Last month, during Lil Wayne’s set at the sold-out, hanging-from-the-rafters Gibson Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, three distinctly deafening paroxysms of noise punctured the general din. The first two were triggered by predictable moments: respective gremlin-croaked renditions of “A Milli” and “Lollipop,” the ubiquitous singles from Tha Carter III. But the third ululation came when Wayne asked the rapturous audience, “How many of y’all have my mixtapes?” The subsequent decibel-level spike was commensurate with an alpine avalanche or a Phish rendition of “Wolfman’s Brother” circa 1994.
Wayne has given away millions of copies of nearly a dozen different mixtapes in his short, surreal career—turns out that’s the only way to sell records these days. That a rabid fanbase weaned on hours and hours of free product snapped up nearly three million full-price copies of Tha Carter III anyway should trigger another loud, gleeful yawp—this one from a music industry in jubilant disbelief that they’ve finally found a possibly tenable business model for the Internet age. The formula is deceptively simple: Stoke hype via an elaborrate architecture of blogs, social-networking vortices, and torrent sites—a vastly cheaper star-making engine than the old model of bribing radio DJs, overpaying Jacknife Lee to produce, and footing the bill for six-figure music videos with a lifespan shorter than Kenny’s in a South Park episode. The days of an untested rapper’s full-length debut going platinum thanks to one hot single are dead (see: Mims, Jibbs, Shop Boyz). The only hope for industry salvation is to tap into a modern spin on the Grateful Dead model: Give away tons of bootleg products for free, ink 360 deals to tap into the resultant lucrative touring and merch markets, and pray that album sales eventually justify the fuss.
The mixtape’s lineage extends from early New York City pioneers like Ron G, Bruce B, and Kid Capri to later legends DJ Clue, Funkmaster Flex, and Tony Touch to 50 Cent, who released a legendary series of bootlegs at the turn of the century that laid the groundwork for 2003’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, his multi-platinum Interscope debut. The crucial contrast between 50’s tapes and the pre-millennium model is the method of distribution: In a post-Napster world, fans no longer needed to trek to New York’s Canal Street, Los Angeles’s Melrose Boulevard, or all the hip-hop specialty shops scattered in between. In the ensuing years, a number of artists (most notably the Clipse, the Game, Wayne, M.I.A., and Danger Mouse) have used the medium to launch or re-launch their careers, a trend undoubtedly influenced by the decline of legit rap record sales. The tapes spawned a cottage industry, with everyone from mixtape DJs to mom-and-pop record shops caking off the heavily copyright-infringing material. Unsurprisingly, in January 2007, the Recording Industry Association of America, in conjunction with the Feds, raided the operations of Atlanta mixtape DJ du jour DJ Drama, who’d collaborated with Wayne on several of his most iconic tapes. Yet, instead of quelling the illicit trade, the RIAA inadvertently sparked the Golden Age of the Mixtape. With DJs wary to press and sell physical copies, dissemination moved almost exclusively to the Internet to sate the hungry hordes of downloaders, be they longtime fans or new converts.
2007 marked the first time a rap mixtape cracked the Pazz & Jop Top 40, with Wayne’s Da Drought 3 finishing at #35. But this past year marked the medium’s full bloom into a legitimate art form, with Nas’s The Nigger Tape, El-P’s Weareallgoingtoburninhellmegamixx2, and Wale’s The Mixtape About Nothing among the first to realize its true potential. In particular, the latter proved particularly revolutionary in its usage of Seinfeld clips to craft a work as coherent and complex as any album—with the D.C.-born rapper somehow re-appropriating dialogue from the sitcom’s infamous ménage à trois episode into “The Perfect Plan,” a trenchant analysis of the rap industry and its fickle fans. More importantly, the Interscope-signed Wale’s willingness to give it away gratis protected him from the long limbs of the RIAA and helped build steam for his forthcoming full-length debut, featuring production from Mark Ronson, Kanye West, and Justice. (Of course, he’s got a mixtape planned in the interim, the 9th Wonder collaboration, Back to the Feature.)
The ever-increasing relevance of mixtapes has even bled into other genres. When London club kingpins Fabric rejected a Justice-compiled dance mix in early 2008, the French blog-house duo decided to give it away for free on the Internet, as did Downtown Records pop star Santogold, whose critically lauded mash-tape, Top Ranking: A Diplo Dub, enlisted Diplo to lace classic dub cuts over vocals from her namesake debut. Perhaps the year’s most successful non-rap mixtape came from London-via-Malawi singer Esau Mwamwaya, who partnered with London/Paris producers Radioclit on The Very Best to croon gorgeous vocals in a smattering of African tongues over pop-oriented beats ranging from M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” and Hans Zimmer’s True Romance theme to the El-P beat for Cannibal Ox’s “Life’s Ill.” The most fittingly bizarre swipe of the bunch was Vampire Weekend’s “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” with an African singer blissfully stealing from a crew of fresh-faced Columbia grads often accused of stealing from Africans, a peculiarly post-post-modern moment.
Ultimately, the largesse augurs well for consumers and artists both—the former getting free music, and the latter building their brand sans the necessary evils of industry promotion. Mixtapes have ascended to the status of cultural meme. Next time, Wayne won’t even have to ask who’s heard his mixtapes. A better question would be: Who hasn’t?