I can’t believe it’s been ten years since the release of DJ Drama & Jeezy’s Trap Or Die. It was the prelude to Thug Motivation 101, a preview of the charismatic vernacular and infectious ad-libs that would take the world by storm. Raw and uncompromised, what other rapper do you know put dope boy rhymes over "Ether"? Drama was talking that talk, all the tags and loops included, and even album exclusives. Trap or Die embodies everything that Gangsta Grillz mixtapes represent: capturing the spirit and the fire of an underground artist about to erupt. This is what DJ Drama and Don Cannon used to give us time and time again under their Aphilliates Music Group umbrella. It was the arena for elite gladiators, it was the cover of XXL before a freshmen list, only the chosen were bestowed the honor of having their tape hosted. I missed the Clue Tape period, so when I think of mixtapes in a golden era, it's 2005 – 2008 and it was only certified if it had Drama and Cannon’s stamp of approval.
I could spend this entire article articulating the greatness that is Lil Wayne’s Dedication 2. If asked where in Wayne’s career he proved his prowess, proved his Best Rapper Alive self-proclamation, I would direct to this very tape. There’s no Auto-tune, no corny punchlines, his performance as a rapper is arguably his best. There’s moments on this mixtape that are simply undeniable. The way Mr. Thanksgiving teased “Dedication II” on “Best Rapper Alive,” but Wayne interrupted, and when the track finally appeared it was nuclear. Wayne went from sinking his teeth into "George Bush" and then murdering Pac’s "Ambition As A Ridah". Dedication 2 wasn’t for commercial appeal, this is the Mr. Carter that Jay Z handed the torch, the rapping fireman before Drake graced every hook. The alien that was unrivaled.
If albums were the NBA, mixtapes were And 1. There were no rules, a freedom to completely get silly without repercussions. There’s an innumerable amount of classic mixtapes that are simply unforgettable. T.I’s entire Down With The King Gangsta Grillz was an assassination of Lil Flip’s career. From the phone call skits with Scarface and Hump Of SuckaFree to classic diss songs like "99 Problemz (But Lil Flip Aint One)" and "Jackin’ For Beats," the proclaimed King Of The South defended his throne and demolished a leprechaun’s kingdom. Even Pharrell embraced his inner-rapper before In My Mind, his underrated Gangsta Grill is one of my personal favorites. From the comedic “Models In The Hood,” to Skateboard P grinding across "Today Was A Good Day" and "Liquid Swords," there’s imagery painted that could only come from Pharell’s colorful world. I wouldn’t know of Asher Roth if it wasn’t for the Greenhouse Effect Vol 1, No Competition 2 reinvigorated my belief in Fabulous' ability to spit, and even though I was years late, Little Brother’s Separate But Equal is a 2006 diamond.
The best mixtapes of my generation felt like they were all hosted by Gangsta Grillz, with their every release presses would be stopped, brakes would be pumped, it was without question a must-have. There was a quality the brand represented, a familiar formula that brought out the beast in every rapper involved. Before street albums became a common coining for free releases, their mixtapes represented that term. Maybe it was after the Great Mixtape Raid of 2007’ or Don Cannon’s departure from AMG in 08, but the familiar feeling that the mixtape staple used to give, has slowly faded.
I thoroughly enjoyed Kevin Gate’s Luca Brasi 2 - great songs, good rapping, but doesn’t have a single quality that would deem it a “Gangsta Grillz Special Edition.” Rapsody’s She Got Game is a tremendous album - incredible lyricism, major features, but doesn’t live up to “Presented by DJ Drama” on the cover. Drama walks in for the intro, leaves to get cigarettes, and practically never returns. Where’s the shout outs? Where’s the ad-libs? Where’s the freestyles? Where’s the rewinds? Gangsta Grillz was a platform for an artist to break the rules, unleashed and be unfiltered. Artistic recess! Drama wasn’t just some background dancer, his role is as a collaborator is pivotal, he's an added feature more than a mixtape host. Childish Gambino’s STN MTN felt authentic, Drama made various appearances, Bino re-created "U Don’t Have to Call," rapped over "Patna Dem" and "Nextel Chirp," but sadly it just wasn’t a strong enough project. The recent Neighbourhood project was a nice and unexpected footnote, but it's just that, a footnote.
The problem with nostalgia, it leaves you craving a past feeling in the present tense. While I celebrate Trap Or Die, I can't help but wonder how all the artists I suspect grew up on the mixtape series would flourish in the original arena, the same battlefield that made Jeezy, T.I., and Wayne mixtape legends. Can you imagine if Kendrick made a Dedication-esque tape? Action Bronson doing a Chief or Die? I know you can imagine Chance The Rapper going off on the “Cannon” beat? Who do we have to sacrifice for MF DOOM to get a Gangsta Grillz!? With Barack O'Drama talking legendary shit over everything. There’s this huge hole in mixtape culture that needs to be filled. Mixtapes sound like a major label unveilings, with big budget features, hooks, and concepts. Where are the filthy, raw, underground mixtapes that only purpose is to prove your sword hasn’t dulled? Getting back into the art of rhyming instead of packaging the songs that didn’t make your album.
I miss the spirit of mixtapes, I miss the hunger of rappers rapping for the thrill, I miss the feeling of a bona fide Gangsta Grillzillz.
[By Yoh, aka Barack YohDrama, aka @Yoh31]