hip hop music

July 9, 2007

When They Reminisce Over Mixtapes

I miss mixtapes. I miss the bad cover art and the slim cases. I miss how cheap they are, I miss the shouting and gunshots peppered throughout otherwise listenable tracks, and I miss having to hunt them down, going in and out of stores that still advertise "Pagers", having no clue which ones they'll have or if they'll even have any. I even miss the anonymous rappers that often show up on an otherwise good track and ruin it by rhyming the end of each line with the same word. Who is to blame for the hole in my heart formerly occupied by mixtapes? We all know the answer to that one.

It's been about six months since the RIAA's "raid" of DJ Drama's offices and unlike so many other, equally pointless, stupidly "symbolic" governmental actions, this one seems to have worked. As mixtape spots slowly dried-up, I felt shocked. I was reminded of a joke my (now deceased) friend made, after hours of trying to find a dependable weed-connect: "Did the government really win the war on drugs? What's going on here?" There really aren't mixtapes?! What's going on here?

Although I bemoan the absence of mixtapes, it is ultimately, a situation where reason beats-out my fandom and sympathies: "Okay RIAA, fair enough, you did it in the wrong way and it was poorly executed and has weird, racist undertones but yeah, it isn't exactly legal for anyone to rap over the 'Daytona 500' beat without permission and then sell it…" Nevertheless, there are about a million problems with the mixtape "crackdown".

First, it is hardly a "crackdown"; the absence of mixtapes comes out of a fear of government enforcement not actual government enforcement. Second, the "crackdown" has accomplished very little in the way of helping album sales and legal downloads, which is what mixtapes were supposedly affecting. Third, there is the phenomenon of mixtapes being fairly absent from small stores and street-corners but still, to some degree, available through many corporate stores and entities.

Around the initial hype of Lil Wayne's weirdy-popular and strangely mediocre mixtape, 'Da Drought 3', a local chainstore in my native Baltimore was selling the mixtape. A search of Amazon.com's Marketplace still reveals many copies for sale. Although Amazon Marketplace only acts as a conduit for sellers and buyers, it is exactly the kind of complicity the RIAA symbolically attacked when they raided DJ Drama. In many F.Y.E and Best Buys, numerous 'Gangsta Grillz' discs among many others, can be found right next to major label albums at a significantly marked-up price.

The mixtapes are generally sold for conventional CD retail prices, meaning somewhere, anywhere, between $11.99 and $17.99. My local mixtape guy never sold me a tape for more than $7.00, making the mark-up hovering somewhere around 100%! It looks like corporate collusion, as the mixtape "crackdown" removed the minor-level mixtape merchant while allowing, the F.Y.Es and Best Buys to continue profiting.

To be fair, the F.Y.E and Best Buys of Baltimore (and I assume all areas) are well-known for selling the rap of hometown artists and in a way, mixtape sales could be seen as an extension of that local loyalty, but why that would matter to the mind-bogglingly out-of-touch RIAA? One would think, from any sort of legal standpoint, the selling of "bootlegs" (which is what the RIAA consider mixtapes) in a large chainstore would be significantly more problematic than the selling of those tapes in small cell-phone accessory stores, street corners, etc.

There is also the issue of who is supplying chainstores with mixtapes. DJ Drama and I assume, most other mixtapers, maintain the story that they do not sell any of their CDs; "for promotional use only", just as the little sticker on the slim case says. While I find that hard to believe, I am more willing to believe that the copies found in chainstores are bootlegs (or technically, bootlegs of bootlegs?) because they aren't in slim cases and the inserts suspiciously look like copies of copies on photo-paper. Doesn't it seem more problematic, that a nationwide store not only sells mixtapes, but bootlegged mixtapes than it does if the guy on the corner, in the locally-owned record store, or at the weekend flea market, is selling the same? I don't see who this mixtape ban helps.

This mixtape pontificating began when I went to New York a few weekends ago and was shocked by the absence of mixtapes there as well. I went to normal spots like Canal Street and a few others but found nothing. Not a poor selection, literally nothing. I doubt this is news to native New Yorkers and perhaps people way more city-savvy than I still know where to get them, but for me this was a total shock. Peeking over five-foot Chinese heads and bobbing and weaving between feet-dragging, mouth-agape tourists taking in the city, I searched for the rack of tapes and listened for rap through crappy speakers, as my general rule of thumb was to just follow that sound and eventually, you'd hit a mixtape merchant. Not this time.

Despondently walking away, it occurred to me that it is now easier to find mixtapes at the mall, in Baltimore, MD, than it is to find them on Canal Street! Explain that one.

This "crackdown" besides creating some even weirder in-between legalities than the ones that already existed, has lessened the overall hype and excitement about new rap music. The mixtape cover pops-up on Nahright or as the heading for bloggers' reviews but we see that cover only as a JPG in a WINRAR file not as the cover to a physical object we hunted-down and purchased.

We click, download, unzip, and load "mixtapes" into Winamp or iTunes and if it's decent, maybe its burned or loaded onto the iPOD but that's about it. The excitement is gone in a music industry that needs any form of excitement it can get. The tapes were always available for download but for dorks like me and many others, downloading it was never enough if I knew, somewhere I could buy a little jewel case, with some goofy artwork, and a sticker that says "For promotional use only" for about $5.00.

Posted by BrandonSoderberg at July 9, 2007 9:33 AM

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