By Rob van Alstyne
By Zach McCormick
By Emily Eveland
By Jack Spencer
By Michael Madden
By Reed Fischer
By Emily Weiss
By Emily Weiss
The Streets Most Wanted
Urban World Management
Minnesota State A.K.A. Fuck the Industry Vol. 2
Murderapolis Underworld Mixtape: The Best Kept Secret Vol. 1
Back in March, Twin Cities rappers Street Kingz recorded two tracks with Harlem hip-hop star JR Writer of the Diplomats, a big name in the national mixtape subculture. Within weeks, the songs appeared on a CD by Connecticut DJ Big Mike, The Purple Tape—but in altered form. "Lights Out" was re-titled "In the Club," with one less Street Kingz verse. "Gameface" had no Street Kingz verses on it at all, and was credited only to JR Writer.
"To a lot of people that were involved in making it, it was a slap in the face," says local mixtape producer CIC (Commander in Chief). "But it's not all that surprising. The attitude around here is that if you get someone national to co-sign, you'll get recognition, but it doesn't always work out."
Street Kingz rapper Twig denies being disappointed. "Verses get cut all the time," he says, adding that the Kingz' recent Big Mike-"hosted" mixtape Once Upon a Time in Murderapolis generated phone calls from across the East Coast. "Being a local act, the easiest way to get to people is the mixtape."
Meet smalltime hip hop's newest two-way street. Mixtapes aren't tapes, actually, but CDs (or CD-Rs), usually consisting of new tracks by various artists and sold for cheap, sometimes as low as three dollars. Locals have been trading mix cassettes out of New York since the early '80s, and hometown DJs have been making their own for nearly as long. But mixtapes in the modern sense—the hit-clogged bootlegs that powered Houston rap's rise—are a relatively new thing in Minnesota. The mixtape CDs carried at Digital City, Fifth Element, and Urban Lights often feature local artists rapping over national beats, or national artists rapping over local beats, without any pretense of legality. Yet the record industry winks at the phenomenon, releasing its own "official" mixtapes and leaking promotional instrumental and a cappella records with every expectation of hearing them bootlegged 10 times over.
"Mixtapes are probably the hottest thing on the planet besides downloading," says Urban Lights proprietor Tim Wilson. "It started out as CDs put together by DJs, and it was about skills, mixing, and blending. Now it's evolved into a promotional tool used by record labels because it gets new music on the street."
Wilson, who still carries DJ mix CDs after being raided by the Recording Industry Association of America two years ago (and forced to pay a fine), says major labels use mixtapes to test the waters for new product, floating trial balloons and generating hype with all the back-channel calculation of a White House leak. "Jay-Z will take a track to Hot 97, where Funkmaster Flex will premiere it," says Wilson. "The next day, Clue, the Rock-a-Fella DJ, will probably have it on a mixtape."
What determines whether a track quickly disappears, or turns up on a new album, is largely the new illicit market, which (no surprise) turns out to be far more responsive to local tastes than radio. For the past couple of years, 18-year-old Minneapolis entrepreneur CIC (www.myspace.com/cicmixtapes) has sold mixtapes over the internet, sequencing crunk hits alongside such locals as the Street Kingz. "As a city we really have no representation on the national scene other than Rhymesayers," says CIC. "And with all due respect to them, I think there's a larger contingent of talent that doesn't have the outlets here."
That yearning for national attention—always mingled uncomfortably with local pride—cuts across the recent boom in Minnesota mixtapes. (And it is a boom, with CDs forthcoming from turntablist Jimmy 2 Times, reggaetón comer DJ Pablo, and a dozen others.) At 19, St. Paul native Dante Pedro has a great, Fabolous-like voice and the absurd confidence of the very young—he swaggers all over T.I.'s "Why You Wanna" on his new The Streets Most Wanted mixtape (released by Tim Wilson's Urban World Management), not realizing that rhyming "sleepover" with "deepthroater" makes him sound like a teenager. Yet who else would have the stones to drop local verses on the Busta Rhymes track "New York Shit"? ("I'm on that Minneap shit," spits Pedro, overshadowed but unbowed.)
Mixtapes are hip hop as karaoke, a metaphor Street Kingz pal Selfish is fond of ("Like karaoke night, you better watch what you say"). And the lines between karaoke and reality constantly blur. On the Kingz-supervised Murderapolis Underworld Mixtape: The Best Kept Secret Vol. 1, Twig raps over 50 Cent's "What If," with lyrics that suggest the gap. "What if DJs took time to help us blow?/What if B96 had a local show?" he flows, before moving on to concert payola and general indifference. "What if these Minnesota promoters promote these shows right, and stop charging acts to open up at night?/What if we had nice clubs where the crowd be grooving, where we hear local talent and just start moving?"
Crowds might move to the overwhelmingly local Minnesota State: A.K.A. Fuck the Industry Vol. 2, issued by new Digital City owner Big-G (and available for free at the store), which features a recent Kingz collabo with R.L. of Next, and plenty of R&B harmony leavening its thug poses. (Check the gorgeous sing-rap of Sandman.) And B96 might play RockCity Productions' Who Made the Beat Bang Vol. 1, probably the only disc you'll find with both T-Hud and I Self Devine, and available for free at Urban Connection, a hip-hop kiosk at the Mall of America. Mingling the Timberwolves and Rhymesayers exclusives with tracks by Cam'Ron and Bubba Sparxxx, producer RockCity merges national and local on a half-minute preview snippet of "Timing"—a collaboration between Fiction and Memphis Bleek that was facilitated by Urban Connection owner Mark Webster Jr. (a.k.a. Web$tar). When I mention to Webster that the I Self track is a good candidate for future mixtape bootlegging, he's not upset by the idea. "We don't own the rights to a lot of these records anyway, so it's not like we're going to chase those people down," he says. "But if that gets placed on 10 other CDs, that's more promotion for us."