#39: The Evolution of the Mixtape

The evolution of the mixtape goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of hip-hop and rap.

The mixtape has always been an effective medium for street music to be passed around.

I asked you on Twitter if you think the mixtape is dead - it seems not.

Mixtapes have transformed throughout the years since those first hip-hop tapes in the '70s.

It remains to be seen how its role for rappers and DJs will play out.

We can break the evolution into four eras:

1. The ‘70s-’80s focused on the DJ. 

The first hip-hop mixtapes were mainly live mixes for fans to relive concerts.

Hip-hop broke through the mainstream on radio and vinyl sales with "Rapper’s Delight." 

But the majority of hip-hop fans knew that hip-hop was mainly captured on low quality dubbed tapes.

These mixtapes weren't made professionally in the studio.

Some early hip-hop crews like the The Furious Five had dozen of live mixtapes they’d sell at their shows. 

In Red Bull Music Academy's "History of Hip Hop Mixtapes," Grandmaster Flash said people with money would be the ones hitting him up for his tapes...

“'The people that was buying my customized tapes [in the ’70s] were the scramblers, the dealers, people that had money,' Grandmaster Flash told MTV.com in 2007. 'I was making a couple thousand dollars a month, easy, just doing this.'”

That’s almost $5k a month in today’s dollars since the value of a U.S. dollar has doubled since 1980.

Just for dubbed live tapes. 

This was an incredibly lucrative market... even though the tapes weren't sold in more established music stores and catalogs.

These always have been street tapes, away from the eye of the mainstream. 

2. The ‘80s-’90s shifted focus to the vocalist/rapper.

Fans, labels, and music executives began to focus on the rapper instead of the DJ's skills.

DJs responded by making compilations with exclusive artist freestyles.

They concentrated less on their mixing.

Turntablism and scratching became less prevalent. 

Mixtapes were used to launch rapper careers.

The music was no longer focused on DJ skills or live shows but on the vocalists.

Labels and record distributors caught on and the mixtape process became industrialized in cities outside of New York 

In some ways, mixtapes replaced four track demos.

Artists previously pitched their demos to record labels to get signed and drop a more professional album.  

3. In the 2000s, the DJ became unnecessary for a mixtape.

The mixtapes were still curated by DJs...until 50 Cent dropped 50 Cent is the Future in 2002.

As DJ Drama said in Billboard, "There's the mixtape game pre-50 Cent and post-50 Cent."

This changed the entire mixtape landscape.

Rappers no longer needed a DJ co-sign to launch their careers.

The long era of DJs controlling the music was officially over.

Artists used mixtapes for free promotion and to build hype... 

Jacking popular beats with their own raps and promoting as their own song. 

50 Cent is the Future was a smash hit and led to his signing to Shady Records.

Shady released his #1 rap album, Get Rich Or Die Tryin'.

50 Cent is the Future came after his first label, Columbia Records, dropped him.

They shelved his still unreleased original debut album.

50 Cent took his career into his own hands by dropping his own music...

Much like how Jay Z created his own label when he couldn’t land a record deal several years earlier.

50 didn’t even record this album in the U.S...he had to record it in Canada because he couldn’t find a studio in the U.S. who would record him.

Talk about no excuses

Another 50 Cent mixtape before Get Rich Or Die Tryin' had the hit single "Wanksta"...paving the way for mixtapes to achieve radio success. 

Blogs and mixtape sharing sites moved many careers forward with these digital downloads during the late 2000s.

Examples include: Meek Mill, Young Jeezy, Drake, Mac Miller, Logic, Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj, Gucci Mane, and Lil Wayne.  

4. The 2010s…the "studio album" mixtape era

Mixtapes from artists like Drake and Chance the Rapper seem more like studio albums.

They perform well on the charts and award shows .

We're in the era of the "studio album" mixtape, but... 

The mixtape is still, at its heart, a reflection of the streets. 

It’s one of the cheapest ways to throw together a project that reflects your skill as a rapper.

You don’t need original beats or be good at mixing and mastering.

You don’t have to spend a ton of $ on artwork.

There’s charm in the DIY makeshift project that fans still connect with.

This is the spirit of the original dubbed tapes.

It still lives on today as rappers drop mixtapes via physical CD or through platforms like Soundcloud. 

Mixtapes were a way to bypass radio, stimulate your fan base, and stay discreet.

They still are for the majority of hip-hop artists.

Despite the commercialization of the mixtape, they still remain a medium for artists to utilize.

And a way for mainstream artists to satisfy their fanbase in between albums. 

Of course, the mixtape can also mimic a professional studio album if it wants to...

Many mainstream artists in the last several years have taken advantage of the free promo that comes with a highly professional release.

This is quite the opposite from the early days...dubbed tapes from live shows, which might have been recorded on an audience member’s boombox and still sold like hot cakes.

Sometimes at a steep price.

The tapes had to be handmade.

Now, a mixtape that sounds and looks like a full studio album is available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection. 

You don't HAVE to give away your mixtape for free...

Nipsey Hussle sold his physical mixtapes for $100 each last year.

"[Nipsey's] mixtape sold out in 24 hours, and just like that [he] had $100,000 and a whole lot of hype. 'It’s time we acknowledge what we all know: the music is free,' [Nipsey] said. 'We shouldn’t force people to buy it, what we should do is create different methods to monetize the connection.'" 

Smart dude, RIP.

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