Tales of the Tape

Mix CDs Radically Transform the Business and Culture of Hip-Hop

In the most utopian view, tapes validate the power of the street to dictate hip-hop's tastes. In the process, they've purportedly upgraded DJs from the margins of the industry to occupy its center. In Shaheem Reid's MTV interview with Whoo Kid, the DJ boasts about charging labels for space on his tapes: "I charge [$5,000] just to get on my CD for a regular slot," a far cry from when DJs had to beg, borrow, or steal to get their exclusives. Without question, mixtape power has payed off for DJs, artists, and fans alike. But this sea change hasn't happened without some concerns.

For starters, the label-released "mixtape album" is often a pale imitation of both. Kayslay's The Streetsweeper Vol. 1 bears little resemblance to his entertaining, acerbic street tapes; it's a generic, vanilla compilation with big names (50 Cent, Nas, Scarface) but few bona fide blasters. Ironically, he may have played his best cards (50 Cent's snarky, sinister "50 Shot Ya," the Diplomats' deliciously dense "Purple Haze") too early by previewing many of the album's songs on his own mixtapes. A top DJ like Kayslay can pull together all the hottest exclusives and produce a tape within a week. In stark contrast, The Streetsweeper took two years to assemble, and came with far more red tape than the average DJ has to deal with. Because of that simple fact, it's unlikely any mixtape album will capture the spontaneous energy of a street tape.

A bigger concern is that, while mixtapes are aspiring to be more like albums, they've become less like . . . mixtapes. Prior to Clue and company changing the proverbial game in the mid '90s, it was DJs like Kid Capri and Ron G who defined the genre. Their tapes made the performative a transformative experience, which could be Capri's party style mixing of new rap tunes with classic B-boy breaks or Ron G's blends of r&b a cappellas over hip-hop beats. The DJs aspired to create unique musical moments that suggested the music used wasn't any more important then how it was used.

An archivist or an oracle?: DJ Kayslay
photo: Kevin Knight
An archivist or an oracle?: DJ Kayslay

The irony of Clue's mixtape model, since copied by scores of DJs, is that there's no actual mixing. Whereas DJs once spoke with their hands, now they just use their mouths as they play songs, sans segues, all the while yelling during intervals to promote tracks or themselves. Though the practical upside is that all that bellowing discourages others from bootlegging the exclusives for their own tapes, this style effectively removes the DJ as an audio alchemist and makes him a circus barker instead.

Of course, there are bound to be perils on the journey from a renegade republic to the heart of the empire. The mixtape's deepening partnership with the music industry rightfully makes some nervous, especially those who feel like the mixtape has already turned too commercial now that Def Jam and Roc-a-Fella lend logos to certain tapes. Yet the beauty of the mixtape has always been its unpredictable and uncontrollable nature. While radio and labels are still encumbered with a tangle of legalities and bureaucracies, tapes thrive on living outside conventions and rules, having survived numerous crackdowns and attacks through the years. Through all this, they've stayed on the front line as living documents for every era, style, and moment of hip-hop's history. While the mixtape may be destined to climb far up the corporate ladder, there will always be masses of faceless DJs to keep it anchored to the street.

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