Skip to main content

8-Tracks to No Tracks: The Rise and Fall of Mixtapes in Hip-Hop

To those who know me, you’ll know that my least favorite question of all time is, “What’s your favorite album?” It’s a cruel question. Instantly, my mind runs to at least a hundred albums that I’ve once considered the best, mostly leading with whatever I’ve listened to last.

But after some deliberation, I usually end up with the same answer: “Faces” by Mac Miller. An hour and twenty five minutes of some of the most dope beats and bars I’ve ever heard. Mac Miller has always been my favorite rapper (I’ve even got a tattoo inspired by his music!), and to me, this was his magnum opus. However, as great as this project is to me, I technically can’t give it as an answer. “Faces” isn’t an album at all: it’s a mixtape.

Released within a year of his second studio album “Watching Movies With The Sound Off,” “Faces” dropped on Mother’s Day in 2014, online for completely free. At no cost to fans, they could listen to an entirely original, new body of work. Especially in a world where many musicians rely on physical sales and streaming for revenue, this seems unfathomable. So why release it independently without a cost barrier?

Simply put, he HAD to. There are tons of samples hidden throughout the album: “Diablo” samples Duke Ellington, “Insomniak” samples D’Angelo, “Thumbalina” samples the Beastie Boys, and tons of spoken word samples, like Bill Murray in the 1979 film “Meatballs” on the track “It Just Doesn’t Matter” to name a few. Sample clearances are expensive. There was just no way Mac Miller and his team could get them all cleared, so the alternative was to release it for free, just for the love of the game and the showcasing of the art.

This wasn’t a new practice, by any means. Originating in the 1970s, New York City hosted several early hip-hop artists and DJs like Kool Herc, DJ Hollywood, DJ Breakout, and more. These artists mostly performed live with a mix of original beats often but also remixes of preexisting songs, and rather than relying on studio time to officially release music, they would record live performances on cassette tapes using reel-to-reel or 8-track recorders (hence the name mixtapes) and release them independently into the streets. Artists across the country began taking on, from Houston’s DJ Screw to Compton’s Dr. Dre. 

As the genre grew, the world around it grew, too. Eventually by the late ‘90s and early 2000’s, mixtapes could be released digitally instead of on cassette tapes and CDs, meaning these projects could be spread everywhere. There were no more constraints on time, no constraints on where someone could listen, no constraints on finding new artists. It was like the Wild West of the Web, with mixtape sites like DatPiff, LiveMixtapes, and MyMixtapes hosting hundreds of thousands, if not millions of projects released from all over the world.

This era gave rise to some of the most popular rappers of the time: 50 Cent’s iconic single “In Da Club” was initially released on his mixtape “Guess Who’s Back?” Lil Wayne dropped some of the most popular mixtapes ever in “No Ceilings,” “Dedication 2,” and “Da Drought 3.” Gucci Mane has more mixtapes (79) than he does any other type of project (16 albums, 3 collaborative albums, and 8 EPs). If you can think of a rapper that came up from 2000 to 2014 or so, they certainly have at least one mixtape you can find online for free.

By now, you might be wondering why, if these mixtapes were so popular and accessible, don’t more artists release mixtapes for the fans? The clear answer is that unfortunately, streaming killed them.

Mixtapes were a form of self-promotion. You make mixtapes, spread them locally, post them online, and if you were good, a label could find you and you’d soon see your CDs on a shelf. But in the era of streaming, there’s simply no need. You can make an account on services like DistroKid and upload music to any and all platforms immediately, and actually see profit from it (albeit small). Coinciding with the rise of social media, there wasn’t much of a need for self-promotion by traditional measures when you could go viral for a tweet and plug your Soundcloud below. 

While mixtapes were originally used as ways for rappers to spit over beats they didn’t own and samples they didn’t clear, this era of self-releasing saw this practice die. Now, platforms like YouTube, Soundcloud, Spotify, Apple Music, etc. will automatically remove a track and copyright strike it if it’s found to have snippets of another song, movie, or anything that can be used as a sample on it. 

Mac Miller might have released “Faces” for free online, but it was the only of his major projects released in this fashion. His first album, “Blue Slide Park,” sold 344,000 copies in 2012. It would have been a financial blunder to release it as a mixtape for free online. The same can be said for any major release of the last decade or so. Could you imagine Drake releasing an album online, completely for free, while knowing he’d be missing out on millions from sales?

Ultimately, mixtapes had their run, but silently went in the night rather than out with a bang. Maybe as vinyl records have had a modern resurgence, we could see the medium make a return. But until platforms and labels loosen their grip on samples, and artists have easier ways to self-promote, mixtapes can stay as a past icon of the rap genre. 

Now playing on U92 the Moose:

Follow the Moose