Hip Hop Mixtapes: Reclaiming Control over a Dying Artform by Ethan Seabury-Kolod
Hip Hop is alive and it has taken to the streets. Corporate capitalism attempted to partner with Hip Hop, but it became a parasite, sucking Hip Hopn dry of life and creativity. It had become a corrupting force, which could transform the most promising of artists into corporate spokesmen. Mediating the production of Hip Hop, the industry would separate the music from the artist and the artist from the fans. Mixtapes are a phenomenon born of the hungry community, which starves for authenticity and affinity between artists and fans. They attempt to open these doors of communication and create an unmediated expressive medium.
Hip Hop mixtapes inherently oppose a dominant mainstream commercial culture, which attempts to co-opt and control the financial and artistic aspects of Hip Hop. In the mixtape world, rappers no longer compete for success within a realm established by corporate values and marketing schemes; they compete for the respect and love of Hip Hop’s driving core, the fans. Through direct discourse between poets and the community, mixtape artists such as Lil’ Wayne, Talib Kweli, and Lupe Fiasco create authentic, expressive lyrics, which speak directly to the soul of Hip Hop, resistance.
Mixtapes are “distributed and publicized by the artists themselves,” (Sanneh) available for free download on the internet or for purchase at online or community music retailers. Most mixtapes are made available by websites such as Datpiff.com and Mixtapetorrent.com, where users can download them for free promotional use. These networking strategies evolved from their traditional origins, unofficial peddling on the streets. DJ Drama recounts, “I used to go to Kinko's and get the covers made. In between classes, I would set up shop on an upturned trashcan” (Crosely). This system undermines corporate financial controls, which allocate record sales profits away from the artists, themselves. They also resist the overpricing of Hip Hop albums, which make them largely unattainable for many fans. Mixtapes are generally cheaper, making them more accessible to the communities that they develop from.
Mixtapes are used as “promotional tools for artists and record labels trying to build a buzz” (Jones). They are a direct presentation of the artists’ skills, charisma, and heart, as fans evaluate their favorite lyricists in these distributed samples. In a mixtape, the artist presents himself or herself as a saleable commodity, based on lyrical abilities and their capacity to win respect over the audience. Since the rapper usually uses stock musical productions from other artists, they operate as a standalone entertainer. The focus shifts from the production of the music, which on a commercial album potentially involves the input of many other people, to the artist themselves and their rapping or poetic abilities. The artist must work hard to prove themselves to their audience, through their use of clever wordplay, style and personality, and their ability to communicate with the audience and connect on issues that matter to the community. Whereas in the sphere of commercially produced music, singles are the commodity being sold and evaluated; in the mixtape business, the commodity for sale is the artist, themselves, while each new publication either augments or diminishes their value.
In the song, “Mean & Vicious” from the mixtape, Fahrenheit 1/15 Part II: Revenge Of The Nerds, Lupe Fiasco flaunts his lyrical ability, while simultaneously reflecting on it.
“How that flame keep reaching us?
Just one of the long-winded, extended metaphors of Lu’s
This time I use the example of a fuse to demonstrate how I
can’t lose” (Jaco).
In an interactive discussion with his listeners, Lupe addresses the qualms of disbelievers, who ask, “How that flame keep reaching us?” He explains the reasons that his style is able to capture the ears of listeners, even from the limited reach of the underground. Promoting himself has a wordsmith, he describes his common use of “long-winded, extended metaphors,” which set him apart from other rappers. By referencing his own name, “Lu” (short for Lupe), he brands his style as a unique commodity, specific to his work. He “demonstrate[s] how [he] can’t lose,” showing other rappers and listeners that he is a prime competitor, and that like a “fuse,” he can’t be broken. Lupe asserts and demonstrates his qualifications as a lyrical rapper, by flaunting his individual style, wit, and creativity.
Similar explicit presentations of lyrical ability can be found on Lupe’s other mixtape tracks, but this style of showing off is not frequently found in Lupe’s commercial work. There is a distinct shift in style, between the mediums. In his fully produced albums, Lupe focuses more on a complete storytelling style and a roundness of interest, at the expense of full indulgence on specific ideas.
“My man got a lil older became a better roller (yea)
No helmet, hellbent on killin' himself, was what his momma said
But he was feelin' himself
Got a lil more swagger in his style
Met his girlfriend, she was clappin' in the crowd
Love is what was happening to him now, uh” (Jaco).
Lupe’s constant use of a third person, storytelling style, separates his lyrics from directly representing himself. Even when he is talking about himself, he frequently uses the third person, “he.” Storytelling is functioning as a mediating body between Lupe and his poetry. He communicates his own ideas through the use of storytelling imagery, but in the case of a mixtape, he breaks down that structure to speak to his audience directly.
