The Evolution of Mixtapes

What is a mixtape? How have they evolved?

Before smart devices, music streaming services, and even MP3s and CDs, there were cassette tapes.

One of the best uses for a cassette was to create a mixtape. I know you’re thinking; you think you already know what a mixtape is. I know your favorite rappers Drake, Nicki Minaj and J. Cole put out mixtapes. I even heard Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift created their own tapes, but these are not “real” mixtapes. Where are the disc jockeys, blends, remixes, shout-outs, intros, outros and exclusive freestyles that are made by other artists outside of their label camp?

I remember my first mixtape like it was yesterday. It was 1991 and I was attending Grant Middle School. I was taking the Centro bus home riding in the back with my headphones on. A man in his 20s transferred onto my bus in downtown and sat right beside me. He had on some light brown Timberland boots, Cross Colours overall, O.P.P shirt and a blue PUMA cap. He asked me if I had the new Ron G mixtape. I said, “What? Who is Ron G and what is a mixtape?” He took my Walkman from my hands and popped a homemade cassette tape titled “Ron G – The Blendz Vol.1” and I heard this crazy remix of Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” and a Hip-Hop blend of Phil Collins  “In The Air Tonight.” After that, I was hooked.

Ron G’s voice controlling the remixes, the blending of two different beats overlapping each other in sync and the scratches of vinyl and sharp cuts in the introduction. It was like a religious experience happening in the back of a Centro bus. I had never heard anything like it before. I gave this guy $5 dollars for the tape and that was the start of my mixtape addiction.

I was like an addict searching for Ron G mixtapes all throughout Syracuse. In my quest for Ron G, I discovered DJ Juice, S&S, Bam Bam, Tony Touch, Crag G, Doo Wop, Funk Master Flex and Kid Kapri. I started developing an ear for what made my favorite DJs special. Ron G was an amazing blender of music, Kid Kapri was nice with his cuts, Tony Touch and Doo Wop were equally great at getting exclusive freestyles from rappers, Bam Bam was the dance hall king, S&S knows how to get you hyped and Juice had the best intros.

By the late 90s and early 2000s, a new area of DJs and mixtapes emerged. You had Dirty Harry, Green Lantern, Clue, DJ Whoo Kid and DJ Kay Slay popping up with mixtapes that were dedicated to certain rappers or themes. Dr. Clue, DJ Whoo Kid and DJ Kay Slay would leak new songs from Jay Z, Nas, Biggie and other big artists before their albums dropped. DJ Dirty Harry and Green Lantern were doing some creative and innovative mixes in their intros and outros using new sampling technology. I remember buying Dirty Harry mixtapes just to hear what he was going to do next on his intro. How I loved those DJ disses on wax. That was the ultimate music high.

In Syracuse, we had some talented DJs of our own. I was fortunate enough to know and work with many of them. DJ Showcase was best known for his mixes of R&B with hip-hop and had a local radio show on 106.9. DJ Skratch had classic blends and hosted the Skratch Attack on 102.1 FM. People like Ace, Davine, Bruce Banner and Nuttin Nice were ripping up the night clubs. Maestro and Madd Stylz consistently played at local college parties. My personal favorite local mixtape battle was between Madd Stylz and Nuttin Nice. The classic cassette tape had Madd Stylz on side A and Nuttin Nice on side B, where they traded shots at each other with mutual respect.

What happened to the real mixtapes? Artists are paying DJs to feature their entire catalog of unreleased music. You have computer generated blends, cuts and stretches. Echo machines are replaced with Auto-Tune, and what was once exclusive music is now strategic sound bites planted by the music industry. Wax and turntables are replaced by a Mac, iPad and a MixDeck. Mixtapes and DJs used to be underground. There was a genuine love and creative spirit behind how these mixtapes were made and sold. Twelve-inch vinyl was not a fashion accessory, but a way of life for DJs.

I am not hating on the new-aged electronic music DJs, but what they are creating are not mixtapes. They are not turntablists or true B-Boy DJs that helped to cultivate the culture of hip-hop. Mixing and cutting using software may require training and experience, but blending and remixing using turntables and vinyl records is a true talent. This art form is slowly dying off and the equipment that was used are becoming antiques. I encourage everyone to listen to “Ron G: The Blendz Vol.1” below and you will understand what a true mixtape sounds like.

Here is what local DJs had to say:

“A mixtape should present the next level up in terms of music. What’s new, what artist is carrying the torch and who you need to start paying attention; the hip-hop top 10.” — DJ Bigboy

“A mixtape, derived from the days when DJs actually used analog tapes as a medium, is a compilation of music from artists arranged in a creative way to deliver what’s hot to the masses.” — DJ Maestro

“The word ‘mix’ references variety of songs, which can mean a DJ can play new or never heard music to introduce a new song or artist. It also means a DJ could mix classic beats with new artist’s lyrics, bridging the gap between old school and new school.” — Rufus “DJ Skratch” Morris

“A mixtape is a collection of great music mixed together for the people’s listening enjoyment. That can be from a slow jam to mix to an up-tempo beat. Creatively created.” — DJ Latinman

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