Music fans have been making mixtapes since the popularization of cassettes during the 1970s. As a kid, I often taped my favorite songs from the radio while a few years later I tried to woo more than a few sweeties with love song mixes (“Needs more Prince!”) designed to make them fall for me as well as appreciate my superior taste in music. While the concept of creating mixtapes wasn’t limited to genre, with heavy metal kids mixing tapes as much as the soul children, in the 1990s, hip-hop DJs turned personal pleasures into a commercial commodity that used the medium to promote new singles from established artist and introduce new artists in a completive environment as well as establish the DJ as a force.
Director David F. Mewa, whose short documentary Mixtape: An Unauthorized Biography makes its New York premiere at Urbanworld on Saturday (AMC Empire Theater 10pm), revisits that period in his love-letter to the form. “Me and my friends started making mixtapes as a form of empowerment,” 38-year-old Mewa says from his home in Toronto, Canada. “We were tired of listening to the radio and what they forced us to hear. Making mixtapes, we could be our own DJs. Later, I used made mixtapes professionally in the ‘90s, before film took over as my passion. But, when I started making music videos and docs, I knew that was a subject I wanted to explore.”
Mewa, who also curates a dope YouTube channel called Urban Art Depart, came of age in the ‘90s during hip-hop’s second golden era, what he calls “the sweet spot,” when he was listening to boom bap heroes Gang Starr and Grand Puba. “Toranto was like the crossroads for all kinds of music including West Indian music and east coast hip-hop,” he says.
As the mixtape craze grew in the ‘90s, so did the stories of DJs (Mewa cites DJ SNS, Doo Wop and DJ Clue as his favorites) were making crazy cash off of product that they didn’t own. Although record companies knew that mixtapes were a promotional tool, higher-ups at those same labels began moaning about copyright infringement and sought to end it by scaring retailers who sold them.
In Toronto, the first retailer hit was Eugene Tam, who appears in Mixtape: An Unauthorized Biography and he became the center of the doc’s story. Although Tam is still a music retailer, the harrowing story he tells about the raid on his store is chilling.
Of course, while cassettes are no longer fashionable, mixes still exist online on YouTube and Spotify as well as many other sites, but that ‘90s period of cassettes will always be the wonder years. Short, but sweet, Mewa does a stellar job telling a small part of a massive story. “This film is the small part of a much longer version that I have planned,” Mewa says. “I wanted Mixtape: An Unauthorized Biography to be a fun look back.”
About the author:
Michael A. Gonzales has been writing about music since the 1980s. A few of his subjects include Barry White (Vibe), D’Angelo (Wax Poetics) and Lauryn Hill (The Source). In addition to soulhead, he contributes to Complex, Pitchfork Review, XXL, Baltimore City Paper, Philadelphia Weekly and The Weeklings. His essay on the DeBarge family appears in Best African-American Essays 2009. Gonzales blogs at Blackadelicpop.blogspot.com. Check out some of his work for soulhead.