What is the definition of a mixtape? The answer to this question has changed as technology and culture has also changed and evolved throughout the years.
Mixtapes started off as recordings on 8-track and cassette tapes and it was a private exercise for music-lovers, recording their favourite songs from the radio for their own personal use. Not much skill was involved in this practice. However, in the early-to-mid 70’s, Hip-Hop was born and began to change that.
Throughout Hip-Hop history, mixtapes have been the life-blood of the genre. From the start, DJ’s such as Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herc would perform at block parties in the Bronx, New York. These performances would be recorded on cassette tapes and then later sold. The methods used in these mixtapes and live performances were the isolation and the repetition of break-beats in disco and funk music and also some scratching techniques. At this early stage of the genre, this was the only method for Hip-Hop music to exist.
The difference between the DJ mixtapes and the personal use of mixtapes was the skill involved. The DJ mixtapes were recorded with the skills and usage of their turntables as opposed to the personal mixtapes, which had recordings of the radio and such. Also, the DJ’s mixtapes had no gaps in-between songs and was essentially one long track with some added creativity. Whereas personal mixtapes typically had full individual songs from their start to finish. This is what gave the DJ’s mixtapes the upper hand and was the reason why they were highly sought after by fans and tape-traders.
Techniques began to develop and blend tapes started to circulate. The “Legendary Ron G” has been credited for creating blend tapes by mixing R’n’B acapellas with Hip-Hop and Funk instrumentals to create new songs or “remixes”.
As the Hip-Hop culture grew and music and DJ equipment became more and more affordable, underground artists began making their own mixtapes to create a buzz for themselves. Either they were DJ’s themselves or; wanted to be rappers and had a friend who DJ’d or; had an affiliation with a DJ. Their method to get heard in their local area was to create their own mixtapes..
Los Angeles DJ/rapper/record producer, DJ Quik got his buzz and subsequent record deal from his self-made mixtapes which he created in the late 80’s using his own turntables. The mixtape which won him his deal with Profile Records was “The Red Tape”. Not only did Quik DJ on “The Red Tape” but he also rapped and had his affiliates 2nd II None and AMG rap on the cuts too. At the time, this had been the new standard for mixtapes. They were no longer live recordings of parties. They were the vehicle for artists to create their own buzz to gain record deals.
By the mid-90’s, fans began looking for freestyles and blend mixes on mixtapes. Live shows were no longer the origin of a mixtape.
Cassettes then began to get phased out once the medium of the CD started to pick up some steam. The CD was becoming the new standard in the music industry, therefore, “mixtapes” started to take form of the Compact Disc. Only a few years later, CD burners for PC’s were becoming prominent and affordable. This gave people their own method for recording their own personal “mixtapes”. This was paired with early rise of the internet.
Music was accessible more than ever at this point, through file-sharing software such as Napster and WinMX. The personally-created mixtapes were no longer reliant on the radio and were becoming MP3 playlists that were being burned onto CDs. This had irked some mixtape purists who were seemingly digging their heels in at the introduction of the CD.
DJ’s used to get brownie points for having records that no other DJ had. The rise of the internet began to negate this part of the mixtape industry.
The development of technology over the years has been seen by some as the cause of lesser quality in (what they perceive as) mixtapes and now requiring less skill in order to create them.
One particular instance of this which I can recall is from a 2006 mixtape called “The CT Experience”:
“Niggas is callin’ they CD’s “mixtapes” but I just wanna know: Where the motherfuckin’ mixing at man? Where the blends at? Where the scratches at? What’s the definition of a mixtape? I dunno the definition of a mixtape but I know you can’t do it on no motherfuckin’ computer nigga!”
– DJ Crazy Toones – “Definition Of A Mixtape”
This is a classic example of a DJ from the 90’s (during the cassette era) being a purist and becoming alienated at the development of technology which they haven’t embraced or even understood yet.
However, an interview with DJ Crazy Toones was conducted by DJ Revolution last year. The video shows Crazy Toones being shown a demonstration of DJ’ing with the use and assistance of a computer and is seemingly wanting to learn how to use a computer with his turntables. At one particular point, which is quite amusing to see, is when he is shown cue points and loops. “You’re witnessing: someone who has skills, find out that you don’t have to have skills to be a DJ!”
