Hip Hop Needs to Embrace the New Mixtape

Hip Hop Needs to Embrace the New Mixtape

Drake and Future's 'What a Time To Be Alive' shifted the conversation. What does a tape really mean in 2015?

Published October 9, 2015

I came up on Mixtape Weezy. “Where Da Cash At” was my favorite song in senior year of high school. I’m not talking about the version made for TV with the $100 dollar bills falling from the sky and beautiful women all up in the video. Nah.

I’m talking about the one straight off Dedication 2. DJ Drama’s yelling all over it. Weezy’s cutting the track 20 seconds in to introduce the first signee to YMCMB, Curren$y, before Drama rewinds it back. The rest of D2 has all the elements that make mixtapes so quintessential: the skits, the unlicensed instrumentals and samples, the rare songs, the drops. I still prefer this version on D2 over the tagless one. To me, it’s timeless enough where I’ll always go back to it if I’m feeling like taking a trip down memory lane. But the mixtape just isn’t the same in 2015.

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The “tape” is still a source for an artist’s new music with original production. Other times, it’s used to describe a compilation hosted by a DJ that includes some exclusives. Up-and-coming rappers still pass around physical CDs in hopes of being heard. Mixtapes are often exchanging hands at big concerts and music events. But an artist’s use of social media (Twitter, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat, Reddit and more) to promote their music — and their mixtapes — has fueled a new golden era of mixtapes that are far from tradition. The mixtape is the new album.

If we’re strictly talking about this year, we’re in an age where the mixtape is more in the conversation than albums due to its accessibility. There’s no need for a calculated marketing campaign for an artist’s album. It’s become boiled down to putting out the music online (either snippets or the whole project) or on a music streaming service at the right time and the listener becoming instantly gratified.

There are still purists — say, those raised on cassettes — that stand by the fact that the mixtape scene’s biggest moves came during the late ‘90s. It was perfect for DIY home recording, as well as making playlists for lovers or friends. Eventually, DJs like DJ Clue and Funkmaster Flex would use the medium to break records, leaks and freestyles. They would stamp them with their signature drop, making the cassette tape the hot commodity for listeners until DJs converted to compact disc. Led by Clue, who received a Gold and Platinum plaque for his The Professional album series, it opened the doors for Flex, Envy and Drama to further build their names in the mixtape world with reliable brand franchises.

As time passed, the CD boom reached whole new heights when artists were using them to flood the streets with their material. In 2002, G-Unit and Dipset defined the sound of New York. G-Unit had their G-Unit Radio series. Dipset had The Diplomats volumes. Jeezy and Gucci Mane’s mixtape runs in Atlanta were just getting started. They became essential listens to their entire discography. It continued to advance when mixtapes became available online on sites like DatPiff in 2005 and LiveMixtapes when it launched in March 2006.

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LiveMixtapes was the first site to introduce the countdown to create more excitement behind a mixtape. “In the beginning we just posted projects as they dropped, often ripping from hard copies that were distributed in the streets,” says Thomas Ivans, who is the general manager of the site. “When we saw the demand for downloading these mixtapes was to a level that people were anticipating release dates, we started working with DJ's in Atlanta like DJ Teknikz, DJ Scream, Supastar J. Kwik etc. to put together legitimate world premieres. The countdown was definitely the biggest thing that has happened for the mixtape game in the last 15 years.”

DJ Skee, who’s released more than 100 mixtapes in his career, explains that the tape is considered an album for the underground.

“Once the Internet really emerged, mixtapes kind of transformed into becoming almost like street albums,” says Skee, who has hosted several mixtapes by The Game. “What I did at the time with Game was kind of push that format to another level. It was specifically out of the need that he couldn’t put out music through his label, especially when he was in competition with the biggest artists on them at the label, so he had to find a way to stay relevant and stay releasing.”

While DJ Skee assisted in keeping The Game’s name poppin’ in the mixtape circuit, other artists took an another route with their tapes. During the late 2000s, the mixtape began to turn into a whole different beast when artist-driven mixtapes became the proper introduction for listeners. It gave then-young acts like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Big Sean, B.o.B, Kid Cudi, Wale, Mac Miller and more a chance to build their brand when they were in their early stages of cultivating a sound. Hip hop was in another transitional period from about 2007 on, where esteemed blogs like NahRight and 2DopeBoyz gave these guys a platform for their free projects online. The major distinction is that they wanted to offer fans something substantial that showed a lot of promise before their debut LP. Mixtapes like these shined a light on new talent and encouraged major labels to take chances on unknown names. “The mixtape, especially when you look at it in urban music, it’s how artists break themselves,” Skee says. “It’s what their first projects always comes out as. It’s the free album.”

