A Fistful of Mighta Been

How the Miramax of Music Soundbombed

Myer and Brater didn't get this at first, and today they still halfway deny it. They didn't start a label to show the world how to play it small. They believed in the music, yes, but they wanted the world to believe with them. And now they had a buzz. Now they were legitimate—and not just because of Company Flow. The label multiplied its street cred by pushing a bunch of 12-inch vinyl by relatively unknown MCs—L-Fudge, Sir Menelik, Mos Def, RA the Rugged Man. The creative results were mixed, but that was unimportant. By fetishizing vinyl, Rawkus created its own fundamentalist mystique.

The defining statement of the early Rawkus ethos is Soundbombing, which collected the 12-inches from Talib Kweli's edutaining "2000 Seasons" down to L-Fudge's battling "Show Me Your Gratitude" and added a sophomoric tag-team freestyle from Mos Def and Talib. The sound quality is poor, the vocals are sometimes barely audible. But Soundbombing showcased Rawkus's knee-jerk rejection of everything that blinged. Rawkus was convinced it had the warriors to front a hip-pop rebellion—and the resources. At your average indie label, promotion meant some intern cold-calling college DJs. At Rawkus it meant ads in XXL and The Source, street teams, and a full radio promotion staff.

But because Myer and Brater really were idealists as well as pragmatists, their idea of a&r was almost too artist-friendly. Rawkus cut the check, the artist headed for the lab. Company Flow were given a five-year licensing deal for Funcrusher Plus, after which the masters reverted to the group. The sweetheart deals and heavy promotion made Rawkus the ideal home for anyone who'd ever debated Big Daddy Kane versus Rakim.

photo: Maya Hayuk

The label cultivated a fan base that would use the phrase "keep it real" without kidding. It's worth noting that most of these fans were white. Funcrusher, with its total lack of groove, was an art project designed neither for clubs nor cafés. Anyway, for African Americans, hip-hop had long since ceased to be an underground phenomenon. Although almost all the label's artists were black, the idea of hip-hop fundamentalism was a nonstarter for black folks in general. Rawkus's sound celebrated life on the outside. But the whole point of post-civil-rights America was to get inside. So like damn near every other hip-hop label, Rawkus thrived by exporting menace and angst to white kids.

But the nihilism of Company Flow was a dead-end street for Rawkus. Indie as fuck might play on campus, but like its cousin, ghetto as fuck, it's a philosophy of rejected love, and one that acknowledges the ceiling. Brater and Myer identified with artists who saw the sky the way they did, and who had the talent to take them there. And that's how the first incarnation of Rawkus ended. With Company Flow pissed at being underpromoted. With their DJ Mr. Len at a meet-and-greet in Europe with no Co-Flo promotional material, left to sign Black Star albums with the cryptic message, "This isn't me."

The release of Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star in August '98, and then Soundbombing 2 in '99, defined the label's effort to bridge the gap between creativity and commerce, and crossed Rawkus over from angry white boys to the neo-soul and headwrap set. The change was gradual—Company Flow contributed Soundbombing 2's most disturbing cut, "Patriotism," brought their supergroup the Indelible MCs to bear on the 1998 Lyricist's Lounge compilation, and in 1999 gave Rawkus the instrumental album Little Johnny From the Hospital. But the days when the label was defined by El-P's scowl were over. After Little Johnny, Company Flow left for good. Within a year El-P had launched Def Jux, the hip-hop label he thought Rawkus should have become.

Soundbombing 2 was Exhibit A for the new Rawkus. The album still eschews the fabulous, but it's shinier than its predecessor. The original drew energy from toastmaster Evil Dee haphazardly tossing together a few 12-inches and felt like a hastily organized dorm party. Soundbombing 2 was a salon featuring the progenitors and the heroes of hip-hop's underground, and in 1999 it was the underground—and as its two videos demonstrated, the underground at its most marketable.

Times were fast now. Rawkus's staff worked hard and partied harder. The label had exploded from a staff of six or seven to several dozen, with West Coast offices. Tribeca digs were replaced by an office on Broadway, and Rawkus started distributing tiny labels like Eastern Conference, Game, and DITC. And then it all went right and wrong at the same time. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.

With the departure of Company Flow, Rawkus's defining artist became Mos Def. The iconoclastic Brooklynite's casual flow was inviting, but he was more than just another hot MC. With his thespian pedigree and killer smile, his upside seemed limitless. "Ms. Fat Booty," the single from his Black on Both Sides, even got radio play, eventually generating Rawkus's first gold album—even if it shouldn't have been.

That honor should have gone to Pharoahe Monch, whose "Simon Says" became a monster hit as school started in 1999. Every night Funkmaster Flex dropped his signature bombs over the cut on his mix show. Rawkus was ecstatic. Pharoahe Monch had toiled underground as the nicer half of Organized Konfusion for eight years. The kid had the props, but he was not known for putting asses on the floor. "Simon Says" changed all of that, and Rawkus figured if an underground loyalist like Monch could break through, sky really was the limit.

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