A frequently overlooked part of hip-hop history and culture, the story of the mixtape deserves to be archived, preserved, and celebrated. Beginning with cassette-recorded board tapes of early hip-hop club performances – featuring innovative beat matching, scratching, and early rapping – and on to CD-Rs curated by tastemakers promoting new tracks to the world, the mixtape is an important document. Regan Sommer McCoy started The Mixtape Museum to promote this idea and get the process moving. There are still many tasks to accomplish, but with her passion, connections, and knowledge this amazing part of culture can be cataloged and understood for future generations.
What got you interested in the mixtape?
If you ask me what a mixtape is, the answer would be very different from some of my mixtape and hip-hop purist friends. My first entry point to mixtapes were the first ones that I made in my bedroom, recording off the radio. But in high school I started buying the mixtapes that I cover in The Mixtape Museum. Those were the mixtapes that were curated and dubbed by these DJs. The DJ culture, in general, intrigues me.
Where did you buy them at the time?
I grew up on 14th Street in New York City. At the end of 14th Street, on the West Side between 6th and 8th Avenues, there were these little shops. They were just a hole in the wall, like a closet. Many were operated by Chinese and African vendors. You would walk into this little room, and there would be walls of tapes; like DJ Ron G or DJ Juice. DJ Ron G was the first mixtape I ever bought with my own money. There was Canal Street – a huge venue for "bootleg" recordings, 125th Street in Harlem, and Third Avenue in the Bronx. There were also other music stores around the tri-state area. The tapes were small, so you could pass them around, copy them, mail them, and stick them in your back pocket. My interest with the cassette is – because of my story and the things I've been exposed to living in New York – I found that there are so many things on these cassette tapes that are probably being missed. We don't know where the tapes are now. They're in attics and in Nike shoeboxes in basements. Some of these tapes are more than 40 years old. Cassette tape seems to be a very stable medium, more stable than some recent technology, but they are in danger of deteriorating. It is terrifying for me. That's why I spent the time locating them, finding the collectors who have them, and trying to get them to dump as much info as they can into spreadsheets so I can filter the information. It's a search and rescue mission. I have accepted that it is my life's work. There are so many people – DJs, hip-hop artists, historians, ethnomusicologists, and technologists – who are interested in helping.
What was on these tapes?
They were hip-hop compilations. Said DJ would have about 30 tracks, depending on the length of the tape, and it would just be different artists. The better DJs were blending from song to song.
Right. Ron G was really great at that. He was one of the most notable DJs who mastered blending. He was responsible for breaking one of Mary J. Blige's early songs, because he mixed it with hip-hop. DJs naturally want to go and find new music from different artists, but, at some point, the record labels got hip to it and started really pushing music into the DJ's hands.
Weren't the tapes sometimes a record of a DJ set from a club night?
Sure, that's how they started. You had DJs like Brucie B, Kid Capri, and others who were recording their sets at clubs live, and then making copies of them and distributing them on the street. At some point there was a pivot, where it was like, "I'm not recording just my live sets, but I'm actually going to go home and create a tape." DJ Grandmaster Flash said he would sell tapes for a dollar per minute. If you had a 120-minute tape, it was $120.
There were a limited amount of these being made?
Sure, and a limited amount of people who could afford to actually pay that. It became a status thing. If someone was playing a tape from last night that was clearly a set from the club that you may not have been able to get into, you were like, "Oh, he was able to buy the tape." If you had a shout-out on the tape, it was even more special. You'd pay extra money to get a shout-out on the tape.
There are a lot of levels going on here!
There's a lot. The thing about it that's even crazier is that none of these tapes that were released were documented. That's part of the work I want to do with The Mixtape Museum; to get as much information and metadata as possible. Not necessarily sales, because "selling" mixtapes is illegal.
Because the material on there has been copyrighted by other artists.
But the impact! How many tapes did Jay-Z appear on before he hit? Those are the things I want to look at, because I feel like the mixtape and DJs have not gotten their due.
People drop a mixtape as a "release" now.
Mixtapes are very digital now. There was also a certain point – 50 Cent was one of the people responsible for this – where mixtapes actually became like an album; a street album. You'd have DJ Whoo Kid – who was 50 Cent's DJ, as well as the DJ for everyone under G-Unit [Records] – he would put out a tape, but it would be all G-Unit artists, or all 50 Cent. It was a targeted promotion. So, now you start to see a hip-hop artist say, "I'm going to drop this mixtape." First of all, there's probably not going to be a DJ on it. And it's probably just them – they're probably using tracks that are theirs. Using an older beat or something popular – a lot of times a freestyle over an older, well-known beat is a good way to promote. People are familiar with the sound, and now they're getting your voice and your style.
Have you been able to figure out some of the gear people were using, as well as how they duplicated the cassettes and distributed them?
Jazzy Joyce, who is still a very active and successful female DJ, on the Justo documentary, [Justo Presents: Mixtape All Stars, a.k.a The Mixtape Documentary], she talked about using a boombox with the double tape [decks]. She talked about how laborious that was, because she was doing it by hand. Later you had these machines that could record from one tape to multiple tapes.
