Disposable Arts: The Evolution Of The Mixtape

posted April 22, 2008 12:00:00 AM CDT | 19 comments

Most are familiar with the humble beginnings of the mixtape, especially its origins within the hungry underground in an era in which tapes created by deejays were sold on the streets, jam-packed with creative freestyles, beat blends and a mix of Hip Hop and R&B. Many of the times deejays would record their own club or house party sets and bring it to the streets for anywhere from $10 to $130. Hip Hop fans ran home to play their favorite deejay's tape in as the house speakers equally blasted the latest compilation, attracting both the kids next door and the cops down the block. The origins of the mixtape are creative, innovative and overall, groundbreaking. The tape emerged as a way to allow the artist to not only recite to the streets, but also share his/her craft with anyone willing to listen. The tape unified people through a common thread music and set the bar in a competitive art of rhyme, produced by the streets, for the streets, to be judged, by the streets.

As the mixtape game continues to flourish throughout the late '80s and mid-'90s, in the last decade or so changes developed in the making, marketing and movement of the tape. Labels got involved for better or for worse as the circuit began to flood with new deejays, young rappers and sponsors and promoters. Its orientation changed, the focus shifting from the feature of tapes content to its featured artist. And lets not forget about the mixtape being used as a platform for beef, most notably between Jay-Z and Nas, and most recently, between Fat Joe and 50 Cent. So how much has the tape changed in the past decade, and how much has it stayed the same? In the following exclusive, HipHopDX breaks down the tapes movement. Oh, and we got a nice blend of mixtape deejays to share their thoughts including DJ Kid Capri, DJ Doo Wop and DJ Lennox, as well as rappers who are well into the mixtape circuit, Tek from Smif N Wessun and Ali Vegas.

Change or Perish

The most notable change in the tape happens to be the most famous complaint among mixtape deejays: the change in quality. With the over-saturation of MySpace rappers (and producers), the quality of the content seems to be set aside on the shelf as the worry becomes putting out the tape before the next man does, rather than putting out the tape thats better than the next mans. Today, all of the deejays have the same thing and the same music which is not what makes a mixtape hot. Every week there is a new deejay and a new mixtape. They are playing the same songs and the same shit over and over again; its boring and repetitive, states Kid Capri, enforcing the importance of making classic music. Classics never die. There are no classics anymore; classics, you can always enjoy. I made several mixtapes back in the day that are timeless you could pop one in now and still dig it, declares the man behind the classic, 82 Break Beats. DJ Lennox, whos worked on mixtapes with Kool G Rap, Jadakiss and MIMS, shares a similar view. The number of deejays has increased. The quality of music has decreased, adding that despite the decrease in the quality of music, the mixtape cover artwork has at least gotten better. [Cover artwork] can make the most garbage ass mixtape look like the best thing ever. Its kinda like a chick stuffing her bra.

Aside from the shortage of music quality, the mixtape game also lost sight of its original purpose, which was to break new artists. Granted, Saigon, Papoose and 50 Cent all got their recognition through the mixtape gig, but in the overall scheme of things, the tape today is used more to showcase the already established artists, instead of break new talent, which according to DJ Doo Wop, was the initial goal. The most important role that the mixtape used to play keyword used to is the breaking of new artists. Once a deejay makes a significant impact in the game, and is viewed as credible, he automatically gains the advantage of being able to take a new artist and possibly make him/her a household name.

As well, the private and corporate sponsorship has been affecting both the creativity of the deejay and influencing what artist will get played on the latest tape. Surely, placing Jadakiss on the tape will generate more profit than will placing some kid from Chicago whose got his feet wet regurgitating rhyme patterns from Reasonable Doubt. With a sponsor or a label, you take the authenticity out because you are trying to please everyone around you. Deejays tend to forget what its about its about him and making the crowd jump. [] A sponsorship and a label play a big role its both a curse and a blessing, admits Capri.

But its not all bra-stuffing folks. With the advancement of technology as well as Hip Hops climb to center-stage of the music industry (2nd runner-up to rock music), it is inevitable that the mixtape itself, rappers and deejays' street amplifiers, will change also. In the past decade or so, paddling has decreased as artists now rely on technology to push their mixtape while they sit comfortably, watching Oprah. MP3s, personal web-pages and online distribution companies are the new profit generators and time savers, which allow artists to focus on their music while money transactions take place online. Aside from the convenience aspect, selling mixtapes on the Internet attracts a greater audience since unlike your block, the Internet reaches users and Hip Hop fans world-wide. A kid in Warsaw can cop the newest tape on the day of its online release, as can a kid in Zambia or Venezuela.

Another positive change the mixtape has undergone is in its quest for beat originality. More and more, artists are using original beats to strut their stuff as opposed to riding off on someone elses home run, which was the dominant thing to do in the mid and late-'90s. Tek, half of the duo from Smif N Wessun, who is currently working on his U.G.P. mixtape (Underground Prince), is a believer in using original beats, if not for any other reason but to keep up with the times:

"[Artists] choose original beats because it shows their creativity and range to make a song on their own instead of following someone elses blue print. Plus, I think fans are growing tired of hearing older beats re-used. One second, a beat is hot, but then your mixtape comes out a few months later as it sits on a production line, and the beat you used that was once hot is now a thing of the past. Thats not a good look for any artist, to sound outdated. Tek is not alone, as some of the most notable mixtape artists navigate a search for original beats, including Joe Budden whose Mood Muzik 3 [click to listen] album/mixtape is nominated for various categories for this years Justo Awards (annual mixtape awards), including Best East Coast Mixtape Artist, Best Hip Hop Mixtape and Best Mixtape of the Year.

