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Don’t Call My Album a Mixtape!Posted by Mike Dreams (Michael A. Hannah) on 02/25/10 | Filed under Top Stories, Features, A Dreamer's Perspective
Let's begin with this very question: What is the difference between an album and a mixtape? I want to explore this topic today because I have my own take on what it is, what it was and where's it going. As always, let's begin with the background history.
Albums: We all know what the traditional album stemmed from. In 1984, Columbia produced the first 12-inch, 33?-RPM microgroove record. We moved into vinyl LPs, tapes, CDs and now MP3 digital albums. There's no need to go into complete detail. We all know a little bit about how the actual physical material evolved. Now, most of the time, albums were commercially distributed. Some independent artists funded their own projects and sold them without the middle man. Nevertheless, these are referred to as albums.
Now, let's talk about the history of the mixtape. The idea of the mixtape goes way back to even before we had (cassette) tapes. Some of the earliest mixtapes surfaced back in the 70s, being sold on 8-track tapes with mixes of different music. There were usually distributed at flea markets and truck stops, mainly on the bootleg circuit. In the 1980s, cassettes surfaced and people used to record mixes off the radio and make their own mixtapes full of music they enjoyed. In the hip hop world, the concept of mixtapes surfaced in the 80s. It was mainly something produced amongst DJs, putting together mixes for parties and events. DJs such as Brucie B began recording his live sets and selling the tapes, which eventually led to DJs such as Kid Capri recording mixes at home. In the early 1990s, Ron G elevated the mixtape by doing R&B acapella blends with hip hop beats and selling those.
Mixtapes are now commonly used as marketing tools. Unsigned artists (like myself) release multiple mixtapes to generate buzz for ourselves in general, as well as promote upcoming projects. Signed artists usually use mixtape to generate word-of-mouth buzz for an upcoming album. We've seen artists like Lil Wayne highly benefit from this method, by keeping excitement up about him as an artist while not having a new studio album out yet. As the mixtape evolved, we've began to see more "mixtapes" formatted like studio albums. In the past, mixtapes were distinguished from albums due to recording quality, packaging presentation and the presence of freestyles and remixes to songs on the tape. Though I've noticed it way before this, I think 2009 was the biggest eye opener. So for the umpteenth time in one of my articles, let's talk about Drake.
To me, Drake's "So Far Gone" mixtape essentially was one of the best albums of last year. Take note that I said album. Most of the project's music was original compositions, and those that weren't really still not well known mainstream songs (such as the June 27th instrumental used for "November 18". It was a popular DJ Screw production, but Drake turned it into a full song, so much so that if you weren't previously familiar with the instrumental, you'll forever equate that song with Drake even if you are only hearing the original at a given moment). It went on to establish him as the #1 artist in the hip hop world of newcomers, and amongst legends like Jay-Z and Mary J. Blige. The mixtape led to the release of a retail EP that sold more than many artists' albums last year. (According to Nielsen Soundscan, it has sold approximately 344,000 copies since its release.) In my opinion, this has changed how we will look at mixtapes FOREVER. I notice that people refer to "So Far Gone" as a project that changed the rap game forever, and some people don't understand why or think they are speaking solely on the music on it. No, they are speaking on how an unsigned artist drops a mixtape that leads to a record deal, #1 hit singles, international radio play, high profile collaborations and Grammy nominations. Name another mixtape that has accomplished that. Don't worry, I'll wait. There are none. He redefined the idea of releasing free music, and I believe this will alter how our future endeavors in this matter will do.
So now, let me get back to me and why I brought this entire topic up in the first place. I feel strongly about the title of a project being an "mixtape" or an "album" and having that honored. \I just released my debut album "Dreamer's Poetry". When I began this project, I was in the mindset of an album. I don't know about anyone else, but my mindset for an album is completely different than a mixtape. I have done about four "mixtapes" in the past, and they all usually came about on the fly. I had some random joints or freestyles that I decided to organize, compile and put together and put out a promotional tape. Even though the mixtapes generally became better as I progressed, I still didn't put a lot of thought into the process.
I began working on my album a year ago. As some of you know from previous writings and the album itself, creating it was a lot of work and it took a lot out of me as an artist. There were heavy-thought processes that went into creating the content, there were nights of meticulous engineering and mixing sessions and just a lot of work that went into its conception, creation and execution. I take it back to some Drake said (yeah, him again) in an interview. He mentioned that the market is so saturated now, unsigned artists have hard time getting their music out there because EVERYONE is trying to do the exact same thing they are doing. He said with the tapes he dropped, he felt he needed to give the people free bodies of work to gain loyal fans. That way, when he finally does put out an album for retail, he will have those fans that will go out and support. So when I hear that, for an artist like me who is starting from ground zero, I definitely took that to heart. During the process of making my album, I decided I would make it a free release online digitally, as well as offer people the option to purchase a physical copy. I felt it was more important to get the music out there to people than trying to make a lot of money from it. Since then, I've been shown a lot of love and it's received a lot of downloads, and some people still have supported and purchased physical copies from me.
