LIL WAYNE with T-PAIN, GYM CLASS HEROES and KERI HILSON at the Air Canada Centre (40 Bay), Thursday (January 15), 7 pm. $49.75-$150.75. 416-870-8000.
CLIPSE with the Baba Khan and Kid X at Circa (126 John), Friday (January 16), 10 pm, and Saturday (January 17), 3 am. $15. ticketweb.ca.
A year ago, Aubrey Graham was playing a troubled wheelchair-bound teen named Jimmy Brooks on Degrassi: The Next Generation. Today he's playing to an audience of thousands on tour with Grammy-nominated, multi-milli-selling rapper Lil Wayne.
The Toronto-born Graham, known now as Drake (or Drizzy, Heartbreak Drake, Drizzy Drake Rogers - anything but Jimmy Brooks), is on the brink of hip-hop stardom. And his pass out of the halls of Degrassi has unquestionably been the mixtape.
Mixtapes marry a collection of off-the-cuff raps with a collage of other artists' music - Lil Wayne rapping over a Beyoncé beat, Jay-Z putting a verse on top of an M.I.A. single, Ghostface Killah spitting rhymes over While My Guitar Gently Weeps - all "hosted" by a mixtape DJ.
They aren't traditional DJ mixes, nor are they cassette tapes (at least not any more). Mixtapes are loosely slapped-together compilations of songs, whether on CD or in digital form. They're cheap to make and cheap to own (often free on the Internet). And due to copyright law, most of them are illegal.
But in hip-hop, mixtapes are simply the cost of doing business. Every rapper - no matter the stripe - records them for promotional purposes. Only a few build careers on them.
Drake is touring, unofficially, with the aforementioned Lil Wayne after the latter took note of a few sharp mixtape verses. (Drake doesn't yet have an album, but Wayne considers him a protege and brings him onstage for most of his concerts.)
Like Drake, Lil Wayne, who's coming to Canada for the first time in his 15-year career, made his reputation via mixtapes. As did duo Clipse, who are currently involved in a war of verses with Wayne and touring their own latest mixtape. Both just happen to be playing Toronto this week.
Here to stay: hip-hop stalwarts
Pusha and Malice, Virginia Beach brothers known jointly as Clipse, have worn the crown of mixtape kings since 2004's We Got It 4 Cheap, Vol. 1. They'd already released Lord Willin', a full-length album (and coke-rap classic) a couple of years earlier, but major-label red tape prevented a second album. So Pusha (once known as Pusha-T) reached out to mixtape DJ extraordinaire Clinton Sparks.
"We had never really done mixtapes before, and I felt Clinton had a grasp of the Internet side of mixtape distribution," says Pusha (aka Terrence Thorton), on the phone from Virginia.
That grasp proved to be a chokehold. Clipse quickly became a hit with bloggers, who worshipped their grimy and dizzyingly creative cocaine metaphors. We Got It 4 Cheap became a series, spawning two more volumes. Vol. 3, which came out last February, was another Internet sensation. Music critics, most notably at the New York Times, began reviewing Clipse mixtapes as if they were legitimate albums.
The DJ who hosted Vol. 3, Atlanta's DJ Drama, had his mixtapes seized by authorities in 2007. The police worked with the Recording Industry Association of America to confiscate 81,000 copies - which they deem counterfeits - along with cars and recording equipment. As a result, Drama was charged with racketeering.
When it came time to release yet another Clipse mixtape in December 2008, Pusha decided to try to avoid legal trouble. Road To Till The Casket Drops was an Internet-only tape released by Complex Magazine, owned by hip-hop designer Marc Ecko. (Complex editor-in-chief Noah Callahan-Bever says he's unconcerned about the group's use of unlicensed music.)
"We had DJ nobody," Pusha says. "With the trouble that's been caused by the mixtape situation, everyone has gravitated to getting free music off the Net. So I was like, whatever. I don't need anyone. I'll distribute it through Complex."
The songs, which use beats to Jay-Z and T.I.'s Kanye West-produced Swagga Like Us and the slick R&B jam So Fly by former 112 member Slim, were again treated as an album. Pitchforkmedia, the Web's pre-eminent tastemaking music site, reviewed it alongside new releases from the likes of the Flaming Lips, pushing Pusha to push back online.
"When the Pitchfork thing came out, we were like, ‘Dawg, why are you misconstruing the actual premise of a mixtape? Since when are you taking my mixtape and putting it on the same high criteria as albums?'" says Pusha. "It's really not the same. The amount of colours you put on a mixtape isn't the same as an album. Everybody knows what goes into a mixtape: the freshest lyrics, beats that you're almost familiar with. It's a competitive thing."