In “Its Like That” from The Beautiful Mixtape, Talib Kweli compares himself with other rappers, referring to them in the second person.
“Picture the ocean with the panoramic view
My flow the iceburg that the titanic ran into
Oo I rock like suicide victims that wear flannel
While your rhymes sound like they were written by Clearchannel” (Greene).
Painting a graphic image of his contrasting style, Kweli attempts to separate himself from insincere bandwagoners. The images he creates to represent his opponents are calm and agreeable, while his images are harsh and startling. One would expect the negativity to be directed towards the opponents he addresses, but instead he wishes to highlight the richness of his contrariness. Where other rappers present “the ocean with the panoramic view” and give audiences a pleasant background, Talib Kweli presents “the iceburg that the titanic ran into,” a drastically different style that is potent and powerful enough to wreck anything that touches it. He then says, “I rock like suicide victims that wear flannel,” comparing that style to grunge rockers of the nineties, who were keen on nonconformity and compares that with “your rhymes sound like they were written by Clearchannel,” which suggests that the subject is such a conformist, they sound like they are being controlled by a corporation. Talib Kweli presents himself as a stark, contrastingly original artist in a sea of imitators and conformists, selling himself as an innovator and a rebel.
In Kweli’s commercial work, his references to his own style are subtle. He still uses a battle style from time to time, where he will brag that his style is better than others, but not with the same raw, urgency of the mixtape lyrics.
“I believe, no scratch that I know, this ain’t my full potential
Only usin 10 percent of my mental on instrumentals
But incidentally my, energy heavenly
Can he be so ill there ain’t no, pill or no remedy” (Greene).
In this selection from “Everything Man,” from the album Eardrum, assertions of personal style and ability are softened by an indirect tone. Kweli poetically crafts an explanation of his style, but it is discussed through themes of “potential” and “energy,” which aren’t as direct as when he specifically refers to his “flow” in the other lines.
On a mixtape, the artist becomes more personable with the audience. With less of a focus on production value, the artist can open up and share their uninhibited thoughts, without pressure of fitting every statement into a tightly organized and planned structure, usually required in the production of commercial material. They are able to present their struggle, experiences, and feelings, which feed into the craft. Mixtape consumers often evaluate these artists, based their authenticity and their perseverance through weathering conditions. Respect is granted to those who manifest themselves through hard work, perseverance against the odds, and their abilities to build themselves up from hungry blue-collar workers to superfluous prosperity.
Talib Kweli discusses his personal journey in “The Struggle Continues” from The Beautiful Mixtape 2. He describes his perseverance against the odds and asks for recognition and support from listeners.
“For the struggle to show, I let my scars key on your bubble
Keep it poppin on your choices of trouble
I’m all city the benjies all pretty, my pennies is all gritty
But if you believe I’m making change and progress then walk with me” (Greene).
Kweli explains that people wouldn’t normally expect that he had gone through a struggle, so he lets his “scars key on your bubble,” shattering a false image of effortlessness. “Keep it poppin on your choices of trouble” notes that he can still be appreciated alongside other artists, who talk extensively about a rough lifestyle. He says, “I’m all city the benjies all pretty,” representing his current lifestyle, which is glamorous and desirable, but he reflects on an earlier time saying, “my pennies is all gritty,” describing a rough and dirty lifestyle, when he was scraping for pennies. Kweli communicates with his listeners, asking, “if you believe I’m making change and progress then walk with me.” His goals are not solely economic, but also to have historical influence, so he says “making change,” referring to the difference between “benjies” and “pennies” as well as his ability to transform the world with his music. He begs the audience, “walk with me,” recruiting them as fans and followers, through their identification with his struggle.
In the title track from The Beautiful Struggle, Kweli presents a different perspective on the struggle. Instead of representing his own experiences from his own perspective, he presents the entire experience in second person.
“You go to church to find you some religion
And all you hear is connivin' and gossip and contradiction and
You try to vote and participate in the government
And the muh'fuckin' Democrats is actin' like Republicans” (Greene).
Kweli addresses the struggle from the perspective of a social critic, observing problems in the community, instead of a full confessional style, as demonstrated in his mixtapes.
Mixtape flows also deliver a more genuine message from the heart of the artist who represents his/her community and culture. Without censorship influencing the topics and content of artists’ lyrics, the words may be more representative of the feelings and ideas of the community they represent. Lyrics are allowed to be more defiant politically and socially as the rapper presents their individual, unmediated perspective.
