“Mixtape, album, same thing.”
Coming across this statement on my Twitter timeline a couple of days ago resulted in a roll of the eyes and a strong compulsion to reply with something sarcastic and/or offensive. I was surprised at my own surprise that the different between a mixtape and an album isn’t common knowledge. It seems to me that the average person would rather obey mainstream offerings by listening to the latest Drake album on repeat for an entire month rather than delve into the alien world of mixtapes.
Anyway, I resisted said compulsion to mock the author of the Tweet, and instead made the decision to attempt to educate the masses…or at least the readers of this blog (eventually I will go global and rule the world of hip-hop but til then, here we are).
The idea of a mixtape started off back in the ‘70s on the bootleg circuit in the USA. They weren’t sold under any legal authority and weren’t generally mass produced. Hip-hop mixtapes didn’t fully emerge until the ‘80s, the vast majority being produced by DJs rather than rappers. DJ Ron G pioneered a forward-thinking mixtape movement in the ‘90s by blending a-capellas with hip-hop beats, which changed the way people made (and listened to) mixtapes forever.
Today, mixtapes are mostly used as promotion and marketing techniques. Unsigned and unknown artists use them to generate a fan base, whilst established rappers are seen dropping mixtapes to create buzz for a new album.
Pusha T released his Wrath of Caine mixtape in January 2013 ahead of his solo debut studio album My Name Is My Name released earlier this week. It worked: the hype got stronger and stronger as October 8th neared. Without having dropped Caine earlier this year, the build-up wouldn’t have been anywhere near as potent. A mixtape serves as a build-up to a bigger, more polished project (the album), and keeps fans interested whilst the artist is grafting in the studio, working for that perfection an album should encompass. For this reason, mixtapes can be rougher and more experimental, but albums need to have that refined, complete, professional feel.
To many people, even the mention of a ‘mixtape’ can leave us with a bad taste in our mouths. No one wants to suffer flashbacks of being hassled, begged and trailed down the street by relentlessly eager packs of rappers selling their decade-old mixtape for £3 mere seconds after stepping out of Camden Town tube station on a Saturday lunchtime. This hideous conduct seems to have progressed onto the social networking spheres as well, with artists using every other Tweet begging for people to click on the latest offering of ***MY NEW MIXTAPE!!! CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD!!! RT!!! RT!!! RT!!!***.
It’s not hard to see why a lot of unsigned and unknown artists are hesitant to use the ‘mixtape’ tag for such projects, and instead try to convince themselves, and listeners, that the 8-track CD full of freestyles over Drake and Rick Ross beats recorded in the closet of their best friend’s bedroom is a fully mastered album. Of course they won’t be selling it with the album price tag (or any price tag for that matter – mixtapes are almost always free via download sites or physical CDs handed out outside shows and concerts).
Mixtapes and albums are completely different products in their own right, and should be treated as such. I can forgive some rough production on a mixtape, or an annoying DJ host who can’t resist bellowing his name and ad-lib between every track and skit. Also excusable are tracks that don’t quite ‘work’, because the thought behind it still counts, even if the execution of the idea was appalling. Maybe Yeezus could have been a mixtape, if it wasn’t for the fact that all the tracks were original (though it did sound like it was recorded in a public toilet – a few steps down from the aforementioned closet-in-bedroom studio setup).
Finally, a mixtape is NOT a CD full of tracks that were not good enough to make the final album – unless you’re THAT good (think Eminem, DOOM, Kool Keith levels of ‘good’). Mixtapes are still supposed to be full of quality tracks and, if you can afford it, quality production. Releasing a CD full of tracks you thought were ‘okay but not good enough for an album’ is an insult to listeners and a discredit to yourself as an artist.