It would’ve been difficult to enjoy rap music, or even own a backpack, in the late ‘90s / early 2000s without being somewhat obsessed with Rawkus Records. The independent label, founded by Brian Brater and Jarret Myer, assembled an almost Avengers-like roster of underground rappers from New York City, that at the time were unknown outside of that weird and smelly Fat Beats staircase—but were undoubtedly destined for stardom. Rawkus was an early stop for speeding trains like EL-P, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, and Eminem, while still supporting hip-hop cult mainstays like R.A. the Rugged Man, Thirstin Howl III, Cage, and Kool G. Rap. Even when the music was brand new, you knew one day we’d look back at Rawkus and call it “the good ole days,” predicting its innocence could never be repeated—no matter how hard you tried. The landscape of this second Golden Era may have included other upstarts like Definitive Jux, Uncle Howie, and Babygrande, but it would be hard to not admit that the influence and importance of Rawkus sat high above its rivals. To celebrate the new collaboration between The Hundreds and Rawkus Records releasing this Thursday, I have ranked, and explained, what I believe to be the top 10 releases from this unforgettable collective. So get out your baggy jeans and Newsies paperboy hat, and practice your tag, because it’s time go completely subterrain.
10. Smut Peddlers ft. R.A. the Rugged Man, “Bottom Feeders”
Listen, I could’ve went totally obscure with this list, including names like Cipher Complete, Word A’ Mouth, or Indelible MCs, but I didn’t. With that in mind, I AM going to include this forgotten offshoot side project from early Rawkus signees The High & Mighty. DJ Mighy Mi and Eon teamed up with underground Horrorcore posterboy Cage to create this supergroup of sorts. Smut Peddlers focused on the less desirable and grotesque aspects of their personalities and is best known for employing Howard Stern wackpacker Beetlejuice as a hypeman. For “Bottom Feeders” they’re visited by Mr. Crustified Dibbs himself, R.A. the Rugged Man (a Rawkus regular), who is a necessity to include when you’re looking to get totally disgusting while rhyming words. Don’t play this one with your parents nearby.
9. Eminem, “Any Man”
Before he explained to the world what his name was or threw up mom’s spaghetti, Slim Shady made a stop at Rawkus, releasing the song “Any Man” on their Soundbombing II compilation. Almost 3 minutes of pure classic Eminem shock metaphors later, you have an MC whose world dominance may have only been a few months away, but his hunger was more audible than ever. You have to assume Eminem wanted to sign to Rawkus, but was beaten to the punch by Jimmy Iovine and the eventual plotline of Defiant Ones, proving that being the early bird doesn’t always get you the worm. But in this case, Rawkus holds one of the earliest examples of Marshall Mathers doing what he did best: spitting bar after bar with a since abandoned high-pitched voice. And don’t forget, Stan: that underground shit he did with Skam? That was also a Rawkus release.
8. Big L, “Ebonics”
When Big L was tragically murdered in 1999, one of hip-hop’s greatest lyricists was taken from the world before he had the proper opportunity to be rightfully appreciated. He had already released his 1995 debut Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous on Columbia and appeared on Stretch and Bobbito alongside Jay-Z in what is widely considered the greatest radio freestyle of all-time, when his manager Rich King, now without a partner, was left with a handful of songs that were to be included in his follow-up album. Alongside Rawkus, King completed the album posthumously, and released it a year after his death. It featured appearances from Fat Joe, Guru, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap, and 2Pac. A success on many fronts, The Big Picture went Gold, and was introduced with a single called “Ebonics,” an incredible exercise in songwriting where Big L translated what feels like hundreds of different slang terms into their common synonyms. It’s not only a great song, it’s kind of a PSA—and a sad reminder of what could’ve been.
7. “Oh No,” Mos Def ft. Pharoahe Monch & Nate Dogg
This lead single off the second Lyricist Lounge compilation got quite a lot of radio play—a tough task for an independent label back in 2000. Mos and Pharoahe were Rawkus royalty, but the addition of West Coast legend Nate Dogg wasn’t exactly something you would’ve seen coming. While Nate was seen as a commercially successful 213 crooner, Rawkus was busy working with East Coast names that only make rap nerds like myself scream in happiness (Shouts to Master Fuol, Planet Asia, or Punchline & Wordsworth). But with the impressive record sales and critical acclaim, you have to assume more and more attention was being thrown towards Rawkus, and Nate Dogg is a perfect example of that momentum. Lyricist Lounge II was also produced by Rawkus to subtly reach into the mainstream, including rappers like Beanie Sigel, Redman, Erick Sermon, and Q-Tip alongside producers like Scott Storch, Rockwilder, and J Dilla on the tracklist. Though the results were a mixed bag, it’s hard to forget this particular unconventional collaboration where East met West beyond expectations.
6. “Get By,” Talib Kweli
Released in the twilight of the Rawkus run, this third single off Talib Kweli’s debut solo album, Quality, is a certified banger. And for that you can thank Trump supporter / possible performance art moron Kanye West, who in 2003 was on the rise as a producer, but still a year away from releasing College Dropout as a rapper himself. “Get By (Remix)” gets bonus points, featuring Busta Rhymes, Jay-Z, Mos Def, and a verse from Mr. West himself. It would go on to become Kweli’s most popular song and early proof of Kanye West’s skills being doubted, something he still can’t stop talking about today.
