THE EVOLUTION OF THE HIP HOP MIXTAPE
There’s a saying out there that has been popularized in hip hop culture of “It’s not where you’re from, it’s where you at”. As with any quote this could be taken different ways by different people, depending on your outlook. To me, it signifies that it doesn’t matter where you have been in your life. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your life, it matters what you are doing right now. Not to let your past hamstring you from achieving your goals in the present, and in the future. This line has been recently showing up in the mobile phone ads with Fat Joe, as well.
However, in the aspect of historical importance, and knowing where you come from it absolutely DOES matter where you’re from. Knowledge is power, as they say, and knowing where you come from, knowing your history, helps you have a better understanding of where you are at right now. So with that said, I’d like to take you on a little journey with me. I’d like to explain the history of something that has played a vital role in the evolution of hip hop. The Mixtape.
In 1962 the pioneer of hip hop mixtapes was born. Who was this? Was it DJ Kool Herc? Grandmaster Flash? Afrika Bambaataa? Any one of the Furious Five? No. The pioneer of hip hop mixtapes was Phillips Company that was based in the Netherlands. In 1962 they released the very first compact audio cassette tape using a high-quality polyester to create the 1/8’’ tape produced by BASF. The next year the United States began the sale of the Norelco Carry-Corder dictation machine that would use this new cassette tape. At the time of this invention, there was no way Phillips foresaw the demand by the consumers for blank tapes for personal music-recording.
Now before I go on I should point out that there are two different types of mixtapes. The first is the private mixtape. This is usually intended for a specific person, or a private event. Then there is a public mixtape, also referred to as a party tape. This will often be of a club performance by a DJ and is intended to be sold to the masses. During the 1970’s DJ’s such as Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa & The Soulsonic Force, DJ Breakout, DJ Hollywood, The Funky Four and Kool Herc & The Herculoids would distribute their recordings of their club performances on audio tape. They also would make customized recordings at very high prices for individual purchases.The tapes could vary in length from 1 hour to three hours, and would cost anywhere from thirty to seventy five bucks a tape, more times than not on reel to reel, but as the years went by increasingly the recordings would be put on the cassette tape. During the 80’s as the mixtape became more popular, the eventual introduction of blank cds, cd burners and mp3 players would signal the demise of the mixtape. Purists lament the downfall of the cassette mixtape, which has been replaced with CDS. From a convenience vantage point, the CD is the best thing to happen to mixtapes if you think about it. The CD made it possible to put tapes out much more quickly, and you could put more music on the disc as opposed to a cassette tape. Plus the shelf life of a CD far surpasses that of a tape which can be worn out from repeated play over time. Not to mention the sound quality of the music was undoubtedly better.
As the years progressed, mixtapes became a large part of not just hip hop culture but music culture in general. There are groups set up on the internet dedicated SOLELY to trading mixtapes of either live recordings by bands, or just a “mix” of various tracks that they like and want to share. There are groups in various towns across the world that meet each week to share a new tape that each member has created. A quick search of the internet for “Tape Trading” brings up over 16.5 million results. And it’s not just hip hop music either, it’s rock, folk, jazz and spoken word just to name a few genres being traded out there.
Hip Hop Mixtapes gained momentum in the 80’s with an influx of DJ’s that would bring the “Exclusive” track. A track that perhaps they got from the artist or producer themselves, and it would be premiered on their tape. DJ’s such as Clue, Ron G, Spinbad, Kool Kid, Clark Kent, Kid Capri, Stretch Armstrong and others led the way in putting the hip hop tapes out there. You’d be hard pressed to venture up Canal street in New York without finding someone that had a mixtape table out. I first discovered mixtapes in 1995 at the Potomac Mills mall in Virginia, and then later to a larger degree in Charlottesville Virginia. A guy and his kid would set up a table every weekend under the now defunct local theater and had various bootleg clothing, hats and other clothing items, along with the newest mixtape and VHS release. I remember seeing his movies and thinking, “Wow…Deep Impact and He Got Game JUST came out…how’d he get them this quick? Man, them New York peoples be getting EVERYTHING before us.”. Yeah, that was a bit naïve I suppose, but I had just been introduced to the mixtape culture, and everything associated with it. I’d been listening to hip hop before that, but had never heard of a mixtape (although I always made tapes of songs on the radio, I didn’t know there was a whole culture out there based on exactly THAT).
INDUSTRY EMBRACES AND TURNS THEIR BACK ON MIXTAPES
In the 1990’s the music labels wised up to the idea that they could use these mixtape DJ’s to promote their artists. So they would send these DJ’s the “Exclusives” which were tracks that had not been released yet, or perhaps a song that was strictly geared towards creating word of mouth buzz for the new artists that no one really heard of. DJ Clue is one of the DJ’s that would get these exclusives, often from Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs and Bad Boy Records. The mixtape would drop and then everyone would be buzzing about this new Biggie track that was on the Clue tape, or in later years, people would buzz about this new kid Fabolous Sport, who would eventually drop the Sport and go by just Fabolous.
