To hip-hop fans, the name Rawkus brings back many memories. From the Soundbombing posters plastered on New York streets to the first time you saw “Ms. Phat Booty” on BET, Rawkus made you feel part of a movement, proud that an independent label was striking a blow. But just like Newton said, what goes up must come down. The wheels fell off the bus soon after the label reached its apex around 2001, and Rawkus folded in 2004.
It didn’t stay down for long. A comeback was announced the middle of last year, and the revived label’s first offering is this best-of compilation: Rawkus Records: Best of Decade I, 1995-2005. Followers of the East Coast label likely own all the cuts on the comp, but it serves as a refresher course in the magnitude of Mos Def’s lyrics and Big L’s metaphors. Call it “Independent Hip-Hop: 101.”
Leading off is perhaps the biggest hit from the Rawkus stable: Talib Kweli’s “Get By.” The single provides the ultimate fusion of Kanye West’s production and Kweli’s lyricism that created a song big enough for regular rotation in the club, on MTV and even with the Urban Outfitters crowd. Next is the first song from Rawkus to make a major imprint on pop culture, “Ms. Phat Booty,” from way back in 1999. It’s a classic tale of Mos Def’s dealings with a “Superhead” character back when Karrine Steffans was still a no-name.
Following what are perhaps Rawkus’s two most mainstream hits are cult classics “Respiration” by Black Star and two songs highlighted by appearances from Pharoahe Monche: “The Life,” by Styles P and “Oh No.” The latter also features Mos Def (led by noteworthy verses such as “Just a warnin’, as usual some cats wont heed it/ The hard headed always gotta feel it to believe it/ It’s a shame the jealous gaze is too short to see it/ But when they face hits the cement, they nod in agreement”) and the chorus master that is Nate Dogg. Other notable tracks are Talib Kweli’s “The Blast,” Common’s “1999” and Black Star’s “Definition.”
Like any best-of compilation, a bunch of cuts that aren’t included probably should be. Big L makes an appearance with “Flamboyant,” but “Ebonics” has been left out. So too has Kweli’s “Move Somethin’,” Pharoahe Monche’s “Simon Says,” or anything from Skillz or Kool G Rap.
Once Rawkus hit the big time, labels such as Koch followed suit and took hold of the underground hip-hop distribution. Unfortunately, when the label folded many of its stars fled to other labels, and it remains to be seen how closely the resuscitated Rawkus will follow its roots. We can only hope the new generation of Rawkus rhymers can capture the essence of the culture like the emcees featured here.
Rawkus Web site