Tales of the Tape


Reminiscing on his youth, Run-D.M.C.’s Darryl McDaniels told Yes Yes Y’all authors Jim Fricke and Charlie Ahearn: “I was going to Rice High School, 124th Street in Harlem, and all through my school, tapes was flowing the way albums would flow and records sell today.” Compare that with DJ Kayslay’s boast from his May mixtape, Month of the Bad Guy Pt. 1—part of a 15-minute diatribe between himself and rival DJ Clue (“Radio Drama”): “I have motherfucking tapes that just dropped and n——s ran in the stores to get it like it was albums!”

For most of hip-hop’s history, mixtapes have been a form of underground currency—furtively and fervently copied, bootlegged, or traded. Today, however, mixtapes (really, CDs) figure even more prominently in hip-hop’s daily operation. They’re no longer like albums; they, in essence, are albums, both in terms of how the industry helps produce them and in how fans receive them. These forces are radically transforming both the business and the culture of hip-hop with a force few would have believed, let alone predicted, even a year ago.

The mixtape’s full history is too extensive to succinctly summarize (see Shaheem Reid’s excellent feature instead), but a brief background bears sharing. Mixtapes have traditionally encompassed everything from bootlegs of old school battles to club-like mixes of current hits to trainspotter collections of obscure esoterica. Within NYC, however—from Canal Street to Jamaica Avenue to 125th—the most common mixtapes are compilations of new music, based on genre or artist. Many follow the model that DJ Clue began to pioneer in the mid-’90s: hour-long compilations of not just recent rap smashes, but more importantly, exclusive advance songs not due to be released for weeks, or even months.

Clue’s style—followed by DJs like Kayslay, Whoo Kid, and Envy—has profoundly transformed the role of DJs from archivists to oracles. Says up-and-comer DJ Vlad (responsible, along with Dirty Harry, for The Notorious B.I.G.: Rap Phenomenon), “Take a Clue tape, put it down for three months and when you pick it up again, you will hear all the biggest hits on the radio and in the videos right now.” Listeners gain access to advances formerly available to an inner circle of label, radio, and journalist personalities. Meanwhile, record labels receive important feedback on their artists and songs that helps with their marketing strategy. Says Justo Faison, whose annual Mixtape Awards are now in their eighth year, “You waste more money than just going to streets and trying to get a few songs on a mixtape or putting your own mixtape together and testing out the songs.”

The popularity of mixtapes has empowered DJs to move from the street to the studio: radio, recording, etc. Not only have they all but taken over New York rap radio—Reid observes that of Hot 97’s DJ lineup, “Kayslay, Funk[master] Flex, DJ Clue, Whoo Kid, Green Lantern, DJ Envy . . . these are all kids who made their name in the mixtape game”—they’re also joining labels as artists. Eighties legend Kid Capri was the first to translate his craft for the industry with The Tape (Cold Chillin’) in 1991; later came Funkmaster Flex’s five-volume 60 Minutes of Funk series (1995-2002, Loud), DJ Clue’s double-platinum The Professional Pts. 1 & 2 (1998/2000, Roc-A-Fella), and, most recently, Kayslay’s The Streetsweeper Vol. 1, released in May on Columbia.

As more DJs become artists, more artists are releasing tapes themselves. While Clue prepped the powder keg behind the mixtape explosion, it’s been 50 Cent who lit the match. Beginning in 1991, the unsigned rapper collaborated with DJ Whoo Kid to release four mixtapes (Guess Who’s Back, 50 Cent Is the Future, etc.) that were, in essence, entire albums. “He blurred the lines of division between the traditional mixtape freestyle, indie album, and demo,” acknowledges Jefferson Mao, former Ego Trip editor. “50 Cent Is the Future couldn’t have been more appropriately titled.”

His mixtape success played a major role both in getting 50 signed to Eminem’s Shady Records and propelling his official debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, to sales well into the millions. Says DJ Vlad, “He had record deals, he had singles, but it’s really the mixtapes that got him to where he is. For the first time, the number-one rapper in the world comes out, goes seven-times platinum, and tells everybody that he made it through mixtapes.” This ignited a frenzy among other artists to follow suit. In the past few months alone, prominent rappers such as Jay-Z (The S. Carter Collection), the Diplomats (The Diplomats Vol. 1-4) and Snoop Dogg (Welcome 2 the Chuuch Vol. 1) have either released their own mixtapes or hosted others.

These developments are changing the very nature and perception of mixtapes themselves. Once, their appeal lay in a DJ’s guerrilla style—how brazen his or her appropriation of other people’s music was. With the new coziness between DJs and the industry, even the language around mixtapes has altered. Diony C. sells thousands of mixtapes a month through his site, (his biggest buyers are in California, Florida, and the military), and observes, “Now that mixtapes are getting very album-looking, people want the official artwork, the official CD.” That a mixtape/CD can now be described with a term like “official” marks a paradigm shift since the days when the term “bootleg mixtape” was redundant.

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.

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.