"They're where an artist works out who they want to be, before they commit to an album," breakout emcee Angel Haze tells NME. "Mixtapes are the difference between an artist working out who want to be and who they are." The 20-year-old should know – her free-to-download 2012 tape 'Reservation' turned her from a New York unknown into one of hip-hop's fastest rising stars, with her debut album due later this year expected to be one of the biggest selling of 2013.
Haze follows in the path of fellow mixtape-to-mainstream successes Lil Wayne, Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, A$AP Rocky and The Weeknd, who last week announced a UK arena tour that includes a stop at London's O2 Arena, a venue more used to hosting pop megastars than shadowy bedroom-recording enigmas. "They're the difference between street basketball and some NBA shit," Haze adds. "They're where you hone your craft, learn your trade."
But could mixtapes also be the difference between sink and swim for a struggling music industry? Twenty-three-year-old Weeknd singer Abel Tesfaye's debut trilogy of albums had been available on his website for more than a year before being packaged together for a physical release by major label Island. That didn't stop more than 100,000 copies being snapped up in its first two months of release in the US alone. Sony, meanwhile, are already seeing a return on their reported $3m investment in Brooklyn fashionista A$AP Rocky, whose woozy brand of slow, sinister hip-hop went platinum recently with single 'Fuckin' Problem'. Haze isn't surprised. "Of course those guys are doing well. Releasing a tape is a chance for people to check out your music, understand what you're about, then when you have a real album ready to go, you have a fan base there ready who are proud to have been there from the beginning with you. It's not enough these days to have a shitty 30-second clip on your Myspace page, a two minute video on YouTube. People are much more likely to give you a chance when you have something substantial out there for them to check out for free."
But mixtapes are about more than revenue streams. Because they're released for free, there are looser laws on sampling that allow for greater creative freedom and more exciting crossovers. Case in point? Try Haze's own 'Classick' tape, which sees her borrow beats from Eminem and Lauryn Hill. "That tape was a blast. So often artists want to use a beat out of respect and homage but get caught up in red tape, you know? You can be so much more creative and flexible with it. I love those songs, and wouldn't have been able to put my own twist on them without some suits knocking down my door or some shit if I'd released it in stores or whatever." Haze adds: "They're also good in that you get a lot more experimental. A mixtape doesn't have to be coherent like an album. It's liberating." Listen to Frank Ocean and Kendrick Lamar's recent debut albums-proper and hear a little of how that fractured, experimental spirit has lingered – tracks stop, start and diverge again on thrilling tangents.
They might be a relatively new answer to the music industry's problems, but mixtapes are in fact pretty much as old as rap music itself. With the emergence of the cassette format came tapes of Grandmaster Flash, Kool Herc, Afrika Bambaataa and other hip-hop pioneers' party mixes, traded in the streets and on West Coast corners. From here, the format became a rite of passage for any rapper towards broader success, with everyone from Snoop Dogg to Sean 'Puff Daddy' Combs circulating tapes. By the time 50 Cent hit number one with his debut album 'Get Rich Or Die Tryin'', to this day the fourth best-selling hip-hop album of all time, he had released over 20 tapes. "I saturated the street market 'cos mixtapes are the entry level of hip-hop," he explained to MTV in 2003. Established artists like Kanye West, Rick Ross and Drake continue to put out occasional tapes because according to Fiddy, "they're the way of proving your credibility, proving you're still real, to the people on the street."
Mixtapes may have evolved in the digital age, now no longer distributed on the street but on hosting sites like DatPiff, who attracted a reported 9.8m visits and 72m downloads a month through 2012 – but as the recent critical and commercial success of acts like The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky, Angel Haze and others suggests, they're more vital than ever. "I don't think mixtapes will ever die," says Haze, with a pause for effect. "Tapes gonna live forever."
Five recent killer tapes (click on the titles to download):
Former gourmet chef Bronson's teaming with producer The Alchemist wielded one of 2012's finest collaborations in 'Rare Chandeliers', setting the New Yorker up for a high profile spot on A$AP's '1Train'.
Is art-house rap a thing? If not, it is now. Featuring woozy synths, wonky beats and snippets of Skype conversations, 'K+' surrounds Lakisha Robinson's slow, languorous flow with creepy ethereal sounds like nothing you've heard before.
Alright, so 18-year-old newcomer Bada$$ may have been born some 10 years too late for hip-hop's golden age, but that hasn't stopped him channelling the laid back chill of old schoolers Tupac and Biggie on his releases so far, including this sprightly 15-track mix.
A sombre, sobering slice of old school Nashville rap from one of the underground circuit's most honest, affecting emcees.
The rising beatmaker, responsible for intoxicating productions on recent A$AP Rocky and Lil B joints, lets his talents come to the fore on this set of instrumental tracks.