various artists :: Rawkus Records - Best of Decade I (1995-2005) :: Rawkus Records/Geffen
as reviewed by Matt Jost

In 2001, Bobbito laid his label project to rest with the "Farewell Fondle 'Em" retrospective. Four years later Rawkus founders Brian Brater and Jarret Myer give us "Rawkus Records - Best of Decade I (1995-2005)." One was a final goodbye, the other has the appearance of a status report. When it was established in 1995, Rawkus Records had yet to find its niche, lacking creative direction with the earliest releases that spawned a spectrum from drum-n-bass to rock. But things took a turn for hip-hop when underground visionaries Company Flow and the two Brown graduates decided to expand the former's "Funcrusher EP" to album length, resulting in the groundbreaking "Funcrusher Plus" in 1997. Other smart decisions followed. On one hand, Rawkus catered to die-hard vinyl shoppers, being one of the few smaller labels that put twelve-inches in picture sleeves, on the other hand CD consumers were able to catch up on the singles via the first "Soundbombing" compilation. Two promising Brooklyn rappers, Mos Def and Talib Kweli, were seated side by side to introduce themselves to the world as Black Star, whose 1998 album was easily one of the most anticipated of the latter '90s.

Coming up in the precursor to the bling era, the jiggy era, Rawkus lead on a renaissance of smart and soulful hip-hop as once conceived by the Native Tongues. Rawkus was in charge of that which went beyond what Jay-Z, Nas, DMX and No Limit were able or willing to offer. There was a thorn in its side, which was the fact that much of the funding was provided by James Murdoch, son of media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who happens to be one of the world's most alarmingly influential individuals. But with that money, the label was able to promote artists on a level a true indie could never dream of. Excelling at brand marketing, soon Rawkus and its roster had the industry's attention, while it began to tend to smaller labels itself, the most prominent of which being The High & Mighty's Eastern Conference Records. After releasing a second album in 1999 (the instrumental "Little Johnny From the Hospital"), this time one that spoke even louder (not despite but because of the absence of words) of their refusal to conform, Company Flow left to pursue their dream of being "Independent As Fuck" elsewhere and individually. Around the same time Priority began to distribute Rawkus CD's and cassettes. After scoring substantial success with albums by Black Star and its members (including Hi-Tek's "Hi-Teknology") and series like "Lyricist Lounge" and "Soundbombing" further cementing its reputation, the pragmatic idealists that seemed to be in command at Rawkus began to pick up proven talent any exec in his right mind should want to sign.

Rawkus secured a deal with Big L's Flamboyant Entertainment shortly before his death. Legendary gangsta lyricist Kool G Rap came aboard. Yet just as Rawkus prepared to ascend from a rookie playing by its own rules to a key player shouldering responsibility, it started to fumble. Acts such as Sir Menelik and Shabaam Sahdeeq, who alongside Co Flow had helped accumulate crucial underground fame, left the label. Longplayers were announced but pushed back to no end. The G Rap album finally came out after being bootlegged twice, but Last Emperor and Skillz never made it past their singles. At the turn of 2002, Rawkus, in need of greater funding, was sold to MCA, which soon came to be part of the Interscope/Geffen conglomerate, which in early 2004 decided not to renew its joint-venture deal with Rawkus. In summer 2005 a deal with Sony's RED Distribution was supposedly signed, yet it is still Geffen (or ultimately Universal) that manufactures and distributes "Best of Decade I."

At this point, the future of Rawkus Records seems more uncertain than ever. Still, somebody believes in the brand, or else we'd simply get a "Best of Rawkus Records." Apparently, Brater and Myer are among the believers, because they are credited as executive producers and sign the liner notes, where they promise 'many more classic albums.' While that remains to be seen, "Best of Decade I" has its fair share of songs that reflect Rawkus' artistic reputation and entrepreneurial skill a hundred per cent. Kanye West was only just yet a name discussed among hip-hop heads, but "Get By" shows him in all his orchestral glory, as he provides a power- yet playful backdrop to Talib Kweli's reflections on how we "get by" in this life of ours. Possibly aware of the pressure of recording the first album to drop under the MCA umbrella, Kweli reaches for the big guns in terms of references: " John Lennon, 'imagine' all the people watch / we rock like Paul McCartney from now until the last Beatle [/beat'll] drop."

It would be too easy to solely attribute this label's clout to its relatively fat pockets. The truth is that in its heyday Rawkus put out some incredibly good music, music that in many ways surpassed the boring conformity on either side of the fence that separates commercial and underground rap that Rawkus rode with ease. Mos Def is featured heavily, first with the modern day classic "Ms. Fat Booty" which should make anyone sing producer Ayatollah's praise considering how his beautiful beat brings to life Mos' intimate two-step with a tantalizing temptress he realizes just isn't for him. There are three more Dante solo offerings, starting with 1997's "Universal Magnetic," produced by an early representative of the Rawkus sound, Shawn J. Period. "Umi Says" intensifies the free flow feel with Mos singing, "I don't wanna write this down, I wanna tell you how I feel right now" over a jazz-tinged soul backing, while ending with the clear message "I want black people to be free / that's all that matters to me." The 'unreleased' "Beef" showcases the rapper's rare ability (comparable only to KRS-One) to address rap fans and the outside world alike, as he challenges the community's definition of beef: "Beef is not what Jay said to Nas / beef is when the working folks can't find jobs / [...] / Beef is when the crack babies can't find moms / cause they in a pine box or locked behind bars / Beef ain't the Summer Jam for Hot97 / beef is the cocaine and AIDS epidemic / Beef don't come with a radio edit / beef is when the judge is callin' you defendant."

