In 2008, a 24-hour inferno ripped through a Universal Studios backlot, incinerating a massive archive of musical history. As detailed this month in the New York Times Magazine, the fire spread to a warehouse where Universal Music Group—by far the world's largest record company—stored huge portions of its master tapes from nearly a century of recorded music. According to a confidential 2009 report obtained by the magazine, UMG estimated that "an estimated 500K song titles" were destroyed.
The losses include a trove of recordings from legendary artists such as Chuck Berry, Aretha Franklin, John and Alice Coltrane, Joni Mitchell, Duke Ellington, Etta James, 2pac, and Nirvana—the list of casualties goes on and on. It includes not only the masters for recordings released as albums and singles, but also reams of heretofore unheard material that may one day have been dusted off and made public, as well as thousands of commercially forgotten recordings—sonic snapshots of American history that "may now exist only as written entries in discographies."
Record labels have a bad habit of losing their tape archives—sometimes intentionally. Some have thrown away truckloads of masters to save space, donated them to salvage drives, and chopped them up with saws to be sold for scrap, according to Billboard. When Atlantic Records lost nearly all its 5,000 recordings made between 1949 and 1969 in a fire, label executives saw the small insurance payout that resulted as a good trade for the losses. Nonetheless, despite their deeply flawed track record of cultural stewardship, record companies are large institutions with some profit incentives for preserving these music archives—especially now, when vinyl reissues of old albums net millions annually, and back catalogue streams of old songs account for half of all online listens.
But not all genres are equally protected. Throughout the history of hip-hop, some of the genre's most vibrant, popular, and forward-thinking music was never for sale through traditional record company channels—and some of it was never really for sale at all: mixtapes. Hip-hop's exact definition of a mixtape has varied over the years, from the warbly live cassette recordings of DJ sets and MC freestyles of the late '70s, to the producer-curated compilations of up-and-coming rappers during the '90s, up through the rapper-driven unofficial albums pioneered by artists like 50 Cent around the turn of the millennium. Throughout the decades, mixtapes often featured pre-existing beats from other artists, and were traded covertly or sold on street corners. They flouted music-industry norms while also serving as a launching pad for the further success of many rappers and producers, as well as a marketing tool and creative outlet for artists between projects.
By 2006, a conservative estimate by the Recording Industry Association of America put the mixtape economy's worth at $150 million to $250 million a year. Since then, mixtapes have largely lived online, hosted by free-download mixtape-distribution sites that make money off of ad revenue, such as DatPiff. And more recently direct-upload sites like SoundCloud have served as an archive and distribution center for the mixtapes and scattershot releases of the latest wave of rappers.
Like an even more precarious version of the Universal vault, the for-profit servers that host these primary documents of hip-hop culture can vanish in an instant. This spring, news broke that Myspace, the beleaguered social media site that once served as a primary hosting platform for many unsigned musicians, had deleted all music uploaded between 2003 and 2015—a reported 50 million songs. "As a result of a server migration project, any photos, videos, and audio files you uploaded more than three years ago may no longer be available on or from Myspace," the site said in a statement. "We apologize for the inconvenience and suggest that you retain your back up copies."
SoundCloud, too, seemed to be teetering on the brink of death not too long ago. In 2017, the company abruptly laid off 40 percent of its staff and shuttered offices in San Francisco and London in order to preserve just enough money to survive for 80 more days. After some kind of intervention by Chance the Rapper, the company has survived the following two years, at least for now.
Like many other ad-funded sites before it, DatPiff could go belly-up. YouTube could decide to shore up its relationships with the music industry and crack down on on unofficial releases. Is anyone working on a contingency plan to preserve the musical legacy of mixtape releases?
Institutional preservation is a relatively recent development in hip-hop—in part because the genre is still pretty young—with a handful of disparately run archives popping up across North America and the Web. "This is still new times for the idea of hip-hop archiving. There seems to be an uptick. People are aware now that—oh, shit—nobody else is going to do this," says Murray Forman, a professor of hip-hop studies at Northeastern University. "In a lot of cases, it is self-made stuff; corporations were never part of it. And so, the ephemera of the culture, its foundation is sort of shaky, but it can be preserved and shored up if people start collecting it."