“We see them Confederate flags, you know what it is
A white cracker muthafucka that probably voted for him
And no he ain't gonna drop no dollas, but he do drop bombs
R.I.P. Tay cuz he died in the storm, fuck president (Geeoorrggiiaa) Bush” (Carter).
Lil’ Wayne takes direct aim at President, George W. Bush as well as “white cracker muthafucka[s] that probably voted for him.” In a genuine, heartfelt, expression, Lil’ Wayne lashes out at the political system, which neglected to protect his community in New Orleans. This specific combination of language, tone of the lyrics, and subject matter would not commonly be seen in a commercially produced album. There is an element of raw energy, that could not easily be reproduced under the circumstances of a commercial release. Referencing a specific loved one, “R.I.P. Tay cuz he died in that storm,” adds to the authenticity of this expression. Lil’ Wayne is able to touch on these controversial topics, because of the lack of censorship, impacting those decisions.
Lil’ Wayne does not even come close to such a direct political attack in any of his commercial releases. His lyrics are more ambiguous and less directed at specific people. An example of Lil’ Wayne addressing social issues on a commercial album appears on the album The Carter II, with the song, “Shooter.”
“And to the radio stations, I'm tired o' being patient
Stop bein' rapper racists, region haters
Spectators, dictators, behind door dick takers
It's outrageous, you don't know how sick you make us” (Carter).
In this example, Wayne criticizes radio stations, but he does not go any further in name calling. He projects all of his frustrations on radio stations, which are a fairly common recipient of criticism from artists on the fringe of the mainstream. He brings up some interesting issues about regionality and discrimination in Hip Hop, when he says “Stop bein’ rapper racists, region haters,” but the recipient of this criticism is ambiguous.
This medium of mixtape distribution is conducive to active discourse between the artists’ work and the world around them. Whereas commercially produced albums can take years to release, a rap artist can release a mixtape in a matter of weeks. Since the turnaround time is much quicker between releases, artists can comment on current issues as they are happening around them.
“I run better like, Corey Dillon for the New England Pats
They like, no he didn't get that new Bentley black and white
Sure he did, no kiddin', know he kitted it
Know he told the dealer make sure there's no equivalent” (Carter).
Lil’ Wayne is constantly texturizing his lyrics with references to current events. In this section of “South Muzik” from Dedication 2, Lil’ Wayne shows the currency of his lyrics by referencing his connection with a constantly updating material culture of purchasing cars. He references the latest Bentley model, which is very current at the time of this recording, showing connection to the current timeframe.
There is a direct involvement of the Hip Hop community, as mixtape artists reference or comment on current themes in the Hip Hop world. Mixtape artists “signify” (in the manner described by Henry Louis Gates) on the music of other Hip Hop artists, by referencing songs, which carry cultural significance in the Hip Hop community. By using the music and referencing the chorus and/or other song lyrics of these chosen songs, the mixtape artist communicates within the field of Hip Hop and actively involves the community in this discourse. Artists may also use reference previous Hip Hop songs for the purpose of one-upping or parodying the other. “Signifying” becomes a major mode of constructing this reference as they rely on a body of common understanding for interpretation of the meaning behind their appropriations. A rapper will use the music and/or lyrics of the original song, transforming them to find new meaning, make fun, or to claim superiority over the pioneering artist. This process creates discourse within the Hip Hop community as rappers constantly critique, reference, and comment on each other’s material.
“Show me what you pop, lil daddy
I know you need to stop, stop hatin
I know what you not, wodie
And that is Weezy Baby
Blunts up now…Blaze” (Carter).
This chorus appears on Lil’ Wayne’s Da Drought 3 mixtape. It is his own reconfiguration of Jay-Z’s lyrics on the original recording of “Show Me What You Got” from his album Kingdom Come. Lil’ Wayne responded to the recent work of one of his main competitors and elders by reworking Jay-Z’s material into his own message. Through the appropriation of Jay-Z’s music and style, Wayne is able to parody and “one-up” Jay-Z. Jay-Z is caught talking about a rather simple and pointless subject, describing his escapades in picking up women.
“Show me what you got, lil mama
Show me what you got, pretty lady
Show me what you got, shorty
Show me what you got, baby
Hands up and.. waves, waves, waves, waves” (Carter).
Wayne flips this meaning to describe Jay-Z in the way that the women had been referred to, calling him “lil daddy.” Lil’ Wayne “signifies” on Jay-Z’s image as a womanizer, by treating him in the same way that Jay-Z treats women.
