Mixtapes: The Legend Makers of the 00s

Over decades, the term “mixtape” has taken on many different forms. It’s meant most to hip-hop fans over time though, with hopeless romantics and their muses who expressed feelings via compilations of sappy songs on cassettes coming in a close second.

But more than offering free music spontaneously, the mixtape game of the early millennium created the masters of today’s industry. It truly deified rappers who would have otherwise been written off since their many legacies would have been otherwise relegated to the amount of radioplay they got, as well as being limited by how well they persevered on albums dictated by hit record-hungry label heads.

At the turn of the new millennium, a mixtape determined how raw an artist was as no clean versions or copyright laws existed to adulterate how a rapper really felt. From the hands of labels and radio stations -seemingly always in collusion to feed us some ol’ bullshit- the fiat of creating legends was transferred to the streets… at least those blocks with internet access.During the 00s, rappers who have the most clout today were etched into history via free music, pushed via compilations and remixes, that is in fact priceless.

It started with one-offs that found their way to the web via an archaic version of what became the Black internet (Black Twitter, Vine, etc). Tracks such as Em’s “Nail in the Coffin”, which can’t but found on any album but maintained an indubitably profound impact nonetheless, dripped out in small doses when the facilitator’s of the uber-important rap era, radio DJs, stepped in to package the wayward pieces with “NEW SHIT!” attached to every single track.

As was the case with Em’s “Stretch Armstrong Freestyle” or songs the tracks broken by DJ Clue that would end up on “Street Dreams”.

“Take them dusty ass records, put em in them broke ass crates, and tuck em between your ass cheeks, hide behind a tree, cause you ain’t fuckin’ wit DJ Skee”

Series of new music such as the “Desert Storms” or the “StreetSweepers” became pertinent to hip-hop as radio stations opted for “Right Thurr” and “Hot in Herre”. Mixtapes hosted by the tastemakers such as Kay Slay, Clue, and Whoo Kid kept the idea of street rap alive. Had it not been for the mediators, Styles P. ,with The Phantom Menace and mixtapes releases preceding “Time is Money” and “Supergangster”, would have fallen completely off and the JR Writers, the Jae Millz and .40 Cals would have never been recognized for their sick ass metaphors.

Following the first wave of DJs, a refined, hungry and more egotistical class of compilers would emerge, lucky to have an artist approach them for an exclusive project due to some type of fraternity that bound artist and DJ together. Perhaps it was the blunts they smoked together or dollar throwing sagas in strip clubs, but either way artists rode for DJs how fellow gang members did, leading to an unquestionable artist-DJ conjoinment. Whether it was Skee and Nu Jersey Devil being lauded by The Game between every track, or Whoo Kid riding for G-Unit through all their trials and triumphs, or even Clue backing Fab and getting the exclusives, DJs were the medium as much as the internet in revealing to us the raw, uncut side of artists that rectified them among the best.

I don’t wanna be the Mixtape King no more! More like the Mixtape President…Barack O’Drama!”

Enter DJ Drama and his record scratching hand in creating the biggest artist of the past decade. After getting on with T.I. as his DJ and host of the first P$C mixtapes, Drama caught the reemerging Lil Wayne as he entered the Main Sequence. It’s funny to hear people babbling about how much Lil Wayne sucks, knowing damn they well they wouldn’t speak such mularkey had they heard mixtape Wayne (“ I might give this to the mixtape Weezy”). How they think he blew up so big?

“The first time I realized I was the best rapper alive…”

And this is the biggest inspiration of this article. Spending his childhood in the studio pumping, frankly, unimpressive bars, while maintaining his status as a product of New Orleans slummy wards, the late adolescent grew progressively better. By the time SQ5 tape was released, Wayne was showing signs of greatness (see “Murder Murder, Steel Steel” or “Never Split”). Following The Carter, Wayne was reborn, baptized in the spit of Jay Z, Biggie, and Tupac, backed by Mannie Fresh’s A1 production. But still, Wayne was not being recognized as “that nigga”. Though the album did well to make him popular again.

On the heels of The Carter’s success, Wayne did what any legend would and got right back to work. Khaled, not yet nationally recognized at the time, built with Wayne and dropped “The Suffix”. It was arguably better than the 2004 LP and from there Wayne took off.

