FAQ: Mixtapes in Hip-Hop

10 Jan

A mixtape is a promotional collection of songs produced as a showcase of either an artist or DJ’s abilities. Named so after the cassette tape format they originally were created on, modern mixtapes are now more likely to be found as CDs or downloadable MP3 files.

For the most part mixtapes are free of charge, whereas album releases are the opposite. In terms of cost, albums are expensive to make and usually require record deals (or in the case of independent label releases, a distribution deal) to be released nationally, whereas mixtapes travel just as far via the web, and are thus the best way for unsigned artists to gain more attention and get their work spread to their target audiences. Due to the cost of album production, record labels often allow their signed hip-hop artists to release promotional mixtapes in between album releases, so as to generate online buzz and feedback regarding the content, which in turn acts as a cost-efficient way for the labels to tweak the upcoming album to fit the feedback and thus avoid an expensive flop.


Ludacris worked with DJ Drama on the 2008 mixtape 'Gangsta Grillz: The Preview' to generate buzz before the release of his album 'Theatre of the Mind'

It is common on hip-hop mixtapes to encounter DJ shout-outs and commentary over the music. The DJ in question is often ‘hosting’ the mixtape, with some DJs seen as go-to guys by upcoming and unsigned rappers requiring large attention due to their reputation. An example of a DJ who holds a high status in hip-hop due to his mixtape hosting is DJ Drama, whose ‘Gangsta Grillz’ mixtape series is considered the Holy Grail by artists (signed and unsigned) to appear on, and therefore can demand considerable fees for his co-operation. Regardless of the DJ’s reputation, however, the reasoning behind their often-annoying and overwhelming running commentary and noise is a legal one. If a mixtape track was to be particularly successful and an artist wished to release it as a single, for instance, their audience wouldn’t feel the need to purchase it if it’s already freely available on the mixtape. Hence, the DJ shouting over the record makes the songs just about listenable to enjoy, but not enough to listen casually, thus requiring purchase.

A type of track that is prevalent and mostly exclusive to the hip-hop mixtape format is the freestyle. As a pure exhibition of rapping skill, freestyles are often of a structure (one long verse, no chorus) or length that makes them far from ideal on an album release, and so take shelter on mixtapes. Another reason is that many rappers freestyle on beats already used by other artists on their singles, sometimes competitively to see who rhymes best over the production, and so the issue of copyright and royalties would come into play were it to appear on an album.


Drake's 'So Far Gone' EP contained tracks from his free mixtape of the same name

Successful singles on mixtapes tend to find their way on the artist’s next album, with a recent example being Rick Ross’ singles ‘MC Hammer’ and ‘B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)’ from his ‘Albert Anastasia’ mixtape making it onto his ‘Teflon Don’ album due to their huge radio success (although the album version of ‘MC Hammer’ included a new guest verse from Gucci Mane).
With particularly successful mixtapes, sometimes it may be the wish of the artist to re-release the mixtape as an album, usually in the form of an EP due to sample and royalty issues with certain tracks. The most lucrative example of a mixtape re-released as an EP is Drake’s ‘So Far Gone’ mixtape project. Despite being an unsigned artist, the mixtape was downloaded hundreds of thousands of times, and its success not only led to a million-dollar record deal with Young Money, but the retail release of ‘So Far Gone – The EP‘, which contained the best of the mixtape’s releasable tracks (including the huge single ‘Best I Ever Had‘). The EP went to gold status, and Drake earned several Grammy nominations in 2009 without even having released an album.

Without any exception, compilation mixtapes are technically illegal. These are mixtapes that contain newly-leaked songs, as well as songs that are unfinished or plucked from the cutting-room floor. Mixtape groups (such as Tapemasters Inc. or LA Leakers) tend to charge for their compilation mixtapes on the street, thus breaking all kinds of copyright laws. On the whole, however, they are left alone. This is because in hip-hop such groups are useful for launching pre-release buzz for singles, with the artists often leaking new songs themselves. There are instances, however, when artists and their record labels have fought back (most likely due to a DJ’s refusal to work with an artist) when DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon’s offices were raided and arrested in 2007.

When a hip-hop artist cannot gain sample clearance for the production, the song in question has to be kept off retail album releases to avoid copyright infringement, and they instead are distributed to the public via mixtapes. The rappers’ argument is that technically they aren’t making any money from the song in question as opposed to if it appeared on an album, and thus there would be no royalties for the sampled artist or composer. However, folk singer Karma-Ann Swanepoel filed a lawsuit in 2009 after Lil Wayne’s 2007 track “I Feel Like Dying“‘ had not been cleared for use of its sampling of Swanepoel’s song ‘One’. Although not found on any of Lil Wayne’s albums, the track was regularly performed at his concerts and at one time available for free download on his Myspace page. The trial is yet to take place, however, after the trial was postponed indefinitely due to Lil Wayne’s recent prison sentence.

Some artists use mixtapes merely to experiment, promote, or in the case of Lil Wayne find an efficient medium for an especially high work output (with nine original ‘official’ mixtapes, Lil Wayne is undisputed king of the mixtape format).
There are cases, however, when mixtapes are vital for artists to stay relevant, particularly those trapped in label politics and unable to release either an album or indeed themselves from an unworkable record deal. Saigon, for example, was unable to release his ironically-named album ‘The Greatest Story Never Told’ due to issues with Atlantic records for half a decade, and so resorted to four mixtapes and four free ‘street albums’ to provide his fans with work, until his release from the Atlantic deal in 2010 (‘The Greatest Story Never Told’ is getting a spring release on Amalgam Digital records).


2 Responses to “FAQ: Mixtapes in Hip-Hop”

  1. Kellye Aderman January 15, 2012 at 21:57 #

    Common and Drake,has reminded me of why Hip Hop rivalry is healthy. some new hip hop artistsjust don’t have that edge that old school artists had.

  2. www.youtube.com July 24, 2013 at 08:38 #

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