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An Evolving Mix

Cleveland's own Live Mixtapes is on the forefront as distinction between mixtapes and albums disappear in digital world

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In September, Lil Wayne released his fourth mixtape, Dedication 4, via Live Mixtapes, a Cleveland-based online media company that is at the forefront of the hip-hop mixtape revolution.

Dedication 4 generated 1.8 million pageviews and 400,000 downloads in a single day. It took nearly a month for LMT competitor DatPiff to generate that kind of traffic for Wayne's 2011 Sorry 4 the Wait. (It's as much a testament to how the scene's grown as to LMT's dominance.)

LiveMixTapes.com is run by Dan Ivans Jr., his brother Thomas, and recent additions Fingaz, Pesh, and the Kickdrums' Matt Penttila (aka Tilla). They offer exclusive content and mixes from hip-hop's biggest acts like Rick Ross, Wiz Khalifa and Young Jeezy, to white-hot upstarts like Trinidad James and Future.

They boast over 162,000 Facebook "Likes" and 300,000+ Twitter followers, more than either Gawker or Spin. But where they really shine is in traffic. They're probably Cleveland's biggest site, outdrawing Cleveland.com. Quantcast ranks them among America's Top 800 sites, producing nearly as many monthly visitors as Hotwire, Kayak, Elyrics and House.gov. To put that in perspective, their nearest competitor, Datpiff.com just cracks the top 15000.

LiveMixTapes' emergence has had an even more dramatic influence on hip-hop than Pitchfork has on indie rock. For one, they're not a blog, but actually distribute music almost like a label (except they intentionally give it away for free). Even more than that, they're part of a long tradition. They may offer MP3s rather than crudely recorded cassettes and burned CDs, but the street level underground vibe remains -- or has up until recently.

For a long time the mixtape was integral to a hip-hop artist's development. After guesting verses on a couple tracks, a burgeoning rapper might release a mixtape to build the buzz between albums or while continuing to search for a record deal. The internet has flipped that script and opened up the game, speeding its pace. Now a mixtape's enough.

"Kendrick Lamar's a good example," says Slug, emcee for Minneapolis hip-hop act Atmosphere. "Before he even had an album out, he was regarded as a top ten rapper. Same with J Electronica. He doesn't even have an album out and there are people who would put him in the top ten dead or alive. I'm not disagreeing – both those guys are amazing rappers. But it's amazing to me you could put Jay Electronica's name next to Nas' name when he hasn't released an actual album at this point."

The term "mixtape" is something of an anachronism stretching back to the early days of hip-hop when DJs like Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc and DJ Hollywood would hawk mixes from their shows. It grew into a phenomenon offering a cut-rate way to stay out there and showcase your skills. They flout copyright laws, rapping over all manner of backing tracks.

"The mixtape is like a legal loophole. You could use anything you want and not have to get permission, and put it out there. You could rap over the Beatles," says Columbus rapper Copywrite. "There was a period in time where I was in-between labels and I was putting out mixtapes. Had I not, I probably would've lost every fan I'd accumulated."

Sold out of your trunk at gigs, it was a nice under-the-table hustle. The underground mixtape scene in Houston was big enough to launch the careers of artists like Chamillionaire, Lil' Flip, and Paul Wall in the late nineties and early aughts, before major labels or mainstream radio ever took an interest. For a long time, mixtapes were an underground thing, appreciated by the real heads.

"This is where rappers hone their craft. This is their laboratory," says Florida rapper Astronautalis. "The album gets you the car and the mixtape gets you the street cred."

Mixtapes Migrate

By the mid-aughts, labels had realized the great marketing potential of courting these tastemakers, led in part by 50 Cent's success with the form. Labels started to take advantage of the mixtape's marketing potential despite its questionable legal status (and the rank hypocrisy of trying to profit from what you claim is destroying you).

Labels made attempts to clear tracks and officially release mixtapes, but clearing samples is a time-consuming, expensive business. Instead, labels funded them with a nod and a wink. The scene has gotten hot, the mixtape's from marketing tool to necessity, if you're to stay relevant.

In a way, mixtapes were a throwback to the earliest days of hip-hop when it was an outlaw business, using samples freely. When lawyers got involved all that changed, and the same thing ultimately happened with mixtapes.

