Bwog music critic Bryan Mochizuki explains the world of mixtapes, the reasons to buy them, and how to choose them well.

You used to be able to walk up to 125th any time of day and there’d be half-a-dozen guys camped out between 7th and Lenox selling mixtapes – five bucks a pop, four for $15, selling hundreds of copies of a hot new mix between meals. Piracy? On paper, yeah. Black market? Sure. But these weren’t boot copies of Kill Bill getting hocked – at their best, these were serious, critically-acclaimed rap pastiches, pieced together by some of the biggest DJ’s in the nation.

Then, two weeks ago, a big name DJ got busted and the entire mixtape world – including the uptown vendors – closed up shop. This Saturday, a couple people reappeared on the main drag (though not in plain sight), and next weekend there will inevitably be more. Rappers and labels rely on mixtapes to build fan bases, hype, and   hits (“What You Know,” “We Fly High,” and “Hustlin’” were all on big tapes months before they got Clear Channel-ed). With demand building since the bust, the comeback looks to be colossal.

A practical guide, after the jump!

1. Why to buy mixtapes:

  1. You like rap music and need more of it. Most mainstream rappers only release, say, a third of their verses through their label. The rest is on mixtapes. Jadakiss, for example, has dropped gems by the hour since Thanksgiving and Kiss My Ass isn’t even coming out until mid-year.
  2. You particularly like Southern rap… which is historically underplayed by New York radio, meaning that the two chief ways to hear new material are Myspace or mixtapes.
  3. You like [insert rapper] but can’t sit through an entire album. Mixtapes are never a one-ring circus – hence their essential draw. There’s usually a primary artist and the DJ plays maybe 20 of their tracks in short two minute blasts, but in between you get both kit and caboodle – likeminded artists, freestyles, posse cuts, and – always appropriate – remixes. Memphis rapper Yo Gotti was the host/epicenter of DJ Wally Sparks’s Southern Conference 4. He’s diggable but certainly not the be-all-end-all dude in rap. Yet S.C. 4 was more listenable than most rap albums simply because it kept things interesting: nice doses of Mr. Gotti and the good new songs from Young Jeezy, Fabo, T.I., Birdman, Trick Daddy, UGK, Lil’ Wayne…

mixtape 12. Where to buy mixtapes: All over the place online, but they’re cheaper on the street. First you have to find them, and since mixtape vendors are, for the time being, illegal, it’s not wise to broadcast their exact whereabouts. Walk up to 125th and feel it out. The dudes at Atmos are super nice and known to enjoy a good mix, so ask them about the local vendors. There are also a few reliable spots downtown, specifically on Canal St., but their stock is often bootlegged and a titch sandpaper-y on the ears.

3. How to buy mixtapes: For the newcomer, take your time and try tapes before you buy. Mixtapes aren’t wrapped, so just ask the vendor to play it for you. However, you can usually count on big names to deliver. Before the bust, DJ Drama’s track record was clutch beyond belief. Even if you hate the artist, if Drama was doing his or her tape it would be at least very good if not excellent. There are half a dozen or so other DJs on that level – guys like Mick Boogie, Big Mike, and Whoo Kid. If the tracklist is compelling and one of these names is on the front, it will be worth the five bucks. Also keep an eye out for series – Purple Codeine 14 is always a better bet than Mannie’s Hot Shizz.

3.a. How to buy mixtapes well: Get in with your supplier. He’ll recommend the good stuff since he listens to the new tapes all day long. Ask him about the new Hell Rell disc routinely. Don’t worry if you don’t know who Hell Rell is (he’s cool and local and a Taurus). Mixtape dealers in New York LOVE Hell Rell. They make up at least 40 percent of his fan base. And there are always rumored new Hell Rell tapes, so you’ll prove your savvy again and again.

3.b. How not to buy mixtapes well: Going in for the Best-of-the-radio style mixes. These are typically small fry DJs with less noble aims than Drama and Co.’s goals of collaboration and exposing new music. Just walk around your floor with a USB key for ten minutes and boom: Alison’s Hot-Radio-Shit Vol. 1. Save five bucks and buy yourself half a drink at Havana Central.