The Mixtape: The End Of An Era?

The Mixtape: The End Of An Era?

For the last month two ‘non-albums’ have struck me as marking two eras in Hip-Hop: the Freddie Gibbs Str8 Killa EP on one hand, and the There Is No Competition: 2: The Grieving Music Mixtape 2 from Fabolous.

Conceptually it is difficult to find a DJ involved with more diverse, imaginative and creative concept-oriented ‘non-albums’ than DJ Drama. His collaboration with Wyclef – “Touissant St. John (From The Hut, To The Mansion, To The Projects)” and the Dead Prez, “Revolutionary But Gangsta Grillz” are two great examples.

So when I learned of his mixtape collaboration with Fabolous I was excited, because of what I thought it might represent for Fabolous’ career. And while this mixtape is good as far as they go, it does not reach the level of creativity and risk-taking I had hoped for. The Fab-Drama project takes on the aura and concept of a funeral and starts off with a eulogy skit – humorously remembering the competition that Fabolous has ‘eliminated,’ (aka the ‘fallen MC’) but I felt the theme actually better represented the end of an era – the NYC style of mixtape, in particular.

Fabolous’ talent is in the all-time great category. His flow might be Top 15 dead or alive (has anyone ever sounded better than Fabolous on Mary J. Blige’s remix for ‘Family Affair?’ for example – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qZJkoVIqIbA&feature=related or on ‘Breathe’). He’s that good or should I say, that nice.

Anyone needing a reminder only needs to listen to the track that starts the mixtape off – ‘The Wake’ (http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=A0_rrsm_998). How Fabolous ‘re-works’ the imagery of let’s say a World War II-related subject (I’m being politically correct for once), through metaphors is ridiculous (yes, he is even better than Jay-Z when it comes to double-meaning).

All you can say is – ‘Damn, this dude is in a league of his own…in terms of lyrical flow

And that’s part of the problem – the lyrical qualities that shine on cameos and mixtapes (where the formula of up mid or uptempo, bouncing beats – always on the one – in between shout outs and promos) rewards the witty MC who can perform lyrical gymnastics and craft witty metaphors but downplays other qualities that make for great song arrangements or concept albums.

In that sense as much as the mixtape has done economically in serving as a marketing tool empowering artists, and enriching entrepreneurs – at a time when the music industry establishment was unwilling to supply demand and did not know what to do with certain kinds of talent – it also has put a ceiling on the creativity and commercial success of artists, particularly those in the Northeast United States who have been virtually required to satisfy this segment of the Hip-Hop audience before they can be seen as ‘credible.’

In a recent AllHipHop.com editorial ‘What House and Dance Music Can Bring To Rap’ I make the point of how this impacted the career of another all-time great talent, Joe Budden – who similarly has found a great album elusive, when he clearly has the potential to make classics.

Years ago, Joe Budden and I discussed the transition from song-writing to ripping mixtapes:

Cedric Muhammad: Certainly. Well, listen, there was this interesting line I saw in this interview you gave to The Source magazine, where you made a distinction between freestyling and making a song. And, looking at your evolution, I thought it would be interesting to hear you explain the transition from freestyling and making a song. Was it difficult? What were some of the things you had to learn quickly?

Joe Budden: You know, I had to adjust to making a freestyle. That’s what I had to adjust to. Because I am a songwriter…

Cedric Muhammad: So you went backwards with it?

Joe Budden: Yeah, I had to go backwards. I have always written. I started out writing in school – homework – and I was good at that. Then that went to having a daily journal. Then that went to having to write in therapy; then that went to poetry; and that went to spoken word; then that went to battle raps; and that went to songs. I always skipped the freestyles. I wasn’t too knowledgeable about the mixtape game and about how big freestyles were until I started getting on them. So I had to learn what the f— to say. I was real good about talking about me and spreading my own feelings and being real introspective on a song but I had to learn how to get people’s attention. So, I realized that I had always been real good at metaphors and punch lines from back in my battle rap days. So I tried to do that and the people definitely liked it. So I stayed in that but I didn’t want to get caught in the “Canibus syndrome” whereas, as you know, a few years ago, Canibus killed every mixtape but when he put the album out people found out he can’t make a song – which was the truth. So, I threw out songs early on when I thought the people were listening, from the popularity of the freestyles.

Cedric Muhammad: So, in essence, where are you right now? Do you think that you are back in your element with making songs for your album?

Yeah, definitely back in my element. But I mean don’t get me wrong. I love doing the freestyles. I love it because it just gives me the chance to just run off at the mouth about whatever I want but with the songs I can get real personal, so while making an album, I definitely feel back in my element.

****Joe Budden and I had this conversation in 2003.

It is difficult to say that he ever really came back to his original element of making songs versus freestyling for the mixtape crowd. That’s how great the pressure to satisfy the mixtape crowd grew to become.

To this day, I say that Fabolous and Joe Budden are still only 1 concept album produced by a single production team – with Quincy Jones-like arranger skills -away from having the classic of which they are capable.

