Writing about Cash Money Records yesterday and thinking about Def Jam and their silver anniversary got me reminiscing about another storied hip-hop label, Rawkus Records.
Starting out independently in the mid to late ’90s, Rawkus, in many ways, mirrored Def Jam’s early days by capturing the sound of New York’s underground. Through their releases, label heads Brian Brater and Jarret Meyer developed a strong following amongst college kids in and around the city, much like Russell and Rick did in Def Jam’s formative years. Helping to launch the careers of artists like Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Company Flow’s El-P, Rawkus set a new standard of excellence in both beat production and lyricism.
To have a label willing to put out album’s like Black Star’s self-titled debut and Pharaohe Monch’s fan-favorite Internal Affairs in the face of Bad Boy’s commercial dominance was a call for celebration in itself. But not only were the seminal Rawkus releases a big fuck you in the face of hip-hop’s more popular sounds of the time, the records were actually dope.
It was the label’s ability to galvanize an entire underground that made it great. Amongst the Rawkus’ celebrated catalog was its Soundbombing compilation series, which featured memorable performances from artists who weren’t even signed to the label (i.e. Eminem on “Any Man,” Common on “1-9-9-9” and Styles P on “My Life”). More than a boutique label, Rawkus provided a home for talented artists who were better served outside of the major label system. That was until 2002 when the label went into a joint venture with MCA Records. Things pretty much went downhill from there. Of course there was Kweli’s 2002 opus Quality and his 2004 follow-up The Beautiful Struggle, but it just wasn’t the same. In 2006, Rawkus won it’s independence back and released Kidz In The Hall’s debut School Was My Hustle and Marco Polo’s Port Authority a year later, but not much else.
I’m speaking strictly from a fan’s perspective, but it’s hard to say what went wrong with Rawkus. It has long been said that they passed on signing Kanye West—maybe their failure to make a continued impression on hip-hop is karma for not scooping up the Louis Vuitton Don. Who knows? But for now, let’s remember Rawkus. —Rob Markman
Black Star “Definition”
Pharoahe Monch “Simon Says”
Company Flow “End to End Burners”
Common & Sadat X “1-9-9-9” LIVE
Talib Kweli “Get By” LIVE