BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. (MUSIC: MOS DEF) That's Mos Def from a hip hop mixtape. (MOS DEF, UP AND UNDER) Mixtapes began as documents of street parties in 1970s New York. They were, in fact, cassette testaments to a DJ's ability to move a live crowd. Over time though, mixtapes evolved, making use of unreleased music to keep fans ahead of the mainstream. Sold illegally on the street, in some stores, and increasingly on the Internet, DJs now act as curator and emcee on mixtapes, now on CD, of course, introducing songs leaked to them from the music industry. These leaks entice hungry audiences and allow the music industry to build street buzz for new songs and new artists. But the very nature of mixtapes, occupying a shadowy realm very close to industry approved piracy, presents an uneasy contradiction for a business on a high horse about music theft. Oliver Wang is a journalist and scholar who's written about mixtape culture. He says this new incarnation of the mixtape was driven by DJs scrambling to make themselves known.
OLIVER WANG: And what happened was the competition between DJs to distinguish themselves led them to start to try to acquire what's known as "exclusives," which are basically unreleased songs or advance songs that other DJs couldn't acquire, so that the bragging rights that these mixtape DJs were going for was who could have the mixtape that had the most exclusive and the most unique material on it. And gradually this created a relationship between the mixtape DJ and record labels where, if the labels gave the right song to the right DJ who had a big following, this was the way that they could get out certain songs they wanted to sort of test to a market and get some advance buzz on.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The release of these songs to people who would make mixtapes isn't, strictly speaking, legal. And yet the industry seems to participate in it, right?
OLIVER WANG: Most mixtapes are still technically illegal ones because they're not using materials that have been cleared and have been paid for. But it's an understanding between the label that if we give you this and you help promote our song, the labels are willing to look the other way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But meanwhile the music industry has been waging this very vocal war against piracy. And Bush just appointed a piracy czar. But haven't there been some recent busts of music stores where a Recording Industry Association of America representative is standing there with the police to crack down on mixtapes in record stores?
OLIVER WANG: Sure. I think the most recent really public example has been Mondo Kim's, which is a record store in the East Village in New York City. And, from what I understand, someone from Sony had gone into the store to buy some music and noticed some mixtapes that contained material from a Sony artist that they didn't consider to be legal. And that's when they called in the RIAA to come in and grab that stock and arrest the employees of the store. People were a little taken aback by that kind of measure because if you're talking about illegal street tapes in New York, the amount of Kim's stock is so minuscule it's almost laughable. You could just walk down Canal Street and you can find dozens of people selling mixtapes. The problem that Kim's ran into really is they had the wrong person from the wrong place come (LAUGHS) and shop at their store.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I just don't understand how the music industry can be so morally upright about piracy, when sanctioning it on Canal Street, not sanctioning it at say, Kim's record store in New York City; the industry is essentially changing its rules, breaking its own rules? Do you see this as hypocrisy or just savvy marketing?
OLIVER WANG: I think the difference between them is the kind of piracy that the record industry is really afraid of is where people are taking entire albums. That prevents a sale from happening of a legitimate album that a record label is going to profit from. So if the bottom line is selling CDs, if a mixtape assists that, then they're willing to look the other way.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But if the future of the record industry, as many people say, isn't selling CDs but actually selling individual songs over the Internet, then a mixtape would interfere with a lot of sales.
OLIVER WANG: But record labels are still stuck in a very traditional mode of they want people to walk into a store to buy a CD, and that's the way that they can sort of count their chips. I think over time they're going to have to find ways of adjusting to that. But so far very few labels, especially the biggest labels, have shown the interest in making that transition.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you give me an example of an artist that has really benefited from this strange kind of "viral leakage"?
OLIVER WANG: The most famous contemporary hip hop artist who's benefited from mixtapes has probably been 50 Cent. And the reason why his example stands out is that these mixtapes that 50 was putting out basically served as unofficial albums. I mean, they were effectively albums because there were original material on there and it was helping to create an awareness around him as an artist. And that eventually led him to get signed by Dr. Dre and Eminem and really propelled his career from then. I mean, by the point that 50 had put out his debut album, in some ways he had already put out four debut albums because of the mixtapes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, what's the difference between self publishing a mixtape and self publishing an album? Was there a DJ on his mixtape? Did it include other artists?
OLIVER WANG: 50's CDs came out through DJ Whoo Kid and the mixtapes that they put out were originally a collaboration between Whoo Kid and 50. And it was sort of mutually beneficial. Having an up and coming artist of 50 Cent's caliber helped raised Whoo Kid's profile, but Whoo Kid's popularity as a mixtape DJ gave 50 Cent an instant audience from recording with him.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So a mixtape is a way for a fan to get the jump on new music. Who's buying 'em?
OLIVER WANG: The sales of mixtapes used to be very regional. The only way that you could get a DJ Clue tapes is if you lived in New York. But with the advent of Internet sales, it's really expanded the market. You've seen this happen with a lot of Southern artists who've really benefit from the exposure and having people in the Northeast and California buy their tapes. But certainly a lot of these mixtape distributors and dealers sell a lot of music overseas. And I researched a story on mixtapes and found out that the military is actually one place where a lot of these tapes are going to because soldiers out in the field don't really have very many other means of accessing new music.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: All right. Oliver, thank you very much.
OLIVER WANG: Thank you for having me. It was a pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Oliver Wang is editor and co author of Classic Material: The Hip Hop Album Guide.