A Fistful of Mighta Been

How the Miramax of Music Soundbombed

But though Pharoahe Monch had a hit single on the radio, Soundscan would ultimately determine whether the record had broken. There'd have to be a delicate balance between promotion and album shipment once Monch's full-length debut, Internal Affairs, rolled out of the pressing plant. Talk to some Rawkus cats and they'll tell you that Priority, Rawkus's distributor at the time, was totally unprepared for this East Coast boutique label to come up with a hit. Priority thought "Simon" was the artist. Talk to Pharoahe Monch and he'll—well, Pharoahe isn't talking to anyone these days, supposedly he's got a deal with Eminem cooking, but he was none too happy with Rawkus. Wherever the blame fell, Internal Affairs never went gold.

The golden record that wasn't fucked Rawkus up. But the very fact that the label could make a hardcore act like Monch palatable to Hot 97 spoke volumes about where Rawkus could go. You see, the New York hip-hop establishment had never taken Rawkus seriously. Rawkus had a warm fuzzy buzz, but Lyor Cohen and Angie Martinez were not impressed. Only with Pharoahe Monch's success did Rawkus believe it was ready for adult swim, and the adults were waiting.

Which brings us back to where we first met. Summer 2001, Rawkus courted by Def Jam and MCA. The choice, MCA, comes down to the man signing the deal—Jay Boberg. Boberg has been assembling a roster of neo-soul crooners and rappers who believe in more than bitches and blunts: Common, Res, Roots, Jazzyfatnastees. Rawkus's underground stable seems a perfect fit. It will position MCA as the go-to label for acoustic-guitar-clutching headwraps and kids who freestyle in cafés instead of on corners.

Unfortunately, Boberg's acts were already complaining that his rep talked big but his promotion walked small. Res's quality debut withered to nothing. The Roots talked shit about getting their Grammy in spite of their label. The beautiful but bland Jazzyfatnastees left. And amid all this Rawkus planned its first big MCA release—Talib Kweli's Quality. Only Rawkus chose the wrong lead single—"Waiting for the DJ." The hit was the follow-up, "Get By," which became huge after a Jay-Z/Busta Rhyme remix was released to radio. But by then Rawkus was cooked. The rug was pulled just two months after Quality's release when Boberg was forced out in January 2003, amid slumping sales at MCA—specifically those of Shaggy's Lucky Day, which was supposed to prop up his artier projects.

Soon the imprint was absorbed by Interscope/Geffen, putting Rawkus under Jimmy Iovine, who'd presided over the great gangsta explosion of the mid '90s. The dream of a home for neo-soulites was in the past. All that mattered was sales. It was not clear that Rawkus had a staff capable of getting hit records out of its few promising artists. Interscope could just as easily absorb those artists and trim the fat—meaning Rawkus.

Rawkus's founders will tell you that they were the last great hip-hop movement. Probably not. But Rawkus's significance isn't in the bombast. It's in the fact that for half a decade, Rawkus made hip-hop a secret again. By the end, everyone was watching and the Rawkus boys knew it. But in the good times, a Rawkus record was like going to a gathering in a shitty part of town where only smart people were invited. In the better times it was a dive bar where the music had highs and lows but always begged you to listen. And in the best times it was the party we all wanted to see—Q-Tip drops by to say peace, Grand Puba buys Sir Menelik a drink, Tash politicks with Dilated Peoples, Kweli introduces Hi-Tek to Bahamadia and then closes out the night marveling at J-Rocc's final set. What else can you say to that, but that you were honored to have been invited.

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