The Rebirth Of Mixtape Culture

I Got It For Free

With its origins planted firmly in the New York scene of the late-1970s, the hip-hop mixtape has come a long way. Originally referred to as ‘party tapes’, these cassettes were recorded quite literally on location at  the party. DJs would track their live mixes and later sell copies on the streets to the kids who had earlier been going wild for the sounds. Biggie paid tribute to his favourite DJs in the game in his song, ‘Juicy’: “Peace to Ron G / Brucey B / Kid Capri / Funkmaster Flex / Lovebug Starsky”.

Prior to the Internet and the instant availability of music to download, putting out material directly to the streets (usually from the trunk of a car) was almost an initiation. Even artists who are now institutions, such as P Diddy, started out slinging tapes (compiled of tracks by artists signed to his label Bad Boy). The mixtape is inextricably linked to hip-hop and remains a huge part of the genre, though recently it seems to have resurfaced to an epidemic degree. As well as veterans such as DJ Jazzy Jeff still releasing mixtapes (including his yearly ‘Summertime Mixtape’ with fellow DJ Mick Boogie), young artists are rising quickly through the ranks, cutting out the middlemen and winning fans without ever having to lose sight of their MacBooks. However much technology has advanced though, it is clear that current artists will always be inspired by the past. Speaking to Detroit-based rapper Danny Brown on the subject, he remembers: “Mixtapes in my day was freestyles and guys blending… With me going into those projects, I was going into them as if I was making albums.”

No longer associated with an entry-level mentality, mixtapes have evolved to become polished entities worthy of big label backings. When Clash spoke to A$AP Rocky  however, he revealed that  his first mixtape ‘Deep Purple’ wasn’t even an official release. The free download, made up of six tracks, was in fact put together by a French megafan who had simply ripped the songs directly from Rocky’s YouTube channel. This DIY approach by both musicians and fans conjures memories of decades past, and the punk mentality long since divorced from the subculture of the same name. ‘Deep Purple’, therefore, could be viewed as some warped 2011 equivalent of a party tape. You just need to trade in the boom-box for a  computer screen, Letraset for Photoshop, and a cassette tape for a zip file.

An obvious catalyst for the influx of free releases, including the aforementioned ‘Deep Purple’, is the Internet. Setting music out into the ether allows an innumerable sea of people to encounter it and creates the potential for a runaway train of popularity to form. A variety of online platforms, namely blogging site Tumblr, specialise in this kind of viral-making and have the power to make anything into something. Los Angeles based rap collective Odd Future is a prime example of its power.

Having given away over twenty albums’ worth of material for free online, they now boast  the backing of a hugely dedicated fan base (oh, and a record deal with Sony). Those already converted had no problem paying out for the group’s most recent musical offering ‘The OF Tape: Vol 2’, but as the lyrical content of the group is often deemed offensive, radio play is generally out of the question. It seems that they really don’t need this endorsement or acceptance (that most musicians crave) in order to succeed or make money - and that in fact they use this ‘outcast’ mentality to their advantage.

Attracting a genre-defying range of supporters, the group use tried and tested affiliations with anarchy to appeal to those looking to rebel and those, ironically, looking to fit in somewhere. When interviewed by BBC’s Newsnight presenter Stephen Smith regarding their use of these lyrics, OF ringleader and controversy magnet Tyler, The Creator duly responded with: “to piss old white people off like you”. The provocative delivery of Smith’s questions and Tyler’s politically incorrect answer triggers a flashback to The Sex Pistols’ infamous 1976 interview with Bill Grundy. This isn’t the only punk tie the group share with the Pistols though...

Midway through the Malcolm McLaren film The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle, the 1980s Sex Pistols vehicle, an old  school movie theatre style advertisement for refreshments  is played. Opening with a pastel-hued illustration of a popcorn packet emblazoned with the Pistols’ branding, an enthusiastic American voice makes the statement: “If you like their pop music, you’ll love their popcorn”, and thus draws an instant parallel with the merchandising scope of Odd Future. Not content with the usual T-shirts, pin badges and hoodies found for sale in the foyers of dingy music venues the world over, the rappers have monopolised their almost cult-like appreciation to cast themselves a much wider merchandising net. Opening pop-up shops to sell from in the various cities they tour to, the products they trade in range from tie-dyed logo T-shirts to foam fingers - stopping off at sticker books, skateboard decks and jeans along the way.

Words and Needlepoint artwork: Hayley Louisa Brown.

The full version of this interview appears in the October 2012 issue of Clash Magazine. Find out more about the issue.

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