Filed under: Features,Mix Tapes,Print Work,Unkut Originals,Unkut Retrospective
Written by: Robbie Ettelson
^ Pic stolen from here.
Mix tapes can be a whole lot more than a bunch of songs you record for a chick you’re trying to impress by revealing your “sensitive side”. In the world of hip-hop, they have proven to be one of the most important tools in spreading the sound of a native New York subculture into a worldwide phenomenon. Allow me to break it down for you, decade by decade.
1970’s: If you’re mother wouldn’t let you out of the house to hit the Saturday night block party in the Bronx, you’re only alternatives were to sneak out and risk an ass-whopping, or try to cop a cassette recording of the party the following week. Often distributed via the neighborhood ‘dollar cabs’, these tenth-generation dubs of a tape that someone recorded by simply sitting their boom box next to the speakers at the party and pressing ‘Record’. Thanks to these lo-fi audio documents, the atmosphere of hip-hop parties in their purest form can still be experienced today, either through tape trading or digital rips. Or, as Dallas Penn pointed out, “The person with a dual deck recorder was the precursor to the crack dealer because he had the hood fiending”. Another, more professional version of this were tapings of club DJ sets, which served as an audio resume for future work, and for those who music fans who were willing to shell out $50 or more, customised tapes could be purchased of their favourite DJ mixing from their home studio.
1980’s: As rap music began to infiltrate the airwaves of New York radio – albeit very slowly and up against a towering wall of resistance – the majority of the shows were broadcast well after the average high school kid’s bedtime. This made home tapings of Zulu Beat, Mr. Magic, The Awesome Two, Kool DJ Red Alert, Chuck Chillout, Hank Love & DNA etc. became schoolyard gold on Monday mornings. More enterprising individuals were known to make compilations of the finest moments from the weekends broadcast and sell them to their fellow students for five bucks. The decline of the 8-track format and the spread of portable double tape decks also introduced the “pause mix”, which allowed aspiring rappers and beat-makers to “loop” snippets of a song and stretch it out long enough to make a beat, while they saved-up money to hire a recording studio or buy a drum machine with a couple of seconds of sampling time.
Most significantly, by the late 80’s DJ’s like The World Famous Brucie B began to sell tapes of his DJ sets at clubs like The Rooftop, which became so popular that he soon inspired people like Starchild and Kid Capri to follow suit. As the decade came to a close, a lot of the clubs that these guys used to spin at were getting closed down, so they began to record mixes at home, which they would then dub and go and sell on the block for $20 a pop.
1990’s: Up until now, tapes were simply marked with the date, DJ’s name, the title and maybe a beeper number, but as the arrival of the 90’s saw the emergence of the ‘bedroom DJ’ and competition increased, mixtapes started selling with covers and track listings. At this point, mix tapes were either ‘blend tapes’ or mixes of the latest records. The most popular blend tapes mixed R&B accapellas with hip-hop beats, a style which had not only allowed Grandmaster Vic from Queens and Ron G from Uptown to make a name for themselves, but influenced the sound of what R&B records would sound like in the future. Future producers such as Buckwild (who went on to work with Big L, Notorious B.I.G. and Black Rob) started out making tapes of popular rap vocals remixed over new beats, many of them his own.
The style of tape that would come to dominate the scene was of course the ‘exclusives’ variety, where mixing skills were basically irrelevant if you had songs or material that no one else had. The pioneers of this movement were DJ Doo Wop and DJ Clue. Doo Wop changed the game forever when he released 95 Live, which featured twenty minutes of freestyles by the best New York MC’s of the day and set the stage for Tony Touch to later create the 50 MC’s series of tapes, which featured nothing but exclusive rapping. Meanwhile, DJ Clue took the ‘exclusives’ hustle to new heights, as he managed to churn out tape after tape with songs no one else had, all with him screaming his name out every five seconds in an effort to prevent his competition from stealing his unreleased gems for their own tapes (and let’s face it, to annoy the shit out of everybody at the same time).
By this time the record labels wanted a piece of the action, which saw Puff Daddy’s Bad Boy label hire the biggest mixtape DJ’s of the time for own series of tapes promoting their roster, which was followed by Loud Records releasing Funkmaster Flex’s The Mix Tape Vol.1 album officially. Long-time mixtape fanatic, the late Justo also founded the Mixtape Awards in 1995 to recognise the best in show, as it were.
00’s: The next stage of mixtape evolution came with the emergence of the ‘street album’, which served as an ideal format for a rapper to release music without the commercial limitations of the music industry. Got a song with uncleared samples, guests or material that will never get on the radio? Drop a street album. This technique worked wonders for crews such as The LOX, The Diplomats and of course 50 Cent’s G-Unit. The success of their street mix tapes created enough buzz to generate major interest from the major labels, while still providing an outlet to keep the fans satisfied in between albums.
It isn’t always plain sailing in Mixtape Land, however, as the majority of mixtapes are technically illegal since they haven’t paid any licensing fees to the artists featured, despite the ever-present ‘For Promotional Use Only’ disclaimer on the cover. DJ Drama found out the hard way in 2007 when he was charged with a felony violation of Georgia’s Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization law (known as RICO) after his studio was raided. The charges were later dismissed, but it highlighted the uneasy relationship between mixtape DJ’s, record companies and copyright law. Obviously, no one actually pays for mixtapes anymore (not that it seems to discourage anyone from making the damn things), and they can still provide a valuable creative resource for a producer or MC trying to make a name for themselves, as Weezy’s little buddy Drake proved with So Far Gone.
Originally published in Acclaim magazine #26.
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