The Evolution of the Mixtape: An Oral History With DJ Drama

DJ Drama
Zach Wolfe

DJ Drama

DJ Drama, arguably the most famous mixtape DJ of all time, breaks down the art form's evolution.

Ten years ago this month, a raid on DJ Drama and Don Cannon's Atlanta studio netted authorities 80,000 CDs -- mixtapes -- that the RIAA deemed illegal on copyright grounds. The effects of the raid shifted the underground mixtape industry forever, and caused many to wonder whether the mixtape was dead. That wasn't the case -- Billboard's look at the shift in the mixtape business in the decade since can be found here -- but it sparked another era in the mixtape's long evolution. Philadelphia-bred, Atlanta-based DJ Drama breaks down the different eras that have defined mixtapes over the years.

Early Days (1980s-1990s)

DJ Drama: I would consider the Golden Era to be when I was a teenager growing up listening to the real masters of mixtapes, from Ron G to Doo Wop to Kid Capri and S&S. And then DJ Clue, who I feel really revolutionized the mixtape game and took it from being pretty much a DJ's set on a tape to making it about exclusives and new records, and almost being its own project and its own form. Clue birthed a whole era.

First Evolution (Mid 1990s - Early 2000s)

There's the mixtape game pre-50 Cent and post-50 Cent. There was the era from Clue and Doo Wop, when so many rappers came and spit 16s on beats that weren't theirs, into 50 turning them into his own records. Instead of just spitting a 16, he started to re-do people's hooks and make his own songs to the point where as DJs we wanted to play his versions in the club.

Before [50 and] the Internet era, me being in Philly, it was a thing where I had to go to South Street and go to the Layup or go to Chelten Ave. to a specific spot to get the tapes. It was a very exclusive world -- you almost felt like an elite social group, you know what I'm saying? From hearing "Who Shot Ya?" for the first time on a Clue tape through to the mid-2000s and it being accessible on these mixtape web sites -- which kind of made the era I came up in a little easier because I was able to touch a larger audience quicker than those who came before me.

Street Album Evolution (2003 - 2007)

From the 50 era, that's pretty much when it became a street album. Mixtapes destroyed the demo tape; nobody cared about your demo tape anymore, it was like, "What are you doing with your mixtape, and how are the streets selling it?" I definitely can say that they helped inspire what I went on to do with Gangsta Grillz and the artists that I came up with.

It was that era after 50, from '04 through '06, where I was pretty much a dominant force. The mixtape game has always had its realms across the country, but what we did with Gangsta Grillz and the other artists that were coming up, we really brought the mixtape game to the South, to where it really lived. I remember a time when I would try to call around and be like, "Hey, I'm DJ Drama, I have this Southern mixtape," and people outside of the South were like, "Eh, nobody's really checking for that."

Blog Era Evolution (2005-2009)

At the same time that the raid was happening in '07, there was a big change in hip-hop. If you look back at '07, it's really known for being the year of Ringtone Rap. A lot of artists didn't really break that year -- it was songs that got broken. Some of that I [attribute] to the fact that mixtapes were at a down moment because of what was going on [with the raid], as well as [the Internet]. All this was happening, and a whole new generation came in where it wasn't so much about the hard copies, and they took it to another level of not even having to go to a mixtape site, per se, to get to the music. There's all these open outlets and forums where they can display their music.

I felt like blogs and sites were becoming the new DJs and mixtapes on their own. Because around that time, you would have to go to the mixtape to get the new music that somebody dropped, but when sites like NahRight and OnSmash and RapRadar were putting up the new records from everybody, you technically didn't need the mixtape anymore, with new mixtapes coming daily every day forever right to your doorstep. Social media did create that environment where it changed hands; you couldn't charge somebody for a mixtape or go on a website and say, "This is $2.99 or $3.99," when you could go to this other website and it was free.

That was a time where I remember in the mixtape game we looked at Datpiff as if they were the enemy, because they were streaming mixtapes for free, you know? Like, "Hold on, what's this?" But at the end of the day it helped to come back to the essence, which is about getting that music to the people. It cut out a lot of red tape.

Mixtape-As-Album Evolution (2009-2014)

The generation of [Big] Sean and Kendrick and Drake and Cole and Wiz, here's a whole new crop of artists that are kind of putting out projects in a sense where they're not as DJ-related as they once were, but they're still called mixtapes. And I still respect them as that, but they almost took the concept of the mixtape and the demo and they were able to create their own lanes and their own avenues.

Watching that new school come up and create these projects helped breathe life back into the game. I remember when me and Wayne did Dedication 3, that was a monumental moment, I think that was the biggest tape I had done since the raid. And for me, it was always like, I come from the culture, I love the culture and knowing how important mixtapes were to my life and my career … making people understand, this is how the game strides. It wasn't about the money; I was doing it when I was having to go to Kinko's myself and make copies. For me, it was about the culture and about what mixtapes meant to all those generations and eras in terms of how we are where we are today.

Streaming Evolution (2014-Present)

Now, mixtapes are bigger business than they ever were. We're at even a stronger point from the kids that look at Cole and Kendrick and Drake as their influences and OGs, [now they] are putting projects out. It's an abundance and it's overwhelming, but it's dope. It gives artists a platform and an opportunity to express themselves and create their own fan base without really having to go through the machine.

Datpiff was competing against MixUnit to a certain extent, then Datpiff put MixUnit against the wall, now we're in a position where everybody's a key player. Datpiff and LiveMixtapes were in competition with each other, but now not only do you have them but you have Apple Music, you have Tidal, you have Spotify, you have Soundcloud. These are all avenues.

I definitely don't feel like the DJ is as relevant as they once were on mixtapes, but definitely have to credit Esco for what he and Future have done with their movement and specifically making their mark from mixtapes, and taking that and being able to utilize that in different forms. 

The Future

I'll put it to you like this: in 2016, I did fewer mixtapes than I've probably done in the last 15 years of my career. But 2016 was also one of my most successful years, whether it was with my record, whether it was with Lil Uzi Vert, whether it was with Mean Street Studios, or so many things that I've had going on. I watched it through the time.

When it comes to me, I did what I came to do when it comes to mixtapes, and it's been a blessing in my career for me to be able to go on and do other amazing things. But I don't think it's a coincidence that DJ Drama, one of the biggest mixtape DJs ever, with one of the biggest mixtape series ever with Gangsta Grillz, only probably did a handful of tapes in 2016. And for me, I even look at it going forward, like, I'm at a point where when it comes to mixtapes, what more can I say? What more can I do?