Right, tape duplicator machines.
Then mixtapes were on CD. I have friends, like DJ Chuck T in South Carolina. Not only was he promoting his own mixtape series, but he would copy mixtapes for other DJs. He had this whole operation where he could copy thousands of mixtapes on CD. The whole process of making a mixtape has gotten easier, in general. Now we're just dragging and dropping music onto a Spotify playlist, so it's different.
Have you found evidence of people having low-budget, small home studios for making tapes?
Some of the DJs were doing that. The hip-hop mixtape had different genres underneath. The Ron Gs and the Juices, who were really great and recognized for their remixes, were considered hot shit. Then you had other DJs, like someone like DJ Clue, whose primary interest and specialty was exclusive tracks directly from the artist. People were flocking to his tapes because he had tracks that no other DJs had. He created a whole new mixtape genre.
There's an art to both.
Right. That led the way to a new thing. I've heard arguments about, "Oh, DJs that were 'exclusive mixtape' DJs are not real DJs." I feel if things don't evolve, they disappear. When I have conversations with people who are like, "These aren't real mixtapes," I say, "Well, they may not be, but we're still talking about them." If we want people to know what mixtapes were, then we need to preserve the history.
The history of hip-hop starts with DJ Kool Herc and street parties. That would be probably be almost unrecognizable to someone listening to modern hip-hop.
Yes. I'm still locating some of the tape collectors who might have these tapes, but there are tapes of live park jams – the earliest tapes possible. That was my first approach for The Mixtape Museum; to actually go and find the collectors. I didn't know there were that many. There are tons of mixtape collectors all over the world. People who have the original cassettes!
Do you think part of the need for mixtapes arose from, "There's only so much time on the radio we're hearing hip-hop," or that you had to be at that specific club to see this?
Or else you were going to miss it. DJ mixes are like snowflakes. There's not one that's ever the same as another, even if you take the same DJ and put them on the same turntables at the same time. You're not going to get the same mix. That's why it's so important to find the earlier tapes. They recorded the beginnings of hip-hop. It could be in someone's bedroom. It could be someone recording off the radio. It could be someone freestyling at a club. One of the things I'd like to do is to start interviewing people to collect oral histories and put these stories together. You had people showing up at a club, and they were just trying to get on the mic. "I can freestyle in front of this club full of people, and, if I'm lucky, Brucie B's recording this. He's going to copy this tape, and it's going to make the rounds."
This is an encapsulation of a lot of cultural history. Do you think one of the biggest problems is that it's almost an "illegal" art form because of copyrights?
I think even before that. You had the recording industry really pissed off when people could record in their homes. There was that issue.
"Home taping is killing music."
Yeah! The recording industry is always late to get something. When I was working on Clipse's management team – which are Gene "No Malice" Thornton and Terrence "Pusha T" Thornton, brothers from Virginia – there was a point where we could not put out any music, because Jive [Records] was taking them to court. So, what do you do? You put out a mixtape! This was the first mixtape that they put out, called We Got It 4 Cheap, Volume 1. We worked with DJ Clinton Sparks. He used to own a website called MixUnit.com, him and Mike Rios. They sold T-shirts and all types of music-related things. They also sold mixtape "covers," since selling tapes is illegal. If you bought the cover, you got the tape for free. This was during the CD era. MixUnit had the distribution; people were coming to their site and buying mix CDs. While those were being pushed out, I actually had boxes in my apartment. I thought, "What am I supposed to do with these?" I had no idea. Clipse, at the time, were playing on the radio. They were booked all the time. I hate the word "underground," but they weren't completely underground, so it wasn't difficult to promote them and work with them. We never knew what it was to not have a label or a publicist behind us. I was spoiled. My friend, Nancy Byron, who was a publicist for a bunch of DJs, she said, "You've got to talk to this guy named Justo [Orpheous Faison]. He lives in New York; he's from Brooklyn. He's the mixtape king." I meet up with Justo and I told him, "Clipse are putting out a mixtape and I need to move these. How do I get it to the Canal Streets, the 14th Streets, and the stores?" He made it clear that he didn't like Clipse's music, but because I was nice and he liked me, he said, "I'll help you!" We drove around in his Lincoln Navigator and he helped me distribute those tapes. That first tape got Clipse so many great reviews, in [publications] like The Source and XXL. The series extended our tour and we got another deal. So, the mixtape helped us move along when we were stuck in litigations with the label. Coming from management with Clipse, we worked hard, but it wasn't like Clipse were up-and-coming artists. They were established. We had Pharrell [Williams] making beats for us. But I really learned the power of the mixtape when we needed it, when we couldn't put out any music.
Was there new Clipse music on these CDs?
