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Retrospective: The Mixtape Era Vol. 1(2002-2007)


By @TrueGodImmortal 





In hip hop, there are some vital movements that came from the mixtape. There were artists who had not been given a proper shot via their label and turned to the streets to truly get their name and point across. For others, it served as an avenue to stay relevant and continue to supply music to the fans that wanted to hear it. The Mixtape had been around for years. Freestyles would pop up all the time and exclusives would pop up on the new DJ Clue tape, the new Funk Flex tape, even DJ Ron G and Tony Touch would have mixtapes that captivated the streets as well. The whole concept became alluring for your average listener because it was music delivered right to your ears that you had to be immersed within the culture to get access to. While a mainstream album might be all over the networks and sell a million copies, the mixtape would get passed around and shared through neighborhoods with the possible chance that the tape would see one of the freestyles played on New York Radio.

The mecca of hip hop, New York, is where the mixtape truly became known and appreciated. Outside of the DJ led mixtapes, which were infamous for having your favorite(or least favorite DJ) yell their catchphrase or random shoutouts all over, there began a rise of more artist led mixtapes and though the official origin is impossible to trace, one crew is undoubtedly credited with starting the wave and trend: G-Unit. Now, with the Unit, you had the trio of Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, and of course the leader of the crew 50 Cent, who would rise to prominence via these very mixtapes. It began with the classic 50 Cent Is The Future tape which would show 50 and the Unit remixing popular songs to put their brand of murder and street flare on it. From flipping a Raphael Saadiq and D'Angelo track to a random freestyle from Banks that would take off titled "The Banks Workout", this mixtape was the beginning of something very special. G-Unit would go on to release two more tapes to complete a trifecta, with the amazing "No Mercy, No Fear" and "God's Plan" following up and continuing the trend of G-Unit dominance of the streets. We'll revisit the G-Unit impact a little bit later however.




One crew also from New York that began to use the mixtape strategy was the Harlem based Diplomats crew led by Cam'ron. Now, to be fair, Cam and company had released a mixtape a bit before 50 I believe, but it didn't take off as much as the G-Unit. The Diplomats Vol. 1 mixtape was still a classic hit throughout the streets and helped give more of a name and buzz to Juelz Santana and by design, Jim Jones. While involved in a brutal beef with Nas in the summer of 2002, the Diplomats Vol. 2 would be released and feature some disses directly to Nas and end up taking things to another level. The Diplomats had a very strong effect on the mixtape culture during this time and they would end up releasing 5 editions of their Diplomats Vol. Tapes, and each one seemed to carry a central theme, which worked well for them in the long run. You began to get familiar with Hell Rell, 40 Cal, and JR Writer a lot more via these tapes and such. It worked wonders for the overall feel of the crew and supplied the Diplomats with apparent depth as a collective. Make no mistake, while G-Unit and the Diplomats were paving the way for the movement led mixtapes, there were still DJs coming with their own series and tapes that gained notoriety without question.





DJ P-Cutta remains one of my personal favorites to ever release a mixtape series and the Street Wars mixtape series remains a classic. For years, P-Cutta would gather up all the best disses, some exclusive, and combine them for a volume in his series. During the heyday of Jada vs Beans, Nas vs Jay, Ja vs 50, Nas vs Cam and smaller beefs, P-Cutta completely capitalized off hip hop beef and made a name for himself doing so with no problem. Another DJ that gained relevance due to drama and beef was DJ Kay Slay, the Drama King, who would talk his shit frequently, but also feature hot new freestyles or the newest diss record before anybody else on the streets had it. This was the true saving grace for Kay Slay and he ended up earning a large amount of praise and adulation for trying to push the mixtape culture forward while getting his own shine. He also received criticism for it as well, but that comes with the territory I expect. I would be out of line if I didn't take a moment to reference one of the greatest DJs ever, who ended up crafting classic mixtapes in Houston and gave them to the world, and that man is DJ Screw. Without talking too long about Screw, his effect on the mixtape game is always felt and he is hands down a legend at what he did. Period.







