What If Rawkus Records Would Have Signed Kanye West?

According to Talib Kweli, Kanye West wanted to be down. DX's Editor-in-Chief ponders what that would have meant for the once famed label and today's superstar had it actually happened.

I am a part of the Rawkus Records generation. From Dilated Peoples and Last Emperor to J-Live and Breeze Brewin, series like Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge were deeply influential in helping a teenager who wasn't from New York or Los Angeles feel like he was a part of something happening in real time with Hip Hop. After Death Row - which was more like following studio wrestling, Rawkus was the first label that it was easy for me to root for like a sports fan. On the strength of the reputation the label built with singles, compilations and early albums, I impulsively supported new-to-me acts like High & Mighty and DJ Spinna because they were delivered by a brand I could trust, and I was very rarely (read: Smut Peddlers) ever disappointed. Taking my weekly earnings from menial burger-flipping jobs, I purchased a Rawkus record bag and a t-shirt - cool things to do at the time. When their twelve-inch singles had promotional label stickers inside, it felt like a childhood cereal box prize. There were postcards in every CD, asking for information, questions about my taste, what I liked on the album and what I didn't. The fanfare and community that the label built was amazing, and the same way that Talib, Mos and Hi-Tek's van waved Black Star flags in their "Definition" video, I waved flags for Rawkus - I too was standin' on the rooftop with the Zulu gestapo.

Rawkus Records' Profound Impact On Hip Hop

Between the late '90s and the later days was a pinnacle of greatness and penetrating the mainstream consciousness. A long slept-on Queens emcee in Pharoahe Monch made a mainstream smash in "Simon Says." I remember sitting in a car one Friday night in October, 1999, and hearing the single on a mix show just outside of Cleveland, Ohio. Never in my life was I so eager for the deejay to run it back and play it again. At first, I wasn't even sure who the artist was - dismissed from Organized Konfusion ever making it to Midwest radio. The beat, the chorus, the energy - it was of no surprise that the label on the single was that moonman-grim reaper-looking motherfucker. Deejays familiarizing themselves with that movement out of New York were soon hip to playing records like "Umi Says," "Move Something" and "The Blast." I can truly say that the soundtrack to my high school experience was Train of Thought by Reflection Eternal. In my opinion, it is the greatest album of the first 10 years of the '00s for unadulterated Hip Hop culture, and everything that I personally feel is great about Rap music. Along with Loud Records, Rawkus was conquering the mainstream - and say what we will about that period after the '90s, it still had its share of true school Rap on the radio - and Rawkus Records deserves as much credit as anybody for making that possible.

The moment did not last. By the time I actually started getting paid to write about Hip Hop - a job I simply started in hopes of getting free records by mail, Rawkus was changing. From what those who were there have told me, the label became less interested in taking chances on El-P's unconventional production approach, and grew more persistent in getting recently-signed acts like Kool G Rap and Mad Skillz in the studio with Grammy Award-winning producers. I can't say that I blame them, but El launched Def Jux Records (which seemingly adopted the early Rawkus mantra), and High & Mighty delved into Eastern Conference. Although Blacksmith was definitely a term heard at his shows, Kweli stuck behind as the last reminder of the glory days. The sharp-tongued Brooklyn emcee (along with Black Star brother Mos Def) carried out Rawkus' beginnings into their major label era (leaving Priority distribution for MCA/Geffen).

The Pivotal Moment Of Talib Kweli's "Get By"

Around that time, Talib found his biggest hit to date in what I firmly believe is one of the three greatest Rap singles of the last decade: 2002's "Get By." The uplifting anthem about shaking bad habits in the face of tough times featured a beautifully reworked sample from one of Kweli's favorite artists: Nina Simone. That craftsmanship came courtesy of a buzzing producer named Kanye West. Although 'Ye's career had already yielded hits for Beanie Sigel and Jay-Z, the man's work with Talib Kweli opened ears up to Kanye's range, and perhaps best showcased his own tastes; the chemistry was strong. Moreover, the remix to "Get By" was an early opportunity to hear Kanye's raps, which many did, after Jay-Z shocked the underground, by hopping on the song, in the beginning of his own Rap renaissance.

