We Got It 4 Free How Hip-hop's Mixtape Culture Is Changing the Game

We Got It 4 Free How Hip-hop's Mixtape Culture Is Changing the Game
Kardinal Offishall is a busy man these days. His latest single "Dangerous,” featuring R&B superstar Akon is poised to be the biggest song of the Toronto-based MC’s career to date, kick-starting his latest major label release, Not 4 Sale. But Kardinal also has another release lined up. It’s a mixtape created in collaboration with Boston DJ Clinton Sparks entitled Weapons of Mass Eruptions. "With the explosion of this ‘Dangerous’ song around the world, we wanted to answer any and all questions,” he says, "so for the people that who had no idea that I was actually doing this before ‘Dangerous,’ we wanted them to give a little of who I am and for those people who did know about me before ‘Dangerous’ make sure people know exactly what happened, like, "Oh, I remember "Belly Dancer” [The Neptunes-produced single from his aborted second album for MCA] and then nothing for a few years.’ We wanted to school them everybody as to what’s what.” So how much is this de-facto best of compilation going to cost? Well, nothing, if you can find an internet connection. "Oh yeah, [it’s] free,” Kardinal says matter-of-factly not forgetting to add where you will be able to pick it up.

"Kardinaloffishall.com or I think it’s clintonsparks.com.” Kardinal Offishall’s willingness to put out free mixtapes is not an anomaly in hip-hop. Well-known and established artists as aesthetically varied as G-Unit and Talib Kweli (among others) are increasingly offering full mixtapes directly from their MySpace pages or through other social networking ventures. Radiohead’s "pay what you want” model for In Rainbows ushered the free music debate into the spotlight, but you could receive the music for whatever price you chose — including absolutely nothing. The difference with what is currently occurring in hip-hop is that artists are releasing music online through mixtapes and don’t even give you the option to hand over anything — forget "pay what you want.” To tweak the "We got it 4 cheap” mixtape mantra of Virginia rappers the Clipse, consumers of online mixtapes are saying "We got it 4 free.”

So why is this happening? Certainly, hip-hop artists don’t have a monopoly on giving away music for free and ostensibly, the proliferation of peer-to-peer networks makes anything potentially available without a fee. Additionally, artists from every genre of music, particularly independent artists, give their music away for a variety of reasons, such as increasing attendance at live shows or to simply spread knowledge about their band’s music. But there are circumstances within this approach that apply specifically to hip-hop. After all, "party tapes,” the precursors to modern-day mixtapes were, at least initially, given away for free by DJs such as the "world famous” Brucie B., continuing a tape tradition started by Grandmaster Flash and other hip-hop pioneers, virally spreading the music throughout New York’s boroughs and beyond.

"I don't think hip-hop artists employ different social networking strategies than artists from other genres,” says Angela Benton, founder and owner of Black Web 2.0, a website that addresses emerging web trends such as social networking and how they apply to black culture and its audience. "However, I do believe that social networking strategies are executed differently across genres and across social networks. Social networking and viral campaigns often speak to a user’s personal tastes, likes, and dislikes. These campaigns are based off general demographic information and in some cases are assumptive of what may appeal to a user. With that said there are certain slang terms, images, music, functionality, widgets, etcetera that speak more authentically to a particular user who happens to like a specific genre of music.” Additionally, discussions surrounding mixtapes are often consumed by discussions of copyright, which also makes giving away music for free online a very compelling option. This was crystallised by one incident in particular that not only acted as a catalyst in this distribution process, but also indirectly affected how mixtapes themselves are created.

Tyree Simmons calls it the day the game changed. On January 16, 2007 Simmons (better known to the hip-hop world as mixtape figure DJ Drama) and his associate DJ Cannon, were arrested on bootlegging and racketeering charges in Atlanta by local police, working in association with the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). Police confiscated 81,000 discs, vehicles, recording gear, and shut down the gangstagrillz.com website, from which Drama and his Aphilliates crew were selling mixtapes.

"Everyone got nervous to do mixtapes for a long time,” says New York-based, Toronto-raised MC Eternia. She should know. When she’s not rocking the mic, Eternia works in the CD duplication department of a printing and graphics company in New York. "We don’t just do tapes but we do duplication, not manufacturing in the factory. 90 percent of what comes in is mixtapes.” After DJ Drama’s arrest, she confirms many artists were worried about making mixtapes at all. "We even got nervous; we even thought that we were going to have to shut down after the whole DJ Drama thing,” she says. Through his Gangsta Grillz mixtape series, DJ Drama was instrumental in advancing the careers of T.I., Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne, so the arrest was hugely significant, given the pervasive influence of mixtapes on hip-hop. The arrest of a high-profile DJ led other online websites to rapidly remove mixtapes from sale and instead offer audio streams, podcasts or simply free downloads of the tapes.

