Rawkus: Best of Decade I,1995-2005
Various Artists: Rawkus: Best of Decade I,1995-2005
Though it’s only been five years and a couple weeks since the turn of the millennium, the distance between Rawkus Records’ moment in the sun and the present feels like several lifetimes ago. The mid-to-late ’90s really were a golden age for independent hip-hop, a time when you could almost argue with a straight face that the best rap was 1) coming out of New York and 2) being pushed in the underground. With hindsight, it’s easy to see that Rawkus’ true-school aesthetic wouldn’t be half as influential as the pneumatic bounce being cranked out at the same time by Cash Money’s Mannie Fresh and No Limit’s Beats by the Pound. And most of its MCs have failed to capitalize on their minor success, lost in a world where an elongated “yeah, mayne” speaks louder than a hundred syllables crammed into a bar.
Best of Decade I, 1995-2005 has a rather hopeful subtitle, considering how sadly the label has floundered since the start of the 21st century. Aside from the occasional Talib Kweli solo joint (represented here by the underrated Kanye West-produced “Get By” from 2003), you’d be forgiven for forgetting Rawkus even existed. Taken as a message in a bottle from 1999, however, the majority of the music on Decade I is excellent. Choicest cuts include the sick guitar stabs and stutterfly drums of Black Star’s “Definition” and the jump-around dynamics of Mos Def and Pharoahe Monch’s “Oh No,” both of which have you lamenting Mos reneging on his initial promise as an MC for wack movies and terrible rap-rock concept albums. But with dozens of tracks in the label’s catalog to choose from, you may also be left wondering why what amounts to a Mos Def best-of (featured on nine out of the 15 tracks) is being disguised as a label best-of.
Most telling is the lack of any Company Flow, whose Funcrusher Plus was the label’s most iconic album after the Black Star LP. The blurting anti-grooves and often barely metered flows of Funcrusher were hellishly exciting at the time—if a bit dated now—and a definite contrast with the smooth, Pete Rock-biting boom-bap of most of the Rawkus catalog. (It was Rawkus hopping into bed with a major label that caused CF’s El-P to form his Definitive Jux imprint, which, along with the Anticon crew, is the putative face of whiteboy rap this decade.) Love ’em or hate ’em, no Co. Flow means you’re not getting the full Rawkus story.
And where is Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says”? Trading in the dorm-room cipher vibe for an awesomely flatulent synth grind, the track was the label’s biggest (only?) club banger. Instead we get Mos Def’s watery “Umi Says,” a tinkle of flavorless jazz and Mos’ own unfortunate crooning—the dude makes Q-Tip’s similar moves sound like prime Al Green. It’s moments like this when you realize why Rawkus was always doomed, the bitter nerd who desperately wanted to sit at the cool kids’ table. (Don’t forget it was home to an almost-famous Eminem.) Skip this cash grab and go for the first two Soundbombing comps for a more accurate snapshot of the last time indie-rap mattered.