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The Hidden History of the Hip-Hop Mixtape

Sommer Regan McCoy of the Mixtape Museum discusses the hidden political and cultural history of mixtapes

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Story Transcript

JARED BALL, PRODUCER, IMIXWHATILIKE: What’s up world, and welcome to another edition of I Mix What I Like here on The Real News Network. I’m Jared Ball.

Of all that I love about what hip-hop has brought to the world, there is one thing above the rest that I love most: the mixtape. Now, we know that the idea of people arranging on a cassette tape for personal use, like road trips, parties, or trying to impress a potential loved one, had been around for a while before hip-hop. But for hip-hop the mixtape has a special, particular history and function.

The mixtape was, as Angela Ards once pointed out, hip-hop’s first mass medium. Others have noticed that without the mixtape there would have never even been a rap music industry, demonstrating its own contradiction. And even yours truly has tried to argue that the mixtape can also be a national medium of dissident communication.

To talk about some of this and more is Reagan Sommer McCoy. McCoy is the founder of The Mixtape Museum. She has over ten years of experience in the music industry, most notably as the manager of Virginia hip-hop duo Clipse. She currently manages global Spin award winner DJ Tedsmooth and consults on various music projects. She serves on the Hip-Hop Hall of Fame Artifacts, Exhibits, and Preservation Committee, is director of educational programs at Rhymes Over Beats, a hip-hop theater company, and is a member of the Hip-Hop Education and Preservationists Alliance. For more, you can find her work at MixtapeMuseum.org.

Welcome, Sommer, to I Mix What I Like and The Real News.

REGAN SOMMER MCCOY, THE MIXTAPE MUSEUM: Thanks for having me.

BALL: So it’s really a pleasure to have you. We’ve been wanting to do this for a long time. We love talking about the history of the mixtape, an underappreciated aspect of hip-hop’s history. Tell us a little bit about the history of the mixtape and why in particular you thought it was necessary to have a mixtape museum.

MCCOY: I made, like you mentioned in your intro, I made mixtapes growing up. I grew up in the city. And I listened to the radio, and I would find myself recording tapes. Like, before I went to camp, or you know, just heading down to Virginia to visit family. But I honestly did not think of how important mixtapes were until I became an adult and started working in the music industry.

And funny enough, it was Justo who we’ll talk about later that introduced me to the history of the mixtape, and taught me everything that there was to know about the DJ, and how the DJ was using the mixtape to promote records. And it was his house and all the crazy things that he had, the mixtape collection, the promo material. And I would always joke and say to him, you could start a museum.

And so it started out as a joke, actually. But I just felt like the mixtape was so, it was so underrated, and mixtape DJs just got such a bad rap as being bootleggers, and they were never appreciated for actually breaking records, like they did. So I mean, that was one of the reasons why I started the Mixtape Museum. Also to pay homage to Justo for being a visionary and starting the Mixtape Awards. But also to promote the mixtape as not just the little piece of plastic or a playlist, but also as an artifact. Because it tells a story. It tells your personal story, it tells my stories, it tells a DJ’s stories, and they’ll still be here when we’re all dead and gone. And hope–my goal is to promote archival awareness in the DJ community, but also looking at the different aspects of the mixtape as a whole.

BALL: Now I mean, we know that–and we are going to talk about Justo in just a moment. But just for folks who may not be familiar, the mixtape originated, as I said in the intro, on cassette tapes. Where DJs would create mixes or recordings of their house parties, or the parties they performed in parks. And this was before there was rap radio, before BET, before MTV, before even black radio would allow hip-hop to be heard. So really, Ards’s point is correct, that there was no mass media for rap music. For hip-hop, broadly speaking, in all of its elements. There was no mass medium for the hip-hop nation to use and to circulate its art other than the mixtape.

Eventually they would get moved onto CD around–you know, when my generation sort of came into understanding, with particularly DJs Ron G and Kid Capri. And then in the early to mid-90s you had the full digital switch, from cassette onto CD, rather, with DJ Clue. Where some have raised questions critical of that moment where Clue seemed to, instead of using the brilliance of the DJ to blend and bring in new music or create remixes as Ron G did, he just lined up tracks that he got from ANRs at major record studios, and lined them up on CDs and put his echo over it. DJ Clue-clue-clue-clue. And then distributed it that way.

And it became a mechanism not only for an underground art to be disseminated, but it became a mechanism primarily for the corporate world to pre-promote music that they would soon release. And somewhat, some of us at least, looked at that critically as sort of co-opting the tradition of the mixtape.

