Before the mixtape transitioned from cassette to CD to zip file to artist-driven playlists on digital streaming services, it was a cultural phenomenon. A mixtape introduced the work of DJs and artists to the streets before hitting the radio and was part of the culture’s black market, as it was often curated by DJs who bent music industry rules to acquire exclusives.
Today the mixtape is no longer a reflection of its name. The black Maxell cassettes of self-produced music are no longer peddled on Canal Street in Manhattan, and there are no DJs to mix. However, it has left an impression on the music industry despite evolving into something completely different than what it was originally intended for.
“Playlists are the mixtape of the new millennium. I don’t knock it but, obviously, it shouldn’t be called a mixtape,” says legendary New York DJ Tony Touch.
Making a name for himself in the 1990s with his stellar mixtapes and groundbreaking 50 MCs series The Piece Maker, Touch is still going strong with his Toca Tuesdays weekly classic Hip-Hop party while dropping mixtapes, despite the shift in the medium.
“When was the last time you held a physical tape?” says Touch. “Why do people even call it mixtapes, because it’s not even a tape anymore? It’s not even a CD. When we put our mixtapes on CD we still called them mixtapes. It’s a stigma that we started, and it has stuck with the culture.”
The 51-year-old DJ is spot-on when he says that DJs such as himself, Ron G, S&S, Doo Wop, Kay Slay, Clue, and others turned the mixtape from a physical music-delivery device — often self-produced by new artists, possibly featuring a mix of artists or even a recording from a gig —to a term now used by the mainstream to describe a collection of new music. With New York widely recognized as the cultural epicenter of Hip-Hop, it stands to reason that one of Hip-Hop’s most significant innovations was born there.
After pioneers such as Grandmaster Flash laid the foundation in the 1980s with live DJ mixes, the art form took hold of the New York streets in the early 1990s. The likes of Kid Capri and his 52 Beats mix paved the way for a second wave of DJs, including the aforementioned Touch, to curate the cultural explosion that shifted from mixes to distinctive works of art that featured exclusive freestyles and songs from up-and-coming artists and conveyed the musical tastes of the man behind the turntables.
Showcasing works such as DJ Premier’s Crooklyn Cuts, Touch’s Power Cypha, DJ Clue’s Cluemanatti, and DJ Spinbad’s Rocks the Casbah mixtapes delivered something special to avid Hip-Hop fans.
DJ Doo Wop’s 95 Live mixtape was regarded as a street classic due to its featured range of talent that included Q-Tip and Busta Rhymes dropping freestyles as well as the debut of Mobb Deep’s classic “Shook Ones.”
“DJs could break records and had access to music that you couldn’t get anywhere else,” says Trackstar the DJ.
These DJs became household names that were just as big, if not bigger, than the artists featured. As much as it was about getting the music out there to the fans, the mixtape also assisted DJs in getting gigs and, eventually, record deals.
“The mixtape was like a business card,” Touch says.
After a torrid run on the mixtape scene, Touch signed with Tommy Boy Entertainment and released The Piece Maker album in 2000, which featured Eminem, Big Pun, Gang Starr, Busta Rhymes, and others.
“Eighty percent of the time I was giving them away for free as a way to get heard and build relationships,” Touch says.
Meanwhile, up-and-coming MCs began making a name for themselves on the mixtape scene by freestyling over other artists’ beats, which led to label deals for some of the biggest names in Hip-Hop including 50 Cent, Fabolous, Cam’ron, and others.
“I think we were a major part of the equation for artists getting signed to labels,” Touch says. “Having that mixtape hype behind you was a big look for a lot of artists.”
For fans, possessing one of these mixtapes was like having a cheat code that could unlock all of Hip-Hop’s mysteries. Giving unprecedented access to unreleased songs and breaking new artists, the mixtape was Hip-Hop’s holy grail. For fans living in another state, getting their hands on a mixtape, which eventually shifted to CD format, was a badge of honor that certified a cool factor amongst peers.
For better or worse, the Internet’s popularity in the late 1990s would change everything. It played a significant role in accessibility as online retail businesses began distributing mixtapes while technology allowed everyone with a computer a shot at making music.
Then along came 50 Cent, who turned mixtapes into his own unofficial album. After being dropped from Columbia Records, the Queens rapper used the mixtape market to leave an impression on the industry that his old record label couldn’t (or wouldn’t) do. 50 Cent Is the Future was the opening salvo for a single artist to be the focus of an entire mixtape. His mixtape run eventually landed him a record deal with Interscope Records, and he became one of the music industry’s biggest artists.
50 Cent forever changed the mixtape game. Oftentimes DJs were left out in the cold. The Hip-Hop blog era also played a part, as the power of debuting new music was taken out of the DJs’ hands.
“There was a time when DJs had a monopoly on getting music out,” Trackstar says. “But once the Internet and the blog era exploded, people realized that you didn’t need the middleman anymore.”
Aside from 50 Cent, Trackstar cites Lil Wayne’s mid-2000 mixtape run as a moment of significance when the mix was taken out of the mixtape and the focus was primarily on artists.
“When you heard ‘mixtape,’ most people would still think of the DJ mixtape,” says Trackstar. “But then after the Lil Wayne run, I feel like if I told someone I had a mixtape, they expected me to be a rapper. It simply became the name for a rapper’s project instead of what it originally was meant to be.”
Although the DJ-helmed mixtape had lost some of its luster, DJs still managed to make a name for themselves by creating mixtapes that were available for online streaming. DJ Drama, Green Lantern, Clinton Sparks, Whoo Kid, and many others were able to keep up with the ever-evolving landscape of music distribution by attaching themselves to artists and weaving together compilations of new and unreleased music. By still being in control of what is termed “the leak,” the DJ still had his finger on the pulse of the industry and gave him cachet with the audience.
In the case of Trackstar, the idea that his mixtape would serve as a business card was realized when his 2009 mixtape Anger and Ambition: The Best of Killer Mike caught the attention of the Atlanta MC. Making the mixtape paid off: Trackstar became Killer Mike’s Run With the Jewels official tour DJ.
“Without mixtapes, I probably wouldn’t have a career in music at this point, period,” says Trackstar. “My favorite part [about mixtapes] is introducing people to music that they may not have heard before. I always look at it from the artist’s point of view as well. It’s a service to the listener, for sure. But it’s also my job to help people know that an incredibly dope artist exists.”
Today, celebrated mixtapes such as Drake’s So Far Gone and A$AP Rocky’s Live.Love.A$AP, Kendrick Lamar’s Overly Dedicated, and Chance the Rapper’s Acid Rap are devoid of the elements that made them special three decades ago. Instead, they often serve as an artist’s informal introduction to the world.
But we simply cannot forget about the technicians behind the 1s and 2s who shifted the culture forever.
Today, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the power of DJs has been elevated. They now have reclaimed their glory as tastemakers as the likes of D-Nice, 9th Wonder, Questlove, and others have taken to social media to entertain the masses and showcase their importance to the culture.
“There are no better translators than the DJ,” North Carolina MC Phonte says when explaining how important the DJ has been to the culture. “I think people are seeing that now. There is nothing like a DJ who serves as a translator to show how songs go together and introduce fans to new talent. That’s what the audience needs, because right now I think the audience is just overwhelmed.”
The original mixtape may not be what it once was, but its reputation has had a lasting impact on the culture.