One roadblock to the archiving of the last 15 years of hip-hop, especially its mixtapes and one-off tracks, is that the vast majority of it has never existed outside of the digital ether. Archiving practices have historically centered around physical objects, often failing to preserve large swaths of oral cultures and other immaterial cultural artifacts. "We know how people looked and dressed in the Civil War era because we all have those Mathew Brady photographs. When we move to say, the cell phone, and we just have digital photos that people don't reproduce in any concrete way, that's a risk for historians," Forman says. "Something similar is happening with hip-hop, and music in general, as we move more and more to a purely digital platform."
Because much of the music isn't controlled by major label copyright, hip-hop archives can grow much the way hip-hop itself did: regionally, through DIY communities being creative with limited resources. "What we're starting to see now is, usually on a very local level, people are saying, 'Let's start accumulating these tapes,'" Forman says. "Nobody's quite doing it on a national scale. And I think that's probably right: You work locally, and you have a much better sense of what was going on."
Or as Pacey Foster, a creative economies professor at the University of Massachusetts–Boston and founder of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, put it, "It started in the community centers, let's rescue it [from being lost to history] in the community center."
Canada's Northside Hip-Hop Archive is one such cultural community center, of sorts, for the digital age. Before he became a professor at Ryerson University's School of Media, Mark Campbell was teaching high school and DJing a hip-hop show at a college radio station in Toronto. He couldn't find much of Toronto's hip-hop history online to show his students, so began digitizing his old radio shows.
Eventually, the focus of the archive expanded beyond Toronto to encompass all of Canadian hip-hop—as well as far beyond just music. "It treats the culture holistically. So there's graffiti in there. There are copies of old breakdance battle flyers, writing for magazines—first album reviews," Campbell says. "It's really up to the individual hip-hop artists or community members and what they want to showcase."
Rather than just a stuffy library of preservation, the archive aims for making cultural history accessible, and ensuring that it can reach—and motivate—young Canadians. To this end, the archive puts on frequent events in Toronto and across Canada, playing deep cuts, digitizing old tapes, exhibiting photography, hosting performances and historical talks. Campbell sees these events as equally important in building a living archive of Canadian hip-hop history as Northside's digital library.
"The traditional way of archiving conceives of the archive as a dead place where things are stored and collected, controlled by powerful, wealthy folks who can decide what goes in what room and how these pieces of art are shown, which means they have access to influencing public discourse and the historical process of knowledge," Campbell says. Why would that method make sense for hip-hop, an art born in part of exclusion from some of that power?
Northside strives not to "replicate the conditions of exclusion" of many other archives. It is focused only on the local, the independent, and the unsigned—there are plenty of mixtapes to be found, but no Drake or major label Tory Lanez releases. This is partially to avoid copyright issues while making the archive as widely accessible as possible, but also, exhaustive preservation is not the point. "The work of the archive is not necessarily about representing this holistic image of the Toronto scene. It's about getting people involved in the creation of knowledge and the storing of information, and the remembering of histories," Campbell says.
Not everyone feels similarly. A few major research universities have begun to build hip-hop libraries with operating philosophies that track more closely with traditional Western academic notions of archiving. Harvard University has a small collection, as do the University of Houston, the College of William and Mary, and Tulane University. The Cornell Hip Hop Collection, established in 2007, is the largest. "They are collecting materials from some of the key pioneers and veterans of the culture," Forman says. "They really do have it stored in their special collections section of their library."
There is one hip-hop archive even bigger than Cornell's that focuses chiefly on preservation, but it's not exactly traditional. The Internet Archive—a sprawling non-profit digital library perhaps best known for the Wayback Machine—runs an archive of hip-hop mixtapes, about 12,000 deep so far.