It's funny that that happened, in hindsight.

In a December 2010 interview with VladTV, Talib Kweli said it himself: Kanye West wanted to be signed to Rawkus Records. At that time, Kanye was selling tracks to a range of artists, but the Chicago producer wanted people to hear what he had to say in the booth just as well. According to rumors, Rawkus A&R Ali S. delivered West's demo to Brian and Jarrett, who were not interested. After all, in 2002, the label was developing a seven-figure comeback album from G Rap, a second Mos Def solo, and Kweli's first major label-backed project in Quality. With Mad Skillz' project tied up, and some critical and commercial falters with debuts from Da Beatminerz, Hi-Tek and Smut Peddlers, caution made sense. Less than two years later, West had it his way. The sound that he started experimenting on so well with Talib and others became the spine of his breakthrough, Grammy Award-winning debut.

Although Rawkus was around for five more years, the edge was lost. Kweli and Mos continued to work, and make albums, but anyone will tell you that the label magic was gone. The camaraderie was gone. That same thing that my peers and I felt we belonged to wasn't possible anymore when it all got too big and boisterous. The same things we were rebelling from in the shiny suit era seemed to be happening here: Neptunes production, R&B choruses, etc. As soon as Talib fulfilled his contract, Rawkus crumbled like Wild Pitch, Tommy Boy and Fresh Records before them - quietly and sadly.

 

The label stays on my mind though. As Duck Down, Rhymesayers and Strange Music conquer the charts independently, I'm perplexed as to why Rawkus didn't make it. If they has survived the storm, what could have been?

The Last Days Of Rawkus Records

One of the things that got me thinking was when last month, one of the final Rawkus artists, Mr. J Mederios (of The Procussions) released Saudade. The emcee dropped the project through his own label. In the dying breaths of the label, I was commissioned to write J's bio during his 2006 Of Gods & Girls solo debut. I liked the project, but few people seemed to know what to do with it at the time. "Who was this guy using his government name?" asked one of my colleagues in an editorial meeting at the time - I guess my press bio wasn't as sharp as it could have been. As I look at the uber-success of Kanye West, and the amazing art he creates with his equally-amazing budgets, would this have been him, had he indeed signed to the label? Without Jay-Z's "Never Let Me Down" verse or the braggier elements of The College Dropout, would the Kanye contradictions (think Louis Vuitton backpacker) have been possible, let alone so alluring?

As a West fan to the fullest, I'd love to believe not. Still, label politics in the post-1995 Rap industry are a funny thing. It's good that Kanye West signed to Roc-A-Fella. Of course it is. Kanye West made the label bigger than State Property, Roc La Familia and The Diplomats - and along with Jay-Z, he carried the diamond sign the farthest, a decade-plus deep into the new millennium.

Then I come back to Rawkus and wonder. The label's buzzer-beater attempt was "The Rawkus 50." Digitally - in a 2007 that could not have imagined Kendrick Lamar or Mac Miller shocking the charts with iTunes releases, the label put out 50 projects from an impressive list of would-be's. How involved Rawkus actually was remains to be seen, but they fulfilled their feat - which is more than most promises of this kind made today. If you go back to that list of works, they include names like Laws, Finale, Grand Agent, L.E.G.A.C.Y., Dynas, and 6th Sense. These artists went on to make strong independent albums, produce major label singles, and even ink major label deals. The next three years will reveal the potential that Rawkus had, four years ago. And to their credit, Rawkus was there. They were also there for artists like Joell Ortiz (then as Jo-Ell Quickman) and Novel, plugging away. Before the term "blog" even existed, Rawkus' tastemakers believed in would-be Internet stars, they just had no idea how to handle them.

 

As it took Ortiz years, and it's still taking Novel time to regain ground in this industry, that could have easily become Kanye West, a guy unheard on a label gasping for air in a tough musical climate. And that sends the mind down even more paths. Without College Dropout, Late Registration or Graduation, what would Hip Hop even sound like right now? Where would Common be? Or Kid Cudi? What impact does "Jesus Walks" have if only 5,000 people geto hear it? How can you leave people on the edge of the seats at awards show if you're not even invited?

The line in Hip Hop between fame and underground respect is thin. I am happy that Kanye West had a chance to reach a mainstream stage. What he did with it from there is a testament to himself. Rawkus delivered us stars, as seen in Talib Kweli and Mos Def's prominence today - still biproducts of that era, as El-P, Cage and others are still highly-respected by audiences. It is amazing to think how the cards would have fallen should things have been any different, and a label that had some of the greatest impact on challenging the late '90s status-quo of the industry deserves much more credit as the playing field is much more leveled today - at least at the marketplace.

Jake Paine is HipHopDX's Editor-in-Chief. He has over nine years of professional journalism experience, and has written for XXL, The Source, Forbes, and the Pittsburgh Post Gazette. A native of the Steel City, Paine lives in Philadelphia.

64 Comments

  • Demora

    Hey u forgot about jesus of swaggerath

  • Dutchmassive

    That Rawkus 50 iddish was Weaksauce, I can tell you that 1st hand as one of the 50 and because over half of the artist that made the cut are my peoples and we all hated that ish. Which is Sad, Cus I agree with this Article alot. Rawkus was A like A Batman Beacon of Dope @t one time... On the Next I Guess. Dutchmassive.bandcamp.com 5,000

  • ignitemindz

    Great article, that would've definitely been an early end for Kanye West I think. I dont think Rawkus wouldve realized the vision and the video wouldve barely got played. But I may be wrong.

  • jake

    Rawkus was the ish that TRULY got me into listening to alot more underground super dope lyricsts in the mid to late 90s. SoundBombing II is classic. Young hungry Em in early 99, Mos/Talib, Pharoahe, Common, RA the Rugged Man, Cocoa Brovaz, J-Live, Diamond D, etc.

  • max hate

    Signed to Rawkus? Kanye would rather be mouth fucked by nazis unconsious

  • R.Pgh

    excellent article. I miss the old Rawkus. I remember searching all the underground record stores in Pittsburgh for the first Soundbombing Album. Typically compilation albums sound forced, but Rawkus was always on point with the Soundbombing and Lyricist Lounge albums.

  • Coritino Steir

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  • Tibedo

    Rawkus was that shit!!! Pharoahe, Mos Def, Talib, DJ Spinna, Soundbombing 1 & 2. The definition of backpack. Good Article DX.

  • WHocaresaboutme

    Interesting because previous articles I read mentioned that Rawkus came very close to signing Kanye and there was interest. This article claims there was no interest. Also interesting that in 2002 they were still doing something with Kool G Rap, because that release was supposed to come out in '98 or '99. I was on the Rawkus mailing list, and I used to get postcards back in 99 ( I moved out of that house in the end of 99, so that's the latest it could've been) or so saying that the Kool G Rap was coming out, as well as Company Flow's 2nd LP due to come out at any time.

  • Anonymous

    you're one of the better authors on the site. good article.

  • ARTOFMUSIC

    BIN LADEN IS BACK WORLD CHECK THIS OUT HIP HOP FANS. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErfMHSCAbGs >Brought to you by MusicMovement2011

  • Scott Yu

    he would be broke as a joke

  • yeeew

    solid journalism. house of paine!

  • Cama

    Wtf is this article? I clicked on the link because I thought that it had something to do with Kanye not Rawkus' history.. This fucking tabloid site.. I'm so fucking tired of this level of journalism.. Pull it together please.. Misleading headlines.. gtfo

  • Anonymous

    Akil Clark i want you to fuck ne so hard

  • Anonymous

    TAYLORD IS A GAY LOOOL

  • HEY

    TAYLORD MORE LIKE GAYLORD

  • FUTER

    RAWKUS WASTE OF TIME

    • Samuel Snead

      Rawkus was a dope label, they had real mix tapes with various artists and original songs and beats not covers or renditions. Mos def,pharoh monch,talib, and they had great designs. I miss those years in hip hop. That time period was the last of the golden era.

