What is a mixtape? Their evolution from the streets to the Grammys

🇪🇸 El siguiente artículo fue escrito originalmente en inglés por nuestro corresponsal en Nueva Jersey Denzel Jones. Puedes leer la versión en español aquí. Traducción y adaptación por Natalia Warrior y Álvaro Reneses.

🇺🇸 The following article was originally written in English by our New Jersey correspondent Denzel Jones. The Spanish version can be found here. Translation and adaptation by Natalia Warrior and Álvaro Reneses.


Mixtapes might’ve started during the late 60’s at truck stops and flea markets, but let’s fast forward a bit and… Uhhh, change locale, shall we? Perhaps to somewhere more familiar; like out the trunk of some guy’s Buick in Brooklyn during the late 70’s.

Mixtapes became a thing in hip hop because at the time, it was only available live. As we all know, the genre wasn’t greeted with open arms, and was thought of as “noise,” so with little to no rap on TV you had to get your fix somehow. But when it first started the 8 track cassettes weren’t compiled of songs recorded in a booth; actually they were recordings of small shows and parties. Basically you listened to live concerts. DJ’s such as Grandmaster Flash and DJ Hollywood would sell their tapes out the backs of their trunks, and thus began the birth of the profitable, yet illegal, beautiful, art form.

So, before I dive into the internet age and the new way we began consuming mixtapes, I want to clarify something. The greatest rap group out of New York (or even the most important out of the city, I could argue both, really), Dipset, pioneered the modern mixtape. The credit’s often given to G-Unit, and I’ll give them what they deserve, but please understand: The Diplomats started this sh*t!

’50 Cent is The Future’ is listed as one of the greatest mixtapes of all time, and it is. G-Unit released said tape June 1, 2002, but people forget The Diplomats Vol. 1 was released during the first quarter of that year. Like I said before, mixtapes were always compilation tapes. Dipset broke new ground and placed all their recorded tracks onto one disc and sold them independently (as opposed to multiple DJ’s selling multiple copies).

Original material and freestyles over industry beats made the tape, hit singles from it were given radio play, and the record, ‘Oh Boy’ pushed Cam’ron to national stardom. Cam’s a hip-hop legend, ya know.

As much as it pains me to admit, Big Soulja, A.K.A Soulja Boy, A.K.A The jester of Hip-Hop, is the father of modern rap. You cannot debate this. As questionable as his career is, he single handedly changed the way we consume music. In 2007 when ‘Crank That’ came out, it was on repeat and we all tried to teach our grandmothers the accompanying dance. He reached out to us from one of the first and biggest social media platforms, and he and his tactics spread like wildfire. Artists across the globe then started uploading their heat to the Internet and it became much easier to discover new musicians.

In today’s cyber era, we no longer have to purchase mixtapes (cassettes or CD’s), from guys in Chinese resturants or in the fronts of pizza shops. Instead, we can download them for free on MyMixtapez or Livemixtapes. Though I’m sure you can still go to McDonald’s and find one in your nephew’s Happy Meal. I can. All this, thanks to Soulja.

Applications and websites such as Datpiff and HotNewHipHop have always made it their misson to release new music first, and they’ve been around since the revolution began. As of right now they are phenomenal in terms of visits and dowloads. It’s an up-and-coming MC’s dream to get their music onto either site. Sometimes if a mixtape is really anticipated, they’ll pay the artist to release it on their site first. For good reason, though. Datpiff has crashed a few times throughout the years. Meek Mill‘s ‘DreamChasers 2’ being a culprit. He actually holds the record for most downloads with 4 million. And his label’s boss, Rick Ross, did it just before him when he released ‘Rich Forever’.

HNHH certainly has had their fair share of traffic during peak Young Money days. This would be from ’06 to around ’09, starting with Lil’ Wayne‘s ‘Dedication 2’. At this point in time Wayne was very much considered the best rapper alive and his downloads certainly proved it. His ‘Dedication 3’ sold over 70,000 copies despite it being available for free. I can remember the ‘No Ceilings’ and ‘Da Drought’ series’, respectively, being played nonstop in my neighborhood. And ‘Sorry 4 the Wait’ is actually the second most downloaded mixtape in history with 2.6 million.

I guess in 2008 Wayne decided that he had to expand his brand, because in the first half of the following year, he discovered, signed, and shared his protégés with the world. His protégés being Nicki Minaj and Drake. Both newly signed artists released critically acclaimed mixtapes that had the internet buzzing. And those tapes being ‘Beam Me Up Scotty’ and ‘So Far Gone’.

At first, Nicki drew comparisons to Lil’ Kim but she quickly distinguished herself as her own artist. Her alter egos and personalities gained her fans from the most unexpected places. And at many points she was actually favored over several male rappers.

On Wayne’s other hand though, was his proidgy, Drake, who made the biggest wave with hip hop has saw in a while. He broke boundaries for music and mixtapes. It garnered attention from people who didn’t even like rap and for the fans that already did, it made them fans of pop-rap. If you listened to ‘Successful’, ‘Best I Ever Had’, ‘Uptown’, and every track in between, you’ll understand. To be honest, I feel Drake is the reason mixtapes are considered for Grammys, today.

When reviewing ‘So Far Gone’, RapReviews described it as being “the antithesis of what you’d expect of a mixtape”. It makes sense, after all. On mixtapes you have the freedom to appeal to whatever crowds you want, and sampled material doesn’t have to be cleared to use. Why should it? It’s free. No one’s turning over a profit, right? Yes and no.

Artists are actually creating tours off their mixtapes, but that’s for another article. Still, can you really consider a project a mixtape if you have to pay for it? It’s hard to tell these days. For some artists, if you don’t have an app that requires a monthly payment, you can’t listen to thier “mixtape.” Sometimes you can only stream a “mixtape” but not download it. For example, ‘DC4’ and ‘Jeffery’. It’s not just the lines of sound being blurred these days, it’s the technical and monetary aspects of it.

“Am I the only nigga still care about mixtapes?” Provocative words from Chance the Rapper. Staying an independent artist is a huge deal these days, and not just when it comes to money but also when it comes to creativity. Mac Miller and Tech N9ne have always understood this. But even with so many artists taking record deals, some still manage to keep the art of free distribution alive. I guess Chance isn’t the only one who still cares. Young Thug, Meek Mill, Lil’ Wayne, Tory Lanez, Future, and Fetty Wap do. And with artists like Lil’ Yachty (who was actually on Chance’s song), Joey Bada$$, and Migos, mixtapes will no doubt continue to be a thing.

So after all this, where are mixtapes going? To the Grammys, baby! After all the senseless snubs, free projects are finally able to receive the most coveted award in music. This means that Chance’s ‘Coloring Book’ got three opportunities that ‘So Far Gone’ did not.

Let’s hear it for progress!

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