In the summer of 1999, the rap industry was moving into previously unexplored territory. Twenty years after the very first rap 12-inch was released, the genre had finally become the top-selling in terms of sales. Rap was the most popular kind of music amongst the youth and the most sought after demographic from brands and corporations looking to sell products to both Generation X and burgeoning Millennials. There was a time when rap music couldn’t be played on Black radio while the sun was still up. Rap was once relegated to the very back of the record store, partially because it wasn’t regarded as real music and partially to discourage shoplifters (since they would essentially have to sprint through the entire store in order to escape with their ill-gotten vinyl, cassette tape, or CD long box.)
All of this could be said for mainstream Rap music but underground/indie Rap in 1999 was perceived much like a red-headed stepchild. It was dismissed as “backpack Rap” where hundreds of lyrical-spiritual-miracle loving “heads” who lived for obscure references, punchlines, metaphors, similes, internal rhyme schemes, multi-syllable rhyme schemes, speed, and remarkable breath control had nerdgasms over vinyl singles that were insanely hard to locate. They existed only to nod their heads furiously to songs with 30 bar verses — no hooks — and thumb their noses at everything on the radio. That was the general consensus. “Backpacker” was often used as a slur/derogatory term in a world where Swizz Beatz and Mannie Fresh ruled the radio and the charts.
Rawkus was the leading brand in underground rap in 1999. Whereas other indie Rap labels made their marks selling 12-inch vinyl singles and CD’s through Web-based mail-order marketplaces such as Sandbox Automatic, Underground Hip-Hop, and Hip-Hop Site, and physical storefronts like Fat Beats. Rawkus did all that and sold a significant amount of CDs. Rawkus had the advantage of being well funded, this meant they had quite a promotional budget. They could secure print ads in all the major and independent music publications. They could afford TV spots, ad space on the radio, and they could shoot videos for their big singles which landed in the rotation on BET, MTV, and MTV2.
On top of it all, they had Priority/EMI doing their distribution. This allowed Rawkus to compete with major labels in terms of reach. This was something other leading underground Rap labels like Fondle ‘Em, Dolo, Stones Throw, Solesides, Hydra, Rhymesayers, and Conception couldn’t do. Rawkus had been building up to this point for years. Back in 1997, they released two seminal projects: Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plusand the first edition of their compilation series Soundbombing. In 1998, Rawkus further established themselves by putting out the double CD compilation Lyricist Lounge Vol. 1 and the highly anticipated project Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star. They had made such headway that Funkmaster Flex was even playing Rawkus songs on Hot 97. After making several key signings, Rawkus was set to drop multiple projects in 1999, using Soundbombing II as the foundation of their releases going forward.
Between their flagship artists who released popular vinyl singles — like Sir Menelik, Shabaam Sahdeeq, RA The Rugged Man, and Talib Kweli & Mos Def — and new signees, like the Cocoa Brovaz (Smif N’ Wessun), Da Beatminerz, and The High & Mighty, Rawkus was ready to make a major push that year. The label co-owners Brian Brater and Jarret Myer had funding from James Murdoch (the son of billionaire Rupert Murdoch). They assembled a team that included lead A&R Black Shawn; associate A&Rs Mike Heron and Sally Morita; radio promotions guy Ben Willis; and Kevin Shand, who did distribution and sales. Gang Starr Foundation’s Headqcourterz headed up the Rawkus street team.
This outfit was behind one of the most successful stretches an underground Rap label ever achieved.
In addition to having full-page ads in music publications, the video for Common and Sadat X’s “1-9-9-9” was in rotation on BET and MTV. Rawkus went a step further by distributing a promotional snippet mixtape by J-Rocc & DJ Babu of the World Famous Beat Junkies. Needless to say, Rawkus’ aggressive approach yielded great returns — far beyond what most underground Rap labels experienced.
On May 18th, 1999 Soundbombing II hit store shelves. The album was powered by the popularity of “1-9-9-9,” Eminem’s “Any Man,” The High & Mighty’s “B-Boy Document 99,” and Company Flow’s “Patriotism” among other Rawkus songs which were prominently featured on And1 Mixtape Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 by DJ Set Free and Nex Millen. There was even a special Rawkus Soundbombing II episode of BET’s Rap City that aired around the time of the compilations’ release. Due to all of these factors, the album did even better than anyone could’ve wildly anticipated out of the gate.
In the June 5th edition of Billboard, Soundbombing II not only debuted at #6 on the Top R&B Albums chart and it entered the Billboard 200 at #30. There were multiple Rawkus releases in the Top 10 Rap Singles and there was going to be a Soundbombing II series of double-sided vinyl released for their rabid fanbase on five different 12-inches. At the time Rawkus was moving anywhere around 50K units per vinyl drop or occasionally even upwards. By locking down the crowd on Stretch & Bobbito’s WKCR, Jay Smooth’s Underground Railroad show on WBAI, DJ Riz and DJ Eclipse on Halftime Radio Show — in addition to Sway, King Tech, and DJ Revolution’s The Wake Up Show — they had already secured a faithful core audience who frequented Fat Beats or copped from online marketplaces. But they had made inroads to the wider mainstream Rap audience and had converted some of them to the cause of the Resistance.
Why was Soundbombing II so crucial? Its overwhelming success paved the way for a landmark 1999 for Rawkus. In June, they released Company Flow’sLittle Johnny From The Hospituland DJ Spinna’s Heavy Beats Vol. 1 which was followed up by The High & Mighty’s Home Field Advantage in August. These albums set the stage for Rawkus to drop Mos Def’s Black On Both Sidesand Pharoahe Monch’s Internal Affairs in consecutive weeks in October. These albums helped to raise Rawkus’ profile to the point MTV greenlit a sketch comedy show based on The Lyricist Lounge Show which debuted in early 2000.
Rawkus had become the leading brand carrying the flag for underground Rap as we were deeply entrenched in the Jiggy Era.
Another reason why Rawkus’ accomplishments were so timely is because the entire landscape of the music industry was changing. By May, it was reported that “mp3” was the most searched term on the Internet — ahead of “sex.” On May 19th, 1999 it was announced in major business periodicals that MTV was going to purchase The Box meaning that it would join MTV, MTV2, VH1, and BET as Viacom owned music video networks that were portals for urban music. The music industry was scrambling to find ways to regulate music and curb unauthorized downloads of ripped mp3 via sites like MP3.com, MusicMatch and Goodnoise. The industry was trying to create copy-protected CDs or anti-copying protocols for digital music downloads.
Of course, all of this was made moot on June 1st, 1999 when Northeastern University student Shawn Fanning released the beta version of Napster which spread from Northeastern to Emerson College, Boston University, Berklee College Of Music, MIT, Harvard, Boston College and over 50 institutions of higher learning with high-speed Internet in the Metro Boston Area. From there, Napster spread up and down the Eastern Seaboard then nationwide. Nothing would be the same after Summer 1999 but with the perfectly timed release of Soundbombing II, Rawkus was able to establish itself as a powerhouse right before the inception of the brave new world of P2P sites.
Dart Adams is Boston-based creative who has written for NPR and Producers I Know. Follow his latest and greatest @Dart_Adams on Twitter.