Rating: 8 / 10
Given their current status and the recent comments from several disgruntled ex-artists, (Mos Def and EL-P to name just two) its hard to remember back to a time when Rawkus was the underground label, with both an incredibly talented roster and an almost flawless series of 12s released in its early days of 1997-1998.
It is these superb records that make up the majority of the first “Soundbombing” recording, drawing together hard-to-find vinyl with a few new tracks, all mixed together by Beatminerz DJ / producer Evil Dee. The track listing reads like a who €™s-who of underground New York hip-hop and it was impossible to conceive that just 4 years down the line, in the series €™ third instalment, that the likes of Company Flow, Shabaam Sahdeeq and Kool Keith would be replaced by Missy Eliot and CNN. Rather than lament on this once great label €™s downfall however, its better to concentrate on the positives, and this album, along with its sequel, are definitely two of the biggest positives to come out of Rawkus €™ short underground life span.
Following a short introduction and a snippet of the Artifacts €™ awesome ‘Brick City Kids’, we get down to business with the first of RA the Rugged Man €™s two appearances on the album, ‘Flipside.’ If you €™re familiar with RA, you know what to expect, and on this short track (to €œlet motherfuckers know (he) didn €™t fall of the earth €) his delivers the goods over a simple, moody beat. Just one verse, but dope none-the-less.
The following three tracks are probably a matter of love or hate, depending on how you feel about EL-P and his extended family. Personally, I €™m a big fan of his production, and these three early tracks are among his best pre-Cannibal Ox beats, with innovative drums and unique sounds throughout. Granted his own rhyming can be a touch grating, but with the likes of J-Trends, Big Jus and Sir Menelik to support him across the songs, all three are very strong, and among the album €™s many standouts.
If the preceding tracks might split opinions, ‘Arabian Nights’ certainly will not have that effect as it is simply a brilliant piece of music with a smooth, yet haunting, beat, and Shabaam Sahdeeq delivering the best lyrical performance of his career. To me, its the album €™s crowning jewel and listening to it again, it seems a real shame that Sahdeeq €™s album never was released, set, as it was, to drop during Rawkus €™ €˜golden era €™ in 1999.
The album €™s next track is probably the most well known and additionally notable for its first partnering of Blackstar duo, Talib Kweli and Mos Def, along with super producer Hi-Tek and Mr Man. The song is of course ‘Fortified Live,’ and is as good as you remember it to be, with the dusty and funky beat and all three MCs on top form.
L-Fudge €™s ‘Show Me Your Gratitude’ is probably the album €™s first filler track, despite a quirky beat and a nice Nas sample on the hook. On its own, it isn €™t too bad, but given the company, its just a bit dull by comparison. If you had any doubts over RA €™s unique talent, his collaboration with Agallar (aka 8 Off), ‘Till My Heart Stops’ will squash any reservations you had, with another impressive, piano-driven beat and both MCs lamenting on their respective rap careers.
The second half of the album opens with a Blackstar freestyle before leading into another contribution from Sir Menelik, accompanied this time by rap €™s craziest man, Kool Keith. Over a suitable €œDr. Octagon €-ish beat, Sir Menelik seems to be aping Keith €™s voice and flow as they both drop, essentially, scientific gibberish, but it sure sounds good.
The remainder of the album however is dominated by future superstars Mos Def, Talib Kweli and Hi-Tek, (despite the banger ‘My Crown’ by Black Attack also impressing) showing glimpses of the great things to come from all three over the following few years. Both early Mos solo tracks are fine tracks, which find him rhyming over fairly basic, funky beats which suit his voice perfectly, but it is Hi-Tek and Kewli €™s ‘2000 Seasons,’ the album €™s closer which resonates, challenging ‘Arabian Nights’ for the album’s main highlight. Smooth and reflective, it is a perfect microcosm of both the Blackstar album and the €˜true school €™ b-boy revolution that Rawkus sparked 5 years, whose ripples we still feel today, epitomised in the perfectly realised form of J-Live.
Speak to anyone about this album and one negative element will almost always get mentioned and that is the contribution of Evil Dee. Pre-dating Kay Slay and Clue by some time, he is as annoying throughout ( €œEvil Dee is on the mix, come on kick it! €) and comes dangerously close to ruining the album. Also absent from him are the turntable skills which helped make the follow-up such a classic, but maybe I €™m just being picky; when the songs are this good, who really needs elaborate mixing?