There's one original song on the second one, called "Zen." The rest was Clipse freestyling over other stuff. It turns out Justo was one of the early record promoters; one of the people who the labels went to to promote records. They paid him to push music out to the DJs. But instead of him just focusing on vinyl, he was one of the first people to say, "Hey, I know all these DJs who are putting out mixtapes. Let me promote the music specifically for mixtapes." He saw the correlation between the DJ, the mixtape, and how much promo the artist was getting if they weren't on radio. As a result, he started the Mixtape Awards, which ran for a couple of years. He gave awards to DJs who were breaking records on their mixtapes. Justo and I kept in touch and eventually started dating. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car accident. But it was through talking to him; he had stories upon stories about the mixtape DJ culture from the beginning. I tried to take as much of that in as possible. Had I known he was going to be killed in a car accident, I would have recorded every conversation. But that was the real catalyst for The Mixtape Museum. He had so much knowledge, and so many DJs are so grateful for the fact that someone was giving them recognition. People started paying attention.
It only helps the culture of the music, by making it a focal point.
It did. He did The Mixtape Documentary right before he passed away. It was interesting, because it was like a mixtape. He and his friend Tytanic, a producer out of Harlem, did all the music for the documentary. Justo was interviewing people in their cars, or whenever he could meet them, and talking to them about mixtape history. Tytanic and I have been talking about doing a second documentary; like a follow-up. Starting The Mixtape Museum really was a way to record the history that Justo talked about, as well as a way to honor his history, because he affected so many DJs and hip-hop artists. When he passed away, artists put out music dedicated to him.
I've heard about the mixtape being a stopgap, "We're not going to get this record done until then, but here's the mixtape."
You've got to feed the streets.
How would you describe The Mixtape Museum? I know it's not a physical place that I can go visit.
Not yet. It's online. There's a website that's not really fancy, but just informational. I've been doing the work behind the scenes. I've switched jobs and it's freed up some real estate in my brain that I can actually dedicate to working on it. I do want to start putting my plan into action and produce some tangible material. It's taken me to Stanford [University] to speak, [The College of] William & Mary, and to the AES Conventions. I'm on a fellowship at Columbia University; it's pretty cool that they're interested in hip-hop and the cassette.
Are you archiving tapes? Scanning covers and dumping tapes over to digital?
Yeah, that process is starting slowly. There is one collection; Tapemasta's collection [Charles "Tapemasta" Emery]. It's in Brooklyn. He has tapes from the floor to the ceiling. Mostly hip-hop, R&B, and reggae tapes. I met Tapemasta after Justo passed away. We've been trying to find out a way to process his collection. He's really the guinea pig. I learned SQL at my last job and was a database manager. I thought that a database would be the best way to connect some of these collectors, and also to collect metadata from all these tapes. Right now, I'm just trying to gather this information. "What generation is this tape? How many dubs? Two dubs after the master, or 15?"
Could there ever be a way for people to use The Mixtape Museum as a library resource? It would be amazing to know where tapes have been dumped over, what songs are on it, and what artists.
That's what I would love. Years on, that model has kind of changed. I think it might be possible that some of these tapes could legally be streamed. There are technology companies, like Dubset Media, that have created technology that scans streaming for samples. The idea is, if I take this Doo Wop 95 Live and digitize it, am I able to run it through the database, pick up all the samples, stream it, pay out royalties, and pay the DJs for their mix? Is that possible? I've been having conversations with Dubset.
Are there other institutions preserving hip-hop history and doing research?
You've got hip-hop archives popping up in places like Harvard and Cornell. If these institutions do the right thing (and some of them are) and go to the correct sources – the hip-hop artists, the DJs, and the people who worked in the music industries – they will get those stories. They won't just get commercial stories based on sales. They'll get stories that are local, as well as smaller pieces of the bigger puzzle. Cornell has a huge collection that I visited. It's run by Katherine Reagan and Ben Ortiz. They have everything inside of Cornell's Rare Books and Manuscripts department. I saw hip-hop artifacts next to a copy of the Declaration of Independence! Julie Grob at the University of Texas has started the DJ Screw collection. DJ Screw was a DJ in Texas who did chopped and screwed mixtapes on cassette. [Some of which featured the late George Floyd, a.k.a., Big Floyd, the name he rapped under as part of the legendary Screwed Up Click. -ed.] There are others; I'm finding them. My friend, Kevin Kosanovich, started a hip-hop archive at William & Mary a couple of years ago.
The Mixtape Museum could even be a resource, where academics say, "I need access."
For research. Yeah. The Mixtape Research Database! There's a description of what it could be on the website. I'm also collecting "mixtape memories." I scan Twitter every day. If you search "mixtape" and "cassette," someone's always talking about them. Or I'll find a post, a picture, or a digitized copy of a cassette tape. Someone's always talking about a mixtape memory they have. Consumers, DJs, collectors, hip-hop artists… whoever. I started doing short Q&As with some of the mixtape collectors that I have been working with. There are a lot of things in the works. There's a book, and all these other things that I want to do. I was born in '77, so I'm a little late to the game compared to some of my friends. I'm doing research and collecting new stories from people, because I wasn't there. It actually gives me an interesting perspective. People say, "Oh, you weren't there at the beginning of hip-hop." And I reply, "No, but you were. Tell me about it!"