Talib Kweli & El-P Recall Rawkus Records Taking A Chance On Underground Hip-Hop

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Run The Jewels and Company Flow co-founder El-P is the latest guest on Talib Kweli’s The People’s Party Podcast, with co-host Jasmin Leigh. The two natives of Brooklyn, New York have plenty of history together, including Hip Hop For Respect. They were label-mates at Rawkus Records during an inflection point in both artist’s careers, making albums that galvanized an iconic underground Hip-Hop label that reached the mainstream.

The two men relive some history from the mid-1990s when each hungry Hip-Hop artist found a home that was down to put out music by their respective groups. Ahead of the 30:00 mark, El-P remembers working at Lower Manhattan’s Tower Records with Co Flow band-mate Bigg Jus. Notably, some years later, Kweli recalls a job selling incense and oils outside that same Lafayette Street music store. El recalls Company Flow using Tower’s postage to ship demo materials to record labels. “We’d take our money that we earned there, and we’d go record at night,” he remembers of early songs like “8 Steps To Perfection” and others. The trio (also including New Jersey producer/DJ Mr. Len) had room on the 12″ recording. That birthed the eight songs on 1996 Official Records’ Funcrusher. “That was literally as simple as it was,” El says. “Why are we just putting a song and an instrumental on this piece of plastic? It’s gonna cost the same amount of money to put eight of these songs on here.”

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Talib brings up the years that followed. “[You and I] were signed to Rawkus at the same time. Black Star was more jazzy, melodic. We were in the same circles, in terms of crews, but sonically, not so [much]. Did you ever feel like there was a competition between Company Flow and Black Star? Because we were operating in the same spaces and sort of vying for the same fan-base, just different sides of people’s brain.” El responds with what appears to be a joke, “Nah. The only time I ever thought there was a competition was when you got to the B.D.P beat before me. I was like, ‘F*ck those dudes.’ I was mad about that one.” He is referring to DJ Hi-Tek’s “Definition” track for Black Star, which samples Boogie Down Productions’ “The P Is Free (Remix).”

El continues, “I think my influences were really rooted in sh*t like B.D.P, and [Public Enemy], and Run-D.M.C., and old Schoolly D, and Fat Boys, sh*t like that, and Slick Rick—big, big Hip-Hop records with stabs. To this day, that’s kinda my thing.” Kweli then reflects, “Like, we weren’t as lo-fi as a Madlib, but it was definitely a warm, fuzzier thing that we were doing.” “For sure,” El agrees. “And that’s why it worked. That’s why we coexisted. Because, to be fair, it never felt like a competition. You were always doing your thing. The thing about that period of time, and that era, which was so special, is that there were so many people doing different sh*t. The ones that really stood one—the ones that ended up being some of the groups that we’d call defining of that era, I think Company Flow is included, and I know Black Star is, and I know there’s a couple others—everybody had their slot that they filled that created this picture. There’s a lot going on in this movement. There was. You remember the open mics and sh*t; everybody would get up and have a style, and everyone was into that different style.”

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Talib continues, “For me, when I got to Rawkus, what was exciting about [the label] to me was [Missin’ Linx member] Black Attack was there, and Shabaam [Sahdeeq] was there, and Sir Menelik was there; I wasn’t familiar with Menelik, but I was familiar with Kool Keith, and Company Flow was there. Y’all established it before we got there.” “I feel like Rawkus co-opted this whole ‘independent as f*ck’ thing.” El responds, “I think that Rawkus certainly recognized it, and I think they had the ability to do something about it.” El says that Company Flow came up with the mantra while hand-designing artwork at a kitchen table using glue-sticks. It would eventually become a moniker in the late 1990s and early 2000s Rap underground.

Kweli recalls being introduced to Rawkus co-founder Jarret Myer, who produces The People’s Party through then-Fugees affiliate John Forté. “I remember Jarret and Brian [Brater], these two white guys from Brown University, they came to the hood—they came to Crown Heights, and John Forté was there. Everybody was rhyming their ass off; everybody had a blunt and a 40 [ounce beer]. Everybody was trying to get a record deal, rhyming their ass off. At this point, I don’t even think that they had y’all yet. I remember John Forté being like, ‘Why ain’t you rappin’?’ I’m like, ‘This indie label sh*t? I’m trying to get to a major.'” The Reflection Eternal and Black Star co-founder continues, “A short two years later, now my girl is pregnant, now I lost my job. Mos Def [aka] Yasiin Bey comes to me, he’s like, ‘Yo, I think I’ma do a single with these Rawkus dudes.’ I’m like, ‘Jarret and Brian?’ He’s like, ‘Yeah; they gave me some money.’ I’m like, ‘They gave you some money? [Laughs] How much money they give you?’ My whole thought pattern changed.”

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“Meeting those guys, it was very interesting, and I think Jarret can attest to this. Basically, we were having a moment in the underground, but we had very quickly—through people like Stretch & Bobbito—we had started to get a lot of attention, just from the little music that we had put out.” An assortment of major and independent labels took an interest in the New York-New Jersey trio. “Rawkus were the ones who said yes to what we thought it should look like. We were like, ‘We want to do this, and we want to own the masters. We want a 50/50 deal. And we don’t want to promise more than one album, ’cause we don’t know how it’s gonna work out. At the time, these were ludicrous thoughts. At the time, there was no [artist leverage]. We went into these guys’ offices and said the same thing that we’d said to other [labels, and they agreed]. I think that was a really genuine place for us to jump off with that sh*t. Because if they’re in that head-space where they respect that idea, and they’re willing, also, to give us money, then these guys are serious. So when you say the co-opting of the [‘independent as f*ck’ mantra], I think what they did was they [finalized] or expanded the thought. We had the thought of ‘independent as f*ck,’ the thing that became a rallying cry in our collective. We helped define that attitude.” El expands, “There was no independent record label system for dudes like us. Either you were on a major or you just were going around to different places freestyling—Washington Square Park or Nuyorican [Poets Café]. There was no middle-ground. Rawkus became the first step for a middle-ground. [They were] the first people to recognize and say—and they felt the same way that I did, politically—’this stuff actually has a monetary future. We can actually sell this, and not take this and try and change it.'” He expounds that the label offered a step apart from the politics and nepotism of the old-guard label system.

El-P and Company Flow broke from Rawkus. El launched Definitive Jux Records, another heralded 2000s imprint. Juss created Subversive, and Len opened his Dummy Smacks company. Talib, who remained with Rawkus until the label was sold, has co-founded labels, including Blacksmith and Javotti Media. While both El and Talib criticized their former label on wax at times, they seemingly look back at the imprint’s positive qualities more than 20 years after signing.

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Elsewhere in the interview, El-P describes Zack De La Rocha living and recording with him in the days following the Rage Against The Machine breakup. He also remembers Def Jux, and confirms that Rick Rubin is not producing Run The Jewels’ fourth album.

Last week, Talib Kweli confirmed that Black Star’s sophomore album, which is reportedly produced by Madlib, is completed.

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Videos from Rawkus Records-era Talib Kweli and El-P are available at AFH TV. We are currently offering free 7-day trials.

#BonusBeat: The Hip Hop For Respect single, featuring Talib Kweli, El-P, Mos Def, Common, Posdnuos, Kool G Rap, Rah Digga, and Shabam Shaddeq: