LeBron James knows what he needs to beat the Orlando Magic -- and right now, only one person can help him find that extra edge: Mick Boogie, official DJ to the Cavaliers.
It's minutes before tipoff. James warms up at the Q, sinking jumpshots from the three-point line. In the crowd, his manager passes a request to the Cavs' director of game presentation, who sends word to Boogie's station in the middle of the crowd, where he's spinning hip-hop, funk, and pop-punk, pumping up the team as the crowd flows in.
Boogie shifts from his two-turntable setup to a laptop and serves up a track from one of the acclaimed mixtapes he released this month. With a king-sized beat, the stately rap anthem "Black Republican" fills the Q; Nas trades verses with Jay-Z, James' favorite rapper. Thirty feet above enemy territory, Boogie scratches, sliding a fader left and right like he's delivering an urgent Morse code message.
As Boogie wraps his set, the arena goes black. Twenty thousand fans rise. Flames spit from the overhead video display, accompanied by a concussive blast that rocks the cheap seats. Boogie's had a pretty good year.
If he wanted it, Mick Boogie could be on the way to his own arena-sized showcase. He isn't just a big name in Cleveland. His mixtapes have been hosted by stars including Eminem and Sean Paul, and he's made mixes with underground kingpins like Rick Ross and the Clipse. In recent months, MTV, Rolling Stone, Reebok, and Allhiphop.com (hip-hop's internet CNN) have embraced Boogie, confirming what hip-hop fans from Cleveland to Japan have known for years: He's a mixmaster at the top of his game.
When he's not making a major-label remix or spinning at clubs around the world, he flexes his skills on mixtapes -- those semi-sanctioned rap collections filled with obscurities, remixes, dream teamups, and one-of-a-kind blends. They've become a cornerstone of hip-hop, as controversial as they are essential to the business.
Boogie's rise from Ohio suburbs to international renown didn't come about just because he's a passionate and dexterous hip-hop fan. He has keen ears and an innate gift for marketing.
"Mick Boogie is one of the five-star generals of the streets," testifies Busta Rhymes, one of the dozens of big-name rappers who have hosted Boogie's mixes, recording spoken intros and segues from one track to the next. "As far as this mixtape shit is concerned, I don't think dudes can compete."
Rap mag Scratch ranked Boogie and Tape Masters Inc.'s Ghostface Killah comp The Broiled Salmon Mixtape as its top mix of '06. Between appearances on the MTV hip-hop showcase Sucker Free, Boogie was recognized as 2006's Best Midwest Mixtape DJ at Brooklyn's prestigious Justo's Mixtape Awards.
"Mick works with the best," says Eric Martinez, Justo's VP of brand awareness. "He gets the best exclusives, blends, and remixes that you won't hear on every mixtape around."
In December, after tracking Boogie's career for years, MTV named him its no. 2 mixtape DJ. Boogie ranked above Green Lantern, Jay-Z's concert DJ, who made his name working with Eminem. Eminem hosted Boogie's The Pre-Up, which Rolling Stone ranked as its no. 5 mixtape of the year. The unofficial, endorsed, independent release marked a new development in the high-stakes mixtape game.
Mixtapes have been vital to hip-hop since the culture's earliest days, when DJs and artists circulated homemade compilation tapes throughout their neighborhoods. And with cassettes headed the way of the eight-track, today's mixes are mix-CDs and mix-downloads. Hundreds of nationally circulated DJs release two or three mixes a month, and mixtapes far outnumber major-label releases. Far beyond the reach of SoundScan software, they're still sold on inner-city street corners and out of car trunks, and the internet has made their popularity even more incalculable. The gray-market street network has become entangled with the corporate infrastructure, and the relationship between the hustlers and the suits is extremely ambivalent.
On one hand, record companies actively participate in the production of mixes and rely on them as a vital grassroots promotional medium.
