The launch of iTunes in 2003 was music’s true digital revolution. Suddenly, everyone was listening to digital mp3 versions of their favorite music on their computers or iPods rather than their CD or record players. It felt like overnight, music became infinitely more accessible. But the iTunes pay-per-song model only made music more accessible to those willing to pay for it. Although this model lasted for about a decade, artists and listeners alike were quick to find ways to circumnavigate the iTunes ecosystem. Mixtapes, in the context of hip hop, were one such way to do this; they were one of the most successful (and, as opposed to some others, legal) rebuttals of charging fans for digital music. By operating outside of the iTunes model instead of within it, a generation of mixtape artists was able to make an indelible and transformative impact on both music culture and the present day streaming landscape.
Let’s back up for a second. The mixtapes we’re referring to were predominately associated with hip hop music. Generally speaking, they were digital-only albums released for free online, often including ‘borrowed’ beats from other artists. The popularity of mixtapes in the mid 2000s to mid 2010s ran counter to the traditional digital music distribution model, which was dominated by the major record labels. Mixtapes during this time period propelled the careers of many of today’s biggest artists, including Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Mac Miller, Big KRIT, Wiz Khalifa, etc. That list could go on for a while.
During this window, releasing free mixtapes online was often the method of choice for up and coming hip hop artists who didn’t have large enough budgets nor fan bases for traditional CD distribution. Many of the artists mentioned before all got their start through releasing music for free online – bypassing the physical stores altogether. But the practice wasn’t limited to just underground acts – Lil Wayne for example, who was well established in the mainstream by the late 2000s, released countless mixtapes alongside studio albums, and was arguably the most successful mixtape artist of all time.
For a generation of listeners raised on the internet, paying for music seemed like a suggestion more-so than a requirement. Limewire and torrent sites thrived in an unregulated internet, not to mention the fact that YouTube’s rapidly-expanding library of music would change listening behaviors forever. All musicians recognized the lawlessness disrupting the music industry – some saw doom, but others saw opportunity. No one seized on these opportunities like the rap and hip hop artists from ~2008 to ~2012, who discovered that gaining exposure online was more valuable than the number of songs they sold for $.99 on iTunes. Of course, the artists would only be getting a small cut of that $.99 per song, anyway. Streams and downloads became the new currency that artists could exchange for ticket or merchandise sales. (Uncoincidentally, this happened to also be the turning point where rising acts started relying more on tour revenue than from album sales). The reason the mixtape movement was ultimately successful in shifting the paradigm was because it made music more accessible than ever, which benefited both artists and fans in the hip hop community.
Flash forward to 2020, and music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music are the primary way we listen to music; CDs are now dinosaurs. Today’s streaming services provide great customer experiences, and give us 99% of what we’d ever want to listen to. One of the consequences of the sea change however is that mixtapes have been awkwardly cropped out of the digital music picture. Most of the classic mixtapes (e.g., Friday Night Lights, Live. Love. A$AP, Kush & Orange Juice, etc.) aren’t available anywhere on streaming services, usually because of sample clearance issues. A small minority of artists have decided the effort to resolve legal issues related to mixtapes is worth it, and have gone through the process of releasing the content officially (allowing them to directly profit from it). For example, in late August of this year, one of the most popular mixtapes of all time, Lil Wayne’s No Ceilings, was added to Spotify’s library. It was originally released 11 years ago, in 2009. Also, The Thrill, one of the most popular songs from Wiz Khalifa’s 2009 mixtape Burn After Rolling, was finally added to streaming services 11 years after its original release. The obvious difference between the recently minted ‘official’ version and the original is that the artist credit is split with Empire of the Sun, whose song Walking On A Dream is prominently sampled.
Let’s face it: for most people, streaming services have everything they’d want and more. Plus, it’s convenient to stay within one familiar service’s library. For a lot of listeners, this is enough to discourage exploration outside of their service’s content library. Although the barriers for artists to upload music is minimal for most of these services, this new digital landscape has limited opportunity for artists hoping to make waves by putting out a traditional mixtape. Although its heyday lasted for much less than a decade, the hip hop mixtape movement was largely responsible for catapulting hip hop to the front and center of the mainstream. And although there’s still much progress to be made in the fight for just compensation for musicians, the mixtape movement, countercultural in nature, levied a battle against a traditional model, and the fruits of the triumph are still being reaped by the community today.
