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“The smooth criminal on beat breaks / Never put me in your box if your shit eats tapes,” rapped Nas on his 1994 classic “N.Y. State of Mind.” Like other underground genres that hit their stride in the previous decade, hip hop relied on low budget cassette tapes to spread its message, infecting young listeners like a virus. Evolving from amateur live recordings to professionally-produced CD compilations, the “mixtape” soon became a pillar of hip hop culture, showcasing both emerging and established artists. Predictably, when the music industry finally caught up with what was happening out on the streets, it quickly ruined everything.
The new Paramount+ music documentary Mixtape examines and explains the phenomenon in a world where physical media isn’t always a given. It arrives at a good time, as hip hop celebrates its 50th anniversary and the vinyl renaissance has inspired people to explore other formats thought left behind by streaming technology. Directed by Omar Acosta, it tells its story through interviews with an impressive cast of hip hop history makers.
Though hip hop’s official “birth date” still provokes debate, it’s incontestable that people were making hip hop music years before any official recordings existed. Emerging from the South Bronx and Uptown Manhattan in the early 1970s, the only way to hear hip hop initially was “to be there,” in the words of musical pioneer Grandmaster Caz. While DJs created breakbeats for MCs to rap over at informal parties in public parks and community centers, enterprising b-boys realized they could record the festivities on a portable cassette player, dupe cheap copies, and sell these “party tapes” across the five boroughs.
Hip hop first hit vinyl in 1979 and soon began taking over the Big Apple’s air waves. Young hip hop heads like the actor Michael Rapaport and Stretch Armstrong and Bobbito, who would one day host their own influential radio show, recall anxiously waiting with their fingers on the record button to tape hip hop shows which were only broadcast for a few hours one night of the week. Not content to simply spin records, on-air personalities like Kool DJ Red Alert recreated the hip hop experience in the broadcast studio, cutting and scratching live and giving shout outs to rappers, gangsters and whoever else called in. Home recordings of these shows were sold or traded in school yards and prison yards alike and soon began making their way to other cities and overseas.
Trailblazing DJ Kid Capri was among the first to make his own mixtapes at home to sell them on the streets. Legions soon followed, each with their own unique style and approach. In Houston, DJ Screw created a regional sound by slowing tracks down while King Edward J’s mixtapes were vital to Atlanta’s emerging hip hop scene. As the producer Mark Ronson, boxer Mike Tyson, and rapper 50 Cent rattle off a laundry list of their favorite mixtape DJs, some well known, others obscure, you realize you are in the company of hip hop nerds whose knowledge rivals that of any fandom.
Mixtapes are in essence bootleg recordings and thus unencumbered by the licensing and copyright restrictions of the legitimate recording industry. The DJs who made them were free to mix and match musical elements, adding breakbeats to r&b hits and using pre-existing tracks to feature unsigned MC’s. Established artists soon began clambering for the chance to appear on the most popular DJ’s mixtapes, delivering uncensored freestyles and diss tracks their record companies wouldn’t allow.
The advent of digital technology ushered in an arms race, as DJs paid record label interns to steal pre-releases to feature on their latest mixtapes, which now came out on CD. Rappers N.O.R.E. and Fat Joe and mixtape legends DJ Clue and Whoo Kid trade hilarious stories of running afoul of hip hop industry heavyweights, resulting in death threats and kidnappings. Meanwhile, up and coming MCs like 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and Jeezy describe how they used mixtapes to their advantage, rapping over stolen beats and building up excitement for their official major label debuts.
Between illegal samples, unsanctioned collaborations and unlicensed tracks, mixtapes had long been a thorn in the side of the music industry. In the first decade of the new millennium, the empire was ready to strike back. In 2007, the studios of Atlanta’s DJ Drama were raided by police and 80,000 copies of his Gangsta Grillz mixtapes were confiscated, however, the incident only gave him more street cred. What ultimately killed the mixtape was industry attempts to co-opt the format and use it as a marketing tool, putting out weak compilations with corporate sponsorships which lacked the underground charm that made them vital in the first place. While illegal file sharing and streaming media erased physical sales income, playlists and social media stepped in to fill the gap.
Mixtape is among the best hip hop documentaries ever produced and rates with the best music documentaries of all time as well. Even if you’re not a fan of hip hop, you’ll be entertained and drawn in by its sense of narrative. For hip hop heads, it’s a next level treat, as some of the most important figures in the genre weigh in with revealing insights and incredible first-hand accounts. As the legendary rapper KRS-One says at the film’s conclusion, “The mixtape DJ showed everyone what hip hop is supposed to sound like. Unrestricted. Uncut. Here’s the music.”
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York based writer, producer and musician.