At the end of the demonstration, Crazy Toones informs Revolution that he is doing an 80’s set that weekend and then asks if he’ll “bless him” with some tracks that he has from his collection. This is a perfect example of the evolution of the mixtape culture and also someone beginning to accept modern day DJ’ing.
The reluctance of embracing new technology into the Hip-Hop genre is amusingly similar to those who frowned upon the origins of turntablism – “ruining records” by scratching them. The turntable became an instrument and the computer had since followed suit afterwards. Some see the evolution and dominance of new technology in creating mixtapes as a good thing. Although some people think that using computers is an easy way out which requires no skill. It can also be seen as a great way for new creative methods to make mixes or blends.
In the early-to-mid 2000’s, DJ Green Lantern came onto the scene with his “Invasion“ mixtape series which then morphed into the “Countdown To Armageddon” series. Eminem signed him to his Shady Records label. Green Lantern stood out because he was very creative with his mixtapes.
Not only would he have freestyles, remixes and exclusives, he also made very creative mixes using the blend technique originally introduced by DJ Ron G. His blends would involve current artists verses mixed with older instrumentals relevant to the mix and included scratched samples for the hook similar to the style of DJ Premier. He has also used sampling and blends to mash up two songs from the current era. One example is the 2nd track from his 2005 “5-Star General” mixtape, titled “In The Dope Spot” featuring G-Unit. He chopped up The Game’s lyrics from “Westside Story” to form a hook in the similar mould as Cassidy’s “I’m A Hustla”. Another trademark from “The Evil Genius” was his crazy intro tracks. He would take numerous different lines performed by various artists and form raps with them about himself or specific artist in question. He was seen as the leader in the mixtape game.
Skip forward by 1 year and you’ll find that Canadian rapper/singer Drake released his first ever mixtape “Room For Improvement” which was hosted by DJ Smallz. However, the mixtape which got Drake his fame was the 2009 release titled “So Far Gone”. This is the finest example of today’s current era’s definition of a mixtape.
“So Far Gone” is “a mixtape” containing original songs made by Drake over original production. It is essentially an underground album dubbed or guised as “a mixtape”. No DJ was featured in the mixtape at all and there was no “host” either. It was self-released and he found huge success from it. Two songs (which were released as singles) from the mixtape were nominated for Grammies. After gaining such a huge buzz from “So Far Gone”, Drake signed to the Young Money label later that year.
“Rich off a mixtape, got rich off a mixtape!”
– Drake – “Underground Kings”
Another example of this definition of a mixtape is Dom Kennedy’s releases. From his “FutureStreet/DrugSounds”, “From Westside With Love” and especially last year’s mixtape release titled “The Yellow Album”. The contradiction is even in the name itself. It is claimed to be a mixtape however, the title calls it an album! Again – it has no DJ, no host, no mixes/blends, no freestyles and contains fully original production from the likes of Poylester The Saint. Just like Drake’s “So Far Gone”, it also had singles released for the mixtape.
The definition of a mixtape has definitely changed in today’s era. Before – it was the vehicle for DJ’s to show off their mixing skills and showcase rare records that they had obtained for their collection. Then it became more technical with the DJ’s taking up blend and remix techniques and also featured freestyles from the hottest artists. This progressed into mixtapes providing a platform for artists’ new exclusive tracks from any impending albums. It could have been an already well-established artist or; a new up-and-comer using a well-known DJ for some exposure for any of these upcoming albums.
Nowadays, it seems like the DJ is now becoming a non-requirement and therefore – obsolete. Artists are now releasing b-sides and “tracks-that-never-made-the-cut” from their upcoming full-studio albums as “mixtapes”. Even the term “mixtape” is showing early signs of becoming extinct. As artists keep releasing these so-called “mixtapes” using b-sides and no DJ’s etc, the term “EP” has began to build some steam in recent years.
Although the definition of a mixtape is forever changing, there are some things that will always remain as a constant: their use and importance. They will always be used to try keep skills sharp, albeit DJ’ing or rapping. They will always be needed to promote albums and will always be needed to try and garner a reputation and a buzz for any aspiring artists wanting to make it to the big-time in the Hip-Hop industry.