Originators of The Mixtape
Mixtapes have been around just about as long as hip-hop has, only they weren’t called “mixtapes” back in the 1970s, they were known as “party tapes.” They were born for the same reason mixtapes thrive today: the need to feed the streets.
In the mid ’70s, people loved partying in the clubs so much they had to take the jam with them to their homes or cars. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, Kool Herc and the Herculoids, DJ Breakout, the Funky Four and DJ Hollywood were among the most popular crews of that era that prospered not only from their DJing gigs, but from the recordings they made of the gigs.
“Mixtapes go way back, before rap records was made,” an animated DMC of Run-DMC recalled. “The tapes of these guys’ live performances sold like [regular] albums are selling now. If you think about it, Flash and them been platinum. Cold Crush Brothers would have had platinum records and they would have them on their wall right now, but back in the day there was no rap records.”
“It was a combination of doing customized tapes and then there were the tapes I used to do of my performances with my group at regular parties,” explained Grandmaster Flash, who started making his tapes in 1973 and credits himself, Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa as the originators of mixtapes.
Consumers had to be ready to empty their pockets if they wanted a Grandmaster Flash tape — the DJ would charge a dollar a minute for cassettes that ran anywhere from 30 to 120 minutes. He would compile the hottest music at the time, and then continuously shout out the tape purchaser’s name using an echo sound effect.
“The people that was buying my customized tapes were the scramblers, the dealers, people that had money,” Flash explained. “I was making a couple thousand dollars a month, easy, just doing this.”
In addition to these made-to-order tapes for specific clients he would run across in the streets, Grandmaster Flash also established a steady business with livery cab drivers.
“The cab drivers had these fancy cars, and there was this thing called the ‘Hold Call,’ ” he said. “A Hold Call is where a person who had some money would want to get into this particular vehicle and do just basically nothing, sort of just ride around for hours and hours. If [the driver] had the hottest tape he would get all the Hold Calls across the [taxi dispatcher’s] radio.”
Like Flash, Brucie B, who carried on the mixtape tradition into the mid-to-late ’80s, made his tapes by recording his DJ sets. He was the main attraction at the legendary hip-hop club Harlem’s Rooftop.
“I used to play everything, hip-hop, Mardi Gras, reggae, slow jams, jazz,” B said, “anything that had a nice little groove to it.”
Harlem native Damon Dash frequented the Rooftop as a teen. “Every Friday you went to the Rooftop and roller-skated. Dudes was dancing, they was roller-skating with their minks on. But the thing with Brucie B is back then, a lot of the highlights [on the tapes] were the shout-outs. I gave him $20 to give me a shout-out once. He said my name and I was happy. I’d rewind it to that part every time I picked a chick up.”
While young Dame was spending $20 to hear his name shouted out, others were spending dough for a personalized tape B would make at his home.
“I’d go on this block and make $100, go on that block and make $100.” – Brucie B
“I would just buy 90-minute Sonys, or TDKs, any type of normal tape,” Brucie remembered of an era when very few DJs used a studio to make their tapes, or sent any copies to a plant to be mass copied. “I used to copy them one by one all day. I would just sit there and dub, actually coming up with 50 or 60 tapes and sell them for $20. I’d go on this block and make $100, go on that block and make $100.”
Like Brucie B, DJ Kid Capri, who came on the scene as the ’80s were closing out, initially got his name from spinning in such clubs as Studio 54 and making tapes of his nights at the booth. However, as all the old hip-hop havens like the Rooftop, the Red Parrot and T Connection started to close down, DJs were forced to focus on the tapes they made at their cribs. As the early ’90s came around, this opened the door for lesser known DJs who were innovative on the 1s and 2s.
“Back in the days when I was coming up, the mixtape scene in Queens was hip-hop and R&B blends,” DJ Clue reminisced about what prompted him to get in the game. “It was hip-hop beats with R&B a cappellas and mixing them together. That’s how I started making mixtapes. Out in Queens, people who were hot on that blending stuff were Grandmaster Vick, Doggtime and of course Ike Love.”
No one was hotter at concocting the new hybrid tracks than uptown New York’s own DJ Ron G, who’s recently produced such hits as Fat Joe’s “We Thuggin’ ” and Jennifer Lopez’s “All I Have.” His formula of lush R&B vocals over harder hip-hop beats can still be found in much of today’s popular music.
Meanwhile, DJ Clue was having a hard time distinguishing himself until he figured out his own formula that would revolutionize the mixtape game forever: scoring exclusive joints and freestyles for his tapes. Clue’s mixtapes became less about displaying turntable skills and more a reflection of his ability to find new talent and new music.
Besides shedding the first light on some of rap’s biggest hits, like the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy,” the original version of Puff Daddy’s “It’s All About the Benjamins” and Jay-Z’s “Ain’t No N—a,” Clue also gave the first dose of major exposure to some of today’s biggest stars like Noreaga, Cam’ron, DMX, Fabolous, Mase, Ja Rule and the LOX via freestyles.
“We used to sit around the house and listen to Clue tapes and be like, ‘He’ll call us one day,’ ” laughed the LOX’s Jadakiss, who’s been on too many Clue tapes to name. “So we sat and sat and sat and waited. Eventually he called.”
“At the time Clue was very influential — he still is — and a lot of people got signed off of his tapes,” affirmed Dame Dash, who signed Clue to Roc-A-Fella in 1997 because of the DJ’s gigantic buzz.
Clue paid off for the Roc. His two albums, The Professional and The Professional 2, both went platinum, and that was without any videos.
Clue wasn’t the first DJ to get a recording contract from a major label: Kid Capri was. Signed by Biz Markie, who had a production deal with Cold Chillin’/Warner Bros., Capri released his first album, The Tape, in 1991. Funkmaster Flex has been able to parlay his mixtape compilations into several record deals. He released his first album, The Mix Tape Vol.1, on Loud in 1995 and subsequently dropped three sequels with that label, as well as The Tunnel on Def Jam. DJ Kay Slay and DJ Whoo Kid have their first albums coming out this year.
DJ Clue has gone from making records to becoming co-CEO of Desert Storm Records, which released Fabolous’ platinum debut in 2001 and just put out its second release, DJ Envy’s Desert Storm Mixtape: The Blok Party Vol. 1.
Who says the DJs have to play in the background? As long as mixtapes are around, they’ll stay at the forefront of tastemaking.
“A lot of times, whether it’s medicine or whether it’s mechanics, a lot of people spend their life putting something together and then address it to the public and then sometimes the public might say, ‘Nah,’ ” Grandmaster Flash said of the evolution of mixtapes. “But thank God this thing has continued to grow and may it continue to grow. May there be many Ron Gs and many Clues and many more Brucie Bs. Let’s keep this thing poppin.’