The competitive spirit of mixtapes is the result of rapping over the backtrack of another rapper. The goal is to outshine whoever rapped on it before, often using insults. The modern dis-heavy mixtape track was popularized by 50 Cent, who taunted (and in some cases threatened) virtually every mainstream rap act on his How To Rob in 1999. He was signed to a label almost immediately afterwards.
The Clipse have taken to targeting another mixtape rapper, a rival who's also won the hearts of bloggers everywhere: Lil Wayne. It started with the album single Mr. Me Too, a veiled swipe at Wayne and what the Clipse and their producer, Pharrell Williams from the Neptunes, call identity theft, and continued on mixtapes. Pusha went at Lil Wayne: "Lil nigga flow, but his metaphors boring / Don't make me turn daddy's little girl to orphan / That would mean I'd have to kill Baby, like abortion." (Wayne's alias is Weezy F. Baby, and his surrogate father/hip-hop mentor is nicknamed Baby.)
"Anything I addressed to him was a response to something I've heard [him say]. The opportunity to respond - and keep it musical and great for the listener - is to do it on a mixtape," says Pusha. "When you do mixtapes, you address certain shit. It's about your tape being relevant."
But while Wayne and his mixtape foes will both be in Toronto this week, Pusha says he has no plans to further the feud onstage.
"It's not an actual problem," he claims. "But you gotta respond some way. He said what he said, and we said what we said. It's not in my best interest to let [Wayne] say something about us in a public forum and not respond musically. Especially when I'm as good as I am. At least you'll be happy when you hear me saying that slick-ass line. You'll be like, ‘Aw, shit, that was cute.' Know what I'm saying?"
On his way out? The hip-hop savant
Hours after Lil Wayne got word that his sixth studio album, Tha Carter III, had broken the 1.5 million mark in sales in just one week, he got back behind a microphone.
Over his single A Milli, he rerecorded the verses, thanking his record-buying audience (and hype-creating mixtape DJs) for their support with an Internet-only freestyle.
"A million sold, first day I went gold. And how do I celebrate? Work on Tha Carter IV," he rapped triumphantly.
More than Clipse, Wayne releases mixtape tracks at a torrential pace. It's estimated he's recorded upwards of 500 songs not on studio albums. His Dedication and Da Drought series of tapes (officially six in total) were recorded in the space of two years and celebrated by critics at staid publications like the New Yorker and underground rap blogs alike. (The former called his mixtape work "astonishingly good"; the latter frequently label him best rapper alive.)
He uses his mixtapes - and the Internet - as showcases for his talent as a lyricist, for his work ethic and ability to rhyme endlessly over a wide range of music. All his tireless and pro bono mixtape work has paid off in album sales.
Wayne (aka Dwayne Michael Carter), the diminutive rapper from New Orleans, began flipping left-of-centre, often brilliant turns-of-phrase over beats as an ambitious 11-year-old. At 27, his game is the same, yet his level of success - more Grammy nods than Coldplay, higher sales numbers than Kanye West - has increased dramatically, by and large because of mixtapes.
But Wayne is nothing if not erratic. He now claims he's done making mixtapes, the platform that relaunched him after his work as a child rapper, and so far he's stayed true to that statement. His last mixtape, in December, Dedication 3, hosted by DJ Drama, was more a showcase for his entourage than a Wayne mixtape. He barely rapped on the tape's 23 songs.
"I'm like Alfred Nobel or whatever his name is," he said earlier this year to Foundation Magazine. "He created gunpowder and all them mass destruction things that killed millions of people. But before he died, to clear up his name... he be givin' out peace prizes to people who do humanitarian things. So now when you hear the Nobel Peace Prize, what you think that is? It's all good, great. But this nigga was a mass [murderer]. That's who I am. I'm him.
"I created the mixtape game, but I'm not into that no more. I'm against, an anti-mixtape dude. Fuck mixtape DJs. I'm pissed off at the mixtape game."
Maybe so, but that's not to say Wayne isn't still a major player in that game. Look no further than Drake for proof.
Drake, the 23-year-old Toronto actor-turned-rapper, self-published his first mixtape, Room For Improvement, and used his blog, Octobersveryown.blogspot.com, to promote and distribute it. That tape led to his being featured on Trey Songz's hit Replacement Girl, which found a huge admirer in Lil Wayne.
While others - Kanye West and, coincidentally, Pusha of Clipse - have since come out to support Drake's music, it's Wayne who took him under his wing. Though Drake, as a member of Lil Wayne's touring entourage, doesn't get billing, Wayne often calls him onstage to perform.
"Drake is the only one who gets to perform every night!" complains Jae Millz, another Wayne acolyte who's also backstage at every show hoping to get the call. Millz has a right to be bitter; he's been on the mixtape circuit for nearly 10 years but has nowhere near Drake's degree of hype.
Drake, judging by such early successes, should be on top of the game in half that time.