Rawkus’ ‘Soundbombing’ Compilation Helped Ignite an Indie Rap Revolution
In 2017, declaring oneself a "self-made" artist is as much a marketing ploy as said artist's actual music and backstory. But 20 years ago, being an independent rap act wasn't much to write home about.
Until Rawkus Records came along.
Founded in 1996 by Brian Bater and Jarrett Myer after receiving investment from James Murdoch, current Chairman and CEO of FOX News, Rawkus would present itself as the alternative and antithesis of everything flossy and flashy. Inspired by the trio's love for underground hip-hop that shunned the more mainstream aesthetic that defined popular rap labels like Bad Boy, So So Def, and Death Row at the time, Rawkus would quickly become a hub for some of the most talented emcees and groups in New York City's underground scene and beyond, with the likes of Company Flow, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Shabaam Sahdeeq, and Sir Menelik comprising the core of the label's roster.
With an array of artists at their disposal, Rawkus Records would follow up their first full-length rap release, Funcrusher Plus - a revamped version of Company Flow's debut album, Funcrusher, released on Official Recordings the year prior - with a compilation showcasing their growing roster titled Soundbombing. Released on October 14, 1997, the compilation would play like a mixtape, a move that was in tune with the underground aesthetic of the label and gave the project a gritty undercurrent. Hosted and mixed by Boot Camp Clik rep and head boardsman of Da Beatminerz DJ Evil Dee, Soundbombing would prove to be a game-changer, launching the careers of some of rap's most respected lyricists, internationally known or unsung, and was the calm before the storm that was the label's takeover of the indie scene during the late '90s and early aughts.
Although not an official Rawkus signee, underground stalwart R.A. The Rugged Man, who had made already made waves with his collaboration alongside The Notorious B.I.G., was chosen to kick off the tape with the track "Flipside," which was later released on the label as a 12" single alongside "'Till My Heart Stops," The Rugged Man's other contribution to Soundbombing. Taking to task artists claiming the hip-hop lifestyle and aesthetic without truly living it, R.A. sets the tone with his sentiments, which mirror that of the Rawkus roster of artists and its brain-trust alike. As Rawkus' flagship rap act, Company Flow had already established themselves prior to the release of Soundbombing, which accounts for their lack of airtime on the compilation outside of the Funcrusher Plus standout "Lune TNS." However, the move was a calculated and wise on the part of the label, as it would unleash a new crop of spitters that would put the focus on Rawkus' crop of lesser-known talents, the most highly-touted of which were recruits Mos Def and Talib Kweli, who would make history both as a unit and as solo artists during the time on the label.
At the time, Mos Def may not have become known as the lyrical deity and rap legend that he is regarded as today, but was riding high off his appearances on De La Soul's Stakes Is High album and alongside Da Bush Babees, creating a momentum that would be increased exponentially with his contributions to Soundbombing. In addition to a freestyle alongside Talib Kweli, with whom he would create a kinship with and form the duo Black Star, Mos Def displayed his promise as a strong contender with "If You Can Huh..." and "Universal Magnetic," the latter of which would become his first solo single to chart on Billboard, albeit with a modest #101 slot on the r&b charts. The pair of tracks and freestyle were sample sizes of what Mos would ultimately deliver in full with his debut album Black On Both Sides, but was enough for listeners and critics to designate him as Rawkus' most charismatic talent and one primed for greatness.
For his part, Talib Kweli arrived without the high-profile guest verses of his partner-in-rhyme, but would quickly prove that he was by no means a weak link or underling, teaming up with Cincinnati connect Hi-Tek as Reflection Eternal, a pairing that would help launch their careers and solidify them as underground kings. The duo's first single "Fortified Live" a rollicking cut featuring Mos Def, would put Talib and Hi-Tek on the map in their own right and serve as an early indicator of what the trio would put forth on their classic 1998 Rawkus release, Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Blackstar. That album would announce Rawkus' arrival as a rap powerhouse and more than a minor league player, legitimizing the label as a viable home for independent rap that would rival the mainstream stylings dominating radio and music video countdowns.
Soundbombing may have been a breeding ground for star players that continue to ring bells to casual rap fans and die-hards alike, but it was also a platform for some of the more electric, yet subterranean emcees to showcase their skills, one of them being Brooklyn rapper Shabaam Sahdeeq. Making an appearance on the 1996 Echo compilation Reborn - Underground Airplay Vol. 5 with his track "Sexy," Sahdeeq would put his name on rap junkies radars with "Arabian Nights," his lone contribution to Soundbombing, but one that would prove dynamic and serves as a time-stamp of his tenure on Rawkus. Another pivotal spitter that called Rawkus home was Sir Menelik AKA Cyclops 4000, who's songs "Nightwork" and "So Intelligent" would both appear on Soundbombing and be released as 12" singles by the label in the wake of the compilation's release.
Additional artists that would appear on Soundbombing are Washington Heights representer L-Fudge, who would go on to release his debut album Chronic Irresponsibility in 2001 on SureShot Entertainment, B-One ("Empire Staters"), and Black Attack ("My Crown"), who would release singles with Correct Records in 1997 (and Real Deal Recordings the following year) before fading into obscurity. On the heels of Soundbombing, Rawkus would unleash a string of landmark album releases, including Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, Mos Def's Black On Both Sides, Reflection Eternal's Train of Thought, The High & Mighty's Home Field Advantage, Pharoahe Monch's Internal Affairs, Big L's posthumous release, The Big Picture, and Kool G Rap's The Giancana Story.
Soundbombing would also birth the Lyricist Lounge compilation series, which would showcase more established acts who mirrored the sentiments held by the Rawkus faithful and their constituents.
In spite of Rawkus' demise following a joint venture with MCA Records that would ultimately go awry, the label is one of the more influential in hip-hop history, and Soundbombing served as its first rallying cry and a foreshadowing of their dominance in the realm of underground hip-hop.
Check Out RA the Rugged Man and 8-Off Aguilar's "Till My Heart Stops" From Soundbombing:
Check Out Shabaam Sahdeeq's "Arabian Nights" From Soundbombing: