Not to be confused with the personalized mixes we make for ourselves and our friends, underground mix tapes—or these days, mixes burned to CDs—are the DIY recordings that unsigned hip-hop acts hawk on the street and at their shows.
Hip-hop mix tapes emanate from an involved subculture that the young magazine Foundation covers with an insider’s expertise. Philadelphia Weekly profiled the magazine’s founders, a trio of young men who began the magazine four years ago, lacking any formal writing experience but recognizing an underserved niche of mix tape criticism and commentary.
While rock bands peddle demos, unsigned hip-hop artists make mixes of themselves rapping over cobbled-together beats. It’s how most major performers, such as 50 Cent and Lil Wayne, got their start, and many major-label artists still reserve their rawest material for the medium, as if to repay their oldest and most loyal fans.
It’s an ethos that naturally appeals to DIY enthusiasts in other art forms, like writing. In the Believer, Found magazine’s Davy Rothbart was moved to sing the praises of mix tapes—arguably the sonic analog to his scrappy literary enterprise:
“The sleek and sanded major-label concoctions on sale at Circuit City are counterbalanced by hundreds, maybe thousands of great, unheard albums … I can’t help but respect the punk-rock, DIY spirit of anybody who makes art and tries to sell it to strangers on the street. After all, I do the same shit myself: Every year I hop in a van and go city to city selling my zines.”
Foundation has followed an upward trajectory similar to the artists it covers, from small-time music mag to venerated authority. Its story is heartening not simply because its writers are passionate about their subjects, but also because the magazine is a runaway success—an increasingly rare thing in today’s print-media landscape.