The labels began to use DJ’s as their own little marketing tool. Some would bring the DJ’s on tour with them, some would recruit a DJ strictly for their own label. That’s why you see some mixtapes from back in the day that seemed to be focused on one label. Some of Clue’s early tapes were 90% Bad Boy tracks.
However, with anything good there has to be something bad to come of it. The RIAA decided that this was violating copyright infringements and decided to wage war on the mixtape industry. Now, you would think that since the DJ’s were doing the label’s job of promoting their artists that they would back them up right? The labels would step up and strike a deal with the DJ’s – an OFFICIAL deal – or at the very least, contact the RIAA and be like, “this is cool, we’re working together”. You’d think so, but no. The labels sat by and watched as Mom & Pop “bootlegging” shops got raided and lives got destroyed. They sat back and watched as DJ’s were put out there as copyright violators, basically thieves, and did nothing about it. They reaped all the benefits of the arrangement with the mixtape DJ’s but did nothing to help them.
To this day, this type of thing goes on, but the DJ’s continue to work with the labels, and the labels continue to ignore them when it comes to RIAA. This needs to change, in my opinion. Some DJ’s are creating deals with the labels in which they will release official tapes such as DJ Clue, DJ Kid Capri and DJ Kay Slay among others to be released in stores. Other DJ’s are becoming “official” DJ’s for a label such as DJ Green Lantern who until early/mid 2005 was the official DJ for Eminem’s “Shady Records”, before inking a deal with Russell Simmon’s label.
Justo Faison was the best thing to ever happen to mixtape DJs and mixtapes in general. Mixtape DJ’s helped elevate then-unknown rappers like Cam’ron, 50 cent, Fabolous, Joe Budden and others into more well known artists, thus leading them to getting deals. These artists could not rely on radio play, as radio stations aren’t going to play artists that are not known, so it was left up to the mixtape DJ’s to put the word out on the street that there was, to quote the Eagles, “A New Kid In Town”.
DJ Kay Slay, The Drama King had this to say about Justo. “Justo was like a brother to me. At one time he helped manage me for free. Justo was the only person we had standing up for the DJ’s from the heart.
While the DJs helped out the unknown and little known artists, Justo focused his attention on mixtape DJ’s and the mixtape game in general. He did this in part by establishing the Mixtape Awards Show, which paid respects and brought into the open the efforts of underground hip hop & R&B and reggae DJ’s.
DJ warrior of the “Cali Untouchables” DJ Crew in Los Angeles sums it up the best. “Justo is a person that took mixtapes from the street to the whole world, and gave so many DJs their shine. He took something form the street level and created so many opportunities for DJs to reach an even higher level in the industry. He was the most effective person for mixtapes throughout the world.”
Ten years ago, Justo established the mixtape awards to pay respect to the mixtape DJs out there. Now we are in 2006, and the mixtape awards have evolved greatly. Justo’s plans involved them to hopefully find a cable network to broadcast the awards, such as HBO. This in the hope that the mixtape awards would be seen as an awards show on the level of other music award shows.
Unfortunately Justo will not be around to see that, should it happen. On May 14th 2005 Justo passed away after suffering a car accident in Richmond Virginia. The legacy of Justo Faison is well established, and you just have to ask DJ about who Justo was, and no doubt you’d be getting an earful of memories.
When the news came out that he had passed on, within 24 hours a whole slew of DJs had sent along their condolences such as DJ Clue, Kid Capri, 1st Lady El & DJ Lazy K of Murder Mamis, DJ Absolute, DJ Woo Kid and many many others. DJ Warrior put out the call for mixtape DJ’s to pay their respects with a tribute of sorts for Justo.
“We should come together and do something for Justo in his honor and for his family, DJs wouldn’t have any place to go and have a gathering yearly for the DJs. Because of him, so many of us DJs have gotten world wide recognition. He’s a true legend and his legacy will carry on.”
I, myself, never had the fortune of knowing Mr. Faison. In fact, I was never involved in the mixtape game other than a consumer, so I’m kind of sad to say that I never even KNEW of Justo, until the news came down that he had been in an accident. However, when the word came down, and all the DJs swarmed to pay tribute, and to make their feelings known, it was obvious that Justo was a man to remember. A man who dedicated his life to an art form, and was extremely wealthy in friends.
So the next time you pay attention to the mixtape awards, the next time you pick up a mixtape and hear the latest exclusive track, you remember Justo Faison. You understand that Justo more than likely made it possible for that DJ, who’s tape you’re holding, to do what he/she did.
Justo Faison. Rest in Peace.