5. “B-Boy Document ’99,” The High & Mighty ft. Mos Def & Mad Skillz
Though they found their own independent success with Eastern Conference Records, The High & Mighty first found recognition with this jam on Rawkus, most recognizable from its inclusion in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2. The first single off Soundboming II, is another example of Mos Def being a Rawkus team player, popping up on track after track to help get the word out about what was happening at the independent powerhouse. Mad Skillz, reminding people he’s more than just recounting what happens in hip-hop every December, popped up as well, amongst some nice pop culture references from Eon (Mace Windu, Latrell Sprewell, Jimmy The Greek, etc.), a staple in underground tracks of the time. But the star of the song is still Mighty Mi’s beat, sampling Joe Thomas “Polarizer,” a perfectly chopped time capsule for the era.
4. “C.I.A. (Criminals In Actions),” KRS-One, Zack De La Rocha & The Last Emperor
For me, anything from here on out could’ve basically been number 1, especially this odd pairing from the second disc of Lyricist Lounge, Volume 1. Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, I knew Rage Against The Machine as the rock band I would beg people to play at high school parties instead of Sublime; and as early Wu-Tang Clan tour mates, but had no idea how much of a hip-hop head Zack De La Rocha was. He was clearly socially conscious (Free Mumia, anyone?) and musically rooted in rap, but in the late ‘90s, unless you were Onyx, mosh pits and “real” hip-hop were still perfect strangers. So when KRS, Zack, and chippy upstart (and eventual industry sacrifice) The Last Emperor joined forces for this woke anthem, I was all ears—and not disappointed. Most people focused on Zack’s incredible (and shockingly perfect) verse, and for good reason, but I also remember being blown away by The Last Emperor’s contribution. Fresh off his nerd love letter “Secret Wars,” this was the follow-up needed to eventually sign to Dr. Dre, and then never be heard from again. Dre had also signed Eve around that time, and if the Ruff Ryders hadn’t stepped in, you’d be asking “Where are they now?” about her too.
3. “Ms. Fat Booty,” Mos Def
Arguably Rawkus’s biggest breakthrough, “Ms. Fat Booty” is really just the song I’m arbitrarily picking to celebrate all of Black on Both Sides, the fantastic debut album from their franchise player, Mos Def. This may be the most recognizable track, but the entire record is just as relevant today as it was back in 1999, sprawling across rap, R&B, jazz, and even punk, well before that mixture was the norm. Produced by Ayatollah, and sampling a rare Aretha Franklin song, this song still gets heavy rotation 20 years later with little wear and tear. Do people remember when Mos dated Beyoncé? That doesn’t get the shine it deserves. Also his role in Hitchhiker’s Guide. That’s underappreciated too. What I’m saying is we need to applaud this era of Mos Def louder. It shouldn’t be shocking how much Kanye was influenced by this album, because if you listen close you can hear the origins for moods like “Runaway,” “Gold Digger” and “Jesus Walks.” I’m not suggesting JUST listening to THIS song, I’m imploring you to listen to every song on this album, in chronological order, because it truly is a beautiful artifact of Rawkus Records and what it stood for in its heyday.
2. “Definition,” Black Star
If you take anything away from my list, let it be that no one was making more inventive and genre-pushing music in the late ‘90s than Mos Def with Rawkus Records. Black Star was made up of Mos and Talib Kweli, a super duo of sorts, who put their debut solo albums on hold in order to team up and release Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, a politically charged and racially proud album filled with production from Hi-Tek, Da Beatminerz, Shawn J. Period, and 88-Keys. “Definition” was the first single, with an unforgettable hook and focus on the public’s fascination with violence, especially the recent slayings of hip-hop greats Notorious B.I.G. and 2Pac. Just as impressive as the original Boogie Down Productions sampling version, the album also featured a reprise entitled “RE: DEFinition,” playing on the same theme, but with a different, and slower, Hi-Tek beat. I remember first hearing Mos Def as a featured player on Da Bush Babees album Gravity, and his work on these two songs resembled that tone more than anything, a direction I miss from his sporadic work nowadays. Between his debut solo album, side project and guest appearances, it would be hard to imagine Rawkus Records being anything more than a boutique fly-by-night imprint without the existence of Mos Def and his mind-blowing talent.
1. “Simon Says,” Pharoahe Monch
Possibly the greatest self-produced rap song of all-time, Pharoahe Monch’s “Simon Says,” is more than just an uncleared Godzilla sample—it’s a legendary hip-hop call to arms. The former member of Organized Konfusion signed a solo deal with Rawkus Records and released his debut album, Internal Affairs in 1999, leading the charge with this catchy sing-along track—a rare approachable attempt by Monch to reach the masses. And even though it barely cracked the top 100 charts, the song has had a life well beyond release, used in movies like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Boiler Room,” with the ability to still be played at any wedding to start a riot. I have always listed Monch in my top 5 MCs and I can’t help but pine over what could’ve been had he been dealt different cards. His bad luck is undeniable between sample lawsuits and label issues forcing Internal Affairs to be pulled off shelves and then later having maybe a dozen career boosting rumors never come to fruition, including a supposed contract with Shady Records, leaving Pharoahe Monch without the voice he deserves. However, nothing says Rawkus more than “Simon Says.” It’s aggressive, true to hip-hop, fun and undeniably New York. Something that will never be forgotten or duplicated. Now, get the fuck up.