When Jason Scott, whose job title is "Free-Range Archivist," began overseeing collections at the Internet Archive, he says he pushed toward preserving ephemera, folk culture, and ... pretty much whatever he could get his hands on. Unlike many archives, space wasn't an issue (they're at 50 petabytes and growing), and he could preserve all sorts of things rapidly, even if some categorizing information was missing.
The Internet Archive's musical collections had meandered in their focus—first on Grateful Dead bootlegs, then on digitizing ancient 78rpm records. But then Scott, no hip-hop head himself, was made aware of the digital mixtape ecosystem on sites like DatPiff and mixtapetorrent.com. He was surprised to find that the sites would often upload a dozen or so new mixtapes each week. So he built a program that downloaded all existing mixtapes and adds all new uploads to the archive.
Although Scott found links to about 17,000 tapes, only around 12,000 were active. "The rest are just lost to me. I don't have them. And the torrents don't work, they die out," he says. "I tried to do searches for the individual names, just looking to see if they're referred to. And they are referred to at various places. But there's no torrent behind them. There's no seeding box. So they're gone."
Most of the Internet Archive's tapes only date back to 2008, despite the long history of hip-hop mixtapes. "Torrents are like supermarkets: They're good distribution mechanisms, but they're not good preservation," he says. "I've actually had a lot more success with rave cassette tapes."
When he heard the clatter of SoundCloud's false death rattle in 2017, Scott tried to begin preserving its archives. He says SoundCloud wasn't happy about it, so he backed off.
Scott says it's likely some enterprising fans may already have vast archives ripped from SoundCloud, and he expects to hear from them should it finally meet its maker. This has happened before: When Myspace deleted its music archives, Scott was contacted by a group of academic researchers who had downloaded 500,000 songs from Myspace in 2008. Those songs are now on the larger archive.
But, with the mixtapes, as with the Myspace music—as with most things the Internet Archive does—the goal is never to be completist, or to curate the critical picks of some cultural corner. It's just to save whatever's available. "People get very hung up on wanting a complete recovery. It's rarely the case where we suddenly have everything that was lost from a service," Scott says. "My attitude is, I don't want to be the bottleneck in 2019. Just give it all to me. We'll figure it out later."
Figuring it out later, though, might be tough if you don't have experts and researchers who are engaged with the archive. "I'm grateful for anybody who has the foresight to accumulate, store, and hopefully grant access to the culture," Forman says. "But I hope they would have the foresight to bring somebody in who has a hip-hop sensibility, because if it's just access, and it's just storage, then it maybe doesn't mean that much" without metadata and context that speaks to "the tensions and struggles that people are encountering at this moment in time."
Scott himself finds these concerns compelling, and says he would never compare what the Internet Archive does to the work of any university archives. "There's no situation where I ever want to portray the way the archive does things as the natural, superior, evolved approach to an archive," he says. "We do certain things very well, that you do not get from other places." Other kinds of archives do many other things better.
Campbell sees a symbiotic relationship between the brute force accumulation of somewhere like the Internet Archive, and the contextualized and community-engaged work of smaller archives like Northside. "We need people to collect everything, and they need people to be very discerning in what they coordinate or curate," he says.
Foster, of the Massachusetts Hip-Hop Archive, sees community archiving as part of a long trend of democratizing the documentation of culture that began in the '60s and the '70s and has continued as different kinds of recording technology have improved and gotten cheaper. But like like any community democracy, the practice can be difficult and messy—especially when run through a big institution such as UMass. "It requires a staff, a huge budget, a lot of time, and a lot of like meetings with the community," Foster says. "The question becomes: Can you work out that administrative struggle of connecting these institutions with the community in a meaningful and ongoing way?"
After all, hip-hop—largely outside the bounds of traditional institutions—developed as a kind of archive itself. DJs sampled their parents' old funk and soul records; rappers told the stories of their communities. So a formal archive should continue in the same spirit. "The curator almost operates like a producer or a DJ," Forman says. "How do we put these things into motion together in a particular way to tell a particular kind of hip-hop story?"