So I wanted you to take a moment if you would to respond, or embellish on any that I’ve just said there, and then I do want us to take a moment to properly situate and pay tribute to Justo Faison.

MCCOY: Okay. Well, okay. See, I have these conversations a lot, and people, especially DJs, like, DJ purists, they are–they’re not too fond of how the mixtape has evolved. So that whole going from a live tape to being something a DJ recorded in the studio, to becoming the exclusive tape, which is essentially what Clue came up with. It was its own genre. I’ve heard stories about him sitting outside of his studio waiting for, waiting to get an exclusive track that was just done a couple minutes before.

And then after that you had artists like 50 that used the mixtape to just put out only their stuff. I mean, G-Unit was based on, was built off of the mixtape. In Texas, Slim Thug, or I mean, even Diddy.

So I personally think that change is good. I don’t look at it as a negative. As a negative. I look at it as the mixtape evolving into something so that it can stay around. I mean, how else better to keep something around than to, you know.

BALL: Well, with all due respect and much love, of course, we might have to slightly disagree on that. Because you know, there are a lot of people–you know, there are a lot of people who still use mixtapes. The offshoot of what is now called turntableism, where you have some of those DJ purists using mixtapes to really highlight DJ skills as opposed to just, again, lining up tracks on a CD, so to speak.

And of course now with everything on [det pif] or you know, the MP3, you have people using the mixtape tradition as a way to either to sort of sell a pre-corporate career or promote a pre-corporate career, as opposed to really leaving space for that, for the artistry and the underground element to thrive. In that regard I am concerned about the co-optive element that seems to have messed up the tradition of the mixtape itself.

But–and I’m happy to have you respond to that. But I did want to make sure that we had, we did take the time before we ran out of time to talk about Justo. Because this being 2015, a lot of people are remembering that it’s the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, and of Bloody Sunday in Selma. And this August will be the 50th anniversary of the Watts Rebellion.

But what is also an important I think aspect of this, of even of that long tradition of black history and struggle is Justo’s place in this. And this is the 10th anniversary, this may will be the 10th anniversary of his death. And I did want to say that I happened to be at a conference, a media reform conference at that, with the legendary hip-hop journalist Davey D when he got the phone call alerting him to Justo’s car accident and passing. And while many may not want, may be uncomfortable with my comparison or extension of that black struggle history to Justo, I actually do think that what he did with the mixtape and what the mixtape represents as unauthorized communication is part of that legacy of struggle.

But tell us about Justo, exactly what his role has been and what has happened even maybe since his passing, to the tribute and attention paid to mixtapes.

MCCOY: Gladly. Justo was a DJ. And he moved on to become marketing director, he was at Atlantic, he was at Loud, he worked at a few different labels. But he was, he worked records. That’s what he did. And he used the mixtape DJ to do that.

You know, like you said, back then radio was not what it was. But he was able to go to the clubs. Meet DJs, give them the record. And you know, push it on these tapes that were then pushed through the streets and handed out and duplicated. So his thing was, he didn’t feel like the labels were giving these DJs their credit for breaking these records. So he started the Mixtape Awards.

And many DJs will tell you that after they got their awards–I mean, Kay Slay’s got a–I think Kay Slay has the most awards out of anybody.

BALL: And Kay Slay–I’m sorry to interrupt. But Kay Slay also has one of my favorite nicknames, too. Slap your favorite DJ, you know. At one point when I was a more aggressive and hostile faculty member I used to say I’m Dr. Ball, slap your favorite professor. You know what I’m saying, I was that impressed and moved by Kay Slay. But I’m sorry, please go on.

MCCOY: But you know, through the awards DJs were able to see themselves as not just the DJ behind the artists, but they were able to develop personalities. And Clue got a deal not too long after that. You started to see DJs going out, and stepping outside of the you’re-a-bootlegger label, and actually becoming their own brand.

So that’s what–and that’s what Justo was trying to–I mean, he really was, just wanted to say thank you. But because he was such a–I mean, I think he was a marketing genius.

BALL: He also created a documentary. I mean, we can’t forget that, as well. He created his own documentary on the history of mixtapes where he interviewed the legends like Lazy K and Jazzy Joyce and DJ Hollywood and so many others who were doing those early rooftop parties, and who were really the founders of that.

