The sundry world of mixtapes can seem strange and alien. It lies outside the pop zeitgeist and caters to a mostly male audience hungry for street-oriented rap. Its constellation of stars begins with familiar names such as Young Jeezy, T.I. and Lil Wayne, and travels deep into Atlanta's rap underground, where Gorilla Zoe, Yung Ralph and Shawty Lo hold sway.
Most importantly, mixtapes promote a sound that is superhard and gangsta to the nth degree. Black Bill Gates, a popular mixtape DJ who spins at Buford Highway's Club Miami on Saturdays, describes his audience as "the same crowd that's in the back of the club – smoking, chilling, not necessarily on the dance floor, busting heads or whatever."
Thirteen months after regaled mixtape king DJ Drama's downtown Atlanta office was infamously raided by local police at the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America, the mixtape game persists. Drama's case has yet to go to trial, and major labels remain ambivalent about mixtape DJs – whom industry execs have alternately supported and scapegoated as a result of their supposed impact on record sales.
But while the industry struggles to fashion a public response to mixtape mania, the streets are sold.
Black Bill Gates heads the current vanguard of Atlanta's ultracompetitive mixtape movement, which produces hundreds of titles each year. He collects tracks from record labels and artists, and burns them onto ongoing sagas such as King Sh*t, Sick Wit It and Black Diamond (an R&B music series). Each mixtape features a glossy cover popping with fluorescent colors and graphic images. Its photorealistic scenes depict violent activities and other boys' games: rappers brandishing guns, carrying bundles of money and posing around expensive automobiles. "The cover gotta be hot," Black Bill Gates says.
DJ Scream's collaboration with Shawty Lo, 2006's I'm Da Man and last summer's I'm Da Man 2, may be the quintessential mixtape series. The cover of the first installment is a photo of Shawty Lo flipping a middle finger with one hand and holding a pistol in the other. For the second installment, he wraps a cop in a headlock with one arm, and points a gun at the camera.
Before I'm Da Man, Shawty Lo was best known as a member of D4L, the Bankhead quartet that was the laughingstock of the music world, thanks to its silly No. 1 dance hit "Laffy Taffy." "I didn't like the song," says Shawty Lo, who claims he was in jail when D4L made "Laffy Taffy."
Shawty Lo's main contribution to D4L's Down for Life was the drug dealer's anthem "I'm Da Man." Its chorus, "I'm da man/Got no wife but the white be my girlfriend," was a coded reference to selling cocaine. After Down for Life's release in the fall of 2005, Shawty Lo recorded dozens of tracks that burnished his reputation as a Bankhead thug, and then gave them to DJ Scream, D4L's tour DJ. Released in late 2006, the I'm Da Man mixtape helped Shawty Lo earn a solo deal with Asylum Records. His album, Units in the City, debuts this week.
I'm Da Man 2, released in August '07, improved on the original with "Dey Know," a monster refrain built around a slowed-down sample from Edwin Starr's "War." On the club anthem, Shawty Lo pushes the sample's dramatic horns to the fore with his melodic, sing-song drawl and an insanely catchy nursery rhyme – "L.O., L.O., dey know, dey know."
By successfully repeating "Dey Know's" formula several times on the hour-long I'm Da Man 2, Shawty Lo posits himself as the pied piper of Bankhead's gangster underground. If the first volume rehabilitated his image as a thug not to be trifled with, says Shawty Lo, then "I'm Da Man 2 proved to the world that I was for real." Asylum Records hopes to piggyback on Shawty Lo's street-certified success with the release of his debut CD, Units in the City, hitting store shelves this week.
"So much money the industry generates starts from that street level and starts from the mixtapes," says DJ Drama, who continues to promote his first major-label CD, Gangsta Grillz: The Album, released last December on Atlantic Records. "The mixtape game, slowly but surely, is coming back to life."
Rappers who have seemingly sold their souls for pop success even use mixtapes to regain a hardcore audience. Last fall, DJ Coolbreeze made a mixtape with Parlae from Dem Franchize Boyz, the Bankhead rap group best known for snap-happy dance hits such as "Lean Wit' It, Rock Wit' It." But the cover to Teddy Gram the Hustler, impressively illustrated by graphic artist Miami Kaos, shows Parlae gripping two Glock pistols. He's not dancing.
On "What the Fuck You Mean," Parlae and Dem Franchize Boyz scream, "What the fuck you mean we done fucked it up for hip-hop?" The song sounds as if the group is engaged in a tense shouting match, determined to prove their street bona fides. "I put the two-for-five sacks in the trap game/Turned around and put the snaps in the rap game," raps Parlae in drug slang. "You niggas sneak dissin'/Throwing shots in interviews/Fuck that, catch another charge is what I'm gonna do."
When the hip-hop faithful stray, it seems the best way to herd it back is with a mixtape.
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