Mixing again, but not on tape

Once they were cassettes of hits recorded from the radio. Now mixtapes are CDs, MP3s, orUSB sticks of rough-and-ready tracks by new artists. By Chris Mugan
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The Independent Culture

For many of us, the word "mixtape", brings to mind memories of lazy Sunday evenings spent taping the charts, or collating carefully thought-out compilations for friends, often artfully decorating them with felt-tip pens or collages. Either way, practitioners needed quick reflexes to hit the pause button at the right time.

The clunky, fragile cassette had no chance against blogs, downloads and MySpace, yet its name has lived on as artists use high-tech versions to hype themselves and connect with fans. For a very different kind of mixtape has been used by the hip-hop community for years as an unofficial bush-telegraph, and a cheap, cost-effective means of spreading the word on the latest artists or ground-breaking scenes.

This goes back to the audio cassette's arrival as a viable means of recording music in the late Seventies, when pioneering DJs Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc used them to distribute recordings of live performances. As rappers became higher profile, mixtapes became a way of hyping wannabes through the hip-hop scene, either to gain major label attention or maintain their credibility. Even today, giants of the game like 50 Cent started out this way.

Just like pirate radio, mixtapes plug artists into a shady parallel-distribution network frowned on by mainstream record labels and the trade bodies that defend their income. Just as they go after illegal downloaders, they track down retailers of bootleg material.

Mixtapes might include live performances, alternate mixes and collaborations with other artists, usually more established figures there to show how respected the newcomer was by other rappers. They really came into their own as a means of pursuing "beefs", the rivalries that seem to be a vital part of any successful MC's CV.

Nowadays, cassettes have been eclipsed by CDs and MP3s, both for home recording and commercial distribution, but the term "mixtape" has survived to describe these continuous recordings made up of a mixed bag of material. It might come as a free download available from an artist's website, while at a gig you might come across discs in cheaper cases with rougher artwork than used for commercial albums, also available perhaps via mail-order or specialist, independent retailers.

This phenomenon is celebrated by last year's documentary film Mixtape Inc, a look at what the genre's bible Source Magazine calls "the lifeblood of hip-hop music". Kanye West and Public Enemy's Chuck D are on hand to discuss the mixtape's importance as a parallel recording industry often at odds with established labels. At its heart is a suspicion that mainstream companies have taken over a leftfield scene and now control its output, while mixtapes give artists more unfettered creativity.

Mixtapes by UK artists are beginning to gain their own currency, with the emphasis on showcasing new material. One of the most high-profile UK instances has been Statik's Grindie Vol. 1, a compilation that drew parallels between the indie and grime scenes. Its title is slightly tongue-in-cheek, but there were points in the last couple of years when the east London producer was in danger of creating a whole new genre. While seamlessly mixing together Kraftwerk, The Rolling Stones and Madness with MCs such as Wylie and Lethal Bizzle, Statik threw in his own remixes of The Rakes and Larrikin Love.

Until the release of Grindie, though, Statik was an underground artist overshadowed by the MCs who had come to dominate his genre, he explains. "A lot of next-generation producers are coming through now that are stamping their identity more, but back then grime wasn't about the beats, everything was about the MC. There weren't many mixtapes around at the time, but I could see what hip-hop artists were doing and it looked like a laugh. Besides, I had so many artists [64 tracks] on my mix, I couldn't get clearance for all of them." Statik recorded 2,000 discs to be given away in record shops, but it was as a download that Grindie really took off, with something like 10 times as many distributed online.

At the time he mixed Grindie, though, the most influential hip-hop artist he listened to was our own Mobo winner Sway, the independently minded rapper who has used mixtapes himself to build up an enviable following. The Londoner was inspired by US rap, but saw he could use the concept in a different way. "American artists tended to take the hottest tracks of the day and do their own raps over the top of them," he says over the phone from the studio where he is recording his second album. "I did something similar, but with a twist. I put in a few of my own tracks. I had so many, I was never scared of giving them away – not everything, just a taste."

While Sway originally used mixtapes to showcase his talents, he is now involved in arguments himself, notably one with a US VJ called Sway, peeved that a British upstart shares his moniker, as we hear on radio excerpts from the rapper's current download The Dotted Lines. For Sway, though, the mixtape remains primarily a means of showing people how his career has progressed and hinting at future direction.

"I update my fans on what I've done and hopefully attract new ones. I get hold of anything I can, like raps I've done on other people's records and interviews where I think I've said something profound."

Currently, he is impressed by Ian Brown's recent fusion of guitars, strings and hip-hop production on last year's album The World Is Yours, reflected on his own tracks "My Sword" and "MC Charlie Boy" found on this download. Mixtapes also enable Sway to show a harder edge to his creativity than might be heard on more commercially minded releases, as with the unrelenting rap of the title track of the mixtape.

Both he and Statik complain that the market has become over-saturated and some artists are putting out albums under the guise of mixtapes. "They're scared to put out their own material, so they call it something else so it doesn't get criticised as much," Sway sniffs.

The former So Solid Crew lynchpin Asher D has muddied the waters further by bringing out what his label calls a "pre-album release" in packaging glossy enough for a an actual record. Having branched out into acting with well-received roles in the film Bullet Boy and TV series Hustle, his solo music career has developed at a slower pace. Here, he previews his forthcoming album with the 13-track release The Appetiser.

Laurence Ezra, an A&R man at Asher D's production company AD28 explains: "The terminology of the mixtape is often dressed up by many artists. They may choose to call it an EP, pre-album or even album sampler. Regardless of the name, artists still use them to build anticipation."

It is not only rappers putting out mixtapes. Last year, the hotly tipped outfit Hadouken! showed how grime had influenced their sound beyond the dirty beats they favour by putting out their own version, Not Here To Please You. It brought together exclusive tracks with hard-to-find remixes of Plan B and Bloc Party.

Rather than release a CD or download, the mixtape came out on a USB memory stick. This is a quirky manner of providing accessible content in a collectable format. You can even purchase special blank memory sticks to customise for your mates. One UK company has designed its own version, the Mixa, shaped, wait for it, like an audio cassette.The mixtape has come full circle.

'The Dotted Lines' mixtape is available free from www.myspace.com/swaydasafo