As Rawkus' first gold artist, Mos is rightfully the main attraction on "Best of Decade I." You can catch him alongside Kweli, eager to touch all bases, "from the first to the last of it", "the whole and not the half of it" ("Definition"), he's doing it Treacherous Three style with A Tribe Called Quest's Q-Tip and Tash from Tha Alkaholiks ("Body Rock"), he survives the update of The High & Mighty's "B-Boy Document" while Mike Zoot and El-P didn't get a second invitation ("B-Boy Document '99"), he turns the city into a living, breathing thing with Kweli and Common ("Respiration"). And of course he's there to engage in one of history's most daring collabos, "Oh No," the lead single from "Lyricist Lounge Vol. 2" featuring Pharoahe Monch as his tag team partner, Nate Dogg on the hook and Rockwilder on the beat.

By 1999, it became evident that Rawkus was looking to expand its clientele. The core audience must've been appalled to see The LOX' Styles P, a Ruff Ryder and former Bad Boy, on the tracklisting to "Soundbombing III," let alone on a track with lyrical heavyweight Pharoahe Monch. To Styles' credit, he gives a really good performance on "The Life," while in fact it's Monch who irritates with his singing attempts. Maybe he was still taken aback by the success of his 1999 "Simon Says (Get the Fuck Up)" single, a success poorly reflected by the sales of his album "Internal Affairs." Which brings us to the inevitable glaring omissions. Many people will find it hard to understand how you can call something "Rawkus Records - Best of Decade I," stuff it with just enough Mos Def and Talib Kweli verses so you don't have to call it "Best of Black Star," include three featurings by Common (who was never signed), but to leave off a song as popular as "Simon Says," whose surprising hit status spun the rap world off its axis in more ways than one. In this particular case, however, the sampling of Akira Ifukube's Godzilla theme might still be an issue, as Priority, Rawkus and Monch were all facing lawsuits for copyright infringement in 2001. The problem is, this applies to "Simon Says" only, not to singles by L-Fudge, B-1, RA the Rugged Man, Mr. Complex, Skillz, Last Emperor, Sir Menelik, Medina Green and Shabaam Sahdeeq.

If it was the compiler's goal to generate enough revenue to take a crack at another decade, then maybe legalities prevent the Eminem-featuring "5 Star Generals" by Shabaam Sahdeeq from making the album. Maybe it makes sense to reduce 'Reflection Eternal' to just 'Talib Kweli' when listing "The Blast." We'll also have to accept that Company Flow were fortunate enough to sign a deal that granted them the rights to their masters after a period of five years. But it still feels like an awful lot is missing, especially considering how important singles were for the label. For all the Kweli rhymes and Hi-Tek beats compiled here, there's no sign of Reflection Eternal's "Fortified Live" and "2000 Seasons." On the full-length tip, not even Da Beatminerz make an appearance with something off "Brace 4 Impak." And for all the hard labor it took to release the Kool G Rap album, why now pretend it never happened? Instead "Flamboyant Entertainment CEO" Big L lets us know that "Flamboyant is the label that writes the checks" on (the obviously posthumous) "Flamboyant" - not exactly true blue Rawkus material.

On its barely alive website, Rawkus claims to have sold over six million records worldwide. More people have been wrong before, but however many people did indeed buy a Rawkus release up to this point, they were probably right for doing so. Having spun many of the tracks now gathered on "Best of Decade I" until the wax melted myself, I am greatful to Rawkus for putting out less profitable projects like Ego Trip's "The Big Playback" or the "Hip-Hop For Respect" EP. Rawkus represented young artists who were eager to take it back to the essence. Who listened to their elders, both the biological ("Umi Says") and the artistic ones ("Body Rock"). Who were optimistic about their role in hip-hop and society even though they realized that "it's kinda dangerous to be an MC" considering how "they shot 2Pac and Biggie." Who experienced that it was "hard to be a spirutal bein' when shit is shakin' what you believe in" but tried anyway. Who declared, "This ain't no time where the usual is suitable," so they set out to "describe the inscrutable."

Rawkus' role in all of this was to offer them a platform. In a climate, notably, where most rappers, even the freshmen, had grown extremely weary of record labels. As it turned out, some were willing to compromise moderately, but others weren't. Accidentally or not, the latter are absent from "Best of Decade I," while someone like Hi-Tek these days is rakin' in the dough doing beats for G-Unit. Which by no means tarnishes this trip down memory lane. It shows that hip-hop is a steady cycle, exactly like it ought to be. Because like Kweli said, "For trees to grow in Brooklyn, seeds need to be planted."

Music Vibes: 9 of 10 Lyric Vibes: 9 of 10 TOTAL Vibes: 9 of 10

Originally posted: January 10, 2006