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The Mixtape Hype Machine

mixtapecollageWhy Apply it Only to Hip Hop?

‘Indie hip hop’ is one of those weird, amorphous terms that seems to have about as much to do with the indie rocker scene as, say, your church choir. There’s little cross over between genres, and musicians from both groups go about their business in very different ways.

Is There an Indie Hip Hop Scene?

In common, the two have the contentious nature of the ‘indie’ label. What is ‘indie,’ after all? Is it sound, as in the ‘indie’ rock style of major label darlings Death Cab for Cutie, and the non-gangsta rap but still uber-popular cerebral style of Mos Def or Blackalicious?

Or, as purists argue, does being ‘indie’ require a DIY ethic that refuses to bend to major labels, or compromise for commercial success? If this is the case, we would be hard pressed to define the difference between an indie label and a major label. And it would be even harder to draw a line between those artists who are independent because they choose to be, and those who are recording and promoting independently in an effort to attract the attention of a label.

Indie musicians of all genres are confronted with these questions, but the major difference between indie pop/rock, and indie hip hop rests on the matter of marketing. While many indie rockers struggle with self-promotion, indie hip hop artists have created their very own hype machine – an industry unto itself – in the form of the mixtape.

Not Like the Ones Your Boyfriend Made You

For those who don’t get all their new music from DatPiff, the mixtape is a promotional recording that gained popularity way back in the day when DJs and emcees didn’t record as often as they performed. Predictably, people started to tape performances, and eventually, a healthy trade developed.

Of course, it didn’t take long for major labels to start signing rappers, but that didn’t get rid of the enthusiasm for the mixtape. Now, to spread the word about a new artist, or to generate hype for an upcoming release, producers and labels began to make and distribute mixtapes.

These mixtapes usually involve unfinished studio tracks, remixes, freestyles, and experimental beats. Sometimes they feature one emcee, other times they’re created by a DJ showing off his production skills. Mixtapes are generally not as polished as a finished LP, and often involve the use of samples that you could never get away with putting on a commercial release.

So why do hip hop artists (usually) get away with rampant use of unlicensed samples? Because the whole point of the mixtape is to release and distribute it completely for free. And there are so many of these free releases, that they’ve become essentially impossible to control.

Particularly since MP3 filesharing has eliminated the need for jewelcases and CD printing, mixtape production has gone bananas. Every unsigned rapper and DJ has to be releasing mixtapes, or at least tracks, on a regular basis to have a hope in hell of gaining attention. Lots of indie hip hop labels actually depend on the artists they sign releasing mixtapes on their own, in order to hype an upcoming release.

Why Make Mixtapes?

In 2008, after cutting loose from his label, MC Sha Stumuli, along with DJ Victorious, released a new full-length mixtape for every month of the year. Not only did this keep Stimuli on the radar when he wasn’t at work on a commercial release, it also allowed for the production of new material that was consistently relevant.

During the 2008 elections, for example, it was an amazing experience for fans to be able to hear their favorite artists – like Stimuli and Nas – rapping about the possibility of a black president, practically in real time. When Nas released his controversially titled mixtape leading up to the release of his 2008 Untitled album, it had, perhaps, a greater impact than the album’s official release, because it was released at the moment it was most relevant, rather than according to the ponderous scheduling strictures of a large label.

Of course, another factor that made Nas’s mixtape so significant was that it allowed him to release all the unedited material that was considered too controversial for his commercial album. In fact, hip hop’s strongest indie community comes from those artists – KRS-One, Immortal Technique, Talib Kweli – who have rejected major label success because their material was too contentious, or un-club-friendly, for the mainstream.

Why Not, Indie Rock?

The mixtape culture has grown out of a variety of demands from the hip hop community – the need for unfettered self-expression, the in-today, out-tomorrow nature of label relationships, and the quest for the hype-to-top-all-hype in a competitive industry. Thing is, these same demands apply to indie rock, and yet there’s little or no movement towards developing a mixtape scene for these musicians.

Hundreds of sites devoted to the task of promoting indie DJs and emcees release dozens of mixtapes a day – downloaded freely, commented on and reviewed voraciously – but it’s all hip hop, all the time. As far as I know, there is no similar resource for indie rock (unless you want to consider some of these options), and that’s because fresh recordings, remixes, and collaborations just don’t seem to happen in rock and pop with the same unbounded creative enthusiasm as they do in hip hop.

The rock and pop industry may well be suffering under the dated notion that every recording is sacred and every song a valuable commodity. However, as the rise of hip hop to the most popular and commercially successful musical genre in the world proves, when it comes to music, the more you give, the more you get.

While indie artists like Mathieu Persan are pursuing the free release of material, the phenomenon is still happing only in small pockets outside of the hip hop and electronic music scenes. Communities like MixTape Pass, GetRightMusic, and HHDB need to be created for indie rockers in order for this promotional tool to work for them. Unfortunately, the first step needs to be the creation and release of tons of new music.

For free.

It goes against every bone in our capitalist bodies, I know, but somehow, it brings in all that gold.



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  1. Becky
    Yeah - if you love it, set it free! Great article.
  2. Thanks for sharing this good article.