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With the advent of the Internet, the rap industry has been forced to adapt to an entirely new type of release — the mixtape. While the concept of a mixtape is not at all new (its roots can be traced back to bootleg eight tracks in the 80s), the surge in the prevalence of such mixtapes has completely turned the industry on its head. These widely available compilations, released by both independent DJs and artists themselves, challenge all the basic tenets of the music business, shaking the foundation that has been built for so many years.

Indubitably, the most revolutionary part of the mixtape — the part that stirs up the most commotion — is its cost. Most digitally-released mixtapes are absolutely free, and hard copies are a few dollars at most. While such a price would make sense for DJs who are just simply remixing songs, what boggles the mind is that the artists sometimes come out with “official” releases, giving away their musical talent for nothing. For many of them, it is a way to stay sharp in between albums as well as a way to stay connected to their adoring fans.

One of the most prominent members of the mixtape community is, interestingly enough, one of the most prominent rappers in the game today. Lil Wayne has released nine free mixtapes over the course of his career, and is currently working on his 10th. An artist giving away songs for free may seem counterproductive to many, but Wayne’s success has shown that the release of mixtapes only helps his album sales. By appeasing and connecting with his fans by giving them more content to listen to, he only helps his record and tour sales.

Another benefit that has come from the growing popularity of digital mixtapes is the ability for new, upcoming and underground rappers to become noticed, popular and hopefully signed to a record label. The most notable example of an artist taking this path comes in the form of Drake, the Canadian born rapper signed to Young Money/Cash Money records. Early on in his career, he struggled, releasing two mixtapes to little fanfare. However, on Feb. 13, 2009, Drake’s status as an artist changed forever. His mixtape, “So Far Gone,” garnered an astonishing 20,000 downloads in the first two hours of its release. His songs “Successful” and “Best I Ever Had” received massive radio play, and he was signed soon after.

The template that Drake created provides hope for a struggling rap industry. Unlike before, where the musical tastes of studio executives decided what artists became successful, rap fans can now influence what artists “make it” by downloading their mixtapes. Any smart label will recognize the popularity of such unsigned artists and add them to their label. No longer do artists have to craft their work to fit desires of others — they are now free to express themselves however they please, expressing their creativity and having a new enough sound to turn heads.

For anyone who is new to the rap mixtape scene, a good place to start is Datpiff.com. Registering is easy, and you are allowed five free downloads per day, plenty for a day’s worth of listening. Look for “Official” mixtapes, as those are the ones that the artists themselves release (as opposed to DJs just mashing up songs).

That’s not to say the only good mixtapes are ones released by the artists themselves. Many talented DJs release their own mixtapes, and some of them are very professionally done. As opposed to having to scour the Internet for individual remixes, fans of a certain artist can download a mixtape filled with remixes for that particular artist.

For your first five downloads, I would suggest the following: “Kush and OJ” by Wiz Khalifa (a perfect laid back vibe for relaxing), “No Ceilings” by Lil Wayne (a great collection of Wayne rapping over popular beats), “Fan of a Fan” by Chris Brown and Tyga, “Friday Night Lights” by J. Cole and the “Seinfeld”-inspired “More about Nothing” by Wale. All five of these mixtapes will give you a diverse selection of music to listen to, and will keep you listening all day.

Mired in materialistic, senseless album releases that are “made for radio,” mixtapes offer a place for artists, new and veteran, to truly be creative and express their talent. Because there is no pressure to sell albums, mixtapes allow artists to try and experiment with different sounds and rhyming schemes, honing their skills so their official releases will benefit. The competition is no longer to make songs that will play well on the radio, but to make songs that are truly unique and inspired, songs that will grab listeners’ attention.
Mixtapes are changing the way the rap industry works, and in a very big way. In an age of incessant piracy, the concept of giving away music for free boggles the mind of some artists. Unfortunately, those artists that lag behind in releasing mixtapes will be left in the dust. Rappers like Lil Wayne and Drake have shown that mixtapes are integral parts of a successful rap career, and more and more upcoming artists are following in their tracks.

So why not? Hop online and download a mixtape! Find a cool remix to a song you love, listen to more music from an artist you already like or even find a whole new artist altogether. You have absolutely nothing to lose, and everything to gain!

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