During the raid on Mondo Kim’s on St. Marks two weeks ago, the police arrested five employees and took a slew of hip-hop mix CDs off the shelves. The irony is that the record companies themselves often service mix tape DJs with the very tracks that make it onto these “unauthorized” CDs. As JIM MAHONEY, the president of Fat Beats Records, says: “Every artist knows about mix CDs, every label knows. They service the mix CDs. These raids aren’t driven by the labels. [The labels] give the records to the DJs hoping that the DJs will put [them] on the mix CD as a means of selling their artists.”
Selling mix tapes is still an illegal activity, even if it is contradictory to the labels’ street-smart marketing scheme. Some stores get around the legalities by selling the packaging, offering the CDs themselves for free. Mahoney maintained that Fat Beats only gives away mix CDs to loyal customers. Online mix tape retailers skirt the issue in a similar manner, listing the sticker itself as costing $7 and reminding the customer that the CD is free.
In hip-hop’s halcyon days, says rapper DOUG E FRESH, mix tapes were specifically made for the drug dealers—the only people who could afford to pay. “The guys on the corner wanted special tapes dedicated to them. Some DJs would get $100 a tape—if you were GRANDMASTER FLASH or DJ HOLLYWOOD, because they were the hottest at the time. The radio wasn’t playing hip-hop. Everybody heard it that way,” he says.
MARC SIEGEL is the manager of Skippy White’s, an urban record store in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, that was busted in April for selling mix CDs. “There’s stuff on the radio that people want to hear and they can’t buy it,” he says. “Years ago there used to be singles which were released at the same time that radio was playing the song. It doesn’t happen anymore. The record industry has trained a bunch of kids not to buy music.”
Today’s mix tapes have a shelf life of a few weeks and are sold for $5 to $10. In many cases, getting on a mix tape isn’t just the best way to break a new record or a new artist, it’s the only way. Detroit artist ROYCE DA 5’9″, who’s been on “countless” mix tapes, says, “Nine out of 10 artists have to do mix tapes to start a buzz. You can’t go to a label and just get a deal.”
It works the other way around, too. Record labels will often snatch up a popular mix tape DJ and put out a “legal” mix. Someone like DJ CLUE—now on Roc-A-Fella Records—put out close to 200 mixes in seven years. In his bio, he says: “If the RIAA were to count the tapes I’ve sold independently over the years, I would’ve been certified multi-platinum by now.” When Mahoney worked for a record label, he’d send promotional singles to DJ Clue, “hoping he’d put them on a mix CD.”
Mix tape DJs will sometimes charge lesser-known artists money to get on a mix, because they know the power of a hot mix tape. And for many artists, scoring a prime spot on a popular mix tape by a DJ like KAY SLAY is like striking gold. “You’re competing with so many other good artists, if someone wants you on the mix tape and they’re willing to put you in the first seven tracks,” says Royce, “then that’s an honor.”
Street DJs essentially do the work normally left to the record labels’ a&r departments. “There are a lot of artists who have been, in industry parlance, ‘broken’ by a DJ Clue mix tape or a TONY TOUCH mix tape, a DJ WHOO KID tape,” says Mahoney.
One rapper who directly benefited from the mix tape market is 50 CENT—whose music appeared on some seized CDs at Kim’s. “He got huge off of mix tapes,” says Royce. “It was to the point that Hot 97 was playing 50 Cent records off of mix tapes. Had it not been for mix tapes, nobody would have known how talented he is. He might have been another overlooked artist.”