between the time that Vol. 1 and 2 was released, Black Star dropped their debut to critical acclaim, but it was Vol. 2 and it's inclusion of early Eminem material, and underground hits like B-Boy Document 99, Crosstown Beef and 1999 that Rawkus really started to be taken seriously as an indie label.
Unfortunately, a bit beyond 1999 is also when the label would ironically start taking a turn for the worse, but not before putting out a few more solid albums. The label put out Company Flow's second LP, Little Johnny from the Hospitul, and shortly after, El-P was looking at and out the front door. El-P had words of war regarding their subpar "promotional techniques", stating "These twisted, corrupted shit eaters who stole money from everyone they worked with, fired their staff a few days before Christmas, signed amazing artists and never put their records out, blocked artists they had under contract from signing to other labels even after they had driven their label in to the ground and weren't even functioning, sycophantically attempted to attach themselves to anyone in the mainstream they possibly could." (via HHDX)
Pharoahe Monch put out his celebrated debut, Internal Affairs, with Simon Says as the first single. This same single would eventually get the Funk Flex cosign, in heavy rotation on Hot 97. To think, an underground smash that crept up into mainstream radio, and now on the platters of the biggest radio DJ at the time. Alas, entropy slowly came into play. Rawkus, who was under a distribution deal with Priority, was being pursued by both Def Jam and MCA in 2001. You would think, given Def Jam's rich history, Rawkus would have immediately signed the dotted lines. On the contrary, MCA was the choice, despite their inexperience with Hip-Hop. Meanwhile, the label, despite the messy situation unfolding, put out a few more esteemed LPs, including Kweli's first solo outing, Quality, Lyricist Lounge V. 1 & 2, High & Mighty's Home Field Advantage and Soundboming III. MCA (under the UMG umbrella) would soon collapse and be assimilated into Geffen Records, now under the watch of Jimmy Iovine. A string of more poor decisions and a failure to amass additional mainstream success would soon become the demise of the once-heralded label, and in 2004, Geffen would part ways with Rawkus.
These days, Rawkus still puts out material, unfortunately, the same hunger it held in the late 90s has completely vanished into oblivion. In hindsight, I believe that Rawkus was more of an assemblage of notable and admired MCs, than an actual label that knew how to operate in the capacity it should have. Still, without the presence of Brater & Myer's vision, we quite possibly may have never been introduced to accomplished artists like Hi-Tek, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Company Flow or the High & Mighty. And the whole backpacker, beneath the surface culture? It would have still thrived, just not as strong as it did with the Rawkus imprint around.
Talib Kweli, Kool G Rap, Rah Digga, Sporty Thieves, Shabam Shaddeq, Common, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monche, Posdnuos - One Four Love Pt. 1