The term "underground Hip-Hop" is often used to describe artists/labels who never enjoyed mainstream success. While other genres don't pigeonhole acts/entities in a similar manner, Hip-Hop seems to embrace the underdog story which showcases traits like uniqueness, resiliency, and ultimately, staying power.
Rawkus Records remains one of the most important labels in Hip-Hop even though it is now longer releasing new material. Their catalog is a cross-section of artists whose body of work highlights just how different Hip-Hop can look and feel. From Mos Def to Big L, and Talib Kweli to Company Flow, take a trip with us down memory lane.
Rawkus Records was founded by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer while the duo attended Brown University. The two bonded over an affinity for Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, Smif-N-Wessun’s Dah Shinin‘, and the jazzy samples the music was built upon by the likes of Miles Davis, Dexter Gordon, and John Coltrane. What was initially "Raw Records" eventually morphed into "Rawkus Records" — and the label's signature razor blade logo underwent several different iterations.
Initially, the label was focused on a pre-Limp Bizkit fusion of rap and rock with a group called Plastique, various drum and bass records, and breakbeats. Eventually Rawkus put out their first 12" with Poppa Bear Kool Breez ("Lighter"/"What's The Word") in 1996 which was more indicative of what was to come for the label.
Amongst the first official acts on the label were groups like 7 Universal and The Rose Family from Brownsville.
Eventually, Rawkus moved into an office at 65 Reade Street in Manhattan and began putting on important releases like Shabaam Sahdeeq's "Arabian Nights." Based on the growing strength of the next few releases, they eventually moved into 676 Broadway.
In 1996, Company Flow had only released their Funcrusher EP. Both Brater and Myer were fans of what they heard and wanted to sign the group which consisted of El-P, Mr, Len, and Bigg Jus.
The group had already established themselves as a known entity — able to sell 15,000 12" through a distribution deal through Fat Beats. Ultimately, they decided to remaster the Funcrusher album to do a one album deal through Rawkus.
"Back then, Company Flow really held the underground captive—they were the most independent as fuck thing pretty much in the business. They had a manic following." - Brian Brater
They planned to do a video for "Vital Nerve" before deciding to shoot "End to End Burners" in the Brooklyn Transit Museum. The group followed up their album with an instrumental effort called Little Johnny From The Hospitul. El-P eventually departed the deal and went on to form Def-Jux
Mos Def and Talib Kweli met as teenagers in Washington Square Park. Mos' foray into Hip-Hop had been with a group called Urban Thermo Dynamics with his brother DCQ and sister Ces. They put out two records on Payday Records. He eventually went solo and released "Universal Magnetic" with producer Shawn J. Period.
At the same time, Rawkus was preparing to release Reflection Eternal's "Fortified Live" which caught the attention of Funkmaster Flex who began playing it on the radio.
Black Star was a real win for the label. They were able to move 27,000 units the first week and eventually scored a lucrative distribution through both Priority Records and Red Distribution. I
Lyricists Lounge Vol. 1 & 2
Danny Castro and Anthony Marshall were responsible for creating the Lyricists Lounge in 1991 — an "incubator" of sorts — for both MC's and producers inside 45 Orchard Street. Like with anything in life, friends of friends began getting invited. Artists like Mos Def, Big L, Doug E Fresh, and The Educated Rapper were amongst the first to show up. Soon, the showcase became the go-to-spot for A&R's looking for talent.
When it came time for the Lyricist Lounge to make a record, Rawkus was the logical choice. Both the inaugural double disc — and the subsequent follow up — are a testmanent to the strength of the two NYC cultural institutions.
Soundbombing I & II
DJ Evil Dee of Da Beatminerz originally made Soundbombing as a promotional giveaway that Rawkus planned to release for free at a convention.
"I started puttin’ this tape together," recalls DJ Evil Dee. "I went and got acetates cut so I could blend everything, and I put this tape together. Brian and Jarret was like, ‘How much do you want for this tape?’ I was like, ‘Yo, it’s a free giveaway;’ I said, ‘You know what? I’ll charge you $500.’ Boom, boom, boom, we did the exchange.”
When it came time to develop the second installment, Evil Dee declined and suggested The Beat Junkies’ J. Rocc and DJ Babu.
The Big Picture
After being dropped by Columbia due to artistic differences, Big L started his own independent label, Flamboyant Entertainment, in 1998.
In an effort to preserve Big L's legacy after he was killed in Harlem, Rich King, his partner at Flamboyant Entertainment, helped complete his sophomore album, The Big Picture, which he had been recording before his death. Released on August 1, 2000, the album debuted at No. 13 on the Billboard 200 chart, selling over 72,000 copies in its first week, and 500,000 units overall.