"Mixtapes have become almost, almost 100 percent promotional vehicles,” says Kardinal. "That just means that now a lot of people are just uploading them to websites a lot more frequently than before, because before you’d want more of the physical copy to actually go out there and sell, but people had to slow down out on that a little bit. With it being more introduced to more and more web outlets it’s just allowing for way more people to get the stuff for free.”

Not everyone is happy with these developments, Kardinal himself expresses reluctance to release a lot of his material through mixtapes ("Believe me when I say sometimes I hate it,” he says) and there are others who are pointedly opposed to the trend. "Giving away a whole mix CD for free download is odd to me,” says Toronto-based MC Theology 3, who recently released the mixtape I’m Goin’ In — on sale for $10. "You’ve spent money on mixing and mastering, you’ve spent money on cover art, you’ve spent time and effort in compiling the songs and writing the lyrics. To me, this is lowering the value of music on a whole. Where’s the incentive to buy and support? The key to anything free is following it up with something that can be purchased. That's advertising 101.”

The DJ Drama raid came at a critical juncture in the evolution of the mixtape, accelerating an aesthetic change already in progress. In recent years, the predominant mixtape blueprint has featured a DJ presenting a series of tracks by new or firmly established rap artists that, for the most part, aren’t intended for an album. While elements of new and upcoming material are occasionally incorporated, mixtapes are also made up of previously unheard tracks and impromptu freestyles over the music of other artists. Often the DJ is heard as a constant verbal presence over the tracks, which can be bluntly truncated and interrupted by sounds such as vocal drops, shattering glass, explosions, sirens and gunshots. While this is an admittedly simplified analysis, the presence of these mixtape motifs do not lend themselves to qualities traditionally associated with albums. Consequently, mixtapes have either been omitted from serious analysis, or, at best, have been assessed through a different critical lens that takes these motifs into account.

However, DJ Drama’s arrest came at a time when many artists are increasingly are putting out their own mixtapes, following the model popularized by 50 Cent and G-Unit, where the artist — not a DJ — is the pivotal figure behind a mixtape. "[50] changed the world of mixtapes forever,” Kardinal says. "He took a simple thing and just marketed himself ridiculously. He went on a mixtape tour. Like he murdered the mixtape game in a good way and since then MCs have been hoping they could do that 50 thing.” The fact that many mixtapes are now being made available for free online has led to a saturation of an already saturated market.

"Mediocrity is being generous,” says Theology 3. "It’s become a rite of passage for the MySpace rapper to drop a mixtape with semi glossed-out cover art and yawn-inducing dubplates over ‘of the moment’ tracks that will fizzle within three months of their release. As tired as rock fans are of three chord, faux punk, whiny teenage idols waxing poetic about suburban boredom and misguided angst, I’m just as tired of the ‘You a fool for this one!’ copycat clones that rap about dough and floss flea market chains for no apparent reason.” So if there is a uniform approach to an overwhelming number of mixtapes in the market, shouldn’t artists to be motivated to raise their game amongst a crowded online field? "I would love to say yes,” says Kardinal. "But if you go to some mixtape sites it’s definitely filled with a lot of junk. Obviously there are those people that are going to shine through and there are those people who are going to be mad creative with it and make those classics. But those artists that are doing that, they’d do that whether it was a mixtape, whether it was a single, a remix, their album or whatever.”

It’s a reality that some artists have already grasped. Fast-rising Washington, DC rapper Wale’s new offering, The Mixtape About Nothing, follows, yes, a Seinfeld theme rumoured to feature a cameo appearance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It’s also a follow-up to his 100 Miles and Runnin’ mixtape, which featured minimal DJ mixing and predominantly original material. Chicago MC Rhymefest’s latest mixtape, Man in the Mirror, sampled lesser-known Michael Jackson tracks — if that’s actually possible — and studio outtakes to make for an often hilarious listening experience. Kardinal promoted the release of his Do The Right Thing mixtape with Clinton Sparks — available for free download last summer — with a series of YouTube videos that utilised scenes from the Spike Lee film of the same name, leading to over 20,000 downloads of the tape. "Anybody that uses 10 percent of their brain knows that you can’t just have a dope mixtape. You got to make people want to hear it. They don’t care. There are so many mixtapes out there they don’t care, so what’s going to make people care about what you’re putting out there?” Indeed, increasing online attention — if accrued blog postings are to be taken as accurate barometers of evolving mixtape tastes — is being directed towards mixtapes headed by artists with less overt DJ involvement, more new material and fully realised songs. In short, the mixtape listening experience is beginning to sound a lot like listening to an album.

