What Makes A Mixtape? | Features | MN2S

With mixtapes coming from major labels and the underground, and with some of them costing money, what actually makes a mixtape in the modern music world?

Last week, Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book entered the record books as the first album to reach the Billboard Top Ten through streams alone. We’ve written about the problems with the charts and streaming before, and the problems are pretty big. But the issue here is not whether an album should reach the Top Ten Albums Chart based on streams of individual tracks, the issue is whether an Apple Music exclusive full-length project should reach enter the album charts at all if that project is a mixtape.

The mess of modern mixtapes

‘Am I the only n*gga still care about mixtapes?’ Chance asks on Coloring Book track ‘Mixtape’. The answer is no. Thousands of underground artists release mixtapes every year, and mainstream million-sellers like Drake and Erykah Badu released mixtapes last year. Even a casual music fan will know that ‘mixtape’ normally means ‘free’. But recently, it doesn’t. Rihanna released ANTI for free this year without christening it a mixtape. And Erykah Badu and Drake (with Future and alone) released ‘mixtapes’ in 2015 that cost money to purchase, just like normal albums.

Chance, too, is guilty of charging money for his latest ‘mixtape’. Though he promised on Kanye West’s ‘Ultralight Beam’ to make Coloring Book “so free” (“and the bars so hard”), the album was only available to paying Apple Music subscribers for its first two weeks of release, and available commercially thereafter. So yes, the album is free. To anyone who pays £9.99. (To be fair to Chance though, the bars are hard.)

As you may have noticed, we’ve called Coloring Book an ‘album’ a few times in this article. Because isn’t that what it is?

A (very) short history of mixtapes

When the first mixtapes were made, the moniker made sense. Mixtapes were literal mixed tapes. DJs on the underground scene would record their mixes onto cassettes and distribute them at shows, aftershows or just on street corners. This practice caught on in the 1970s among early hip hop DJs such as Grandmaster Flash. Over time, mixtapes began to feature exclusive(!) original material by underground artists. Mixtape master Clue was a pioneer in this field. From there, these early hip hop mixtapes began to emphasise young unknown rappers, who recorded over the taped beats with rudimentary microphones.

As technology developed, mixtapes gave way to mix CDs. Unsigned artists recorded demo CDs to send to labels, to sell, or to simply hand out to fans. (Chance: ‘I used to hand out music/I still hand out music.’)

These early mixtapes and the CDs were an integral part of hip hop’s early days, and crucial to the development of the genre. But they were not always free.

In the Red Bull Music Academy’s ‘(Not At All) Definitive History of the Hip Hop Mixtape,’ Grandmaster Flash said he could make thousands of dollars a month from selling mixtapes. So if the OG mixtapes (named as such for their use of actual mixing and actual tape) were not free, when did we start thinking mixtapes couldn’t cost money? The answer lies in the internet.

Mixtapes and the World Wide Web

As far as electronic music is concerned, the true descendent of the mixtape in the Grandmaster Flash mould is the digital, online mix. Found on websites such as Soundcloud (for now), Mixcloud and Beatport. These mixes blend tracks together in the traditional DJ fashion, and demonstrate the skills and tastes of their creators.

Drake isn’t making these. The mixtapes mainstream artists have started releasing are rooted in the mix CDs 50 Cent released in the early 2000s. 50 Cent used mixtapes to get a major label record deal. Signed artists wanted in.

Signed rappers started releasing free online mixtapes to broaden their fanbases. Lil’ Wayne became one of the most prolific mixers of tape (but not really) in history. After his debut album, Weezy put out so many free mixtapes there are swathes of articles dedicated to ranking them.

The Wayne era of mixtapes spawned infamous mixtape hosting sites like DatPiff and MixtapeMonkey, and led to many successful and not-yet-successful rappers releasing a multitude of free music. Mostly, these mixtapes featured MCs freestyling over or repurposing existing beats. (The mixtapes were free, so could labels really sue?)

Gradually, mixtapes began to contain wholly original material, or original material with the occasional remake. This paved the way for many rappers who made mixtapes their their main platform, including Curren$y, Lil B, and yes, Chance The Rapper.

Chance’s 2013 mixtape (and it was a mixtape in the Waynian sense) Acid Rap catapulted him to global fame, and established him as one of the best rappers in the game. He is still proudly unsigned, and he still calls his albums mixtapes. But at this point, the distinction is almost pointless. Coloring Book is Chance’s newest album, released independently through premium channels. The 1970s DJs probably wouldn’t count this as a mixtape, but Chance does, and with a definition so flexible, who are we to tell him not to?

Mixtapes in the mainstream

What about the commercial mixtapes released through major labels last year? Some said Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was deemed a ‘mixtape’ by the artist because he did not want it considered as a serious part of his oeuvre. Considering the time it took him to make VIEWS ‘perfect’, this may well be the case.

DJ Skinny Friedman told Noisey the ‘real difference’ between an album and a mixtape is while albums exist to sell units and generate singles, mixtapes exist to move a rapper’s career forward and increase exposure. There is some merit to this conclusion. Maybe Drake just wanted to tide fans over in the gap between Nothing Was the Same and VIEWS. But since many mixtapes are now premium streaming-only, they can generate just as much money as conventional albums, as Coloring Book’s chart success shows.

Really then, unless you are talking about cassettes forged by DJs in the Walkman era, the ‘real difference’ between an album and a mixtape is whether an artist tells us their project is an album or a mixtape. The term is so loosely-defined that there is no other answer to our question.

Header image is Compactcassette by ThegreenjEigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0

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