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."
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."