In 1997 two Brown University students started a seminal label that brought lyrical legends like Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Company Flow and Pharoahe Monch to the masses and proved that great underground rap could sell records on a large scale.
The razor-blade claimed its debutante moment in 1997. A curved emblem stamped with the curious moniker of Rawkus along its southern edge, the logo began taking over the racks of independent record stores in earnest that year. Canny crate-diggers may have noted evidence of the Rawkus record label before that—sometimes sporting a different logo, often with a different (and not always hip-hop-based) sound—but when 12" vinyl records by artists with incongruous-seeming names like Mos Def, Shabaam Shadeeq and Sir Menelik started popping up, it heralded the beginning of a new underground sound. Crucially, the Rawkus-fronted movement cast itself as an alternative grassroots soundtrack to the glitzy, Puff-propagated shiny-suit facade of mainstream hip-hop at the time. "Independent as fuck," proclaimed the artwork of the debut album by Rawkus's first critically-acclaimed group, Company Flow. In 1997, it was less a mantra than a battle-cry.