The open use of other artist’s songs, is a fundamental part of the mixtape phenomenon. This feeds into the creative capacities represented by mixtapes. Since there is no restriction on the usability of music, artists can piece together their message, using literally whatever music they choose. They can use these borrowed or “jacked” beats as inspiration or accompaniment for spontaneous ideas and uninhibited streams of consciousness, which wouldn’t be possible if the entire production was a part of the process as well. By using the music of others, rappers highlight their own stylistic adaptability and creativity over previously used material. They transform the used song and give it new life. Lil’ Wayne is a master of this concept, releasing responsive remakes of almost every important rap single that is released. He demonstrates this in the song, “Georgia Bush,” where he transforms a carefree song about local, state pride, into a political commentary on the president and the events following Hurrican Katrina. Where the original song seemed to suggest, “everything cool,” Lil’ Wayne insists that things are not acceptable. He completely flips the meaning of the poem on it’s head to create an ironic twist, adding to the creativity and “signified” meaning of his poem.
In the song, “Conflict Diamonds,” Lupe Fiasco takes the Kanye West song, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” to the next level. While the original song, references the social issue of diamond mining in Sierra Leone, it strays into another subject, discussing Kanye’s reactions and experiences with material success, as he moves up in the Hip Hop industry.
“People askin' me if I'm gon' give my chain back
That'll be the same day I give the game back
You know the next question dog ‘Yo, where Dame at?’
This track the Indian dance to bring our reign back” (West).
In Lupe’s appropriation of the music and the subject manner, he transforms the song’s intent towards a direct commentary on the violence and labor issues surrounding diamond mining in Africa.
“Allow me to break down the game,
behind the bracelets, earrings, chains, watches and rings.
the crystal incrusted, princess flooded, canary studded, blue coloured and blood stained.
Yeah the older brother of the drug game,
that give her a fame, then take away her lane.
the empowerer of the kings that came to claims and disease
believe wat the native people were saying” (Jaco).
He reminds the Hip Hop community, that the jewelry that they flaunt, stands for third world violence and corruption. Borrowing a theme, previously presented to mainstream commercial awareness, he uses this as a basis to spawn a whole separate level of thought and creativity. The appropriation of songs “signifys” on the context of the original recording as well as “teasing it” and giving it new meaning.
This ability to openly use musical excerpts from other artists has been questioned by the RIAA, but record companies appreciate and encourage the production of mixtapes. On January 16, 2006, “the coveted mixtape DJ of the year,” DJ Drama was arrested for bootlegging and racketeering (Crosely). After this arrest, the feds confiscated 81,000 mixtapes, equipment, cars, and froze all of Drama’s assets. They complained that DJ Drama had been withholding the printing of his address on the CDs, but since they weren’t being officially distributed, there was no need. He was selling his music directly to fans, without any middlemen. He didn’t condone their reproduction and distribution by bootleggers, so he had no part of their appearance in retail outlets.
Mixtapes are usually allowed to operate under these separate codes of music property appropriation, because of their overall strong promotional value for everyone involved. Since they are like unofficial samplers, they create hype for the commercial albums, plugged throughout the mixtapes. They serve as a competitive playing field, for rappers to promote themselves outside of the marketing plans, developed by record labels. They can earn extra support from the communities they reach out to, rather than being impersonally promoted through the traditional commercial market. “By the time a rapper's new music hits stores and airwaves, it's likely he has already brought heat to the streets with a mixtape” (Jones). Channeling energy through their own efforts, rappers reach listeners that they want to reach, by providing them with accessible exposure to their work.
Another way that mixtapes allow for uninhibited creativity is their disconnection with record label contracts. Rappers are not forced to collaborate with people from their own record label or through further agreements between record labels. Artists can collaborate with whoever they want, creating dialogue between varying factions in Hip Hop.
Although the commercial industry may benefit from the production and distribution of mixtapes, the mixtape cultural phenomenon takes control out of the hands of record label personnel and gives responsibilities of promotion and audience development to the artists, themselves. Even though rappers, signed to record labels, receive the benefits of that security, they still have to work hard to promote themselves and to sharpen their craft in order to compete in the ever updating and self-checking world of the Hip Hop game. They must constantly interact with the fans, which support and appreciate Hip Hop. They create a direct dialogue with Hip Hop supporters by speaking in a language and set of cultural codes, common to the community. Artists “signify” on the works of others, creating a discourse within the Hip Hop music industry. Mixtape lyrics speak directly to the community, without interception by the censoring powers of the recording industry. This thriving environment of discourse and interaction between the various components of the Hip Hop community, keeps music and creativity alive, as artists build off of one another and test their limits in creative expression.
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