Ever since the dawn of hip-hop, the DJ mix has been ubiquitous to the genre. Back in the day, bootlegged cassettes of live sets by Afrika Bambaataa, Charlie Chase, or Breakout circulated like the audio equivalent of the Ten Commandments, imparting breakbeat lessons eternally revered by the crate-digging faithful. In the recorded era, megamixes on wax by luminaries like Grandmixer DST and Grandmaster Flash proved prescient harbingers of the advent of digital sampling. Similarly, all-world turntablists Q-Bert, Cut Chemist, and DJ Shadow started as mix-tape maestros before earning accolades as ultracontemporary composers.
In the modern era, the DJ mix has emerged as a formidable marketing tool as well. Long a part of the East Coast's cultural tradition (and, more recently, a way for urban-savvy companies to promote to core audiences), mix tapes appeared on the mainstream radar when 50 Cent -- who started on the mix-tape circuit before graduating to major-label P.I.M.P. status -- blew the fuck up. But while tape kingz like Kay Slay, DJ Clue, and Green Lantern are as big as any rapper not named Jay or Nas in NYC, the West Coast is just getting hip to the mix-tape scene.
"I think the phenomenon is in its infant stages in the Bay," says DJ Impereal of Oakland's Demolition Men. He and his partner, DJ Devro, have adapted the East Coast blueprint to suit their own style, which includes tapes dedicated to the region's playas, hustlahs, and ballas, as well as old-school classics, hot R&B, and reggaeton -- the Latin variant on dancehall reggae that is threatening to usurp its Jamaican cousin's claim as the most energetic, dance-friendly sound around.
"People want to hear what's new, what's hot," Impereal explains. "We play what the radio won't play." Devro takes the statement a step farther: "I think Bay Area radio is garbage."
The crewmates, who have churned out eleven mix tapes in about eighteen months, have been stalwart supporters of local acts. Tapes hosted by Oakland rap stars the Team and Balance are easily their best sellers, they say. And though it may appear they're attempting to flood the streets with their product, they welcome other mix DJs to step up their game, too. "We ain't trying to compete," Impereal insists. "Our mix tapes don't sound like anyone else out there."
Neither do Sake One's. The ((Local 1200)) crew member, who has probably appeared on more club fliers than any other local DJ in the past three years, confides that he started making mix tapes as an alternative to the artistically challenged, highly commercial material he was often obliged to play in clubs: "I see soul as something that's been stripped out of hip-hop."
The DJ says he wants to expand the idea of what audiences can appreciate sonically, as evidenced by his Soul Deluxxe series, currently on Volume Three. The first Soul Deluxxe mix, made in winter '99, juxtaposed Assata Shakur and Sade; subsequent volumes have contrasted spoken-word intros from Black Power demagogue Eldridge Cleaver with indie-label butters and dope remixes from the likes of Foreign Exchange, Lizz Fields, and Jazzanova. In his mixtapes, Sake focuses on music that broadens the definition of soul past arbitrary designations like "neo-," "retro-," "future-," or even "hip-hop soul" -- he makes a point of looking for "artists trying to push past those boundaries." While he recognizes the attraction of songs that make people feel good, he also is aware that "soul music and hip-hop comes from a broad base of political struggle." Of course, the first line of defense is the listener's ear, so the material's gotta be both conscious and bangin' to make his track selection. "It's all hot shit," he swears.
Speaking of which, perhaps no current local DJ is moving thermostats to the right more than Backside. The "First Lady of the Untouchable DJs" is a relative newcomer to the scene -- she's been spinning for only three years -- yet she's a quick study. Armed with equal parts enthusiasm and hustle, she has locked down an air slot on KMEL (The Hot Spot, Friday night/Saturday morning from 2 to 4 a.m.), currently spins at four or five clubs weekly (including "Femme Fatale," her co-residency at @Seventeenth with the Coup's Pam the Funkstress), and has become a factor in the growing Bay Area mix-tape movement. She has already branded herself with a seasonal-themed mix series -- Fall Back, Winter Inferno, Spring Bling, and Summer Heat -- which, while more commercially oriented than either Sake One or the Demolition Men's offerings, includes a fair number of original freestyles and down-low underground tracks. Professionally designed covers and stylish graphics show that Backside is serious about her stuff, as does the fact that she has moved past just playing other people's songs to unique blends and even original production.
For the uninitiated, Backside notes that blends are basically "making your own remixes" -- dropping a cappella vocals over an instrumental and thus creating an entirely new song. One of the primary purposes of the mix tape, she adds, is to "expose new music," and exclusives such as Rankin' Scroo's reggae toast over the "Lean Back" beat on her Fall Back mix are a big part of that. Artists, she says, are usually more than happy to contribute -- an appearance on a hot tape goes a long way toward establishing or maintaining street credibility.
After all, the concept of DJs as cultural tastemakers goes back to the early days of hip-hop when they received top billing over MCs, so there's much precedent for DJs steering listeners toward fresh and exciting sounds. When asked for their picks for 2005, each of our local mixologists had a different answer. Sake One is particularly psyched about the potential for Baby Jaymes and Goapele to redefine the urban soul genre: "We're just starting to get some innovation," he says. Meanwhile, the Demolition Men are keeping an eye out for Balance ("He's got a universal appeal," Devro says) and Vincent Price ("He brings that fire," Impereal notes). Backside, on the other hand, thinks the Flomasters and J-Official will keep the local rap scene's momentum hyphy in 2005. As for C2tE's prediction: It may be a while before Bay Area mix-tape DJs rival the popularity of their East Coast counterparts, but you can bet their homegrown mixes will start looming large over the next few months.
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