In 2016, a small UK music blog called Grime and Lime uploaded a rare mixtape from hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash. The mixtape, which was made in 1982, was only meant to be heard by one person: someone named Money Mike. It’s information you learn seconds into the tape. Over The O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money” bassline, Grandmaster Flash says: “Mike…I gotta tell you, man. No copies. No duplicates. No lend outs for any reason, any form, or any fashion.” Throughout the duration, Flash sends out reminders: if you’re listening and you’re not Money Mike “you ain’t right.”
The mix is a great listen; a straight nostalgia crack hit, featuring iconic jams like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” Fearless Four’s “Rockin´ It,” and Kurtis Blow’s “Tough.” It’s also a stark reminder that the mixtape has been around for hip-hop’s entire duration, even if the definition has become and continues to remain fluid. What a mixtape is, who is making a mixtape, and how people are listening to a mixtape is purely defined by the era one is in.
For most of hip-hop’s evolution, the most important aspect of a mixtape was the DJ, whether it was Grandmaster Flash dubbing tapes for his friends; Ron G selling blend tapes for the streets of New York; DJ Screw making screw tapes straight out of his house in Houston; or DJ Clue finessing exclusive songs from established rappers. In the early 2000s, mixtapes became artist-centric. A “for promotional use only” marketing tool for rappers like 50 Cent, Cam’ron, Lil Wayne, and T.I. to establish a fanbase and then to appease one. Most of the time this involved rappers jacking more popular songs at the time. As the culture went on, freestyles became outmoded and mixtapes became a venue for artists to send out testers for some of their most experimental—sometimes rough around the edges—tracks.
For the most part, this is how mixtapes function now. And mixtapes are still a crucial tool, even if, I believe, that the future of mixtapes are murky. The last couple of years have been a truly transitional period for the format. The last time the scene felt this uncertain was in 2007, when DJ Drama was raided, an incident that hastened the transition from mixtapes being an underground brick-and-mortar circuit to an online one.
Ultimately, what happened in June 2015 will be just as transformative for music as the 2007 raid was: that was when Apple Music was announced, providing streaming kingpin Spotify with its first real competition. The launch of Apple Music also undercut its other distributing method: the iTunes Music Store. Once Apple entered the game, and the “streaming wars” began, it instilled a sense to the consumer that there’s only one way to listen to music. (Apple has never even tried to credibly answer the basic question of why would a consumer pay $9.99 for an album when they could pay $9.99 for a month of all the music they could get.)
In 2017, streaming now controls 62 percent of the market. The year Apple Music launched there were 317 billion streams in the U.S. It took a little more than half a year to reach that benchmark in 2017.
It was only inevitable that the effects would trickle down to the mixtape market.
For years, independently run sites like Datpiff, Live Mixtapes and Spinrilla have been the venue for mixtapes and exclusives. All sites offer a free streaming and free download option. To this day you can go to a site like Datpiff and listen or download classic mixtapes like Kendrick Lamar‘s O(verly) D(edicated), Rick Ross‘ Rich Forever, A$AP Rocky‘s Live.Love.A$AP, and Future‘s 56 Nights. However, it’s hard not to notice the lack of newer culturally defining projects featured on a Dattpiff.
The reason: Apple, Spotify, YouTube, and Soundcloud offer payout streaming royalties, while Datpiff and other independent mixtape sites do not. There is literally no incentive for an established artist — or label — to feature their new project on a mixtape site, unless they cut a deal with the site in which the artist gets paid. (Which still occasionally happens; in October Live Mixtapes released Plies and Kodak Black‘s F.E.M.A. tape as an exclusive.)
So within the last year and a half we’ve seen a flood of these half-baked projects that live in this “is it a mixtape, EP, or album” purgatory.
A$AP Ferg‘s Still Striving is a mixtape. Except, it doesn’t live on any of the mixtape sites. Wiz Khalifa‘s Khalifa was an album, until it got changed to a mixtape, except that a consumer could only listen to it on streaming sites that payout. Playboi Carti’s self-titled debut is one of the best projects of the year. It’s a mixtape. Until it was decided it wasn’t anymore.
Artists like Big Sean, Metro Boomin, Offset and 21 Savage put out projects that should be a mixtape in the same vein of a Juicy J and Lex Luger or a Future and Gucci Mane tape. Except, these projects get purposely described in ambiguous terms.
I’m even seeing the trend with underground rappers on the rise. Someone like Mozzy, who has been one of the most buzzed about rappers in the game, has put out 30 projects over the last couple of years. Only two official ones are actually on Datpiff.
It’s pretty clear mixtape sites are getting squeezed out. Even though it will still be a place for a project from mid-tier rappers, like Shy Glizzy or Nipsey Hussle. Or a place to listen to a quick throwaway, like Future and Young Thug‘s shaky Super Slimey tape. But its time as a cultural force seems to be over.
We’re seeing the transition: rappers aren’t the most important aspect of a mixtape. Corporations are.
Remember, just a generation ago a playlist was called a mixtape.
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