Stop Tape

Are today's MCs being resourceful, or just plain lazy?

"On the first couple mixtapes I did . . . I was [stealing] a lot of beats," Avatar Young Blaze, one of the most talented young lyricists in Seattle, admits in his usual cotton-mouthed drawl. He then adds perhaps the most fitting rationale you'll hear an MC offer for his mixtape-riddled career: "I seen that Lil Wayne was doin' it." Inspired by Wayne's star-making run of mixtapes in 2007, the Russian-blooded Blaze has become Seattle's most prolific mixtape rapper over the past 14 months. He's released full-length projects—free for the download—almost quarterly in an attempt to stay fresh in the minds of his fans and critics and to leverage the medium's minimal overhead (the common conception is that there's no real obligation to pay any producers if a project does not come with a price tag) to boost his stock. "Mixtape" is a term borrowed from the origins of rap, when DJs would make party mixes on cassettes. Its meaning has become elastic, and now acts as an umbrella term for a shapeless, usually digital collection of songs and an often hollow bolster to the street credibility of a "release." Ironically, Young Blaze believes the saturation of mixtapes in the local and national scene is diluting the genre to the point of embarrassment. "Rap music is a fuckin' joke right now," he says. Though Blaze's mixtapes have become increasingly album-like of late (mixed-down, mastered, with mostly original production), many in the local scene have failed to progress along with him—and with the current national scene—and continue to release severely compromised material without a second thought: hastily spattered lyrics over popular club hits; flat, unmixed recordings, nearly void of originality. The goal is that with minimal effort, they will be able to showcase just enough skill to be given a better chance, where they will presumably be surrounded by more talented musicians who can facilitate their success. "It's like [the thinking goes], 'People don't know we got a restaurant, so we just gonna serve chicken nuggets until the people get here, then we'll start servin' ostrich steaks and quail and Japanese wagyu,' " laughs Vitamin D, one of the city's most accomplished DJs and producers. "There's still such a thing as wanting to consume some good, original music; that's what the fuck it's about. We still want to be moved by some shit." Spac3man, another local MC not short on talent, is nearly a household name in Seattle's hip-hop scene for his rich performances and plentiful guest features on other artists' projects. But although he's been signed to respected local indie label Sportn' Life Records for nearly three years, he has yet to release a proper record. His second mixtape, Featuristic, which appeared on his Bandcamp site late last month, is a mixture of featured verses, unreleased tracks, and freestyles over popular songs. In the beginning, Spac3 explains, he rapped primarily over stolen industry beats out of necessity, since he didn't have access to anything he deemed worthy of his lyrics. His continued use of unoriginal production, he says, is done with the intent of piggybacking on the success of a pre-existing song: "It's easier on people's ears to hear a beat that they've already heard," he explains. "All it takes with a local artist is somebody to be like, 'There's this new dude. I don't really like the beat, I don't really like it.' Then a mo'fucka will listen to your music hella sideways, and bias." As understanding as some have been about the monetary limitations of young artists, a veteran like Vitamin D is quick to share his skepticism: "I had to get a job to get my first drum machine," he says. "When I was little, I was cutting lawns to get that. What makes [rappers] so special, they don't got to engage in the same struggle humans do? Man, we gotta work for what we have, right? There's no way to cheat that, so stop trying to do it, especially with your music, 'cause it's gonna come back to haunt you." Kembrew McLeod, co-author of this year's Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling, an influential examination of copyright law relating to sampling in hip-hop, says that contrary to common practice, snagging beats for mixtapes falls under the same legal principle as for-profit releases: "Despite the fact that it actually is illegal . . .  people still do it, and also I think that a lot of people just think that it's all right." McLeod maintains that the potential dangers of releasing uncleared material are small, which has allowed the practice to continue without much of a "chilling effect"—except for artists at the level of popularity of Wayne, who has in the past been sued for uncleared mixtape samples. McLeod believes that while mixtape practices might perpetuate an acceptably low level of creativity, the actual output is more or less inconsequential. "In some instances it might make for lazy artists," he says, "but those artists are probably never going to bubble up to the top anyway." Longtime area producer Dave "D-Sane" Severance III, who has handled almost all of Young Blaze's studio mastering, says of Blaze's career at the moment: "The thing is that he's not actually working on a new album. If he was working on a new album, and these releases were in preparation and building up towards a project, and towards a goal, it would kind of make sense, but there's really not a goal in sight as far as building up to an actual album release." MCs, Young Blaze included, have refused to lift the "mixtape" tag from their releases, even on projects like his most recent, Danny Darko, where the line between mixtape and album has narrowed to an infuriating degree, adding a veritable asterisk to the project. Spac3 says the mixtape tag offers some cover when criticism hits: "It's an avenue to get your music to people that's more of a disclaimer from having to put together a solid composition of music that you'd have to call an album . . . It can be a bunch of good songs, where it doesn't have to be real strategized and put together." With a mixtape disclaimer, artists basically stand to lose nothing, as they can answer most any criticism with the self-justification that it's only a mixtape. It's a low-risk investment, and they can rap with their underdog status intact. You can only be knocked so much for the content of a mixtape, and in the post–50 Cent/Lil Wayne era, it can only take you so far. "There's nothing wrong with doing a mixtape if you're doing something that adds to the culture of hip-hop," concludes Vitamin D—"not [just] a rapper on some guy's beats—there's a difference."

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