Mixtape Generation Reinvents Industry

Luther Kuefner, Staff Writer

The internet has played a great role in discovering new talent, from the Los Angeles collective Odd Future to Mississippi’s soulful rapper Big K.R.I.T. Rappers like Harlem’s Cam’ron and Atlanta’s T.I. that made their name through old mediums, like radio play and music videos, from have faded. Why? Listeners have moved from relying on music the record companies provide to the freedoms of the internet.

We have passed from the age of the album and proceeded into the age of the mixtape.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the latest definition of the term, a mixtape in the hip hop community is a musical project that is independent of a record label, often put out by artists themselves. More and more, artists are willing to put out their material for free, hoping that reaching listeners will propel them to fame. It is now easy to put your material on the web for millions of people to access. This yields more variety for audiences and more opportunity for artists than when MTV and BET were the only avenues for exposure.

Rappers such as Big K.R.I.T., 2 Chainz, Wiz Khalifa, A$AP Rocky, Wale, Curren$y, and J. Cole, to name a few, have taken the route to national acclaim off of a mixtape, often landing a record deal. Before 2008, it would have been ludicrous to see this many rappers making a name for themselves off of a mixtape. Where did this trend start, and why have so many taken advantage of it?

I regard New York rapper 50 Cent as being the first to bring a career out of a mixtape. His group, G-Unit, came out with a mixtape in 2002, titled 50 Cent is the Future, which circulated heavily around the Big Apple. The tape caught the ear of Eminem, and he decided to sign 50 Cent to his record label. After 50 Cent, many artists began to utilize the mixtape as a tool to establish a career in the music industry.

Rapper Lil Wayne was the next mixtape titan to touch the scene. Although he had been signed since 1995, Lil Wayne used mixtapes to further expose himself as an artist, from his Dedication series with DJ Drama to his groundbreaking tape Da Drought 3.

Although Wayne started off moving physical copies of his work, he used the internet around 2006 as a vehicle to expose his material to a larger audience. As Lil Wayne flooded the streets and the internet with his music, it was impossible to ignore the buzz.

Although Lil Wayne caught his big break in mainstream culture after his Grammy-winning album Tha Carter III in 2008, his empire of mixtapes allowed him to reach the fame that he has now. Other rappers have taken note, and mixtapes are making headlines more often than albums. Some examples in recent years include Wiz Khalifa’s Kush & OJ and Big K.R.I.T.’s Return of 4Eva.

Is this a healthy step for music?

At first, hip hop was hard for me to listen to in late 2008/early 2009. Too many rappers were experimenting with what they could pull off, from Lil Wayne’s obsession with auto-tune to Mos Def’s ragged album The Ecstatic. However, near the end of 2009, I began to catch wind of a new generation of hip hop artists that were making a name for themselves, from Wale to Skyzoo. They took the styles that their predecessors established, and added their own character, yielding a refreshing, yet sharp sound.

As rapper A$AP Rocky said in an interview with Nardwuar, in response to the changing face of Harlem, “You gotta look at it, like, Harlem is us now.” Although he was talking just about the hip hop scene in one of New York’s most famous burrows, he drives home a point about the changing face of hip hop.

A new generation is taking over, challenging preconceived notions about the identity of hip hop.