I am very grateful for all the support, but one thing that sort of rubs me the wrong way is that some choose to refer to the project and other projects from other artists as mixtapes, even when they say it's an album that they happen to be releasing for free online. Now, this may just be a simple miscommunication, but I still wanted to address it. Now, for me personally, calling a project a "mixtape" that was made in the mindset on an album sort of comes off as a disservice of someone's craft to a certain extent, because I feel like just simply calling an album a "mixtape" downplays some of the work that really went into the entire process and project. It also baffles me since I have never called my album a mixtape when I've promoted and marketed it, how people still find some kind of reasoning to call it a mixtape. Now, this may sound like me doing a crazy Kanye-esque rant, but feel strongly about this topic. It's not really the biggest deal in the world. I mean, hey, either way, it's music and it's free, so it's all about getting the music out there. I recently spoke to Los Angeles artist "El Prez" about his "Animal Style!" project, and why he chose not to call it an album or a mixtape. Some of his sentiments reflected some of my reasons for how I perceive mixtapes vs. album. Here are a couple of quotes from El Prez about the topic:
"My reasons for not labeling my recent release, "Animal Style!", an album was because I wasn't presenting it in an album format. I was presenting it in a mixtape format, both physically and digitally. I do not believe in giving album material away for free, so I also did not want the fans to think that this is El Prez in his finest moment, which is that album experience to me. This "project" is meant to build up anticipation amongst hip hop fans to wanna hear what that El Prez album experience is like, and hopefully PURCHASE that said album. See, its fine giving away samplers and appetizers when you are at an event or a restaurant, but you are not just throwing that steak dinner around to everyone for free also. You want people to enjoy the appetizers to the point they feel comfortable buying that full meal from you, cause they know what they're gonna get. You will always have some people who are fine eating and ordering the appetizers every time they hit ya spot up, but the majority will taste that free sh*t and want the full course meal."
"I didn't want to label it as a mixtape, it's because fans equate mixtape with freestyles, and unoriginal material, and after being bombarded with every Tom, Dick and Hank with a mixtape. That word holds a bad taste in people's mouths, and they are quicker to dismiss it. I want people to understand that these tracks aren't some throwaway sh*t; these are original tracks that I put a lot of hard work and effort into, and people should put that much effort into listening to it. So, at the end of it all, I just chose to call it a "project".
You can download El Prez' new "project "Animal Style!" here
I agreed with a lot of what El Prez mentioned, especially concerning the "bad taste in peoples' mouths" statement about mixtapes. Perception is everything. Some people hear the word "mixtape" and they immediately classify it in a project that may have not been that serious. A lot of people are putting out mixtapes. That's nothing new. But when you hear ALBUM, that seems to hold a little more prestige with people. It's a bigger deal and might even compel you to go check it out more than if it was just a mixtape. I think in 2010, because of the oversaturation, more artists will began releasing full-length free LPs. I think the Internet and hip hop websites are an awesome tool to get unheard music out there. I feel if a person wants their project (composed fully of original music) to be called an "album", people should respect it and treat it as so. It's almost like the artists is doing the listener a favor by presenting them with such a great body of work for free, that these consumers of the free product can at least do them the justice of calling the project what it is.
For me in the future, if I do any mixtapes, they will be formatted like mixtapes (hosted by a DJ, with freestyles and remixes included) to generate buzz for an original project (an album). Unsigned artists/independent artists are virtually the same (there are some differences that we can get into at a later time), so if you are independent, you should be able to conduct yourself after the model of someone who is signed. Plenty of independent artists release albums and play shows, tour and travel. It's pretty common in the non-hip hop world, so I don't know why hip hop can't get a grasp on it. If the artist makes an album and chooses to release it free, give them the courtesy of respecting the time and energy that went into the craft.
But, that's just my take on the matter. Everyone has their own opinion. An associate of mine and a independent rapper out of New York named Young Jon Jon told me "If ya sh*t ain't in Best Buy, it's a mixtape." Like I mentioned before, perception is everything, and it's all how you look it. So, what do YOU think? I'd love to hear feedback on what others think about the whole Mixtape vs. Album argument.
This was "A Dreamer's Perspective." What's yours?