It’s impossible to discuss the history of hip-hop without underlining the importance of the mixtape. Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s – often referred to as the genre’s "golden era" – DJs would shout out and self-promote on every track, with rappers laying new bars over heavily-sampled beats and selling them on the streets for a small fee. In an oral history published by Billboard, the legendary DJ Drama outlined a series of shifts in mixtape culture; first, tapes were repurposed and relabelled as "street albums"; then came the pivotal rise of free mixtape site DatPiff, which led to them becoming free, easily-available and generally used as a promotional tool to build hype for new artists as opposed to generating profit.
In the same way that DatPiff changed the mixtape game, the rise of streaming giants have irreversibly changed our musical consumption habits. Billboard has spent the last half-decade scrambling to keep up, first incorporating streaming data into the charts back in 2012 and then free streams in 2013. In theory, these new rules democratized the system; they allowed artists gaining steady buzz through free music channels to break into the mainstream music industry and they allowed innovative musicians to fuck with the system.
This could, however, be about to change – the most recent announcement is that paid streams will now count for more than their free equivalent. The potential problems with this are evident; in a recent Rolling Stone article, Justin Williams – founder of Meezy Entertainment – argued it was part of a backlash against hip-hop: “We run the whole thing. They don't like this shit.”
Hip-hop artists have undeniably been more creative in terms of adapting to this system - Chance the Rapper is a prime example. A long-time advocate of the free release strategy, he garnered early critical acclaim with the self-release of two mixtapes, 10 Day and Acid Rap, in 2012 and 2013 respectively. A detour led him to release an official album (also free) in 2015 as part of a group entitled Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment, but he steered clear of a full-length solo release until the seminal Coloring Book revolutionized the music industry in 2016.
The project initially surfaced on DatPiff, which surprised precisely nobody – this was Chance, after all. The mixtape stayed on the site for 11 hours, racking up hundreds of thousands of views, before being scrubbed: it turns out the tape was leaked. In an explanatory statement, the rapper announced he had found an ingenious way to monetize his mixtape by signing a deal with Apple Music worth $500,000 which made Coloring Book a streaming exclusive for two weeks. The deal was momentous, as was the record – it even prompted the Grammys to relax its rules, making him the first artist to ever win without “officially” releasing his music.
More recently, Drake’s More Life – which he described as a “playlist” but is essentially just a mixtape drenched in fancy marketing lingo – became one of last year’s biggest releases, debuting at #1 on the Billboard 200 despite being digital-only. Sure, the project is a behemoth at 22 tracks. It features a slew of eclectic features (cue America collectively googling: “What's a Skepta?”) and premiered on OVO Radio, but it still spawned a shitload of singles and became one of the year’s most successful releases. With this in mind, who the hell can decide what a mixtape is any more?
The differences between what constitutes an album and a mixtape may initially seem inconsequential, but the business behind them needs to be examined. After all, the often uncleared usage of samples has always been a polemic issue, as has the broader legality of mixtapes.
Back in 2007, it seemed as though hip-hop was dying – or, according to Nas, already dead. "Ringtone rap" was growing in popularity just as DJ Drama became the victim of a seminal raid; authorities raided his Atlanta office, seizing tens of thousands of mixtapes as well as arresting the iconic DJ and various others. As reported in a retrospective article on MTV, the raid was actually sparked by a mistake and the tapes seized were actually original material – although, by that point, the internet had become such a major player that the physical mixtape industry was already being replaced.
This shift to today’s digital culture has left artists and labels struggling to catch up, with producers often weathering the worst of the storm. In a 2016 interview, DJ Burn One discusses his own experiences of not being paid for his work, as well as how aspiring producers can avoid exploitation and build a strong back catalogue in an increasingly competitive industry.
He cites the example of his beats being used on A$AP Rocky’s debut mixtape, Live.Love.A$AP, which was released as a free download just weeks after he signed a $3 million deal with RCA. “I went to New York and tried to find him for like a week. I wasn’t able to find him,” explains Burn One. “Then I get back and I get a call from his label that they picked two joints for his projects, and they’d already recorded them and they needed a mix.” The DJ hadn’t been planning to release the tracks, so he uploaded them to SoundClick where Rocky found and recorded bars over them. “We had discussed payment, and then I sent them the files so they could get it mixed and get it all done… I don’t know what happened, and it fell between the tracks. Then they put it on the mixtape, so it’s not like they technically owe me money.”
