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Mix Masters 

Inside the underground DJ mix-tape phenomenon

Wednesday, Nov 8 1995
Mix tapes, along with graffiti, are one of the last raw vestiges of hip-hop culture. While just about everyone has slapped some favorite songs on a cassette at some point without a second thought, mix tapes have become a growing underground industry. DJs from coast to coast are making slamming compilations which are then traded or sold locally, even internationally, via an intricate subterranean distribution network. Ranging from old school anthologies to hit parades or scratching assaults, mix tapes offer the discriminating consumer both specialization and the chance to listen before you buy -- the official label releases, that is.

"I think the reason why mix tapes are so popular," proclaims local rap impresario Billy Jam, "is because people are tired of the fucking radio. Radio sucks. You turn on the radio and you hear fucking commercials, the same Biggie Smalls song and a fucking ballad.

"All of us," he continues, "you, me, and the little 10-year-old down the street, we want to put a tape on in our Walkman or in our car or in our home that we don't have to fast forward, and that's what it comes down to. Most people don't have time to be making tapes or they don't have turntables or they don't have the skills, so it's worth it to go out and buy a $10, $12, or $15 mix tape that's slammin'."

As the name of the mix-tape game is variety, all bets are on the Bay Area, where DJs as different as Positively Red, Ajax, and the Invisible Scratch Pickles supply hip-hoppers with a steady stream of aural collages. Here, even female DJs -- always a rarity -- have made a name for themselves, offering a sonic alternative to the usual hardcore male braggadocio.

The Baroness, a favorite on the club scene for several years now, also serves as the Broun Fellinis' DJ, opening their local sets with a mixture of deep dub and grit-soaked jazz. Known primarily as what she calls a "beats-jazz-funk-hip-hop DJ," her first "official" mix tape, Enter the Baroness AKA Charlotte is an excursion into deep house.

"I don't ever want to leave one genre to go to another one," the Baroness says. "I want to be able to do them all. I chose to put more of my emphasis into house because it's the area I'm least known in. ... I wanted the promoters to know that that sound is out there and that I have a new take on it."

DJ Steph, who publishes The Vinyl Exchange, a newsletter for hip-hop vinyl junkies, operates on the straight-up tip, utilizing only two turntables and a mixer -- no four-track and no overdubbing. She calls her tapes a person-al statement through which she hopes "to communicate the feeling I get from the music." If people want to buy her tapes, that's just an added bonus.

"It's not a commercial endeavor at all," Steph says. "I don't plan to make any money off of it. It's just to share the music that I like with other people."

Based in New York, Tape Kings is the premier mix-tape broker. Iain, the company's founder, purchases master copies from well-known DJs like Blackmoon's Evil D and Funkmaster Flex, dubs the tapes, adorns them with funky artwork, and sells them via mail order. Up until about a year ago, mix tapes were strictly an East Coast phenomenon, but the scene has exploded as other cities develop their own unique mix-tape vibe. It should come as no surprise that the Bay Area, with its rich hip-hop tradition, has become a hotbed of mix-tape activity, with stores like Cue's in San Bruno and Ultra Sounz in the South Bay modeling themselves on Tape Kings.

As the market grows, though, so do questions about its legality. Mix tapes are in legal limbo, technically illegal although a DJ has yet to be prosecuted in the manner of more conventional bootleggers who reproduce entire albums or videos for profit.

"The copyright holders," explains Bay Area entertainment lawyer Michael Aczon, "meaning the record label and the person who owns the composition, have the exclusive right to make reproductions, including derivative works. And that's what a mix tape is -- a derivative work of an original work. The letter of the law is that anybody making them is in violation, if they're doing it without the permission of the copyright holder."

But many record companies appear to sanction the bootlegging of their intellectual property -- actually "servicing," i.e. sending free product, to mix tape DJs like Supreme and Ajax in hopes that the music will make it onto their compilations.

Billy Jam says many labels ask him to put them in touch with local DJs. "They want to be on the tapes," Jam says. "It's like street credibility. Labels will do anything to get their artists out there, so they don't have a problem with it yet."

DJ Steph agrees. "The labels get exposure and the songs get mad exposure from mix tapes, so it's more of a benefit to them," she says. Could a DJ use this information to counter a copyright infringement claim in court?

"Certainly there is going to be an argument that sending music out to somebody and telling them that they get to make a mix tape is a least a tacit authorization to do so," Aczon says.

But then there's the issue of artists' rights. Like Steph, most DJs see mix tapes as a form of promotion that actually helps -- not hurts -- the artist. "In my opinion," says the Baroness, "I don't think this is really a violation of the artist, because what we are doing is putting the artist's work out there. Especially in house music, what it's doing is providing people a chance to hear music that they're not normally gonna get to hear."

