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.
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.
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.
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.
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.