The Evolution of the Mixtape: An Oral History With DJ Drama
DJ Drama, arguably the most famous mixtape DJ of all time, breaks down the art form's evolution.
Ten years ago this month, a raid on DJ Drama and Don Cannon's Atlanta studio netted authorities 80,000 CDs -- mixtapes -- that the RIAA deemed illegal on copyright grounds. The effects of the raid shifted the underground mixtape industry forever, and caused many to wonder whether the mixtape was dead. That wasn't the case -- Billboard's look at the shift in the mixtape business in the decade since can be found here -- but it sparked another era in the mixtape's long evolution. Philadelphia-bred, Atlanta-based DJ Drama breaks down the different eras that have defined mixtapes over the years.
Early Days (1980s-1990s)
DJ Drama: I would consider the Golden Era to be when I was a teenager growing up listening to the real masters of mixtapes, from Ron G to Doo Wop to Kid Capri and S&S. And then DJ Clue, who I feel really revolutionized the mixtape game and took it from being pretty much a DJ's set on a tape to making it about exclusives and new records, and almost being its own project and its own form. Clue birthed a whole era.
First Evolution (Mid 1990s - Early 2000s)
There's the mixtape game pre-50 Cent and post-50 Cent. There was the era from Clue and Doo Wop, when so many rappers came and spit 16s on beats that weren't theirs, into 50 turning them into his own records. Instead of just spitting a 16, he started to re-do people's hooks and make his own songs to the point where as DJs we wanted to play his versions in the club.
Before [50 and] the Internet era, me being in Philly, it was a thing where I had to go to South Street and go to the Layup or go to Chelten Ave. to a specific spot to get the tapes. It was a very exclusive world -- you almost felt like an elite social group, you know what I'm saying? From hearing "Who Shot Ya?" for the first time on a Clue tape through to the mid-2000s and it being accessible on these mixtape web sites -- which kind of made the era I came up in a little easier because I was able to touch a larger audience quicker than those who came before me.
Street Album Evolution (2003 - 2007)
From the 50 era, that's pretty much when it became a street album. Mixtapes destroyed the demo tape; nobody cared about your demo tape anymore, it was like, "What are you doing with your mixtape, and how are the streets selling it?" I definitely can say that they helped inspire what I went on to do with Gangsta Grillz and the artists that I came up with.
It was that era after 50, from '04 through '06, where I was pretty much a dominant force. The mixtape game has always had its realms across the country, but what we did with Gangsta Grillz and the other artists that were coming up, we really brought the mixtape game to the South, to where it really lived. I remember a time when I would try to call around and be like, "Hey, I'm DJ Drama, I have this Southern mixtape," and people outside of the South were like, "Eh, nobody's really.