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Indy.LiveMixtapes.com contributed to the overall growth of giving any artist a platform to host their music. Launched on November 25, 2009, the independent subset of LiveMixtapes was like the underground market for hip hop. “Indy was formed to create the same type of opportunities that the main side provided for established artists, for new artists,” says Ivans. “The main side has always been highly curated and limited as far as the amount of projects placed there; we wanted to keep this prestige while still providing opportunities for the next generation.”

Fast forward to 2015, the lines between mixtape and album are merging at a rapid pace. The latest case is Drake and Future’s What a Time to Be Alive, a surprise project that was secretly in the works and released at the height of their careers last month, which is described as “the new mixtape” on iTunes. Recorded in a span of six days, according to Drizzy, these two are just using the label of a mixtape to feed fan expectations. Remember, they spent a lot more time on their last solo projects — Nothing Was the Same and Honest — to mixed criticism, depending on who you ask.

WATTBA is redefining what a mixtape means and the proof is in the numbers. WATTBA scored them their second No. 1 album of the year after If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and Dirty Sprite 2 (both mixtapes that sound like albums) sold high numbers in their first week with 495,000 and 147,000, copies respectively. Drake even went Platinum off IYRTITL, which he confirmed on Instagram in August.

Skee attempts to clarify what a mixtape and an album means today, but it comes down to personal preference.

“To be honest with you, the only thing that distinguishes it is the legalities of it, the way that it’s distributed and how it’s all formed together,” Skee says. “It’s kind of interesting and crazy to see. But I don’t know what the definition is. I don’t know if it really exists. Now the lines have really merged so much. Is the Future/Drake project a mixtape or an album? Is it a mixtape because it was recorded [together], it didn’t have a single and it came out of nowhere? Who knows.”

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From a historical standpoint in the mainstream, mixtapes and the DJs behind them have always been given props through award shows. The now defunct Justo’s Mixtape Awards that was created in 1995 and the forthcoming fourth annual Global Spin Awards have held on to the old descriptions of the mixtape. The BET Hip Hop Awards have awarded Best Mixtape of the Year to tapes that made a lot of noise online: J. Cole’s Friday Night Lights (2011), Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2 (2012), Big Sean’s Detroit (2013), and Wiz Khalifa’s 28 Grams (2014).

This year’s nominees include three Future mixtapes (56 Nights, Beast Mode, Monster), Lil Wayne’s Sorry 4 the Wait 2 and Travi$ Scott’s Days Before Rodeo. While Sorry 4 the Wait 2 is a return to the Weezy millennials grew up on when he produced new songs over other people’s instrumentals, Future and Scott dropped free projects that sounded polished enough to have a price tag.

By comparison, if you look at the nominees for Album of the Year, you’ll see that we’ve put Drake’s IYRTITL among Big Sean’s Dark Sky Paradise, J. Cole’s 2014 Forest Hills Drive, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Nicki Minaj’s The Pinkprint and Wale’s The Album About Nothing. Hypothetically, if Drake and Future walk home with the award for Mixtape of the Year and Album of the Year on Oct. 13, it’ll only further show that we’re in the age of the new mixtape. Maybe next year’s BET Hip Hop Awards will have The New Mixtape of the Year as a category.

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While it’s important to pay homage to the mixtape’s history, the time for hip hop to make a change is now. Forward-thinking DJs like Skee have abandoned the physical release of the mixtape completely, opting to focus on streaming services like Dash Radio to play new music. Drizzy debuted WATTBA on an episode of OVO Sound Radio on Apple Music’s Beats 1 and then made the mixtape album available for $9.99 on iTunes. Hell, even the DJs are hosting less tapes (except maybe for the occasional DJ Drama x Jeezy collaboration) to focus on actually putting out legitimate albums. (We’re looking at you, Khaled.)

The Internet has become the new streets (figuratively speaking) to make your career red hot if your music is good. The mixtape, specifically the elements that make it up, have changed to represent that and will only continue to reshape the genre as more artists take advantage of emerging trends in the music industry. Another example is Rick Ross’s Black Dollar, which was marketed as a mixtape but is obviously made with big name producers and features that complement his “real” album Black Market, releasing December.

On promotional runs, the artists themselves regularly flip-flop between calling their project either a mixtape or an album. It’s like traveling the world, soaking life experiences and spending a significant amount of time recording tracks for a “studio project” will change anything. Let’s stop the confusion. I’ve already come to terms with abandoning calling a project with original material a mixtape entirely. Anyone who is still holding on to using the phrase should just let it go too. It’s time to start embracing the future.

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(Photos from left: A1 Recordings / Freebandz, Familiar Territory / Freebandz, Dundridge Entertainment / Unlimited Business /Freebandz, Young Money, Grand Hustle Records)

Written by Eric Diep

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