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Pop: The young rap rebels

News International funding underground hip-hop? Rawkus wouldn't be where they are today...
Before he got a new career as a TV presenter, Public Enemy's Chuck D used to go on all the time about rap being black people's CNN. The equation of streetwise music form with this globe- encircling corporate news organisation made some people nervous. How such faint-hearts react to the idea of an underground hiphop label partly financed by Rupert Murdoch's News International is their own problem.

From their Manhattan base at 676 Broadway, Rawkus Records have made Chuck D's analogy flesh. Far from being compromised by fiscal links with Rupert Murdoch's evil empire (a loan helped them expand, Murdoch's son James even used to help out in the office, though he's not there any more), the label has consolidated an instinctive affinity for all that's forward- looking in hiphop into a formidable reputation for nurturing maverick talent. In the process they've released some of the most radical rap records ever made - simultaneously taking the music back to its roots and to places it's never been before.

Anyone needing proof that the News International arrangement is strictly business only has to listen to the records. On last year's captivating, back-to-basics double CD set Lyricist's Lounge, for example, the training shoe industry got equated with slavery. "Before cushioned insoles and arch supports," intoned fiery poetess Sarah Jones, "there were feet that sat in rusted chains." It's a long strange trip from Run DMC's "My Adidas", but Rawkus supremos Bryan Brater and Jarrett Myer have made it with style.

Fresh from a launch event for the label's dazzling new sampler, Soundbombing 2, at New York's Bowery Ballroom - "a great, tight, contained showcase spot" - Brater waxes about his big night out. "It was just one of those classic concerts," Bryan explains, "where you have a huge segment of the hiphop community and everyone's feeling love for each other." Ra The Rugged Man was there, Talib Kweli was there, The Beat Junkies were there, Shabaam Sahdeeq was there - a galaxy of stars whose names have the anonymous mystique of grafitti tags for the uninitiated but emerge from their records as fully formed and compelling personalities.

The secret of Rawkus's success is to have a house identity but no house style; lyrical eloquence combined with audacious productions being the sine qua non. Far from the cut-throat management mechanisms more usually associated with rap - summarised by the ever-to-the-point Rugged Man as "The president of the company don't care if I die or if I'm bleeding" - Brater and Myer seem to have established a label ethic based on camaraderie and straight dealing.

The two entrepreneurs were musicians themselves until they "tired of making 300 bucks a week eating shit and hopped over the invisible fence". "I was a jazz bass player," Brater explains, "and unless you're Jaco Pastorius or Stanley Clarke, you're not gonna help your moms out that way."

After a couple of years of releasing ground-breaking singles, lovingly sustaining the supposedly doomed 12-inch vinyl format by combining high aesthetic ideals with value for money ("Who wants to buy some shit with an instrumental mix that's retarded?" Brater demands imperiously), Rawkus broke into the LP big league in 1998 with the success of the first Soundbombing compilation and Company Flow's debut album Funcrusher Plus.

Soundbombing 2 will ship upwards of 200,000 copies in America, and everyone who buys it will find their life has taken a dramatic turn for the better. "People tell us we're a big label now," says Brater cheerfully, "but the way we operate is still slightly different to a Def Jam or a Tommy Boy. Sometimes as labels grow they become more an image of something else, but the most important thing for us is that every record we release should be true to the spirit of Company Flow's Funcrusher Plus and Mos Def's `Universal Magnetic'... We're cool with a quarter of a million copies. We don't have the pressure of needing to go double platinum."

Black Star featuring Talib Kweli support Lauryn Hill, Sunday and Monday at Wembley Arena, London. `Soundbombing 2' (Rawkus) is out now