• 02Jun

    The Evolution Of The Mixtape

    “Nothing sells music like music” — 50 Cent

    Hip-Hop is a unique animal. By being a culture celebrated for its rawness and originality — as well its trendiness and popularity — the progression and energy of the music is both proactive and reactive. With Hip-Hop, the streets define what the masses embrace, while the power of the masses inspire what the streets define. The element that sets all trends and reflects all inspiration is the mixtape.

    Mixtapes have always provided the fuel for the big industry that Hip-Hop music has become. It all starts in the streets, and mixtapes are the form of music closest to the streets. Like Hip-Hop itself, the identity and role of the mixtape has progressed and evolved over time. Initially serving as a medium for rough demos, remixes and unreleased verses for local exposure, the mixtape is now a necessary component of widespread quality musical content that provides the game with the freshest set of new sounds, capturing the pulse of the culture itself.

    In the early days — similarly to the overall movement — mixtape music was all about the DJ. People like, Kid Capri, Doo Wop, and Ron G put the original stamp on what the mixtape was, introducing new blends and cuts of popular tracks and providing an alternative to the radio. The mixtapes became so popular that radio stations began playing mixtape content over major studio music due to public demand for originality. By establishing their own identity as a source for new music that couldn’t be found through major labels, mixtapes began to grow as their own art form and became a staple in the Hip-Hop world.

    As Hip-Hop became increasingly popular, DJ’s like Clue? and Kay Slay took it to another level by introducing mixtapes that were highly anticipated because of their original production and exclusive content from the most popular artists. There were times when the latest Fabolous or Budden freestyle on a Hev. E. Components installment carried a bigger street buzz than Jay-Z’s latest album. Mixtapes put people on to what’s hot before it is hot, and provide a special insight to the game that directly parallels the unrefined creativity that Hip-Hop represents.

    Although mixtapes dominated the underground scene during this era, mixtape music didn’t begin to resemble modern convention until the early 2000s when Queens rapper 50 Cent began to again redefine what the mixtape meant to the streets, and what it represented to the music.

    Introducing a concept called “Beatjacking” (releasing full songs with new lyrics and hooks over already circulated beats), mixtapes now provided a window to an artist’s style, their distinct flow, and their originality in a way that wasn’t skewed by industry pressure. Suddenly, The Diplomats were releasing mixtapes, Lil Wayne was releasing mixtapes, Kanye dropped a mixtape or two, Tupac had mixtapes out after passing almost a decade previously. Joe Budden’s career was more defined by the Mood Muzik collection than any studio album he ever released. In fact, during this era, mixtape music became so popular that major labels began to feel threatened by the competitive content. Many executives felt that because mixtapes generally contained copyrighted material, they violated infringement rights to a point of action. Berry’s Records, an Indiana based record store known for promoting and selling heavy underground and mixtape material, was raided by the RIAA in 2003, an act that resulted in over $9,000 worth of confiscated inventory, and an ordeal of pending lawsuits.

    The mixtape industry was alive and well, while even in direct conflict with big label music. However, over the last decade a twist of fate occurred in the record industry that has redefined the role of the mixtape. Due to a societal element that has vastly affected the integrity of album production and sales, mixtapes have assumed an additional utility representing the exact opposite of what the industry feared a few years ago.

    The effect of file sharing and digital media on the music business is well documented. Over the span of the previous decade, record sales and shipments have decreased exponentially. CD album shipments peaked at 13 Billion in 2000, but now stand at a mere 4.27 Billion, which is a 22% drop from 2008 alone. Simply put, people are no longer buying albums to hear music anymore. Downloading is free, fast, and easy. Therefore, the masses are literally only a mouse click away from enjoying whatever music they choose. However, there are still a few artists who manage to put up decent numbers during the music business’s great depression. The Lil Wayne’s, Kanye’s and Jay-Z’s of the world are still able to move units. This is not because people want to simply hear the music, but because devoted fans want to support their favorite artists, and devoted fans are cultivated by quality albums.

    This trend has put the industry in a compromising position. Labels can only sell records by artists with a history of producing quality albums, but the time, effort, and money put into an album from a new artist is unlikely to be reciprocated in album sales. The solution to this problem is being found right where it all started: Mixtapes. Recent mixtapes are less about beatjacking and remixing, and more about studio quality production, all star features, and album worthy material.

    A few years ago artists like G-Dep, Memphis Bleek, and Drag-On could be featured on a few hits and release a debut album with confidence that interest would promote album sales. Now however, it doesn’t make sense to waste the production cost on a debut album with the likely risk of a flop. Instead, new artists are essentially debuting albums through mixtapes. Drake’s So Far Gone is widely regarded as one of 2009’s best albums (and was nominated for a Grammy award despite its original release as a free download), with singles like “Successful” and “Best I Ever Had” gaining respectable radio play. This massive acclaim was all accomplished through digital media and without any shipment or promotion costs. When Drake finally drops his long anticipated album, he will likely do larger numbers than more recent debut artists because his following is album based. Similarly, we see J. Cole, Wiz Khalifa, Dom Kennedy and the like, following the same game plan, putting quality work into mixtapes that might have been reserved for albums in the past, in an attempt achieve album selling potential.

    Previously, mixtapes existed as an alternative to albums. Now mixtapes have actually seemed to save album sales by creating authenticated exposure that the public is thirsty for in an acutely low risk fashion. Additionally, the mixtapes still represent what they once did for established artists, serving as a platform for (BHF Alum) Lupe, Fab, Wayne, or 50 to append their album releases with fresh content in the more traditional mixtape form.

    The mixtape has come a long way, and has represented many different things over time. But in all cases and in all aspects of Hip-Hop, the public has traveled in stride in dictating how mixtapes will exist to feed their musical tastes. In the end, just as it was the beginning, the streets and the people set the tone. And now we can enjoy the history and future of mixtapes and our music, as the culture that we created continues to keep our ears, minds, hearts satisfied….until we decide to change the game again.

Discussion 2 Responses

  1. June 2, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    This was a very interesting article. I think it covered every possible aspect of the mixtape and how important it is to hip-hop. I remember in high school how people cared about the new Clue more than a rapper’s new album dropping. It also, makes people yearn for more i.e. Drake’s upcoming LP. Now, the mixtape is the new album and is the force behind the resurgence of “real hip-hop.” A lot of the new artist are more concern about lyrical content than spinning rims and I appreciate that. Good article!

  2. June 19, 2010 at 3:37 pm

    Excellent job on the research..I’ve been lookin for an overview of the history and the potential of the mixtape’s future for sometime now and this completely nailed it…