"The way that most new artists create their name and create their buzz is on the strength of mixtapes, whether it's having one of their records on a mixtape or to do a full-length mixtape with a DJ," explains one major-label mixtape liaison. Since a recent high-profile bust, labels have issued gag orders regarding mixes, especially to employees like him, whose job involves coordinating mixtape appearances.
"When we have an established artist coming back out, the way they let the streets know they're dropping a new album is to do a full-length mixtape with one of the hottest DJs," he says. "In the industry, a few DJs have that strong word of mouth, like a Kay Slay or a DJ Drama or Green Lantern or a Mick Boogie. Mick Boogie, I'd put him in the top five, definitely."
For a single session, a label rep might give a rapper scripts to record up to 100 "drops" -- shout-outs that range from a simple radio-station name-check to the more elaborate endorsements you hear between tracks on a mixtape, like "Hey, yo, this is Eminem. And I just found out that a DJ is stealing my fuckin' music from my basement at my house in my studio . . . His name is Mick Boogie, and he's calling it The Pre-Up CD to The Re-Up, but the real shit is coming out on December 5, so go get that shit."
The mixtape circuit is also an important proving ground for material. Releasing songs to mixtape DJs is cheap, effective market research; if a track goes viral and rises all the way to radio, it might sell at Best Buy.
On the other hand, mixtapes don't directly generate money for the major labels, despite the fact that executives seek out DJs and actively lobby them to include artists. By loaning their artists to mixtapes, labels have created a powerful group of independent tastemakers; some want more money, some want titles and power, and some want health benefits. And despite increasing overall revenues, album sales are down, and labels want every penny they can get.
So, sometimes, the left hand slaps the cuffs on the right and hits it with felony racketeering charges. In January, the Recording Industry Association of America -- the industry's lobbying organization, the friendly boosters best known for suing downloaders -- made a big move to crucify the biggest name in the game.
In its ongoing frenzy to keep the ailing music business operating under its current retail-reliant model, the RIAA directed police to the Atlanta recording studio of DJ Drama -- MTV's top mixtape DJ of the year, who secured a record deal on the strength of his Gangsta Grillz mixes, a series of street albums hosted by the artists they showcased, such as Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy.
Cops arrested Drama and his partner, detained 15 employees, and confiscated 81,000 CDs in the raid. Speaking to a local news crew, an RIAA agent described the unlicensed comps as "counterfeit CDs," either strategically or ignorantly using a term that refers to bootleg versions of official album releases.
Acting on behalf of the record industry, mixtape DJs risk incurring the wrath of the record industry. And DJs like Boogie -- a one-man operation who never has more than a small stack of any given mix handy -- are left in a tenuous position, suddenly glad they didn't have a better year.
While some DJs simply cobble together a comp full of singles, mixmasters like Boogie take a more creative -- and cautious -- approach to their business.
"Mixtapes are street radios," explains Boogie, who notes that he doesn't simply sit in his studio, rip tracks onto CD, stamp his name on them, and send them out to the marketplace. "Record companies ask me to do this. They're co-signed ['hosted'] by the artists. Nobody has ever had a problem with the mixes. Many artists have thanked me."
Boogie says he doesn't sell the mixes himself, though he declines to speculate how many copies other sellers might move via the websites and stores that distribute them worldwide. In the mixtape game, a disc isn't considered a success until people start bootlegging it.
"I give away most of my mixes," he says. "I offer them for download, and a lot of people get them. That's all I can tell you. The opportunities that come from mixtapes are part of my actual cash flow, not the sale."
If there is money in the game now, it's drying up -- especially since the Drama bust.
"Digital downloading is the future. Mixtapes will be for branding purposes only. The DJ builds a brand. That's what it's all about."
As 2006 wound down, Eminem needed to create some awareness. He hadn't released an all-new album for two years, and news of his upcoming mixtape, The Re-Up, had fans drooling. Word was that it would feature new cuts not just from Eminem, but also from multiplatinum cohorts 50 Cent and Obie Trice.
The disc was initially intended for release strictly on the mixtape circuit, but Eminem and 50 Cent combined have moved an estimated 90 million albums. As the holiday season approached, the buzz grew deafening, and fans clamored for some new product.