Of late you hear more and more artists putting out non-albums that they are calling “EPs” rather than ‘mixtapes.’ I think it is a smart move and I see it as a sign that we are returning to the days of great song and album making.

The greatest EP in the history of rap is N.W.A.’s ‘100 Miles and Running’ and I was reminded of it when I listened to Freddie Gibbs’ EP ‘Str8 Killa.’ Unlike most mixtapes this ‘non-album’ has discipline. It revolves around making hot tracks that fit into a larger theme. The arrangements avoid the mixtape’s tendency toward boom-bap-bounce beats, basic harmonies, and the need to be the smartest person in the room with clever punchlines.

Str8 Killa is different and stands out – melodic introspective gangster music, with social commentary. If you’ve been wandering in the wilderness for ‘reality rap,’ your inner Bone Thugz meets Ice Cube meets Scarface will be pleased with this one. Perhaps a rapper from Gary, Indiana to represent every hood is just what we need right now – check his track ‘National Anthem.’

We’re now in the era of the EP.

I don’t say that the mixtape is dead. That’s not my point. The mixtape (and the DJs who produce them) existed long before the rap record label, and it will continue to live on.

What I am suggesting is that the mixtape – as a vehicle to position and develop the career of Hip-Hop artists – has reached the point of diminishing returns.

If someone wants to know the moment when I realized this phenomenon was operating on borrowed time it would be 2004 when the Mom and Pop record stores who were surviving on mixtape sales (because record labels were providing Best Buy and Wal-Mart with music at wholesale prices they could not compete with) were raided by local police departments and the FBI and no major mixtape DJ or (record label which profited from the mixtape) did a thing to help store owners who were going to jail, having to pay fines, and receiving ‘cease and desist’ orders. This tragedy exposed that in fact the mixtape game that previously had been organic and from the streets was now non-threatening and ‘industry.’ This sad episode exposed that a revolution that could have been the basis of an entire independent distribution system had been absorbed by corporate America and was only a marketing tool and personal hustle for an elite group of ‘taste-makers.’

Funny how DJs who mocked and threatened others for not being connected to the streets did nothing to protect the commerce of the people on the streets.

The end of the Mom and Pop record store and the pitiful role the silence of rap artists and mixtape DJs played in it, is not one of the culture or industry’s greatest moments.

It found both the ‘street’ and the ‘political’ cats missing in action and was just another example of the lessons in the science of business that Black and Latino (both original people) communities need to learn.

Any artist whining today about their declining record sales needs to look themselves in the mirror and ask themselves the question – ‘What was I doing last decade when the government was shutting down the lifeline that mixtapes provided for Mom and Pop record stores, the institution that represented as much as 30% of all rap music sales?’

Again this may not be a popular subject but I was on the frontlines, dealing with this issue on the streets, in record stores, and even in Congress – virtually all of the major street DJs, artists, and independent or smaller record labels (out of fear of losing ‘industry’ relationships) who all benefited from the sale of mixtapes, remained silent, allowing these stores to go out of business.

I write more about the politics and business model of this in Volume II of my book, ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret.’

So, inspired by DJ Drama and Fabolous I now write not a 4-point eulogy but remembrance of the best part of the legacy of the mixtape – an institution and tradition whose best days are now behind it.

Here, goes (read this to Church-style organ music if you like):

1) The mixtape, which the major national retail stores did not sell for years, (eventually though, even they got in on the act) gave the smaller community based stores a lifeline and even a comparative advantage over their larger competitors. Say Amen.

2) The mixtape phenomenon exposed that many music consumers were not satisfied with the music industry’s traditional album release schedule and format – where a customer has to wait long periods of time to purchase 10 to15 songs from a single artist, with a good chance that they may not like more than three of these songs. Say Amen.

3) The mixtape allowed a consumer to get quality and variety all in one, and the best new music first. This is also a major factor in what made downloading music from the Internet attractive. The consumer could become the producer – selecting the song titles they wanted, compiling them on one ‘album,’ if they liked; when they liked; and as soon as the music was released, anywhere in the world. Say Amen.

4) The rap mixtape – for nearly 15 years -was THE cost-effective way for an artist to build a following and get the attention of others who would be willing to pay for their creativity. Say Amen.

The mixtape has done its job well, and now, its on to the next.

It’s time for some classic EPs and full-length albums again.

Let’s get it!

Cedric Muhammad is a business consultant, political strategist, and monetary economist. He’s a former GM of Wu-Tang Management and currently a Member of the African Union’s First Congress of African Economists. Cedric’s the Founder of the economic information service Africa PreBrief (http://africaprebrief.com/) and author of ‘The Entrepreneurial Secret’ (http://theEsecret.com/) . His Facebook Fan page is: http://www.facebook.com/pages/Cedric-Muhammad/57826974560?ref=ts and he can be contacted via e-mail at: cedric(at)cmcap.com.

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