I told myself this past month that I would not focus so much on the hip hop/urban genres. However, I reside in a city that is dominated by urban music and I love hip hop and rap music. I grew up around it and I feel I will always connect to the music in some form or fashion. I read something very recently about the current state of the mixtape and I want to address the author’s sentiments.
The article is called, “The Mixtape: The End of An Era?” and it’s by Cedric Muhammad (one of my music business idols). I did an interview with Cedric and you can read it here, you can also read his article about mixtapes here.
I have not coherently gathered all my thoughts, nonetheless I feel I must respond to Cedric and challenge him on his notions of how the mixtape is “dead.”
The mixtape is not dead. I would bargain that the mixtape is still the supreme marketing and promotional tool for the independent rapper on the streets. I confidently make this assertion and I do not want local and regional rappers operating at the lower rungs to feel the mixtape strategy is “outdated or inferior” to newer promotional strategies.
Cedric Muhammad claims that we are moving out of the era of the mixtape and moving into the era of the EP. More artists are inspired to make their own original music and release it to the public as opposed to ripping off someone else’s beats and melodies. Muhammad feels that the mixtape, “…as a vehicle to position and develop the career of hip hop artists – has reached the point of diminishing returns.”
This is a fallacy and I will tell you why. I want to speak to the local rappers, the guys at the very bottom of the totem pole. I want to be honest with these people. Urban music fans do not care about what you have to say. It’s that simple. No one cares about what you have to say on a record until you prove yourself. And one of the quickest and most efficient ways to bolster your street cred is by releasing mixtapes.
One can argue that Kid Cudi didn’t release a bunch of freestyles on his mixtapes and neither did Drake. That’s fine, but I’m sure both of those artists were in a position to be signed by a big indie (aka baby major label) or major label by the time you first read about them in XXL and Pitchfork Media (how do you think they got into these big media outlets in the first place?). So no, many urban music fans still do not care to hear about what local rappers have to say…until they have created an effective strategy and brand for themselves.
If I was a rapper at the bottom of the food chain, working a 9-5 day job to pay the bills and rocking out shows at night, I would want to gain the credibility and respect of my core community first. That means impressing local dj’s, fellow rappers and performers, concert bookies, anyone local and/or regional in my vicinity. How would I do this – well if I’m a rapper, I should be pretty confident lyric-wise right? I would be spitting freestyles over any new, popular and classic beats I could find. I would also record a select few original tracks and release it all as a free mixtape. The beauty of all this is that I could craft my brand by utilizing the mixtape formula and still give the fans a bit of my image and talent for free.
Something I would like to ask Cedric Muhammad is this. If the mixtape has reached the end of its era, why are artists like Clipse and Lupe Fiasco still releasing mixtapes and the Internet goes nuts? The last couple mixtapes dropped by these artists followed the same formula used by hip hop artists for almost two decades and it works. J. Cole is an up and coming rookie emcee who is using mixtapes as a vehicle and it’s worked for him. Curren$y released God knows how many mixtapes and he’s finally securing lucrative distribution deals and recognition for his album.
To Cedric Muhammad, I would argue that the mixtape is well and alive. If there are any diminishing returns, it’s because too many rappers are releasing garbage music. It’s not the mixtape’s fault, it’s the rappers who are releasing sub-par material and the fans are tired of it. It’s always easy to design your own route and create your own original music, but to take a classic beat like “C.R.E.A.M” or “Dead Presidents” and genuinely prove yourself lyrically – that takes talent.
I feel too many rappers are using the “original ep formula” as opposed to the mixtape formula because it’s a cop-out. If someone asked Eminem or Fabolous to freestyle over an album’s worth of classic beats, they would never hesitate. They would not hesitate because they know they can bring a signature sound to any track, not just their own music. And let’s be honest, when a hot rap or hip hop song is released, most fans become more excited about the remix that is usually released shortly after. Fans gravitate towards hot remixes because you get the opportunity to hear different voices and styles on one record. For instance, Drake’s record “Forever” would not have received nearly as much attention if it was a solo record.
If you’re a rapper, don’t think you can cop out and release a bunch of “original” ringtone rap on an ep. Or at least don’t do this and feel as if your promotional strategy is superior because you’re releasing “new and original” music. Hip hop is about the beats and lyrics and if you can’t hold it down on your track and someone else’s track when you’re called upon, you shouldn’t be pursuing music professionally.
Do I feel the mixtape is dead? Hell no! The mixtape still serves an excellent tool to be used within an independent artist’s marketing plan. Think about it – rappers with no fan base can use their free mixtapes to gain the attention of music fans and earn respect in their local communities. It shouldn’t be either/or; release albums with original music and mixtapes at the same time! From a legal standpoint it makes sense too because if you’re giving the mixtapes away for free there is actually less of a copyright issue. If Jay-Z wanted to sue every emcee that spit on “Dead Presidents,” he’d be tied up in court all day.
However I will say, mixtapes are not an effective source of revenue and Cedric Muhammad did a great job of illustrating that by alluding to the mom and pop stores that were busted for profiting off mixtapes. I feel bad for some of those small record store owners, but honestly no one should have ever paid for a mixtape. Why would anyone want to muddle through all the paperwork and legislation to get their freestyles copyrighted? Yuck, I’d rather worry about all the legal stuff for my album which showcases my original music.