It’s a myth that you can’t be sued for samples on free mixtapes. Mac Miller famously lost a high-profile copyright infringement suit back in 2013, whereas the likes of Chance the Rapper and Kendrick Lamar have both been sued for samples used on free projects. Burn One alludes to the complexities of getting samples cleared in the same interview: “Do not sample,” he asserts. “Because as soon as you sample it takes way more to clear a record, and you can’t handle it directly.”
Perhaps because copyright laws can be difficult to decipher, it’s increasingly the norm for mixtapes to feature original production, although this doesn’t come without its complications either. Just recently, E.Dan accused Atlantic Records of renaming official projects as 'street albums' or 'mixtapes' in order to avoid paying producers properly. He refers specifically to Wiz Khalifa’s Khalifa, technically a 'compilation album' of B-sides: “They came up with some really clever name that essentially meant, ‘Everyone involved, you’re going to paid half what you normally do’”, he explains. “Anything to save a buck for these labels.”
It’s also not uncommon for labels to re-release free projects “officially” and charge for them. Cardi B’s Gangsta Bitch Vol. I and II mixtapes are exemplary; both are available on iTunes for roughly the same price as a regular full-length, despite still being hosted as free downloads on DatPiff. Similarly, a slew of Remy Ma’s mixtapes, including Most Anticipated, Blasremy and "street album" Remy on the Rocks can all be purchased on iTunes, despite being released for free way back before she went to prison. Incidentally, Remy is a classic example of how mixtapes can successfully build buzz and craft musical legends – she bodied Lady Luck at Fight Klub back in 2004 before releasing a series of fire freestyles which became Most Anticipated, a tape which cemented her ongoing reputation as one of the hardest lyricists in hip-hop.
Nobody is arguing that Remy’s freestyles aren’t worth paying for, but the fact is that mixtapes usually aren’t conceived as "official" releases and often contain skits and freestyles, which makes pricing them at the same price as an official album questionable. Sequencing is less thought-out, and tracks are often repurposed, especially by artists known for their features. Why would fans pay for something that was once free? Last year also saw the rise of the "mini-album," already wildly popular in K and J-Pop, seeing extremely high-quality releases from the likes of Dounia and Rina Sawayama – why should we spend $10 on a retroactively for-sale mixtape when we could be buying similarly-priced alternatives from genuinely brilliant, emerging artists deliberately crafting albums? Worse still, isn’t this just another example of major labels capitalizing on self-made rap artists?
Even pop stars have been experimenting with release strategies. Robyn’s groundbreaking Body Talk series provided stars with an innovative new blueprint, whereas self-made megastar Charli XCX last year broke the mold by releasing two mixtapes, Number 1 Angel and Pop 2, both of which represented a shift back towards her experimental roots after commercial success. It seems that, by switching to the mixtape format, stars like XCX and Mabel, who last year released Ivy To Roses, are allowed more creative freedom to build and switch their sound. Similarly, stars like Kali Uchis are exemplary of the format’s success outside of rap – since independently releasing Drunken Babble, Uchis released her Por Vida EP for free before later being uploaded on iTunes.
These messy, wide-ranging examples are all exemplary of an industry in crisis. As pop stars adapt the mixtape format to retain higher levels and creative control and labels increasingly sniff opportunities to profit from hip-hop artists still working within the format, the ‘free’ mixtape as we know it is in danger of being obliterated.
As our methods of consumption continue to shift, labels are left desperately trying to catch up and – more importantly – make money. Currently, this desire for profit is leaving fans paying for projects which were designed as free releases and a slew of behind-the-scenes talent being shortchanged by the ever-expanding lexicon of street albums, mixtapes, EPs, mini-albums and, um, playlists? Artists like Chance the Rapper represent undeniably positive examples, whereas others like A$AP Rocky, Migos, Drake, Charli XCX, Nicki Minaj and plenty of others have all built careers on the back of free mixtapes. They’ve parlayed their online success into major label deals, sold-out tours and prestigious award nods, demonstrating that the mixtape is still an artistic force to be reckoned with. The days of these tapes being free are arguably numbered, but whether or not that means producers will be properly compensated and artists will be given more creative freedom remains to be seen.
For more like this, read why hip-hop has a long way to go before being 'queer friendly' here.