2005Director: Walter Bell
Cast: G-unit, DJ Clue?, DJ Green Lantern
he hip-hop albums market might be going slightly cold, with record sales dipping year after year, but there is still heat on the streets, as evidenced by the thriving trade of mixtapes. Of course they aren't actually "tapes" anymore—although legendary artifacts such as a Maxwell audio tape of Kid Capri's 52 Beats mix now fetch up to a hundred dollars—but mass produced CDs, which can shift tens of thousands of units on the street and over the internet.
The boom is creative as well as commercial. Artists like The Clipse have released, essentially, whole albums, underground alternatives to their mainstream releases, while the slow-paced “screwed and chopped” mixes of hip-hop, R&B;, and reggaeton from the Houston area reduce hip-hop to a weighty, primitive heartbeat. Even if mixtapes were just a bunch of diss rhymes over whatever the hot beat is this month—and, arguably, that's what hip-hop does best anyway—the mixtape network has served as an invaluable outlet for some truly world-historical grudge matches: Nas vs. Jay-Z; Cam’ron vs. Jay-Z; Everyone Else vs. Jay-Z.
Walter Bell's film rightly approaches the phenomena as an important new era in hip-hop, where 50 Cent's debut proper followed over a dozen unofficial releases hitting the street on an almost-weekly basis. The documentary’s full title is Mixtape Inc.: The Movie (a curious inversion of The Game’s recent album title, The Documentary), thus suggesting entertainment rather than reportage. The film makes an entrance worthy of a WWE wrestler. The credit sequence cut-and-pastes mixtape covers on a street wall like heroes and villains of the Wild West; masking effects and computer graphics draw out the connections between players in the scene. It makes the pulse race like a set by The Drama King, aka DJ Kay Slay, the first player with whom we visit.
First off, a lengthy history lesson from hip-hop’s video archive tells us where the music came from and where’s it’s at now. We hit the year-zero of the modern mixtape around 1993. CD mixtapes could provide not only better sound quality than magnetic tapes, but could be mass produced, were cheaper to transport, and with the addition of some computer generated artwork, became desirable sub-cultural items in their own right. Whereas Kid Capri’s mixtapes were produced on a pair of record decks, DJ Clue? could use a computer to bite and blend beats from other producers. The line between artist and hustler would, henceforth, be forever blurred.
Walter Bell’s narration sets the scene for what came next: “War games have existed for a long time; mixtapes became hip-hop’s war games.” The quotes from all the key players are similarly belligerent, a mix of Sun Tzu’s The Art Of War and 7 Secrets of Effective Business Networking. There’s nothing wrong with business and art hopping into bed together; hip-hop is a catalytic reaction between the two, with one fueling the other. But as Chuck D says, you hope for “a balance between commerce and artistic merit and skill,” and this is precisely what Mixtape Inc. lacks. Even though one lyric or diss can send shockwaves through the street, there’s no discussion of individual tracks, such as Jay-Z's “The Takeover” and Nas’ reply, “Ether.” Instead, there’s only the vague observation that if an artist isn’t on the first ten tracks on a mixtape, he’s nowhere. The business quotes are so verbose that the soundtrack consists mainly of instrumental beats, while one yearns to hear the vocals on the mixtapes themselves.
Perhaps, Bell’s film is aiming merely to break down the business side of the mixtape trade like a balance sheet, but it’s less than incisive on this count, too. The interviewees are cut together so as to complete each other’s sentences. Subsequently, there are no distinct voices, but rather an endless sales-pitch. For a hard-nosed breakdown of the game, it’s much too vague, jumping back and forward in time repeatedly, and with a voiceover that talks loud but says almost nothing.
If Mixtape Inc. plays like an extended advertisement, at least it’s a seductive one. The characters are larger than life: Curt Nice is a mixtape don from Cleveland who trades from the basement in his mom’s house; DJ Kay Slay is a former graffiti champ, who upon being released from prison, produced some of most ferocious diss tracks ever made; and Ty Boogie operates from a bedroom studio where he doesn’t have space for a bed. Any discussion of the legality of mixtapes is somewhat vague, but the racial divide between the big companies and the hustlers is cleverly drawn. The white guy from the RIAA is fighting to reclaim revenues from the thriving mixtape trade (even while major labels use mixtapes to identify hot artists), whilst the mixtape hustlers are predominantly from, and trying to get out of, the racially-diverse housing projects.
Despite these roots in the ghetto, perhaps where Mixtape Inc. most conspicuously fails to deliver is in an actual sense of “the street.” It’s referred to constantly, but we never speak with the people actually buying mixtapes. Most of the conversations are with businessmen sitting in office studios rather than the people hawking them ‘round the shops. My sense of frustration with the film is rather like buying a cool-looking mixtape only to discover that it’s just one track repeated ad infinitum. With high-end production values and access to the big names in the game, Mixtape Inc. is an engaging enough story, and one that deserves to be told. It’s just a shame that it drops myths rather than science.