DJ Green Lantern would end up gaining some true attention with some of his tapes and he would provide us with plenty of exclusives throughout his career, far too many to name if I'm being honest. One of the more underrated DJs would have to be DJ Smallz, the architect and creator of the legendary Southern Smoke series. I remember going to get the tapes from the local bootleg man, and Southern Smoke was always a big choice for me, with a lot of epic installments and songs featured. DJ Big Mike would be yet another one, providing the Hardcore street music fans with what they needed during this era.  He would be a big supporter of Jadakiss and the D-Block crew during his tenure as a top mixtape DJ and made sure to feature them as well often. How could I forget the controversial DJ Whoo Kid, who was a vital part of the G-Unit run and would also help host various other mixtapes for artists during this time period as well. All those DJs made a truly significant impact, but if we are talking the most important DJ of that era, there can only be one.

His name is DJ Drama.



Now, regardless of if you think Drama is corny or not (he could be), his work speaks for itself. He took risks, he dealt with the Feds, Drama put his neck on the line for the culture just to provide us with a bunch of classics. His Gangsta Grillz series could possibly be the greatest mixtape series ever and it helped to further careers of so many. From Gangsta Grillz tapes with T.I., Lil Boosie, Lil Wayne, Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and tons of other rappers during the Gangsta Grillz prime, there was absolutely nothing that Drama could do wrong. My personal favorite Gangsta Grillz is the Little Brother one "Separate But Equal", which features the group of Pooh and Phonte as they spit fire over the soulful production and brought Mos Def, Bun B and others to the party. The classic track "Boondock Saints" is here which stands as the one of the best verses from Phonte I had heard up until that point. That had to be the crowning achievement for Drama as far as mixtapes because it was outside of the box for both Drama and Little Brother. Drama wouldn't be the only DJ to assist on a classic either, there was one DJ who helped bring a group that seemed to struggle with an album release back into the forefront.




Virginia's favorite duo Clipse had been dealing with holdups at Jive Records for months when they teamed up with Clinton Sparks to release the monumental We Got It 4 Cheap series. When the first released, it featured Ab-Liva and Sandman as well on the tape to make up a new collective The Re-Up Gang. Essentially, if Jive wasn't going to play fair, Clipse would go do their own thing and make a buzz the way they saw fit. It would be the first time we really heard them rapping without the Neptunes production and the result would be pretty much a classic. The pinnacle of this run for Clipse would be the 2nd installment of We Got It 4 Cheap, where the crew seemed hungrier than they had ever been, and this was really the emergence of Pusha T as the best from the camp in many ways. He had already been seen in that light, but those mixtapes and his quotable verses reinforced it on a higher level. Street related artists would begin to get a bigger buzz via mixtapes and some would even get a career resurgence after failing previously on their major label debuts.



One artist that fits that description would have to be Joe Budden. After a huge single in the commercial hit "Pump It Up", Budden would see his music career stall a bit after his debut album performed below expectations and didn't live up to the hype. What was noticed in that debut album however was that Budden seemed at his strongest when talking personal issues and problems he faced. This would spawn the Mood Muzik series, which is the greatest thing he's done in his career hands down (don't you dare say Love and Hip Hop). What made this series so engaging was Budden and his vulnerability in his lyrics and the fact that you could see that he was troubled in his own right. Dealing with his drug addictions, baby mama drama (I can relate now), and problems in relationships with women, Budden would uncharacteristically showcase a rare human sensibility and the type of emotional output in his music that hadn't been seen in quite a while in hip hop. Mood Muzik 2 would be the crown jewel of this series and the 2005 release features Joe provide us with his deepest thoughts on life, death, love, all the while still lyrically assaulting whatever comes his way. Mood Muzik 1 was rooted in depression and problems with Def Jam, while Mood Muzik 2 provided that perfect balance. Mood Muzik 3 was more so an album than a mixtape, but it is still a solid edition to the series, and features the maturation of Joe in a lot of ways musically. Mood Muzik is without a doubt a classic series in mixtape history, especially for this era.




Now, can we talk about Jadakiss? Styles? D-Block? Who could forget the mid 2000s run of the Yonkers collective? Styles rose to his own prominence via his mixtapes after being seen as a role player in the Lox, while Jadakiss would begin his whole series with DJ Green Lantern titled "The Champ Is Here". They would appear on countless mixtapes from the DJs as well, with freestyles galore and they introduced their young gunner J-Hood as well, who would begin to gain a fanbase of his own. D-Block during this era was unstoppable it seemed, and there are plenty of D-Block mixtapes with their brand of street music. The official mixtape that garnered the most fanfare would have be the aptly titled "D-Block: The Mixtape", which is 22 tracks of Jada, Styles, Sheek Louch, J-Hood, and forgotten member Arliss spitting their best over mostly popular instrumentals and classic hip hop beats. While D-Block helped to fill the mixtape holy trinity of NY with G-Unit and the Diplomats, the south had something to say in regards to the mixtape game without a doubt.






