Memory Lane - Rawkus Records

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Growing up in the suburbs of South Jersey fifteen minutes from downtown Philly was a treat. As a young aspiring musician and fan of the arts, it was always an exciting experience going to shows and seeing live music. Memories of seeing Sonic Youth at The Electric Factory, Stereolab at The Trocadeo, or Pat Martino at Chris's Jazz Cafe are some of my most impressionable moments.

One particular memory that I hold close is when I attended the Spitkicker Tour at The Electric Factory in 2000. It was a warm summer evening and featured that night were hip-hop veterans Biz Markie and De La Soul, newcomers Reflection Eternal, as well as hip-hop's all-in-one entertainer, Common. This was a pivotal event for me and a significant year for hip-hop music. It also marked the 25th birthday for hip-hop culture and launched a movement for new artists to collaborate with heros from the Golden Era. From these collaborations emerged a plethora of independent record labels that paved way for underground talent. One indie label in particular was Rawkus Records based out of New York City.

Rawkus Records, in its prime, housed new and upcoming artists like Mos Def (Yasiin Bey), Talib Kweli and Company Flow, as well as a handful of features from artists who had been in the game since the late 80's and early 90's. Pharoahe Monch from Organized Konfusion, Sadat X and Grand Puba from Brand Nubian, Cocoa Brovaz aka Smif-N-Wessun, as well as Kool Keith of the Ultramagnetic MC's. Pos from De La Soul and Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest were also featured on early Rawkus Record releases.

I remember from the Spitkicker show, Talib Kweli expressed the importance of what was happening for hip-hop music at that time and with the help of a record label like Rawkus, it would fuel the return of real hip-hop. A much needed change for the rap scene when Puffy and Ma$e top the Hip-Hop charts.

For the first time, after years of what some call the "Cristal Era" of hip-hop, harder, more thought-provoking artists were coming to the forefront. These emcees weren't talking about flossing or having a Ph.D "player hating degree", they were expressing conscious, real issues and first-hand experiences from a fresh perspective. 

 Five 12" singles from Soundbombing 2 released as a collectable "train car" series.

Five 12" singles from Soundbombing 2 released as a collectable "train car" series.

Through the release of the early Soundbombing series, particularly Volumes 1 & 2, I was introduced to the spirit of the culture. Hip-Hop finally had a home and it welcomed me in. The music became a gateway for me to reconnect and guided me through hip-hop's evolution. It wasn't until after this impact that I dived deeper into the music and reawakened myself to artists from similar movements such as Gang Starr, Busta Rhymes, Lord Finesse, Black Sheep, Nas, Biggie, Jeru The Damaja, KRS-ONE, O.C., the Wu-Tang Clan and many, many more.

One artist from Rawkus that stands out the most to me, whom I've been a fan of since the beginning, is Company Flow. Consisting of members EL-P, Mr. Len and Bigg Jus, the group's sound was so different and unique that I immediately knew they were doing something groundbreaking. Although Rawkus Records was short lived, the independent label was a force in furthering their career.

As a fan, it's really interesting to follow someone like EL-P. He's the founding member of Company Flow, he handled production and emceeing for the group, he transitioned into starting his own record label Def Jux after leaving Rawkus and more recently has become one half of the rap phenomenon, Run The Jewels. Having love for an artist like EL-P and being able to watch him grow over the years is really the best part of being a fan. I think my favorite aspect about EL's story is that he hasn't lost what first made him great years ago and to this day he still carries the same attitude while breaking new ground.

Sadly, what I consider to be the best part of Rawkus Records only lasted for four years. The label was founded in 1996 and its first official release was Company Flow's debut Funcrusher Plus in 1997. That same year we saw the first Soundbombing compilation mixed by DJ Evil Dee of Da Beatminerz and Black Moon. This "mixtape" highlighted talent from the label's roster which included Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Hi-Tek, Sir Menelik, Shabaam Sahdeeq, R.A. The Rugged Man, B-One, Black Attack and more. In 1999, Soundbombing 2 was released featuring more great artists and better sound quality. By 2002, the label had signed a joint venture deal with MCA and soon after that MCA folded, leaving a much less exciting Soundbombing 3. By that point, the spirit of what Rawkus Records represented and why I had held such high regard for them seemed to have faded away.