In 2007, the RIAA, in concert with Atlanta police, raided DJ Drama, one of the biggest mixtape impresarios in rap. His masterful mixes under the Gangsta Grillz moniker helped launch the careers of Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne as Southern rap surged into the mainstream. The cops seized CDs, recording gear, vehicles. While few matched DJ Drama's scale, the move cast a pall over the sale of mixtapes. They're still sold in small shops and bought by collectors or hardcore fans. But for the most part, mixtapes are now available for free online as MP3s, though the name remains like a nod to tradition.

Where once you had to go to a shop and pan for recorded gold, now it's available at your fingertips. It's certainly changed the nature of the hustle, but not without its rewards. Riding the success of his single, "Bandz A Make Her Dance," featuring Lil Wayne and 2 Chainz (with 7 mixtapes before this year's Grammy-nominated debut), Juicy J released the drug-addled Blue Dream & Lean mix. It not only served to promote his tour and ride the single's success, but build steam for next year's full album release, Stay Trippy.

The internet allows unfathomable speed and momentum, but it comes with a cost. "You have to work harder," Juicy J says. "Back then you could sell your CDs out of the trunk, in consignment shops and music stores and actually turn around and sell records. Now everything is free and some people don't get a chance to sell any records. They might have a buzz, but they don't sell no records."

"I believe in putting out mixtapes, but I don't believe in putting out TOO many of them," he adds. "At the end of the day you have to make some money with it. You can't always give it away for free."

Give It Away Give It Away Give It Away Now

Moving online has taken this once underground culture and made it even more accessible, providing easy entrée into the mainstream.

LMT, as they like to abbreviate themselves, is poised to take advantage, but the mixtape's increasing importance and success has put them in a precarious position. While they don't take money for any of their placements on the site, they do sell ads from the traffic they generate. That's why LiveMixTape's PR/Artist Development person, Alpesh Shah (aka DJ Pesh), invokes MegaUpload's Kim Dotcom and DJ Drama when discussing their relatively low profile.

"We're walking a fine line and we don't want to jeopardize our business," the first-generation Indian-American DJ explains. "Let's be honest – they look at us as the enemy. We're the bad guy. The labels hate us but then they love us when they're signing an artist. They hate us, but then they love us when we put out their free project. It's really a great relationship. I tell label execs all the time, we're the minors and they're the major leagues."

The site's the brainchild of Dan Ivans, Jr. a computer wiz who got his start running internet hosting networks while still a teen. Dan and his brother Thomas, the company's Vice President, are graduates of Chardon High School. When Dan moved to San Francisco, he sought to stay in touch with the work of former classmate/buddy DJ Joey Fingaz. Snail mail wasn't cutting it, so he built a software back-end for him to upload the mixtapes and eliminate the wait. That was in 2006.

Then in 2010, LiveMixTapes went from streaming to allowing downloads. Things have grown dramatically from there. To deal with the accelerating demands on his time, Dan brought his friends into the business early last year. He hired Fingaz, Pesh, and the Kickdrums' Matt Penttila (aka Tilla), who had all known each other from the DJ scene around Cleveland since the millennium. They were brought in to handle various aspects of the business, from promotion to dealing with artists and labels, to premiering new channels dedicated to club music (clubtapes.com) and merchandising (the still to come, livemerch.com).

Over the last couple years they've hosted releases by some of hip-hop's biggest breaking acts from 2 Chainz to Waka Flocka Flame. Pesh is quick to deflect their success, explaining that they're just a platform. "We'll bring it more visibility, and we'll get the credit, but those are the guys working," he says.

While that's true, LiveMixTapes has burnished their reputation and separated themselves from their competitors because it's curated. Nobody gets onto the site without the blessing of the staff. A limited number of DJs have upload privileges, making gatekeepers of those closest to the action.

"That's what a DJ's job is – to know what's hot in the street, and be the first one that builds those relationships," Pesh says.

Their exclusivity has given them tastemaker status. Get your mixtape on LMT and not only will you have access to a dedicated audience but to labels looking to cash in on the latest sensation. Read advice online for submitting your mixtape and you'll see comments like "if you can get your tape on LiveMixTapes there's a good chance you'll get signed." It's not hyperbole. That's how the business has gone.

Mind on My Money

Mixtapes have always been a bellwether of hip-hop's changing fashions. Now thanks to the internet, that's multiplied. The success of mixtape producers like DJ Drama and Lex Luger has bred copycats by the thousands, accelerating the stylistic churn and the competition to stay fresh. While it's obviously produced some amazing sensations, it's an open question whether they'll sustain it as well as Fiddy or Ross.

