Book Review - Heart 'Behind the Tape'

DJ Mars harnessed hip-hop's DIY spirit to publish definitive book on mixtapes

Wednesday December 17, 2014 04:00 am EST

Like most classic hip-hop stories, this one starts with rejection. At least, that's what Marshall Thomas, best known as DJ Mars, experienced when a literary agent tried to talk him out of his plan to produce a definitive coffee-table book on the history of mixtapes.

"He didn't get it at all," says Mars, recalling how they met over dinner. "He tells me basically that the book should be a how-to on DJing for dummies. I'm sitting there looking at this dude across the table. I wanted to pay the bill and get the heck up outta there immediately."

True to hip-hop form, Mars responded accordingly. Instead of waiting for the publishing industry to come around, he decided to go the independent route. The resulting book, The Art Behind the Tape, is every bit as authentic as the culture it reps. Featuring more than 200 pages of classic mixtape cover artwork and interviews with 90-plus name-brand DJs, MCs, industry execs, and graphic designers, it takes readers on a chronological and geographical journey documenting the rise of this curatorial art form from its hand-to-hand underground beginnings to its commercial dominance by-way-of-the Internet.

For Mars, it's the culmination of an obsession that started nearly 35 years ago when he heard his first cassette tape of a DJ-hosted party in the park recorded in his hometown of Springfield, Mass. It was 1981 and his proximity to New York soon provided entry into that world via party tapes, featuring DJs and MCs rocking the mic, that arrived from the Bronx or Harlem and, eventually, radio recordings of the heavyweights of the day, Mr. Magic, Marley Marl, and DJ Red Alert.

"Me and my friends would get those tapes, and we would covet those tapes," Mars says. He didn't know it at the time but the tapes would eventually lead Mars down his own musical path. After moving to Atlanta in 1991 to attend Clark Atlanta University, he soon became OutKast's original tour DJ and subsequently started the successful DJ coalition World Famous Super Friends.

After 20 years of cementing his own legacy, touring the world with the likes of Usher, and spinning for artists ranging from Diddy to Beyoncé, Mars decided to go from cultural producer to documenter. "As a fan of the culture, I knew this story had to be told," he says. "And I knew there were fans that would appreciate it."

That's an understatement, considering the successful Kickstarter campaign that raised 20 percent more than the $5,000 goal. Mars collaborated with editorial contributors Djibril Ndiaye, Creative Loafing contributor Maurice Garland, and Tai Saint-Louis to co-author the book. His position as an industry insider made it easy for him to land interviews with such mixtape legends as Kid Capri, Ron G, Brucie B, DJ Clue, Jazzy Jeff, DJ Drama, Don Cannon, and plenty more. In addition to access, he already had an established trust with his subjects.

"It was an open and very candid conversation because I love these guys and I've known them forever, so there was no apprehension," he says. Mars also brought a built-in sensitivity for the culture, whereas outsiders might have been more likely to exploit it, he says, explaining why he chose to leave out the story of a beef that got physical between a DJ and rapper.

"I didn't want to embarrass anybody," Mars says. "The book's purpose is to enlighten and glorify the DJs and their efforts."

Even as DJs took a backseat to the MCs, mixtapes continued to propagate rap's industry takeover. The art form evolved from recorded parties to continuous sets meant to duplicate the party vibe. Distribution methods changed from mixtapes to mixed CDs, and East Coast originators gave way to Southern dominance. Today there's no limit to the mixtape's influence, thanks to the Internet. And that, says Mars, is a good thing. It's also why he strove to produce an insider's guide. There was no need to translate the significance of mixtapes to the mainstream, because, as he says, "they're literally everywhere now."

"I walked into Tower Records in Tokyo and they're selling Whoo Kid and Clinton Sparks mixtapes right next to a 50 Cent album or a Jay-Z album," he says. "So it's way past the hood. The people who want it, they get it."

That goes for the publishing industry, too. Now that the book has been realized as a glossy hardback, complete with ancillary merchandise and plans for an accompanying documentary film, Mars is fielding calls from mainstream publishers.

"Now that the book is done and I can send the publisher a copy, he gets it," Mars says. "The conversations I'm having today are a lot easier than the ones I had yesterday."

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