During an interview on The Cipher podcast, Mr. Len stated that most of the money made from the Funcrusher Plus record was being used to further the career's of other artists on the Rawkus roster and not directly going towards Company Flow. The group felt slighted and eventually moved on to better things.

EL-P famously exclaimed later in his career that he'd "rather be mouth-fucked by Nazis unconscious" instead of signing to Rawkus. A lyric that most fans interpreted as the general consensus from CoFlow when in fact it was simply EL-P's take on the whole thing. The group didn't share such a brash perspective on what had happened. Lyrically, EL-P was always a brash emcee and his contributions to Company Flow was a major force in the overall sound and image that carried forward.

Ultimately, Rawkus Records spawned a new appreciation of hip-hop for music fans around the world and it opened my eyes and ears to something incredible that I'll never forget.

Memory Lane - KRS-ONE 'Outta Here'

KRS-ONE is considered to be a pioneer in hip-hop and credited as one of the first artists to create "conscious" rap.

His group, Boogie Down Productions, originally consisting of members KRS-ONE, DJ Scott La Rock & D-Nice, released some of the genre's second wave of groundbreaking music that paved the way for many other artists and helped forge the sub-genre "gangsta rap". Most in particular are 1987's 'Criminal Minded' and 1988's 'By Any Means Necessary.'

The group made a huge impact on the development of hip-hop and they gave a sincere voice to the reality of life for young African-Americans growing up in the slums of New York City. Boogie Down Productions boosted both political and social activism through their music and challenged their audience to think differently about the world they lived in.

It was during the making of 'By Any Means Necessary' that KRS-ONE's mentor, partner and DJ, Scott La Rock, was fatally shot during an attempt to diffuse a conflict between D-Nice and a couple of young men from the South Bronx.

Scott's death would inspire KRS-ONE to become more passionate about the message of BDP's music and also help launch the "Stop The Violence Movement," a hip-hop super group that raised awareness in the community about violence and attempted to restore hip-hop's original principles, which are, celebrating black culture and having fun through rapping, DJing, breakdancing and graffiti writing.

From this point, KRS-ONE defined himself as the "teacha" or "teacher" symbolizing his emphasis on educating fans about relevant social issues. He continued to release three more albums under the BDP name up until 1992.

 Photo by Doug Rowell

Photo by Doug Rowell

Fast forward to 1993, KRS-ONE releases his debut solo album, 'Return Of The Boom-Bap,' where he continues to deliver some of his best rhymes about social, political and moral concepts without getting off topic. His articulation and the pure volume of his voice was enough to penetrate my consciousness as a listener. Never before did I pay attention to lyrics and focus in on every word. Always being drawn to the music first, KRS-ONE was the first emcee to make me realize the importance of lyrics and how powerful his message was.

One of my favorite tracks from this album is 'Outta Here' because it tells the history of Boogie Down Productions and it also sends a message to other rappers about staying true to yourself while gaining fame.

"Do you ever think about when you're outta here? Record deal and video outta here? Mercedes Benz and Range Rover outta here?"

He talks about ignoring peoples opinions and continuing to do what he loves as an emcee.

"It used to irk me when these critics had opinions." Scott would say "Just keep rappin', I'll keep spinnin'."

As he moves ahead in the track, he sees other emcees "fall off" and get side tracked by fame and money, losing sight on the importance of their voice in the community and what it means for black youth to have a positive figure to look up to. 

As a late bloomer to the golden age of hip-hop, (I was at the impressionable age of 7 when De La Soul dropped "3 Feet High & Rising") there were a lot of emcees and hip-hop groups that had already proved they could sustain a career in music by the time I was old enough to comprehend what hip-hop was and where it came from. It wasn't until I finished high school and started college that I really dug deep into the history of the music and started buying hip-hop records from the 80's and 90's.

Sustaining a career where money and fame have become more important than the music is what seems to be the ultimate struggle for some of our favorite hip-hop artists. In order to survive you need to stay humble, stay true to your roots and never forget about where you came from. 

My favorite hip-hop acts exemplify this philosophy and KRS-ONE is an artist that I will always respect because of that.