Since the early '90s, I've been listening to mixtapes by DJs such as Ron G., Chill Will, Triple C, Doo Wop, Kid Capri and Buckwild, the people who really brought this art form to what it is today. Yet the mixtape is a medium that not many DJs use to the fullest extent nowadays. As an instructor at the Scratch DJ Academy in New York, I have the unique opportunity to teach aspiring DJs the art of making mixtapes, and in this column, I hope to pass a bit of that knowledge on to you.
Mixtapes started out at as cassettes made by DJs to showcase their skills as a means to get DJ gigs or to promote themselves and their crews. These days, mixtapes usually come in CD format; you will hardly find any mixtapes on cassettes anymore. True mixtapes generally feature the latest music, from hip-hop to R&B to reggae and so on, all put together in one continuous mix. But some so-called mixtapes coming out recently contain just the latest music and whatever unreleased songs these “DJs” can get their hands on — all put one after another on a CD without mixing, blending or cutting up any records, using absolutely no DJ skills at all. The type of mixtape that you will want to put together requires real DJ skills and techniques, such as blending songs together to make a brand-new track.
The first thing you want to do when putting together a mixtape is come up with a great intro that will catch the ear and draw in listeners. To do this, scratch lines and phrases from different songs to come up with your own message, your own musical sentence. A typical intro message might promote yourself as a DJ, declaring what you are about. “In your intro, there has to be a strong message you send out to the audience and sometimes even to other DJs,” says DJ Junior Tec, one of today's most popular blend DJs. A good intro should last about a minute or two and have a lot of excitement by using many different bits and pieces of records to give the listener a taste of what's to come on the rest of the CD.
In the body of your mixtape, make sure that the content is exciting enough for people to keep listening. For example, play the music in an original way that nobody else does, from cutting up different records to blending records together to make your own unique mix. A mixtape can become boring quickly if you simply let songs play out from beginning to end and use minimal DJ skills. By taking an a cappella from one record and the instrumental from another, you can mix the two together to make an exclusive “blend remix” for your own mixtape. To do this, start by playing the instrumental; then, cue up the a cappella in your headphones, and make sure that the tempo of both records is exactly the same. If the a cappella is faster or slower than the instrumental, gradually adjust the pitch until the tempos match up perfectly. When you are ready to mix in the a cappella over the instrumental, make sure your timing is correct when bringing it in, or the whole mix will be off.
You can use a number of blend remixes on your mixtape to keep it going, but make sure all of the mixes flow into each other. However, every song doesn't necessarily have to be a blend; you can throw a few regular songs in as long as they go along with what you are playing. But be sure to have enough blends prepared to keep the mixtape exclusive and to keep the flow exciting. Just like with anything else you do, the more mixtapes you put together, the better and more creative you'll become. Just make sure to keep your own style, and try not to copy what other people are doing.
When it's time to record, don't take too long while preparing the next mix that you are about to put on. You should have all of your mixes and blends planned before you start recording. To prepare, write down which songs are going to be mixed together, where the pitch control should be for each record and the order of the songs you are going to use. That way, you'll be able to flow right through recording by knowing what's coming up and what you'll have to do.
PACKAGING AND PRESENTATION
Now that you've finished recording your mixtape, you have to present it in a way that will stand out from the myriad others out there. First, come up with a creative name for the CD. The name should be something that the music on your mixtape represents; for example, if your CD contains only hip-hop or all old-school music, the name should reflect that. Your mixtape should also have an appealing cover — you definitely need something that will stand out as soon as anyone sees it. You can put the design together yourself or have somebody do it for you. Either way, make sure the cover has your DJ name and the title of the mixtape printed clearly.
Now, you have everything you need to get your mixtape out there and to start promoting yourself. Press up as many copies of the CD as you can, and start handing them out yourself to get your name out there. Be sure to send copies to many different record labels, especially if your mixtape features artists from those labels. And don't forget to send copies to radio stations and club promoters; you probably won't receive any responses right away, but as long as you are consistent and continue to put together quality mixtapes, people will start to recognize you. Many DJs — such as DJ Clue, Kay Slay and Clinton Sparks — have gotten recording contracts based on their popularity as DJs as well as their consistent, quality mixtapes over the years. As long as you are creative and know what you want your mixtape to sound like, you should have no problem putting a great one together.