Smelling a hit, Eminem's Shady Records and its corporate parent, Interscope, decided to upgrade the mix to an official retail release. They'd hype it via traditional means, then give it a big push through a newer form of promotion: To make sure the buzz was sufficiently loud, the mixtape would be the first in history to get its own mixtape.
"Mick Boogie is one of the most consistent and creative mixtape DJs in the game," says Shady Records A&R representative Dart Parker. "So when he came to us with this concept of The Pre-Up, it felt like a party for everyone."
To make The Pre-Up, the DJ cross-referenced his encyclopedic mind, matching instrumental tracks with a cappella mixes from other artists' mega-singles. (Most singles include instrumental and vocals-only tracks; they're part of hip-hop's DNA.) He matched music tracks with freestyles he'd dug up on the internet over the years. Shady Records handed over a couple prime cuts from the upcoming release.
Eminem, producer the Alchemist, and other Shady affiliates recorded spoken intros for tracks, praising Boogie, hyping the new disc, and feigning indignation at Boogie's use of exclusive unreleased cuts. Boogie wove in new background tracks from the Cleveland production team the Kickdrums and added old verses from established rappers including Dr. Dre, Mobb Deep's Prodigy, and the late D-12 rhymer Proof.
Then it was time to mix; all the rhymes had been recorded, all the tracks produced. Creating the new cuts is just a matter of mixing sound files on a computer. The process is cheap. The skill is rare.
Boogie did some alchemy of his own in his office studio in his downtown Cleveland apartment. None of the 18 rappers and producers came to Cleveland for the 32 tracks. But this is where the collaborations happen. Most of the artists wouldn't recognize him, though more and more of them know his name. Radio may be on the way out, but the DJ is still vital to rappers' careers.
Mixtape DJs help artists in a way that major labels can't. Mixtapes range from multi-artist compilations of hot singles to unofficial single-artist showcases called "street albums" -- mixes that are dense with uncleared samples, experimental cuts, and venomous dis tracks too slanderous for a major-label release.
In the always-hip culture of hip-hop, an MC's 15 minutes of fame can be close to literal; mixes keep your name out there while you're mired in a four-year legal fight out of a bad record deal. If not for mixtapes, 50 Cent and the Clipse might still be hustling or working on a loading dock.
"As an artist, mixtapes keep you in the streets," says Ray Cash, a Cleveland rapper and Sony artist who recently followed his major-label debut with a mixtape. "It lets the people stay in tune with what an artist is doin' and really lets fans get a feel for the artist and see what type of person they're dealing with."
For DJs like Boogie, the unregulated mixtape game is a chance to make fantasies come true. Armed with rap instrumentals, freestyles, and a PC, Boogie and protégé Joey Fingaz created God's Gift. The album-length virtual collaboration with Jay-Z and Nas was on the street just weeks after the two former rivals buried the hatchet. Hip-hop fans wondered what might have been if the icons had been friends all along; Boogie provided the answer.
Boogie's specialty is the blend, a combination of verses from two different songs over a looped beat. As with Nat King Cole's posthumous Duets album, Boogie was able to pair current Compton rapper the Game with the late Eazy-E. Dead for a decade, Biggie Smalls regularly appears on Boogie's mixes.
The top tier of Boogie's apartment looks like a set from Friends. And even with signed platinum records and album art from the likes of Jay-Z and De La Soul, it's far from a typical studio. No six-foot mixing console, just a computer by a window. Here's where Boogie makes mixes, where he unwinds after a night spinning at a downtown club like Cloud 9, looking toward the Cleveland skyline, browsing ESPN.com, and eating a bowl of Special K.
Palming a navy BlackBerry, Boogie discusses the mixing business between a barrage of text messages, incoming e-mail, and buzzing cell phone.
"What I do during the day is way more important than what I do at night," says Boogie, who credits his success to effective time management. "At night, I just show up and push buttons. It's fun, but it's a small part of what I do."