  • FUTER

    THESE GUYS ARE FUCKING DONE BYE BYE RAWKUS ITS ALL INTERNET NOW WE DONT NEED YOU BYE

  • Akil Clark

    Man this was a great article. I loved Rawkus as a teenager. In fact, it was my introduction to Mos Def's solo album that changed my who impression of what rap music should be. I think we are all blessed that they hit when and how they did. Some one should make a doc about that label for sure.

  • C-Lo Dubai

    Yeah Rawkus was the sh*t for a minute. That real Mcing, cyphering, off the head flows; that's the school of hip-hop I went to! I remember bumping that my first couple years of college. first hearing Talib Kweli had me working on my craft for real! (check me @ youtube.com/clodubai ) But really though I think all NY/lyrical rap heads respected that label.

  • TAYLORD

    HE'D STILL BE A GAY-FISH THATS FOR SURE AND I FUCKED HIS GIRL

  • I remember the Rawkus days and...

    if kanye was signed to rawkus, they would have still folded. In my opinion they folded because they tried to go mainstream. soundbombing was great , but sounbombing two was trash!! lets be real! Rawkus dropped the ball because B-One dropped like two twelves for the label and didnt really get recogniion. I found empire staters and verbal affairs to be one of the best releases on Rawkus. Kanye couldnt fuck with B-One. I saw B-One perform at a Rawkus showcase at SOB's one time and dude is an outrageous emcee.

  • Hayq

    Probably one of the best articles Ive read on hip-hop ever. Well done, Jake.

  • Jacques Leach

    This has to be a corny ass Jewish white dude writing this article.

  • Anonymous

    Rawkus was distributed by Fat Beats Distribution in its hey days. Their best projects had big success through Fat Beats Distribution. There's always the man behind a man.

  • MaG

    great write-up jake. as a fellow rawkus era fan, I think everything happens for a reason. No Kanye and the Roc, no major push. I think he'd still be touring the U.S. trying build a fan base.

    • Mark Anthony Harris

      I agree. Things happened the way they were supposed to on Kanye's end. However, Rawkus could still be a powerhouse if they would have stuck with their guns. Instead, they tried to become the main thing they were against: commercial. This was a sign of their ultimate failure.

  • Shawn Perry

    Great article Jake! I liked the label Rawkus a lot to. To me it had sum of the top Conscious of that time period. I don't know why Rawkus came apart. But I do know once cd sales starting collapsing most labels collapsed to Peace

  • Shawn

    Great article Jake! I liked the label Rawkus a lot to. To me it had sum of the top Conscious of that time period. I don't know why Rawkus came apart. But I do know once cd sales starting collapsing most labels collapsed to Peace

  • Anonymous

    Kanye West is not Kanye without the Rocafella cosign.

    • smk_sum

      unfortunately, if what i remember reading is true.... Kanye was Talib's tour dj far before the Roc had any idea of who he was....

  • Isaiah Bragg

    I think many good points were made in this article (some of which I was unfamiliar with.) I think my only issue with one of the points was the comment made on the production of The Neptunes. Yes, I'll admit, I'm being a lil biased based on The Neptunes being one of my influences in being a musician, but yet, it wasn't as if they were makin hot garbage, and especially not at that time. Dare I say, 90% of what they put out during the times described was absolute heat. Maybe the point that was trying to be made was that the industry started to try and oversaturate the sound of mainstream media with The Neptunes, which u could make a valid argument, but they delivered and often. The same could be said if u replaced The Neptunes at that time with Timbaland. I still respected artists like Talib, Mos, Common, and had just been learning of someone like a Mad Skillz (though his tracks on Tim's Bio were kinda hot) and could still love and appreciate the sounds of Tim and The Neptunes. Anyone, to the topic of Kanye being with Rawkus and how it could have changed their direction, I think many people have a hard time accepting change. There are so many people that want the "sound" of hip hop to stay as it was back in the 80s and 90s, because it's when they fell in love with it, that many have a hard enough time trying to embrace a new vision or sound because it doesn't coincide with what they were originated to. Get By was a RIDICULOUSLY amazing track, and his work on The Blueprint, among other Rocafella works, should have at least given him some leeway with record labels towards his direction in his career, but in their opinion, it seems it wasn't the "Rawkus" way of things. Everything happens for a reason. And I agree that if he had been signed to Rawkus, we can't say for certain that he couldn't have blown up the same way he has with the Roc, yet, I can say from my own personal experience that when Rawkus was makin some noise in those late 90s/early 2000s, it wasn't heard by many around me in the mainstream (sounds like alot of what's goin on today) and those talents were respected but not receiving equal due from the masses. Seems to have worked out just fine for Mr. West.

