Panacea, though, stands in the disappointing aftermath of Rawkus, the single most important label of the fabled late-'90s underground hip-hop renaissance. Once home to up-and-coming powerhouses Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch and Company Flow, the label solidified their credibility by reaching out to the monetarily overlooked but critically lauded forebears of both "socially conscious" and "true-school" hip-hop. At the time, Rawkus was the only label savvy enough to link cats like Common and Sadat X (on the classic "One-Nine-Nine-Nine"), put them over a beat from their soon-to be legendary in-house beatsmith Hi-Tek, and lace it with cuts from the Beat Junkies (who were legends-in-the-making themselves).
In 1998 and '99, Rawkus became less a label than a movement, a perfect world in which hip-hop's artistic vanguard paid requisite respect to those who had paved the way. Classic label comps like 1999's Soundbombing II are consummate lessons on how to change the game and, in a meaningful way, keep it real. But even as their stable of groundbreaking artists commenced to release classic upon classic (Blackstar's Mos Def and Talib Kweli Are Black Star; Company Flow's Funchrusher Plus; Pharoahe Monch's Internal Affairs) and their hip-hop philanthropy hit full swing (with Big L's posthumous The Big Picture and Kool G. Rap's alleged signing), Rawkus was falling apart. While capable of assembling artists that changed hip-hop forever (El-P and Eminem among them), Rawkus struggled to maintain their boutique structure in the face of careers that demanded careful development. With so many big-league artists, the label outgrew itself at an astounding rate, eventually buckling under its own star power. Every artist fled for much greener pastures; Rawkus lay dormant for years.
Now the label is attempting a genuine comeback with the Procussions and Panacea, two forward-thinking hip-hop groups doing it for the love, for vibe-feeling, culture-loving rap optimists. Panacea's producer, K-Murdock, cites Mos Def and Soundbombing as key influences and does an admirable job conjuring a particularly Hi-Tek-esque blend of windswept soul, while emcee Raw Poetic rides the beat with heavy doses of Mos Def's conversational wit. Though impossible to compare to Rawkus' past roster giants, Panacea is a force of the same ilk.
And while the group would undoubtedly like to hoist the Rawkus flag like ain't a damn thang changed, they'd be lying, and failing by doing so. They're better thought of as the hopeful sound of tomorrow. They represent the reality to Brand Nubian and Rawkus' individual visions. And while they continue the struggle, it's clear the changes they'd hoped to effect are still wanting.
& r & Lord Jamar, Sadat X and Panacea at the Spread on Thursday, Oct. 5, at 9 pm. $10 at door Call 456-4515.