Last but not least, we see another significant change in the tape, as it now performs on the podium for rap beefs. Within the last seven to eight years, it [the tape] sometimes served as a platform for rap beefs because if youre going to respond to a diss, rumor [and other things], theres no way that youre gonna want to wait until your album drops to reply. Someone disses you today, and by tomorrow, you could have your comeback on the streets via a mixtape. DJ Doo Wop knows this better than most as he was a contender in one of the earliest "mixtape beefs" dating back to early '90s, with Kid Capri.

The Right Consistencies

If the clich is true and the more things change the more than stay the same, then same is true with the tape. As weve just witnessed both negative and positive changes in the mixtape circuit, let that not overshadow some of the tapes most notable consistencies. First and foremost is its appeal to the freedom of speech; as the tape was used two decades ago for artistic expression, it is still used today for the same reason. As the demand of the streets and the demand of the labels differs in most cases, mixtapes are solely dropped for the streets, allowing artists to put out whatever they want to, without labels interference. With a record company you have to submit a sample and have it approved; so at the end of the day, its tweaked. The labels monitor everything and they usually pick songs that will go on the radio and hit the mainstream market, says Capri. A lot of what the artist has to say gets cut and dropped.

As the tape enforces freedom of speech, artistic creativity and minimal regulation from the labels, it also allows the deejay to have his/her own identity. Deejay's releasing the mixtapes are as popular as the artists on the tapes and in many cases even more so than the artists, earning themselves both the loot and the booty (no pun intended), as well as all the accolades associated with a classic tape. Whether the tape serves as a backdrop for hot lyrics (refer to DJ Tony Touchs Power Cypha Series) or a setting for rap beef (DJ Kay Slay was the first deejay to play Nas Ether), it gave deejays their deserved honor, setting them at front of the bidding wars among artists choosing mixtape hosts while predicting mixtape success based on the deejay hosting/presenting it.

Another constant of the mixtape is its legal status. The tapes were always and are still sold illegally without samples being cleared or taxes paid upon sales. They are still the cheapest route to promoting and breaking new artists, as both artists and labels opt out for the economical mixtape option, as the rest of the budget is divided between marketing, promotion and PR. As well, the tape is still one of the best tools for keeping an artist sharp, as it raises the bar for artistic creativity, and it is still an east coast phenomenon that has never fully expanded into the West:

Mixtapes originated on the east coast on the underground circuit. [] Since it originated on the east, the west never really picked it up like we could. Rap and Hip Hop is so much stronger on the east coast. The West hasnt really generated any strong talent lately. With the exception of Snoop, The Game and a few others, not too many rappers are making as much of an impact. Kid Capri.

The Balancing Act


Though the mixtape has gone through ups and downs since its conception, the one thing the current tape circuit doesnt lack is balance. As saturated as it is with both rappers and deejays, it also prides itself with originality, raising the bar for rappers as each diss record, each street album, and each mixtape drops. Rappers keep each other on their toes simply by competing in the streets and the tape is the means they use to throw punches, win praise and even street status among the fans and Hip Hop media alike. As well, we have seen the mixtape beefs spill over into the streets, the labels, and even to Photoshop (refer to Fat Joes feud with 50). On the other hand, the mixtape has also been used for pushing political agendas and supporting presidential candidates, where most recently, DJ Green Lantern was approached by Russell Simmons to work his magic and release a tape titled Yes We Can in support of Senator Obama.

And the balancing act continues. As much as certain labels are using the tape as their A&R guide for new talent, they are also advising their artists not to put out tapes for the fear of a decrease in album sales. While certain labels are attempting to prohibit artists from talking to the streets through a mixtape, artists are blatantly refusing to oblige, eager to not only give the fans and the streets what theyre looking for, but also to stay relevant and stay fit in the competitive world of rhyming (50 Cent released three mixtapes in the past several months despite advice against it).

Another area where the balancing act plays a role in the mixtape miscellanies is within the demand market. Whereas maybe ten years ago there may have been a general consensus on what constitutes a good tape, today, the demand is so diverse that quality does not often boil down to any one particular requirement, but rather, to the command of the particular listener, from a particular region, with a particular taste. Whats great to me is trash to the next man. The average person today wants to hear that new T-Pain or Plies record while Im checking for rappers like Grafh, Nino Bless [click to read] and Saigon, says Lennox, stating that there is no single definition to a great tape, as it stands today. And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the balancing act of the tape itself stands among the deejay and the artist, both much needed to create a quality tape, yet both competing for a similar shine on the same record. Back then it was about your favorite deejay's mixtape. Now its more about your favorite artists mixtape, says Ali Vegas, who is not a stranger to neither the mixtape nor the mixtape beef (check feuds with DJ Clue and Fabolous).

Keeping on Top of Things

As technology advances and changes the way were used to pushing, promoting and purchasing music, it also changes the flow of the mixtape circuit. The positive and negative changes associated with the tape balance each other out, giving the street fiends that raw Hip Hop which they long for, while at the same time, forcing labels and corporate owners to work with the tape, as opposed to against it. The tapes global availability and world-wide appeal remains unchallenged as its exclusivity and economic way for promotion sets it apart from album releases which take time, money and board approvals to make it out onto the shelves. With a tape, the fans want the technique minus the industrys involvement or interpretation of. And although there have been interferences which compromise the quality of the craft (labels, sponsors), the tape still exists as the main avenue on which artists can depend on to be heard, challenged and recognized. And theres no time like the present.

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