Boogie looks like he's set to do a booming trade selling sneakers and rap memorabilia on eBay, though that's not the case. Nearly 20 years in hip-hop's thrall have left him with a lot of CDs and shoes.
Boogie was born William Michael Batyske in the Youngstown suburb of Poland. The name didn't stick long; family and friends always called him "Mickey." His academic credentials -- he has an MBA from John Carroll -- are befitting of a William Michael, but today, Boogie looks like a Mickey: head shaved, with a tuft of a brown goatee, wearing loose-fit distressed jeans and a white T-shirt. Talking business, he looks like an off-duty banker.
Unlike many white figures in hip-hop, Boogie doesn't try to blend in by dressing the part. A sneaker fetish is his one concession to rap fashion. The room is lined with 100 pairs of Nike Dunks, a low-cut sneaker available in many variations, most of which Boogie has. Six foot even and 225 pounds, Boogie is big, but not a hulking figure. In conversation, he lapses in and out of the hip-hop accent, slurring and clipping words when he's discussing records, but enunciating like a vice president when he's discussing marketing.
Almost a decade earlier, Boogie came to Cleveland looking for a marketing degree, expecting to outgrow his love of hip-hop -- like most other suburban white kids from his generation did. He did well at school. He completed an internship for Huntington Bank and "loved every minute of it" -- just not as much as he loved hip-hop. Boogie caught his first whiff of the music at age 10, when he heard DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince's "Live at Union Square" in 1988.
"It was the most incredible thing I ever heard in my life," recalls Boogie. "It made me love hip-hop. It made me want to be a DJ."
As a kid, he'd learned to play drums and piano. In high school, he taught himself how to scratch records. A crate of wax in tow, he headed upstream to Cleveland, pursuing an undergraduate business degree. As credits accumulated, he gravitated from underground rap to the mainstream. As Jay-Z's star rose, he became Boogie's favorite rapper.
"He's just the best," Boogie says. "Lyrics, charisma, wordplay, style. And he's evolved so far. He's a cultural force. When you have meetings with the United Nations on behalf of hip-hop, that's big."
In late 1996, he and future rhymer-producer Garbs Infinite filled in for some vacationing DJs at John Carroll's student radio station, WJCU-FM 88.7. Their hip-hop sets quickly became The Butters, a weekly show that's still on the air. Butters opened the door to clubs, which led to his current nightly spot as host of The Nine O'Clock Mix at Cleveland's Z107.9, the city's hottest urban station.
With a growing reputation, Boogie began DJing parties for the Cavaliers, which got him a foot in the door with the organization. Dressed in a suit, Boogie entered the offices with a written proposal and business plan, recommending that a DJ would enhance the fans' experience and build the Cavs' brand. Soon, he was warming up the arena as King James took the court. In 2005, he earned his master's from John Carroll, his second degree from the Jesuit school.
Now he applies his marketing and management training as the Commissioner of the League Crew, a loose-knit national collective of DJs with a weekly mixshow on Sirius satellite radio.
"Everything we talked about [in school], I do," says Boogie. "Just in a different way, not at a desk. I deal with marketing and human resources and logistics and financial stuff."
"I think he thinks of himself as a professor," says DJ Terry Urban, one of Boogie's protégés. "He's really giving -- if you're willing to work at it. I think he likes seeing people grow. I think he likes teaching people. Most DJs don't look past clubs. They've got their niche. They've got their groupies. They don't think about going worldwide with it. Most DJs out here play videogames all day and smoke weed. Mick sits at his computer and makes mixtapes."
Another day, it's almost happy hour for most of the MBAs on the block. Boogie's been working all day, and he'll be going well into the night. Taking a break from his latest mix, he has the House of Blues restaurant to himself. Stubble on his cheeks and head, he balances his wire-rim glasses on his pointy noise, sipping a Diet Pepsi between bites of a plain chicken breast.
