In 1988, Roadrunner Records had its offices on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, and was mostly putting out records by European thrash and death metal bands, along with a few home-grown acts like Brooklyn’s own Carnivore. But one of our earliest employees, John Bello, heard something else going on in the New York streets, and felt it was important for Roadrunner to jump into hardcore.
Hardcore was having something of a resurgence in the late ’80s. The earliest bands to be labeled hardcore – Black Flag, Bad Brains, Minor Threat – had all broken up or gone on hiatus, and a wave of younger, tougher acts had come up in their wake. In New York, groups like Sick Of It All, Warzone, and Gorilla Biscuits were luring capacity crowds of shaven-headed young men to Sunday afternoon matinee shows at CBGB, and similar scenes were thriving in Boston and on the West Coast. Bello presented Roadrunner founder Cees Wessels with the idea for a hardcore sub-label, which was called Hawker.
Why Hawker Records? Well, as A&R guru Monte Conner recalls it, the name was the result of a collision between Bello’s New York accent and Wessels’ Dutch accent. “I was at dinner with John and Cees when the idea came about. John said he wanted Cees to start a hardcore label. Cees heard the word ‘hardcore’ as ‘hawker’ and the name was born.”
The first Hawker release was Jaybird, the second album by New York’s Token Entry. The Queens-based group earned a solid reputation through relentless gigging and a terrific live show, and their music combined solid playing with a positive attitude and a good sense of humor. Jaybird is a fun, energetic document of a band at its peak, and still holds up today. “John wanted to bet me money that his first release, Jaybird, would outsell [Sepultura’s] Beneath The Remains,” laughs Monte. “Guess who would have won that bet?”
The label’s second release was Next, the only album by Philadelphia’s Pagan Babies. The group mostly played head-down, blazing punk rock, but occasionally experimented with an early rap/metal sound, as on the song “Fuck You, I’m Punk!” They also paid homage to bands they admired, with covers of Slaughter and the Dogs’ “The Bitch” and Lime Spiders’ “Beyond the Fringe.”
These two studio documents were followed by a live compilation, Free For All. Recorded in April 1989 at CBGB, the album included three tracks each by four bands: Token Entry, Boston’s Wrecking Crew, Rest in Pieces (a band formed by Sick Of It All’s Armand Majidi and Rob Echeverria, later of Biohazard and Helmet) and Orange County, California straight-edge outfit No For An Answer. This album captured all four groups at a peak of energy, and though it’s long out of print, is still highly regarded on punk and hardcore forums and blogs. Video footage of some of the bands’ sets is on YouTube, and can be seen below.
Wrecking Crew made their studio debut on Hawker that same year, releasing Balance of Terror, a bone-crunching album full of the brutal energy the Boston scene was known for. Recalls Mike Gitter, a Boston hardcore scene fixture who'd later become an A&R executive at Roadrunner, “They were an important band for Boston. They definitely bridged the gap between the older Boston sounds as well as more metallic hardcore bands from mid to late ’80s. Kind of like Boston's Cro-Mags. While the older Boston hardcore scene was beginning to fade as bands like SSD, DYS and Jerry's Kids were calling it quits and the likes of The FU's were morphing into Straw Dogs, Wrecking Crew took up the mantle and carried it for another generation of bands.” Wrecking Crew was important to Roadrunner for another reason – Executive VP Doug Keogh recalls, “it was an accident of theirs on the road where we were sued (and wasn't even their fault) that made us develop the tour support agreements and policies that we use to this day.”
Orange County’s No For An Answer, fronted by the outspoken Dan O’Mahoney, were the next group to release a Hawker album. A Thought Crusade built on the band’s existing reputation as part of the Revelation Records roster, but it was also a musical evolution, adding deep melodic bass lines and shout-along choruses to their churning sound. Of course, there was the East Coast/West Coast thing to contend with; Doug Keogh remembers, “I believe that when they played CB's, they were respectfully received by the NYC hardcore crowd…But there was a weird east coast/west coast rivalry at the time - John Bello himself was beat up once on assignment to LA, when he was asked to go see Dawn Crosby and Catalepsy, and did the NY mosh thing, which apparently rubbed some of the local patrons the wrong way.”
The last Hawker release was also the most unique. Jones Very was a project featuring Vic Bondi, former frontman of the well-known Chicago band Articles of Faith. Says Mike Gitter, “AOF was head and shoulders above most of what was going on at the time; they had a broader musical palette and really introspective lyrics. You could call them one of the very first emo bands! Vic had moved to Boston where he was teaching at Boston University and U Mass. He simply got the bug to play again. Jones Very was very much an extension of AOF's ideas.” Jones Very’s debut album, Words and Days, is decidedly not a hardcore album; in fact, it owes a lot more to the arty postpunk of Washington, DC bands like Fugazi or Rites of Spring.
After only these six releases, Hawker Records was shut down. Naturally, that wasn’t the end of Roadrunner’s relationship with the hardcore scene; in 1990, Rest In Pieces put out Under My Skin on Roadrunner proper. And of course, years later, bands like Madball, Hatebreed and even Life of Agony, all of whom had roots in the East Coast hardcore scene, achieved great success on the label. But Hawker was a unique moment, and the albums released under that banner document the sound and energy of that time and place.