It’s widely accepted hip-hop canon that Rawkus Records was one of the most groundbreaking, forward-thinking rap labels in the world.
However, what might have gotten lost in the process of sanctioning the highly-regarded indie label into the lauded halls of hip-hop holy writ is the fact that there were two Rawkuses.
Many remember the Mos Defs and Talib Kwelis, the Pharoahe Monches, and the near signing of would-be rap prophet Kanye West, but the roots of Rawkus Entertainment, the foundation all those later seminal works stood and built upon, was that underground, backpack, real-rap, raw shit.
Starting in 1997 with Company Flow‘s Funcrusher Plus and the eclectic mashup of the Soundbombing compilation of the label’s previously release 12″ singles, Rawkus differentiated itself from the morass of late-’90s vanity rap label escalation with contrarian, quirky, and outright weird rap that refuses to follow the rules for radio success. However, those early efforts felt experimental, tentative, reactionary. The moment that solidified and codified the Rawkus credo came a year later.
Before the Afrocentric, eloquent, college-dorm-rap of Black Star, before the underground platinum status of Big L, before the pioneering of blog rap and the internet era with The Procussions and Kidz In The Hall, Rawkus released a collection of straightforward singles from a group of artists who only cared about, loved, lived, ate, drank, and breathed one thing: Heady, lyrically-focused, wordplay-drenched, syllable-slinging rap.
20 years ago this weekend, on May 5, 1998, Rawkus Entertainment was truly born with the release of Lyricist Lounge, Vol, 1. Its impact is still being felt today, even as hip-hop’s entire landscape has experienced seismic upheaval and global evolution.
Born from New York’s Lower East Side, the Lyricist Lounge was an open mic showcase of the city’s strongest hip-hop talents, coming together to challenge their skills, soak up the culture, and celebrate the elements of hip-hop. Founded in 1991 by Danny Castro and Ant Marshall, the Lyricist Lounge became the unofficial gathering place for aficionados of pure, unvarnished hip-hop, free from the trappings of the genre’s burgeoning success. No shiny suits, no gold necklaces, no Versace shades, just beats, rhymes, and the rebel, fuck-the-mainstream attitude that set rappers like Punchline, Wordsworth, A.L., Tash, Ras Kass, Rah Digga, and Jurassic 5 apart from their more recognizable counterparts at labels like Bad Boy, Rocafella, and Murder, Inc.