And honestly, that’s where I got some of the critique of DJ Clue and him being sort of the corporate conduit for that takeover. It was Hollywood, and even Kay Slay called him out in that documentary saying, you know, Clue kind of messed up the game a little bit.

But yeah, but Justo was not only somebody who was creating a space for awards and commemoration, but he documented the history of the mixtape, as well.

MCCOY: He did. He did. And he knew–I mean, he’s mixtapes’s number one fan. That’s what a lot of DJs know him as. And I mean, we would sit for hours, and that’s where I–he actually made me fall in love with mixtapes. The way he talked about, I mean, just–everything. I mean, I didn’t know. I wasn’t a DJ. I didn’t know, like, you know–and I know I made my own mixtapes, but I didn’t realize that the mixtape game was as big as it was.

And I mean, soon after that–I was actually introduced to him by Nancy Byron, who suggested I talk to him because the Clipse were coming out with their first mixtape. And Justo helped me distribute that mixtape. And the We Got It 4 Cheap series that they did with Clinton Sparks wound up being one of the biggest mixtapes that year. So it was Justo, who was not a big Clipse fan, I have to add.

BALL: But he did it anyway.

MCCOY: But he–I mean, he showed me. He took–I mean, we literally drove around for hours, and went to all the mixtape spots. And you know, just like, the holes in the wall that I didn’t know about. And that’s how I realized how big of an industry that it was, and how influential it was. Because I watched, not only did I hear it from him, but I watched the movement of our own mixtape move through the streets to being a big deal that year.

BALL: And it’s funny you mention that because even just this morning I was listening to my classic Clinton Sparks viro[inaud.] mixtape, which is another legendary piece, as well. And I just introduced my girls to a classic, an edited version I have to admit, a classic Ron G mixtape. The Blend tape. Because remember, people have to understand, Puffy took the idea from Ron G, putting hip-hop beats under R&B tracks. It was not Puffy that did that first, it was Ron G, and you heard it here first at I Mix What I Like at The Real News Network.

MCCOY: And Ron G was my first mixtape.

BALL: That’s right. Oh, no doubt.

MCCOY: Like, that was the first mixtape that I actually went and bought, yeah. That was my first tape.

BALL: We used to have, we used to have the Kid Capri numbered tapes floating around even on the ship I was on in the U.S. Navy in the early 1990s. People would circulate those tapes around, even the beat tapes he did.

The mixtape is essential. I’m very glad that we took the time to have you on to talk about them with us. Before we wrap up though, Sommer McCoy, tell us a little bit about, more about the mixtape museum. What people can find there. And maybe one last word on where you think the future of the mixtape is going.

MCCOY: I mean, it’s funny that you mention mixtapes on the ship. These are the stories that I want to capture. Everyone has a mixtape memory. You know, whether it’s on a ship or in their bedroom or at camp or in a studio, or wherever. And I want to capture those stories. So I consider the Mixtape Museum an archive and a memory project.

So I think it’s important, the one way to save the authenticity of what a real mixtape is is to preserve the history. And it’s not just focusing on just the hip-hop mixtape DJ, but also talking to people at labels. Talking to different–I’m working with different archivists to try to figure out how, the best way to preserve these tapes. And also building a database so that we can organize the history.

I don’t think the mixtape is going anywhere. I think that people are starting to appreciate the old mixtape, the real mixtape. I want people digging in their attics and drawers, and pulling out old tapes and pulling the audio off of it, and I think that’s important, to help keep the mixtape alive, in a sense.

So right now, the Mixtape Museum is primarily a blog. And there’s a lot of foundation work being done with different academics and whatnot. And as I mentioned, archivists and DJs, and there’s so many things going on. So I’m looking for a lot of input from people, because that’s really how I came up with different ideas on directions to go. I’m always welcome to getting an email, [email protected] The website is MixtapeMuseum.org. Twitter, @mixtapemuseum. Same thing for Instagram. And I look forward to hearing from anyone that has a mixtape memory and can offer some type of advice or just a story. Because that’s what the Mixtape Museum, it’s what it is.

BALL: Well, Regan Sommer McCoy, thank you very much for joining us on this segment of I Mix What I Like here at The Real News Network.

MCCOY: Thanks for having me.

BALL: And thank you for joining us as well. Keep it locked here at The Real News Network. For the whole I Mix What I Like crew, I’m Jared Ball. Peace if you’re willing to fight for it, as Fred Hampton used to say. And as Ice Cube once said, turn off the radio and stick a fucking tape in it. Peace, everybody.

End

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