An example of this can be seen in the presentation of Volume 3 in the critically acclaimed We Got It 4 Cheap series by the aforementioned Clipse, released as a free download a couple of months ago. Noticeably subtitled The Spirit of Competition — as if to acknowledge the increasingly crowded mixtape field — the sequencing of We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3 is uniformly linear, featuring tracks that fade out as opposed to being blended and while it is hosted by DJ Drama, the scarcity of his throaty lozenge-deprived voice is noticeable throughout. It is also noticeable that the mixtape was released in two versions — one with DJ Drama and one without him. The optional presence of DJs on mixtapes is a trend that has been noticeable, especially in the past few months.

While DJ-helmed mixtapes still overwhelmingly dominate the market, Kardinal doubts the increasing focus on artist-driven tapes will lead to a role reversal that harkens back to the gradual erosion of the primary role of the DJ in hip-hop’s early days.

"Don’t get it twisted, because for the most part it’s the DJs that come up with concepts,” says Kardinal. "Even that [Canadian Coke mixtape] I did with [G-Unit DJ] Whoo Kid, that was all his brainchild. Same goes for Clinton Sparks. Some of these guys are real, real creative. Even if you look at the whole We Got It 4 Cheap series — that’s Clinton again that dealt with that. So as much as I would like to say it’s the artists, a lot of the times it’s the DJ that comes up with the plans and we fill in our part so that they can execute.” With major print outlets now regularly running reviews next to major label releases, (The New York Times ran a review of We Got It 4 Cheap Vol. 3), the aesthetic consideration of mixtapes is obviously gaining ground, but they remain, for the most part, saddled with baggage. Despite major label releases by figures such as Funkmaster Flex, DJ Kay Slay and DJ Clue, mixtapes are viewed primarily as promotional tools for upcoming album releases, and the debate on the myriad legal issues that surround their existence dramatically curtails discussion of their aesthetic qualities.

While some mixtapes from an experiential point of view are evolving, they are not albums, but they don’t necessarily adhere to mixtape tropes of the past either. The reality is increasingly becoming a nether region somewhere in between. When she was promoting her release The Set-Up last year, Eternia took pains to differentiate it from the mixtape pack by printing a message on the inside cover. "When anybody got my release I expressed ‘This is not an album, this is not a mixtape — this is a setup.’ And the reason I wanted to do that was that I needed to differentiate in my own mind and in the minds of anybody who gets a copy of my stuff that it’s not what you’re going to expect from a mixtape.” What to expect from mixtapes in the future is still undecided. It’s unclear if a DJ’s role will diminish or thrive or to how mixtapes will be judged aesthetically. And to what extent will the availability of free music continue to blur boundaries between mixtapes and albums?

With the precipitous decline in record sales downgrading the importance of physical albums and the rise of digital avenues, the future of music is orienting to experiencing music rather than purchasing it. If anything, mixtapes seem to be more malleable to this impending reality than other forms of music delivery, explaining the omnipresence of artists such as Lil Wayne, whose upcoming album The Carter III will actually be his first in three years.

"I think there are many similarities between the immediacy of social media and mixtapes,” says Black Web 2.0’s Benton. "The first is the organic nature of the immediacy of mixtapes; they are often produced and distributed fairly quickly. Not only that, the audience have their own demands for mixtapes. They want to listen to the latest and hottest joint from a favourite artist and they don’t want to wait for their next album to drop to do so. Audience demand definitely plays well into delivery methods that are increasingly convenient and popular on social media outlets. They now have access to a blizzard of mixtapes that, back in the early ’90s — I can remember this oh so clearly — you would have to wait until the next mixtape finally came to your area of the country. Or if you just so happened to be in NYC you could always get the latest and greatest.” Meanwhile Kardinal is hoping to reap the rewards from his latest mixtape. He is definitely hoping the release of Weapons of Mass Eruptions adds another incentive to help people want to actually buy his album, ironically titled, given the discussion at hand, Not 4 Sale.

"If people offer it to you for free by all means take it, but when they have the product, I would hope that they go out there and buy that out of a respect thing,” he says. "People put a lot of time and effort into good mixtapes, y’know what I mean, so I hope that if you are a true fan of the artist or the DJ or both, that when it comes time for their project that you will support it.”

The onslaught of free hip-hop mixtapes is just the latest change in their evolution. Much like when DJ Clue shifted the focus to exclusive and unreleased material and put mixtapes on CDs, or when the legendary Kid Capri elevated the entire art form, mixtapes are continuing to evolve in a way that makes them increasingly harder to ignore — if that was even still possible. DJ Drama was right — the game has most definitely changed.