No More Shout-Outs!: An ML Guide To Making A Better Mixtape

There are so many awful mixtapes out there right now. For every brilliant mixtape with great songs and a cohesive concept, there are a million more with a lame rapper rhyming the same words over the instrumentals for whatever songs are hot right now. So I want to reach out to the rappers, DJs, promoters, anyone putting out these tapes. I want to show you how to make a better mixtape. Step by step, let me break this down.

  • First of all, BEATS: use fresh beats! The beats don’t need to be original or exclusive to the tape; in fact, it might be hard to get decent original beats, as XXL’s Scratch Blog explains. But if you are going to use original beats, make sure they’re good enough to warrant paying for them. None of this sub-”Laffy Taffy” shit bought off MySpace for $5.
  • If you’re not planning to rap over beats made specifically for the tape, use some beats that haven’t been used to death. So many talented producers have released instrumental albums, but no one has really tried rapping over them. Cats like Madlib, Large Professor, Pete Rock & K-Def are some notable examples – there’s a fresh idea for you to try.
  • A theme is a great idea and really holds the mixtape together cohesively. Think of a conceptual theme for you to base all your songs around. A few ideas: Spit over other genres of music or pick an artist and sample their work exclusively for the beats. Some great themed mixtapes of recent memory:

-Caltroit-Bishop Lamont, Black Milk & DJ Warrior :West Coast rappers & producers meet Detroit rappers & producers.

-Man In The Mirror-Rhymefest & Mark Ronson : A dedication to Michael Jackson, where ‘Fest raps over MJ songs and both old and new beats sampling Jackson.

-Dillagence-Busta Rhymes & Mick Boogie : Busta raps over J Dilla beats, released and unreleased.

  • No intros, no outros, no DJ shouts. Skits should probably be avoided if you aren’t Prince Paul; most people can’t do funny ones.
  • Think about putting the tape together like an album. It should flow nicely from track to track without any jarring transitions. See the point above- don’t confuse including an intro and outro as making the tape cohesive. Actual blending is nice, sometimes too- if you’re a DJ hosting the tape, you’d better be doing some mixing.
  • Listen to the GZA on the issue of brevity:

“Keep it brief, son / Half short, twice as strong”


  • Features are nice if you can get them. Don’t just rap over another rapper’s song, keep their verse and list the track as “featuring ______”. Reach to out to older and/or unsigned rappers. There are so many talented dudes who aren’t putting anything out.
  • Finally and most importantly, have a unique voice as an emcee. Have actual song concepts with fresh ideas. Tell a story! Talk about lyrical themes that aren’t commonly discussed. As a rule, consider the following song themes covered:

-how many drugs you sell

-how tough you are

-how good you are at rapping

Of course, I’m not saying you can’t rap about any of those subjects. I’m saying if you do plan to, try to bring something new to the table. Put a fresh spin on a tired topic.

  • When it comes to promotion, know your intended audience. Who would enjoy your tape? If you’re going to send it to bloggers, writers, whoever, make sure you know who you’re sending it to. If a blogger raves about Little Brother & Talib Kweli, they might ignore your tape of freestyles over 50 Cent beats. The vice versa may also apply.
  • These are generalizations, but it won’t hurt to know your audience. Pay attention to what they’re writing about and approach them as an individual person instead of a magical promotional device. Mass mailing is probably a bad idea, because it means whatever you’re sending out is no longer an exclusive. A lot of writers may also just ignore something that’s been clearly been mass mailed.

Hope this helps. Step your mixtape game up!

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