Mix Masters

Inside the underground DJ mix-tape phenomenon

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?

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