A Fistful of Mighta Been

How the Miramax of Music Soundbombed

They almost had Kanye West.

Summer 2001 and Ali S., Rawkus's rookie a&r man, has in hand the demo that no label wants. Granted, there are willies who love the kid's beats, but nobody thinks he flows like Kane. Ali loves his smarts and hears his potential. Just off a stint with Dre, Ali will never be mistaken for a backpacker, but he's sold on the Rawkus dream of advancing to the major leagues. When he started out they gave him filler artists, and told him if he wanted to work with stars he'd have to find his own. Two weeks later he comes back with Kanye West.

Hold off, they say. Something major is in the works. Rawkus is a label on the rise and just as Ali is wooing West, MCA and Def Jam, themselves competing units of the same entertainment giant, are vying for a joint ownership deal. In the two months it takes MCA to win, new artists are put on hold. West does not wait around. Ali begins nursing a fifth of Mighta Been.

photo: Maya Hayuk

Every label has its near-miss story—the crusty kid who goes on to be Nas, the skinny teenager who blooms into Alicia Keys. But when your parent corporation tells you to pack your things, when the chaos that's left Sylvia Rhone free for lunch swings your way, when the weight of it all comes down, you look back on every move, dissect every Mos Def and Kool G Rap, in hopes of learning where you went wrong.

In January the bigwigs from what by then was Geffen/Interscope told Rawkus it was over. It was cash or court, and Rawkus's proprietors took the cash. Just like that, the label that had defined underground hip-hop was consigned to the history books. For nine years it fought the good fight, transforming local rumors like Company Flow and Talib Kweli into a national vanguard resisting rap's gilded age. But it wasn't enough just to stand against commodification. Rawkus wanted to be a small, arty label that moved like a high roller—a Miramax of music that would pair raw energy with the slickest marketing this side of Def Jam.

It's been a helluva ride, hasn't it? You old-heads climbed aboard back when Rawkus was pushing Plastique and "Beaches & Creme." Maybe you got it with Talib's "Fortified Live" and the dirtiest loop since Premier came clean, or when Common paired with Sadat X. This is a world I want to live in, you thought, a place where hip-hop is as hip-hop should be.

You were young then and prone to putting Illmatic and Liquid Swords on repeat. Things were not as people remember—they could not neatly divide your world into the republic of Big and the commonwealth of Pac. To you, both were infidels. Big got grudging respect, but you thought him perverted by jewels and janes. Pac was simply a reality show whose drama outshone his skills. For you, 1989 was 1 A.D. Your anthem was O.C.'s "Time's Up": "Speaking in tongues about what you did but you never done it/Admit you bit it because the next man gained platinum behind it." You got through life quoting Lauryn Hill: "While you imitating Al Capone/I be Nina Simone, and defecating on your microphone." You were convinced no one else knew.

In 1995, however, two barely legal Jewish kids just out of Brown had taken a stand, though not for hip-hop—they were jazz heads, more Mingus and 'Trane than Moe Dee and Kane. Brian Brater and Jarret Myer had known each other since they were three. Brater's honey was an upright bass; Myer dated her sister, a guitar. But they both fell for the chicks more than the chicks fell for them. So they figured that if they weren't destined to make beautiful music, they'd make a beautiful world where music could live.

Rawkus Records was founded on 10 g's in savings and a hazily idealistic notion about promoting progressive music. They tried drum'n'bass, electronica, and rock. They were not taken very seriously. But they could write a business plan, and they knew how to pull strings. So they tapped their old friend James Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch's kid. Pops agreed to invest in Rawkus even if it didn't have the gravitas. To get that, Brater and Myer would have to focus their vision a bit. They couldn't be all things to all genres. But they could be the only thing that mattered to you.

They got their first inkling from Company Flow. This was not true love—it was a marriage of convenience and opportunity. Orchestrated by abstract beatmaster-MC El-P, Co-Flo had little respect for Rawkus's business acumen or knowledge of hip-hop. But the Murdoch money was irresistible. Like almost every act that came to Rawkus, Co-Flo brought their own dream and asked the label to sell it: Funcrusher Plus. A few months later hordes of college geeks had an excuse for sitting sullenly in the back of the classroom: "Even when I say nothing it's a beautiful use of negative space."

Remember 1997? Radio has been deregulated. The reign of Bad Boy has begun and you can't walk down the street without hearing Mase mumble, "Can't a young man make money anymore?" And then comes Funcrusher Plus, a straight razor to hip-pop's gilded visage. The album revels in dark moods. Its MCs are morbid tour guides escorting you across a jagged soundscape of drum and noise. And now suddenly Rawkus isn't about post-hippie idealism. Suddenly it's indie as fuck. You've been sitting in your dorm room, jaded and smoked out, cursing the Samboism of Big Tigger. Then you hear Co-Flo and realize that, yes, there is hip-hop on other planets.

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