"Some people might say, 'Well, aren't you taking money out of the artist's mouth?' " says Billy Jam. "If you look at it, if there's $100 to be made, the record company makes about $95 and the artist makes pennies. So when it comes to mix tapes I think it's a revolution because [the DJ] is really taking money out of the record company's mouth. It's more of an anarchist type of move, which I like."

Jam's successful "Fuck the Bullshit" mix tapes are essentially a 90-minute pirate radio show "broadcast" from his basement. He prominently features work by Bay Area artists, and packs the tapes with unedited, uncensored versions of popular and unreleased songs and special guests. The lo-fi ambience only adds to the their inherent street appeal.

Two other DJs who represent on the street level are Positively Red and Supreme. Working out of the Fillmore District, Positively Red exemplifies the hardcore underground mix tape aesthetic: He buys a brick of TDKs and dubs his tapes at home, then sells 'em in the neighborhood by word of mouth. For Red, it's all about the basics: the music and your skills as a DJ.

"When I first started tryin' to put my tapes out on the street," he remembers, "I wasn't doin' graphics, and there was some other kids out and about doin' them and everybody was buyin' their tapes because of the cover. But my thing is this: Fuck the graphics! I mean that shit is cool, but if you're a consumer and you want to hear some flavor, take time out to check what's on there."

Supreme, too, likes to keep it simple but tight. "My shit is just raw, freestyle," he says, "just keepin' the shit in the mix, talkin' on the mike giving shout-outs... so if you put the tape on in your car it'd be like you were at a party, just bobbin' your head."

To ensure the rawness of his product, Supreme never uses a four-track. "I might tape something from tape-to-tape, but 90 percent of it is two turntables, just straight cuttin' it up," he explains. Likewise, he keeps his packaging basic: "My tapes usually have just a cover. I don't want to get too commercial, no fancy printing and all that. For me I just want people to open up to the listing, look at what's on the tape and go, 'Damn! This shit might be kinda phat,' and buy the tape and be like, 'Damn! this shit is phat!' "

At the other end of the spectrum are compilations by DJs like Tim and Ajax, the proprietor of Ultra Sounz, who use a four-track to pack the maximum amount of music onto a 90-minute cassette and concentrate on an eye-catching professional cover. On a local level, DJ Tim is unquestionably the king of marketing.

"If you want to sell tapes, you need to put together a little package," he says. "If I'm a kid, I want a good package, a good tape with a lot of good shit. I don't want to hear the same song cut up for 10 minutes.

"I figure if you want live mixing you can go to a fucking club and listen to that shit," Ajax adds. "If you're paying $10 for a mix tape, you're gonna get a fucking mix tape. On a half-hour tape, I mean I pack maybe 60 songs on the whole thing."

While the standard mix tape features music by well-known artists, there's a contingent of DJs who prefer to dwell on the experimental fringe. The Invisible Scratch Pickles -- world-renowned DJs Q-Bert, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, and Disc -- create bizarre sonic collages of complicated scratches and obscure soundbites. "I wanted to pave my own way, make a different form of music," explains Mixmaster Mike of his twisted sonic barrages, which he calls "unidentified funk octopus music, liquid scratch-jazz instrumental."

"You hear a lot of these mix tapes," Q-Bert adds, "and it's like, 'Fuck, my kid brother could do those tapes.' All they're doing is playing music, whereas we're trying to create a whole new musical concept."

While the bulk of the Scratch Pickles' tapes are done on four-track or high-speed six-track, they also represent with a set of what Q-Bert calls "low-quality, improvisational mix tapes where you can hear all the mistakes; you can hear us fucking around in the background, talking on the mike sayin' stupid shit and just making it up as we go -- being ridiculous."

Though mix tapes are still very much in the underground, all that could change in the near future. While hip-hop zine stalwarts like The Bomb have been offering up mix tapes via mail order for some time now, and Seattle's monthly Flavor has long featured critiques of mix tapes, national newsstand magazines like RapPages and URB have recently caught onto the craze, and now feature profiles of key DJs along with cassette reviews. As for major label involvement, Loud Records recently released the first "commercial" mix tape album by well-known New York DJ Funkmaster Flex. Whether that means labels will eventually hit the unsigned little guys for copyright infringement is still up for debate.

Besides Cue's and Ultra Sounz, mix tapes can be found at stores like Behind the Post Office, Amoeba, X-Large, and Zebra Records in S.F. and X-Large in Berkeley. Fuck the Bullshit tapes can be ordered by calling (510) 658-4293. For more information, contact The Bomb at 826-9479.

About The Author

Spence D.


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