Mixtapes make hip-hop history

james bell

Do you remember G-Unit Radio? How about You Know What It Is? Maybe Gangsta Grillz? I do. I remember being in middle school and high school listening to the newest mixtapes from these now classic series feeling like I was a straight G, like I was listening to the most raw street music, music that only a select group of my peers was hip to. Now, while I may not have been a G, and sadly never will be, the second part is still true. DJ Whoo Kid’s (he hosted all 25 installments of G-Unit Radio) irritating echo is forever embedded in my gray matter, and I’ll never forgive DJ Drama for shouting “Gangsta Grizzills” and then starting the track over, which always messed up my impeccable head-bobbing.

For those of you who don’t remember, or haven’t understood a single word I said in that solipsistic first paragraph, let me tell you what I’m talking about: mixtapes. No, not the collection of songs that you lovingly compile on iTunes and give to your current significant other. The mixtapes I’m talking about are those specific to the hip-hop community. That’s part of the reason it’s “mixtape,” and not “mix tape.” That’s hip-hop.

Mixtapes initially surfaced during the mid-’70s in New York when people would record DJ performances at block parties by legends like Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa on cassettes, copying them via boom boxes and tape decks and passing them around their neighborhood. In the ’80s, DJs began recording their own shows and selling those tapes themselves (hip-hop has always been about the hustle). Eventually, in the ’90s, these tapes took another turn, with the advent of blend tapes — R&B vocals with hip-hop beats — popularized by Ron G.

When I turned ten, sometime in the year 2000, mixtapes completely changed. They became a means for rappers to gain the attention of record labels, to air out beef with other rappers, and to connect with fans on a more personal level. Illegal downloading wasn’t the epidemic it is today (I would say I’m down with SOPA, but that would be pretty hypocritical coming from this Jack Sparrow of the Internet) and mixtapes were on street corners everywhere, sometimes even in independent record stores. I personally purchased mine from a shady character at my local park desperately in need of soap. I’m not sure if he ever got the soap, but maybe bootleg Dove is hot on the streets now (I haven’t been there in awhile).

Generally, these mixtapes were hosted by a DJ (i.e. DJ Whoo Kid) who would never let you forget his existence, constantly inserting a prerecorded shouting of his name every minute, forcing you to strain your ears to hear the rapper’s lyrics. The rapper or group featured would then proceed to rap over the most popular beats of the day, displaying their lyrical abilities and less radio-friendly material — a gratuitous amount of expletives and misogyny was a guarantee.
If, for whatever trivial and fallacious reason, the rapper featured on the mixtape had problems with another artist, he would then use the mixtape to exhibit countless hilarious and overwrought metaphors and similes to attack the character of the rapper he was feuding with. Devoting my undying allegiance to various rappers over the years (I may or may not have a ‘G-Unot’ t-shirt stashed somewhere), I can say that, as a fan of hip-hop, one really got caught up in these mixtape ‘beefs.’

Around the mid-2000s, mixtapes shifted once again, becoming readily available on websites such as DatPiff and mixtapekings.com for free (they still are). Artists like Lil Wayne began to release a plethora of material, at the chagrin of their labels, in order to broaden their fan base and bolster anticipation for their next major label release. Needless to say, the strategy worked.

Many artists have adopted a similar strategy (see the superhuman output from New Orleans rapper Curren$y or from the Bay Area’s zany Lil B). By constantly releasing mixtapes, most of which are sponsored by hip-hop-influenced companies, rap artists have been able to keep themselves in the eyes and ears of the public without leaving the comfort of their own home or going to sell their mixtapes outside of concert venues, pleading with the public to spare five minutes while putting on decaying headphones. (That’s not a diss, just a suggestion to any rappers currently on the grind — it’s unprofessional, and I don’t want your ear infection.)

At the moment, mixtapes have almost gone on to supersede official albums. Hip-hop artists have released all original material for free under the guise of a “mixtape,” which is becoming more and more of an ambiguous label. Naturally, with this trend, people, myself included, have become less and less impressed with artists’ albums and have gradually gravitated towards their mixtapes, which often offer what feels like more honest and thoughtful material, both from rappers and producers (these days they often collaborate).

So, there you have it. You’re hip to the lingo, gringo (I’m white, so it’s okay, right?). You can start downloading the latest mixtapes and begin to spout off the most esoteric information as you argue about the current state of hip-hop with the guy trying to sell you his blank disc outside of Amoeba (as I might have done). For your enjoyment, here are three recent mixtapes you need that might as well have been deemed albums: Return of 4eva by Big K.R.I.T., Covert Coup by Curren$y and Pabst & Jazz by Asher Roth.