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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

How Mixtapes Remixed Music History—and Its Future

Song sharing is one of the most—if not the most—vital parts of music fandom. A hundred years ago, the medium was the phonograph record. Today, whether on Spotify, Apple Music, or YouTube, the playlist is the thing. But until 20 years ago, it was mixtapes. For some, mixtapes evoke homemade CDs or cassettes with a collection of songs arranged for a friend or partner. In hip hop, mixtapes have been foundational, a vehicle through which artists discover new beats, gain exposure, and share their work. And even as mixtapes have moved from cassettes to .zip files to SoundCloud, they’ve remained essential to the genre’s 50-year history—and to its future.

The mixtape goes all the way back to the 1970s and the early formation of hip hop. Cassettes were the first truly portable music format that was accessible to everyone. Although they were invented in 1963, it wasn’t until the ’70s and ’80s that the cassette became one of the most popular formats for listening to music. Improved sound quality, recordability, and portability—thanks to the release of the Walkman in 1979—allowed music to become truly mobile for the first time and made the cassette the first primary mixtape format.

Originally, mixtapes were live recordings of performances by DJs and MCs. Turntablists would play mixes of existing beats while rappers freestyled over them. Fans, or the artists themselves, would make copies to share. These weren’t released on major labels, so most of the samples went uncleared, and they were rarely distributed much farther than the city where they were made. “It was the people’s format,” says Zach Baker, co-owner of Crazy Rhythms record shop in San Antonio, Texas. “It was something that was born out of necessity.”

For artists, that necessity was to get heard. In the ’70s and ’80s, few labels were signing rap artists, so mixtapes became a way for them to share their music—and, by extension, their message—with potential fans. Mixtapes of this era were “very grassroots and very community-based,” sold at barber shops and out of trunks, says Charles Carson, a professor of musicology at the University of Texas at Austin. “Mixtape culture is really about access, and what that means is voice,” he adds. “Like being able to be heard in some type of a context that you normally don’t have access to. That’s you speaking with the community about the stuff the community values and giving it back to them.”

As hip hop became mainstream, so did the mixtape. But the format’s DIY nature also meant that making one was a sign of a musician’s authenticity. As artists like MC Hammer became wildly popular commercially, people started to talk about mixtapes as “this is street music,” says Carson. At the same time, the use of beats from popular songs on mixtapes meant that the sounds were recognizable, even if the MCs on them weren’t. 50 Cent, for example, is considered a mixtape innovator because he created full bodies of work by rapping over existing material, essentially creating an album in the form of a mixtape.

“It was amazing how you could take other people’s instrumentals, flip them, have freestyles over them, and not worry so much about having a polished quality,” says Marco Cervantes, an associate professor of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality and Mexican American studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Cervantes is also a hip hop artist under the name Mexican Step Grandfather and a member of the hip hop group Third Root. “It allowed us to imagine in a lot of ways what it would be like to have access to that type of beat. It made you feel like you were on the same level as that same artist.”

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As mixtapes moved from analog cassettes to digital downloads, many artists continued making mixtapes available for free, even after they landed big record deals. Lil Wayne, famously, would release mixtapes between his major label releases. Sorry for the Wait, true to its name, held fans over until the MC released Tha Carter IV in 2011.

Artist’s use of copyrighted samples, though, did attract the attention of record labels and law enforcement. In 2007, the FBI raided the Atlanta headquarters of frequent Lil Wayne collaborator DJ Drama and confiscated more than 80,000 mixtapes. This is what solidified mixtapes’ place in the digital age and made sites like Datpiff essential for keeping the mixtape alive—and free. The music industry soon caught up though.

“The fact that the industry was not making money on mixtapes meant that for all intents and purposes, they were losing money on mixtapes,” says Carson. “You could still argue that the overall net effect of mixtape culture was benefiting the music industry because people would be listening to pirated music and then following an artist, so that when their major label debut happens, they’re lining up around the corner to buy that album.” Want proof? Look at Drake, who released his third mixtape, So Far Gone, in 2009 and then, a year later, sold about a million copies of his major-label debut, Thank Me Later, in the US in about five weeks. It has since gone triple platinum.

Today’s mixtapes have undergone a makeover. What was once a DIY cassette with a scribbled J-card is now something the industry is taking seriously. Mixtapes from mainstream hip hop artists are now being produced in studio quality and released officially, essentially blurring the line between a studio album and a mixtape. “The role of the DJ has gone down as the role of the producer has evolved, basically taking that spot,” says Carson. “Now we’re following people like No I.D. and Timbaland instead of these mixtape DJ pioneers.”

Though the mixtape has evolved, it continues to play an essential role in making artists. Sites like Bandcamp and SoundCloud have become a way for up-and-coming rappers to get their name out there. And social media has become the most important way for new rappers to get noticed. Flyana Boss, for example, made their impact this summer with viral TikToks for their song “You Wish.” Rap artists in the burgeoning Milwaukee scene are all about TikTok. As their stars have risen, so has their output—artists there have released three of the best mixtapes of the year. 

“When you think of a mixtape today, I don’t think people are necessarily thinking of cassettes,” says Cervantes “It’s become part of our lexicon. I think mixtapes will still carry that type of urgent and less polished energy, where with an album, you’re taking on another route.” With the current vinyl revival and the rising sale of cassettes, the old-school version of a mixtape could very well make a comeback.

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