  • JOE6PACKNCGBOR336

    definition, get buy (classic tracks)

  • Jess Devitt

    also, was he really complaining about rawkus signing kool g rap? kool g rap is arguably the greatest ever, and has a fantastic underground appeal. although his subject matter may differ from your mos defs and such, his supreme artistry makes him a perfect fit. if anyone should complain about the signing, its kool g rap. rawkus fucked up by delaying the giancana story, a record so good it could have revitalized his career, but it came out on koch, and too late. the bootleg version from the rawkus sessions makes you really wonder why they didnt release it.

    • aj

      he isn't complaining (check the archives, he's a huge G Rap fan). But their signing and mishandling G Rap helped kill the label

  • Brandon The187Worm Nixon

    Talib > Kanye. Fuck Kanye..I remember him on Punk'D runnin with his music video film like a little bitch almost ready to cry..popped collar pussy

    • C-Lo Dubai

      Man, how is everybody a bitch or a pussy gotdamn! To survive in this cutthroat industry and strive, while being yourself in the process? That takes big balls. These cats aint pussy you could bet that. I would've ran with my tape too! Check youtube.com/clodubai or just google the name. Real recognize real. Gotdamn E-thugs

    • khordkutta

      "I paid for dat film!!!!" "you aint takin nuthin!!!"

  • Jess Devitt

    maybe he wouldve had better ghostwriters, better ghost producers, and mimicked better music. rawkus wouldve never released the faggotry that was dark twisted fantasy

    • Jarrod

      Hip hop "heads" crack me up just like hipsters. They complain that everything sounds the same but when something truly original drops i.e "My Beautiful Dark...", they dismiss it because the public is already on it. Rawkus died because "true hip hop heads" are the worst fans; they like you when you're small, but as soon as you blow, the support stops.

  • lexus or justice?

    Talib's first three projects were so amazing. Hope he gets back to that. This article is the m'fuckin' truth!

  • khordkutta

    Great EFFIN Article, we need more...much more of this type of HIPHOP journalism.

  • hudes

    Jo- Ell Quickman? hahaha much better as Ortiz great article. Rawkus was the shit. Soundbombing 2, and 3. Man i remember them shits, I'm gonna go dig them up I got em somewhere. Eminem goes, I'm hotter than my dick is when i piss and it burns. haha

  • mmmm

    Dope article. DX stays winning lately. What if Duck Down signed Eminem?

    • C-Lo Dubai

      I agree. If Em was on Rawkus and pushed he would have stayed underground. Em gave him that co-sign and made EVERYBODy do a double take. I wasn't feeling him at first, then I heard that Sway and Tek mixtape with him, RZA, Kool G and Tech 9 and Chino XL all on the same track and he went in "This place is my house, I might as well erase my face with white out..."

    • Anonymous

      nigga don't hate

    • Anonymous

      then you wouldn't hardly now who Em is/was. Em was not excepted until Dr. Dre co-signed him produced his whole fucking debut and all the white kids bought his shit then he blew the fuck up and was still hated. I'm hating on Em, he was more a victim to this. Hi my name is??? i was like gtfoh!! then Dre came on the radios and tv's co-signing him hard and doing promo with him together. Then the hiphop world got behind him... tru story

  • 905

    Amazing article! Best I've read from HHDX in a while. Keep it up!

    • No Name

      I don't think he would've been less opinionated, hot-headed or proud than he already is, but he definitely would've gotten less significant exposure. Rawkus artists weren't and still aren't being looked at by major labels or collective regardless of collaborating with big names. 'Ye wouldn't have been an exception. Something about Rawkus just spells "overlooked".