Happy 20th Anniversary to Rawkus Records’ Soundbombing II compilation, originally released May 18, 1999.
Rawkus Records couldn’t put a foot wrong in 1999. The New York based label had helped redefine independent hip-hop with a run of consistently dope 12” singles and critically acclaimed albums including Company Flow’s Funcrusher Plus and the inaugural Soundbombing collection in 1997, and Black Star’s Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star in 1998.
Soundbombing was a showcase for new tracks and previous 12” highlights from the label’s artists and affiliates, packaged as a hosted mixtape. The sequel, Soundbombing II, arrived in 1999, a stacked year for the label that also saw them drop excellent albums like Mos Def’s Black on Both Sides, Pharoahe Monch’s Internal Affairs and High & Mighty’s Home Field Advantage.
Hosting duties were handled this time by Beat Junkies J Rocc and DJ Babu who do a solid job of keeping momentum through the many tracks. The addition of song intros and a few skits make Soundbombing II a more grandiose and arguably bloated album compared to the original, but who cares when the music is this good.
Many of the standout tracks are those from artists closely associated with the label and their vinyl releases, still eager to prove themselves and make a lasting impact. Mos Def and Mr. Eon excel on the throwback “B-Boy Document 99,” which also features revered emcee Skillz. Mos’ partner Talib Kweli is as solid as ever on “Chaos” over a stripped-down headnodder from his Reflection Eternal producer, Hi-Tek. El-P, meanwhile, further perfects the slick, rapid-fire and very angry style that helped make Funcrusher Plus such a classic, on the Company Flow track “Patriotism.”
Soundbombing II also highlights some of the label’s sharpest lyricists whom, unlike Mos Def, El-P and Talib Kweli, haven’t since managed to reach as many listeners as they deserve, namely Shabaam Sahdeeq (“WWIII” and “Every Rhyme I Write” with Cocoa Brovaz) and Sir. Menelik (“7XL”).
But the Soundbombing albums were not only a way of showing off newer talent. Rawkus’ solid rep had given the label the respect of many established and respected emcees and producers from the first half of the decade who were now looking to be part of this new golden era of independent hip-hop. Q-Tip, Pete Rock, Marley Marl, Prince Paul and Kid Capri all pop up on Soundbombing II song intros, adding some serious credibility to the set.
Brand Nubian rhyme vets Grand Puba and Sadat X contribute verses to “7XL” and Sadat X also kicks rhymes with the seasoned Common on “1-9-9-9,” two of the finest cuts on the album. Pharoahe Monch excels as always, kicking off a sublime, post Organized Konfusion solo career with his full-length debut on Rawkus, Internal Affairs, and a couple of tracks on Soundbombing II (“WWIII” and “Mayor”).
Lest we forget that Soundbombing II also features a track by a certain artist from Detroit named Eminem. Having already featured on the Rawkus 12” “5 Star Generals” with Shabaam Sahdeeq in 1998, his appearance on Soundbombing II’s “Any Man” came out the same year as “My Name Is,” a.k.a. the year he become a huge, controversial star. It would be the last time Eminem would be associated with underground hip-hop, but his appearance and subsequent success gave Soundbombing II a wider reach than Rawkus Records probably ever expected.
Rawkus began to fizzle out in the early years of the new millennium. There would be a few more quality albums from the label to come, including Big L’s posthumous The Big Picture and Reflection Eternal’s Train of Thought in 2000, DJ Hi-Tek’s Hi-Teknology and Beatminerz’ Brace 4 Impack in 2001, and Marco Polo’s Port Authority as late as 2007. But much of the grimy, dusty-crate spirit of their late ‘90s releases had gone.
Claims of bad business practice and unfavorable contracts caused major unrest amongst the roster, and the revelation that the label had been partly funded by the son of media tyrant Rupert Murdoch damaged the reputation of Rawkus in the mind of hardcore fans who had believed that the label really was “independent as fuck.”
El-P was particularly scathing in his criticism of how Rawkus treated his group Company Flow, infamously declaring on “Deep Space 9mm” from his 2002 solo album Fantastic Damage that he’d “rather be mouth fucked by Nazis, unconscious” than do business again with his former label.
Soundbombing III was released in 2002 as a lackluster affair that seemed unsure of what direction it was trying to head in. It would prove to be the final installment of what was up until then an excellent series.