Let's start in Texas, shall we? DJ Michael Watts and Swishahouse began dropping mixtapes, Slim Thug and the Boss Hogg Outlaws began dropping mixtapes, and even Lil Flip rose to relevance via a mixtape that featured him on the cover as a leprechaun. Soon, with the mixtape becoming the new form of promotion for artists, Texas rappers would turn their mixtape success and independence into major label deals. Flip got a deal for himself, Slim Thug signed with Pharrell and Interscope, Mike Jones got hot with Swishahouse, as did Paul Wall, and the most slept on Texas artist Chamillionaire won over the crowd with a classic tape in "Mixtape Messiah". There are some who hold "Mixtape Messiah" to the highest regard and list it as a top all time mixtape, which is not an exaggeration. The mixtape, which throws shots at Swishahouse and Mike Jones, is impressive in its own right as a 3 disc set, which is honestly one of the only mixtapes to be a 3 disc for just one artist. Chamillionaire also turned his mixtape success into a label deal, and Texas benefited the most it seemed from the mixtape era, as far as the south goes. How about Atlanta though?






For this era in particular, I would say three vital trap artists benefited from the mixtape: T.I., Young Jeezy, and at the tail end of this era, Gucci Mane. T.I. had already been signed and flopped with his major label debut "I'm Serious", but he quickly turned his fortune around with the mixtape series with his PSC crew "In Da Streets". After that series began taking off, we began to see T.I. in a whole new light and his career would improve greatly after his 2003 album Trap Muzik, which would lead right into one of the greatest mixtapes ever "Down With The King", the Gangsta Grillz that saw T.I. cement his victory in the beef with Lil Flip. T.I. would put together a solid tape here and it helped his stature in hip hop grow even stronger. For Jeezy, this road was a little different. He would release his mixtape "Come Shop With Me" in 2003 to little fanfare, but would end up catching some fire via his Gangsta Grillz mixtape "Tha Streets Iz Watchin", from 2004 and then he started to take off from there. The moment he released his next Gangsta Grillz tape, "Trap or Die", the rest was history. Jeezy began to hit his stride and even after his major label debut on Def Jam hit double platinum, he stayed true to the mixtape grind and put out "Can't Ban The Snowman" and "I Am The Street Dream" in 2006. Truth be told, Jeezy might be one of the most successful artists to ever come from the mixtape hustle and "Trap or Die" is one of the greatest mixtapes of all time, as well as one of the most important. Now, Jeezy had a nemesis during his rise. That would be Gucci Mane. Gucci and Jeezy were in a heated beef that extended beyond music, but Gucci began catching some attention based off his history with jail, the beef, and a growing mixtape hunger that has now manifested in present day to be the largest output of music we've ever seen. I would likely give the nod to "Chicken Talk", his 2 disc tape with DJ Burn One as a true starting point, though his Gangsta Grillz series was where he truly took off as the mixtape era was coming to an official end at that point. If this were a discussion on mixtapes after 2008 and beyond, the king would be Gucci Mane and it isn't even close.





So, Texas and Atlanta would benefit largely from mixtapes in the south, how about Louisiana? Well, let's first start with the most lyrical rapper from New Orleans, and no it isn't Tunechi. The debut of Jay Electronica came in the last year of this huge boom period for mixtapes and his "What The Fuck is A Jay Electronica" tape helped him to stomp onto the scene, with his amazing wordplay and lyrical ability. However, that mixtape would be one of the few shining moments in his career, as he's virtually disappeared from the mixtape game and from releasing music in the present day. Baton Rouge native Lil Boosie would capitalize on mixtapes to help his Trill Fam gain notoriety as well, but there is none other than the New Orleans native Lil Wayne to speak about when talking mixtapes. If 50 is no. 1 when talking mixtapes all time and the pioneer, Wayne is easily a close no. 2 and there's no debating that. At all.





Wayne truly got started early on in the era with his late 2002-2003 mixtape releases with Sqad Up, his crew. The SQ mixtape series was gaining attention and love after Wayne flopped with the terrible 500 Degreez album, and is responsible for the start of Wayne's rise and ascension to superstardom in many ways. Wayne would continue his run with being Da Drought series(hosted by DJ Khaled before his We The Best fame and Snapchat inspiration) in early 2004, which led right into his 2004 album Tha Carter, which was his initial breakthrough moment. Other mixtapes like The Prefix and Da Drought 2 followed, and Wayne was beginning to release music at a higher level than we had previously seen. Wayne began working on a new series with DJ Drama for Gangsta Grillz titled "Dedication", and this would be the moment where Wayne would gain his highest form of popularity since the Cash Money heyday.









