Almost two decades ago, in every urban locale across America, you could find them everywhere.

They were hard to miss, and you could usually score one for about five bucks.

Today, hip-hop mixtapes haven’t disappeared completely, but their presence is certainly not the same. The underground mixtape scene comprised a multi-million dollar industry at its peak.  Often, mixtapes featured exclusive pirated content, much to the chagrin of record labels.

As a result, law enforcement and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) cracked down on the business more than a decade ago, its stronghold on hip-hop has lost its grip. DJ Drama, a native Philadelphian famously known for his “Gangsta Grillz” mixtape series, built his empire in Atlanta and bore the brunt of the mixtape crackdown in 2007 when federal agents raided his studio and seized more than 50,000 mixtapes, according to reports.  

Technology has also played a part in the industry’s demise.  New releases from indie artists and superstars are posted on the internet and streaming services like Apple Music, Spotify and Tidal.

During their heyday in the early 2000s, mixtapes could be purchased nearly anywhere in America. These featured new music and freestyles from both well-known and  up-and-coming emcees, sometimes all on the same project. Legendary New York DJs like DJ Clue, Funkmaster Flex and Kay Slay, among many others, would religiously drop new projects, which were then circulated and sold on the streets.

Philly, a major hip-hop hub, also carved its own legacy during this era. Homegrown rap group Major Figgas dropped a string of mixtapes in the late 1990s, which garnered them a buzz and led to them being signed by Philadelphia-based RuffNation Records, which later led to a distribution deal with Warner Bros. By the early 2000s, underground rappers like Reed Dollaz, Joey Jihad, D. Jones and Meek Mill built their reputation via freestyles on the internet and DVDs, and these freestyles were then placed on mixtapes.  

Thanks to his mixtape releases, Meek Mill achieved mainstream success. Jay-Z’s Philly-based rap collective State Property, who had already achieved major-label success, churned out exclusive releases and freestyles on mixtapes while their major-label releases were also being sold.

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“The best memories for me [during that time] was the grind and getting out there and meeting people and the store owners that pushed the music. [I remember] building relationships that I still have to this day because it was face-to-face and not internet-based…and dropping a CD that everybody had to have because there was no other place to get it.”

– Rapper and DJ Wyse Schmeek

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As in New York, Philly DJs curated most of this music and built a name for themselves from these mixes. DJ Wyse Schmeek and hip-hop were both born in the Bronx. He first got started in his craft thanks to legendary DJs Chubby Chubb and Brucie B in the 1980s. During this time, Chubb and B distributed their mixes on cassette tapes for promotion.

“I’ve been around music all my life,” Wyse Schmeek told Philadelphia Weekly. “I started DJing between 14 and 16 years old, and mixtapes were a way of life for me.”

After his mom got a job offer, his family packed up and moved to Delaware, where Wyse Schmeek continued rapping and DJing at parties. He soon came to dominate that market, then edged up I-95 north into Chester and Philadelphia and continued distributing his mixtapes with exclusive music and freestyles. Shortly thereafter, he developed a relationship with State Property and began releasing regular mixtapes with the group, further raising his profile in Philly.

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January 16, 2007

The day federal agents raided the record label owned by DJ Drama, a Philly native known from for his “Gangsta Grillz” series of mixtapes. It’s reported the feds seized more than 50,000 mixtapes when they arrested Drama, whose real name is Tyree Simmons and his business partner, Donald “Don” Cannon one of the largest crackdown and raids conducted by law enforcement on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

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“The best memories for me [during that time] was the grind and getting out there and meeting people and the store owners that pushed the music,” he said. “[I remember] building relationships that I still have to this day because it was face-to-face and not internet-based…and dropping a CD that everybody had to have because there was no other place to get it.”

Digital versions of Wyse Schmeek’s new releases and classic mixtapes can still be found on websites like Datpiff, Live Mixtapes and Audiomack. But as streaming services have become one of the primary places to obtain new music, the aforementioned sites are struggling to stay afloat.

Leaving the question: What will happen to the music hosted there if these sites go under?

Drake’s breakout 2008 mixtape “So Far Gone”was distributed on streaming services this past February, marking a major footnote in the continuing story of music accessibility. Additionally, other artists like Wiz Khalifa, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne have seen their classic tapes move over to streaming platforms.

Yet many original mixtapes from some of the biggest names in hip-hop remain stuck in their current spots on Datpiff or on physical copies due to the various copyright issues that would have to be resolved.

Amir Lipscomb, widely known in Philly and abroad as DJ Amir, believes that the legacy of the mixtape era will always be preserved in some capacity.

“You always are going to have the haves and the have-nots,” he told PW.  “Everybody can’t go to iTunes. [There’s] some of the hottest talent out there in Philadelphia [who don’t] have music on iTunes. They just got YouTube and DatPiff. It’s always that person that loves the culture. They gone keep that vault tight.”

After learning how to DJ at a young age, Lipscomb spun at cookouts and school functions before he could even drive to them. He became the protégé of DJ Touch Tone, a popular radio DJ who appeared on Philly’s 103.9-FM. From there, he started appearing on the station at just 13 years old. Soon, Lipscomb found success through DJing across the city at parties, [Sneaker] Villa and at the former Gallery. Around that time, he started putting together and releasing mixtapes.

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“You always are going to have the haves and the have-nots. Everybody can’t go to iTunes. [There’s] some of the hottest talent out there in Philadelphia [who don’t] have music on iTunes. They just got YouTube and DatPiff. It’s always that person who loves the culture. They gone keep that [mixtape] vault tight.”

– Amir Lipscomb aka DJ Amir on the survival of the mixtape environment

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From there, Lipscomb took off and gleaned partnerships with numerous rappers from the city and beyond. His first mixtape was with State Property’s Young Chris. Called “Campaign for Change,” the project coincided with former President Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. Lipscomb has since worked with Meek Mill, Cyssero and Joey Jihad, among many other artists.

Today, you can find Lipscomb mixing on the radio. He recently appeared as a guest DJ on Sway in the Morning on Sirius XM.

He also still drops mixtapes, but he’s adamant about staying current.

“It’s just a whole different level,” he said. “I just put together a whole album with 40 Philadelphia artists. We doing tapes and we doing streams.”

To cater to as wide an audience as possible, Lipscomb said that he also physically sells his CDs on the streets and borrows a strategy from the late rapper Nipsey Hussle, who famously pushed his 2013 “Crenshaw” mixtape by offering it to fans for free in addition to selling it for $100.

“I give the option,” he said. “That’s the formula that we all do. I got a mixtape with the most recent songs on it called the radio killer mix and you can give me a dollar or you can take it for free.

“I also go to colleges,” he added. “That’s a marketing thing for me. I just post up, blast the music and give CD’s out. I know that it’s new kids coming along that don’t have Camaros. Some kids got that old car with the [CD] players still. I always make sure I cater to that [demographic as well] because I’m for the people.”

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