"The mixtape has kind of replaced what I'd call artist development. Artists are developing themselves in front of an audience, instead of in a woodshed," says Slug. "It's good for the artist if they can use it to build their fan base... but if it doesn't reach that point some of these artists are going to go back and see how the mixtape ruined their careers."

This is where mixtapes are a double-edged sword: They make it easier to command attention, but harder to monetize it. This has only accentuated the underground/mainstream dichotomy versus albums.

"Rap is pop music now, and there's this sort of understanding with rappers nowadays that you rap on your mixtapes and sell records with your albums, like the Jay-Z line 'I shoulda gave it to the mixtape Weezy,'" says Astronautalis, paraphrasing "D.O.A. (Death of Auto-Tune)." "Lil Wayne doesn't do shit on his albums. His albums are pop for teenagers. It's on the mixtape that he crushes verses. A lot of the mixtapes they don't have choruses. It's just him doing crazy long verses over a beat."

"I don't mean to sound gender-biased but it's almost like albums are for girls and mixtapes are for guys," he continues. "Obviously that's a sweeping generalization, but there's something to be said that you make these hits with these choruses with whatever R&B sensation of the month, it plays in the club and girls dance to it. But it's rare that a mixtape track is getting played in the club. Those are the things you and your boys smoke hella blunts and cruise to."

Onward and Upward

Credibility's thin gruel to feed a family, but as more talented artists like Kendrick Lamar, Jay Electronica and Danny Brown emerge based only on their mixtapes, it's hard not to see the value, particularly at time when major labels are so risk-aversive. Obviously that's part of the mixtape's appeal – it's a natural proving ground.

As mixtapes have become a door to mainstream success, they've also pulled the music toward more club-friendly sounds. Whether this is responsible for Southern Rap's success or the vice-versa, it's a staple in bars and clubs, and much of the music on LiveMixTapes reflects this.

"Now you have the Caucasian Americans singing it at the top of their lungs and that's what fuels the industry. That's what fueled the industry when Eminem," says Pesh. "Everyone loves hip-hop. It's the new age rock. So in the '60s when everyone was jamming out to it, now they're jamming out to hip-hop music."

Astronautalis agrees. "All these old rap dudes are like rap music isn't what it used to be. In fact rap music is exactly what it used to be – it's party music. That's where rap music started. It's about style, it's about dancing and fun. Rap music is what it's always been, it's just that white people are into it now and my mom knows the term bling-bling."

Because LiveMixTapes developed out of the Ivans' and their compatriot's tastes, they actually have a brand of sorts. Indeed, Dan has been a fan of 2 Chainz since the days when he was known as Tity Boi. This has accentuated their hold on Southern markets like Atlanta, where they draw the highest traffic.

It's fortuitous because Southern rap is so hot, but they've been diversifying and building DJ contacts on the coasts and in the Midwest. While PA-based competitors like DatPiff may hold sway on the East Coast, they've still scored exclusive placements from New York artists like Joey Bada$$.

"It's happening, but it's a slow process," Pesh says. "We're not going to just put out a lot of West Coast artists to get more West Coast presence."

LMT isn't pinning their hopes on just dominating the mixtapes game. In December they premiered TrillHD, a video site which gets its title from Southern rap slang meaning "true and real." The concept is the same as LiveMixTapes: provide an outlet for artist videos, with the potential for more. "We're focusing on music because that's our in," he says. "But visually it could be anything, a documentary or an indie film."

They're also working on building traffic for their dance and electronic music site, clubmixtapes.com, working with artist such as Gladiator, Heroes and Villains and trap-step (trap rap & dubstep, naturally) trailblazers Watch the Duck. (It's probably not a bad idea to diversify into a genre with less illicit sampling.)

Indeed, one wonders if and when the RIAA will take its bite out of mixtapes. The music industry's never demonstrated much long-term vision. If so, you can bet that mixtapes will evolve again, though the idea will remain because it's fundamental. When you strip away the fashion and the critical plaudits, it's all about finding a way to reach people with your music without a label's support.

Mixtapes provide an avenue labels aren't always willing (or able) to provide. Like sampling, it's an adaptation, and at its base, a hustle.

"That's the beauty of rap culture," says Astronautalis. "It's all a hustle. It's all about rehashing, recycling, reinventing, taking what's old and making it cool again."

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