"Dedication" signaled a new era for Wayne, and after releasing that mixtape, there was buzz everywhere for Wayne leading into his Carter 2 album, which is certified double platinum now. Wayne had utilized his mixtape prowess and success to further his album career and sales, and it worked beautifully. Wayne would release a large number of tapes during 2005 to 2007, the most notable being the following four: Dedication 2, Da Drought 3, Blow(w/ Juelz Santana and hosted by Mick Boogie), and in my opinion, The Suffix. The Suffix is likely the most slept on mixtape in the Wayne mixtape discography, along with the 2007 release of "Da Drought is Over 2: The Carter 3 Sessions", which came right at the end of this particular era. If you are only familiar with Wayne mixtapes like No Ceilings and Sorry 4 The Wait, I think these tapes listed above are a guide to truly get to know why Wayne made the claim of "Best Rapper Alive" and some believed him. Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 are flawless tapes and executed perfectly, while Blow shows Wayne out rapping Juelz on almost every song and being in what felt like his lyrical prime. Make no mistake about it, Wayne was on top of his game, and his mixtape success almost got him signed to Def Jam by his favorite rapper, Jay-Z.




Speaking of Jay, he decided to drop his hat into the mixtape arena to coincide with the release of his first sneaker with Reebok. The S. Carter Collection  tape was special in many ways because you would never expect Jay, such a high profile MC, to dabble in the mixtape game. He did and the tape was definitely amazing. Jay seemed to be gearing up for his retirement album The Black Album, and though these verses on The S. Carter Collection were likely throwaways, they still show Jay at his most raw and his most defiant. Jay seemed more competitive on The S. Carter Collection than he had been in a few years, since he took Nas to task over the Kanye produced classic diss "Takeover". Kanye even took a shot at the mixtape hustle, as he released a classic tape in "Get Well Soon" in 2003 to prepare the world for his epic debut album "The College Dropout". There are some gems that can still be found on this tape that remind you of the hunger and the excitement that Kanye carried during his first run. While Jay and Kanye held down the Roc, they wouldn't be the only Roc member who released a classic tape, as Beanie Sigel dropped his "Public Enemy # 1" tape right around the time he was facing his bid in jail. Beans spits focused verses and freestyles over classic instrumentals and provides us with the Beans that we had been looking for since the 2001 release of "The Reason" album. The Roc was the most dominant force in hip hop mainstream at the time, and still managed to hold it down in the mixtape game as well.









This brings me back where I started: G-Unit. During this era, there was nothing or anyone more dominant than G-Unit. After their first run of three, G-Unit would eventually branch off and create multiple classics, some solo, some group. The classic "Automatic Gunfire", which quickly followed up the first three tapes, would feature a ton of Murda Inc disses and some catchy tracks from the Queens crew. They would release "Bulletproof" hosted by Dave Chappelle shortly after, before beginning the most iconic mixtape series ever, "G-Unit Radio". During this era, they would release 25 editions of G-Unit Radio, each edition featuring fire and one even hosted by LeBron James. Lloyd Banks got his own series, starting with the classic "Money In The Bank" series in the summer of 2003. There was no way that G-Unit could lose and they had added in new members to expand the trio as well, mainly Young Buck and at the end of 2003, The Game. With the new members, 50 eventually began giving each member their own edition of a G-Unit Radio, and showcasing them for the fans to get familiar mostly. The best in the G-Unit Radio series to me were Vol. 5, Vol. 6, Vol. 7, Vol. 25, Vol. 9, Vol. 22, Vol. 8, Vol. 1, Vol. 2, and Vol. 3. Vol. 4 was good as well and there are only a few lackluster tapes here in the whole series(Spider Loc, Olivia, Mobb Deep, Freeway, and Ma$e have the worst editions oddly enough). The impact that G-Unit had on the mixtape game during this era is second to none and they are truly the no. 1 movement and artists to come from the mixtape era.

When this era is looked back on, I don't think anyone could ever deny the level of greatness that was created and the artists we were introduced or re-introduced to. This particular time in hip hop was game changing, groundbreaking and should always be remembered. Period.

-True 

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