Next up was the Drama-Tunechi work of art in “The Dedication”. But not before the “The Carter 2” dropped and set the motherfucking world on fire! While Wayne spit some of the best bars of his life on the album, making it classic and sustaining his mainstay-ability for the radio, his release the next week of the “Dedication 2” was our introduction to well-versed content -including mentions of Steffi Graf and Harry Potter- and the top-ranking wordplay that led to Ludacris and Nicki Minaj making a whole song full of word associations (see “My Chick Bad”). Wayne was feeling himself, labeling the intro track “The Best in the Business”, with Drama asserting that he’d “put on a few pounds” since their first release. Tunechi couldn’t be seen, calling himself “the God” with a “swagger” that had us all using the word once he implemented the term in his unfuckwitable bars.

From there it was the “I Can’t Feel My Face” collabs with Juelz -the “Blow” mixtape, the “I Feel Like Dying” type cuts, “Back on my Grizzy” – still quoted by Wayniacs, and more so the overall ability to obliterate any beat that any rapper (Jay Z or Nas included) were given the utmost praise for getting off on. The skill placed Wayne on an pedestal responsible for his seemingly deathless influence on the rap game. The floodgates were pretty much open from here.

Back Like Cooked Crack installations had the streets on smash. And Dipset even more so than Wayne became the people’s choice, mostly on the power of mixtapes. No one really checked for their albums, which is why none of the Diplomats went platinum once they got on, while their total download tally is approaching 2 mil just on DatPiff alone (the site was in its nascent stages when the group was at their peak). Juelz, Jim Jones, and Cam’ron owe their contemporary successes, though menial compared to Wayne’s, to this run of street music.

All the while, Lil Wayne continued his onslaught with his third episodes of his Drought and Dedication tapes.

Other legends were still in the making during this time though, who have continued to be an impending force in the rap game. In 2008, Skee got behind the first beacon of hope from the West since Game’s ability to stay in beef sent him to the wayside. Nipsey rehashed the practice of pushing mixtapes out of the tape with a street team that pushed his debut “Bullets Ain’t Got No Name Vol.1”. Rap fans reacted accordingly and three months later when he released the follow-up, another mixtape the second volume boosted Nip into the rap world which allowed the Slauson boy to sell merch and hunnid dollar albums to fans on the other side of the world seven years after his initial drop. Faster than an artist could drop a label release with a single radio promo and all, Nip had tracks with The Game, Lloyd and some Kanye production.

“Rich off a mixtape, got rich off a mixtape…”

What happened next, pushed the mixtape game SO FAR  to the forefront that any influence a rapper could harbor from a free tap was GONE. When the man we came to know as the Sultan of Soft first arrived, a phenomenon surged through the country. Ransom, Ransom, Ransom! The hit comprised life for months upon its release. Wayne willed the game to Drake on the track with college girls and block boys both yielding to the rapper (he had the hipsters getting along with the hood niggas), doing so until the manger bore the Grammy-nominated, seminal, revolutionary, (Enter whatever the fuck you want here!) “So Far Gone” dropped like a baby out the hip-hop Stork’s beak. His affirmation was instant.

It’s hard to relegate the work of art to just a mixtape considering just how much it meant for rap and music overall, but that’s what it was some free music that sent waves to send the USGS into a frenzy. Its quintillion DatPiff downloads don’t even tell the story of the what the tape lead to; more reproach from the rap community than anyone (but maybe Eminem) ever had to deal with, three platinum albums -with one more on its way, broken records (Spotify and Billboard), plus breaking The Weeknd, PND, and Makonnen, all while being  the resurrection of Aaliyah.

Give the guy a fucking hand! On the power of a fucking mixtape? C’mon man!  

Little more than a year later, this era and decade would come to an official end but was capped well by none other than J. Cole’s coming out party. “Friday Night Lights” showed an artist who was ready to tell the stories at the caliber of rappers who’d been in the game for years. His narratives created a credibility that built a loyal fanbase that saw him through to making his most introspective, polished album in 2014 Forest Hills Drive. Having the breakout project be mostly self-produced added to his allure. Some will argue that FNL is better that SFG but it hasn’t had the impact on the game that Drake’s project can boast.

Since then though, hot mixtapes such as “T.RU Realigion” have been released but halfway through this decade, the mixtape institution cannot begin to compare to the movement in the first tenth of this century. We cannot safely say that anything dropped since FNL has created a legacy like the many born in the decade preceding. This could be due to the rise of YouTube and more parsing of artists releases but whatever the case, the free projects, DJs screaming to the point of major annoyance, daily visits to HipHopGame.com and DatPiff will never again reach the level seen during this gilded era. So to Daquan and all the other niggas tryna get on via mixtapes, the window’s closed, new devices are necessary.