With this background, we wanted to pay tribute to some of the greatest music from the mixtape era, which does not live in the major streaming service libraries. In particular, we hope this article can serve as an introduction to mixtape music for some people who otherwise would not have discovered it within the confines of their current listening platform.
A$AP Rocky – Live. Love. A$AP
A$AP Rocky took New York City hip hop and gave it a complete makeover. He chopped and screwed it, painted it purple, and dressed it in Givenchy and gold grills. A$AP, or that pretty motherfucker from Harlem, mixed the South’s medicated trap music with lyrics reflecting a New York taste for extravagant fashion, to create a refreshing new sound. The mixtape was more than a new sound though… it was going for something bigger and more ambitious. Looking back, this mixtape had loftier aims: it was trying to re-define cool; and in many ways it did.
Capital Steez – AmeriKKKan Korruption
Capital Steez came onto the radar as a member of the Pro Era collective, alongside Joey Bada$$. Despite probably being best known for his feature on Joey’s Survival of the Fittest, Capital Steez attracted a loyal fanbase of his own thanks to his mixtape AmeriKKKan Korruption. As the mixtape’s title suggests, Capital Steez used rap to address many pressing social issues, ask provocative questions, and challenge the listener’s assumptions. The video and lyrics to his song Free the Robots feel almost more relevant today, in the midst of prolonged quarantining and social tension, than they were 8 years ago, which is a true testament to the timelessness of Capital Steez’s messaging. (Sadly, the young artist took his own life in December 2012, not long after the release of his debut mixtape). The spirit and beauty of his words live on.
J. Cole – Friday Night Lights
Following the release of his mixtape The Warm Up in 2009, J. Cole signed to Roc Nation and went on a super tour with Jay-Z, Pharrell, and Wale. Ever since then, it seemed inevitable that J. Cole would become one of hip hop’s biggest acts. On his next tape, Friday Night Lights, J. Cole began to develop the rap style that he would continue to refine throughout his career. He replaced lyrics dominated by punchlines and wordplay with a newfound focus on storytelling, cohesive concepts, and more serious subject matter. Friday Night Lights, the more polished older brother to The Warm Up, was many people’s introduction to J. Cole – which is a major reason why The Warm Up is so often overlooked. (That being said, it’s also worth checking out some of our favorite all-time favorite J. Cole songs from The Warm Up: Lights Please, Grown Simba, and Getaway).
Big K.R.I.T. – Return of 4Eva
The most impressive part of Big KRIT’s phenomenal discography is the fact that he’s handled virtually all of the composition and production for all of the songs he’s ever released. And just for context: he’s released 4 studio albums and 13 mixtapes. Return of 4Eva, which came out in 2011, was KRIT’s 2nd mixtape to get significant attention in the underground hip hop community, coming on the heels of the previous year’s K.R.I.T. Wuz Here. Hailing from Mississippi, Big KRIT’s southern rap roots are intrinsically linked with his sound, and this mixtape is no exception. Everything on Return of 4Eva is dripping with the region-that-brought-you-UGK-and-Outkast’s DNA: plenty of songs and lyrics about candy-painted cars with big rims and ridiculous subwoofers; bass-heavy production mixed with soul and jazz samples; and of course an omnipresent southern drawl. Big KRIT also features his soulful singing voice periodically on the tape, staking his claim as one of the most complete hip hop artists of his generation.
- Time Machine (ft. Chamillionaire)
- Sookie Now (ft. David Banner)
- The Vent
- Country Shit (Remix, ft. Ludacris & Bun B)
Other classic mixtapes from ~2008-2012 to check out (and our favorite song from each):
- Kendrick Lamar – The Kendrick Lamar EP (FAITH)
- Kid Cudi – A Kid Named Cudi (THE PRAYER)
- Das Racist – Shut Up, Dude (HUGO CHAVEZ)
- Danny Brown – XXX (BLUNT AFTER BLUNT)
- Mac Miller – K.I.D.S. (KOOL AID AND FROZEN PIZZA)
- Earl – Earl (EARL)
- Lil Wayne – Da Drought 3 (THE SKY IS THE LIMIT)
- Hodgy Beats – Untitled EP (IN A DREAM)
- Wiz Khalifa – Kush & Orange Juice (THE KID FRANKIE)