With the Drama incident, the mixtape bubble may have popped. Some major websites stopped selling mixes, and a host of DJs pulled down their online order forms. The game won't disappear. Seven-dollar mixes will always be a popular alternative to $20 CDs. The world-famous Houston rap scene is built on independent records and distribution; if the RIAA continues pushing, the record industry could find it's created its biggest competition by removing major-label material from DJs' repertoires.
Even if the mixtape lane comes to an abrupt end, it might have already taken Boogie as far as he needs to go. Last year brought his first taste of on-the-record success. Last summer, Boogie scored national airplay when he blended T.I.'s "Why You Wanna" with a Q-Tip verse. Later that summer, the Cheri Dennis single "I Luv You" was going nowhere for Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy Records. But when Boogie added an unreleased Biggie Smalls verse, the label made Boogie's version an official single. "Blend" is fast becoming synonymous with "remix."
Or Boogie could stay in the mix game. Blends aren't just for mash-up night at the club. The Re-Up prefigured a series of upcoming official-release mixtapes. And record companies aren't the only ones taking notice of Boogie and the power of mixes. Reebok chose him to assemble the RBK Artist Spotlight mixes, an official series promoting the company's shoes by showcasing its artists -- a stable that includes Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Pharrell.
"It's a cost-efficient way to connect the urban consumer in an organic way," says Ron Shaw, the Reebok marketing rep who recruited Boogie. "Mick Boogie was the perfect fit because of his creativity and his professionalism. Reebok doesn't want to deal with some of the issues that you deal with when you deal with DJs and hip-hop marketing in general. You want it done on time, you want it done right."
"I feel like I'm real close to the next level," says Boogie. "I'm only two levels away. Maybe three. I'm getting out-of-town bookings, making good money. Next is to get consistent out-of-town gigs. It's hard to say what the next level is. To be recognizable to all, a household name like [DJ] Funk[master] Flex. I'm closer than I -- or anybody -- thought I'd ever be."
Still, recognition comes faster than cash. A year ago, Boogie was thinking of cashing in his chips and settling into a suit job -- better hours, more money, less drama.
"I was sitting there in interviews," he recalls. "And the DJ thing had started becoming a lot more profitable for me, and I realized I could take the entrepreneurial route and invest in myself. And it seems to be working. "
He invests in friends too. The credits on Boogie's mixes are a who's who of Cleveland hip-hop. He can make beats, but he thinks his friends do it better, and his time is best spent on other aspects of the process. So Boogie outsources and cross-promotes as much as he can, using local talent to bring out the best in national names. Boogie's favorite among his blends is a mix of Ray Cash's "Bumpin' My Music," which was bolstered by some star power.
"I dropped a Jay-Z verse into Ray's song. It got airplay all over the world. That's exactly what my job is supposed to be. It helped his song, and it helped me."
Boogie's first high-profile release of 2007 is And Justus for All, a mixtape hosted by rap group Little Brother. Boogie acted as the project's A&R man, placing original beats with original verses. A collaboration with Little Brother and the Clipse came out so well that it was bumped up to the album. Boogie thinks he could do it full-time for a record company -- DJs make the best A&R reps. And Boogie's already doing a brisk trade hosting demo mixtapes, helping aspiring artists show what they've got.
Boogie's work makes a strong case for the blend as its own art form. Before producer Danger Mouse crafted the unforgettable groove of Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy," he made himself a name by adding diced Beatles samples to an a cappella Jay-Z album. As the industry landscape shifts, a new kind of beast is roaming the land, someone not exactly a DJ and not exactly a producer.
Boogie seems destined for a place here. As his mixes demonstrate, he's not interested in being center stage. Most mixmasters talk over songs, using discs to promote a persona, hoping to parlay the exposure into a high-profile gig producing records or hosting a TV or radio show. Rather than talking over his mixes, Boogie simply identifies himself with a drop of a voice blurting "Commissioner!" and lets the music flow. For now, he prefers to be behind the scenes.
"I'm kind of an executive producer," he says. "I get an idea and make it happen."