How DJ Clue's 'The Professional' album took the mixtape from the streets to mainstream

Preezy Brown

 // Dec 15, 2018


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For today's aspiring rappers, navigating the internet is a necessary evil with a large number of artists striving to go viral for the sake of survival. The measure of success may be equated to streaming numbers in 2018. But, twenty years ago, the only playlists that held weight among rap fans were those by the streets, which were largely curated by the DJs. Referred to as mixtapes, these playlists came in the form of cassettes and CDs. They were comprised of choice cuts from your favorite artists, which the DJ either blended or compiled into a tracklist for the listeners' pleasure. And while a number of DJs can be credited with pioneering the mixtape and helping popularize the format, one name that looms larger than any in rap history is DJ Clue, who single-handedly revolutionized the mixape game and broke barriers for countless DJs who came after him.

Born and raised in the Jamaica section of Queens, New York; the Panamanian-American's initial goal was to become a rap star. However, that dream ultimately proved to be short-lived. "I didn't really like the spotlight too much, man, at all," DJ Clue shared during a previous interview with the "Drink Champs." He continued, "I kinda being a little bit behind the scenes, but not too much. So, I was rapping, doing little shows here and there. Rochdale Village and all that around the way stuff and I just decided, 'Yo, man I'ma get behind the turntables and start DJing.'" A consumer at first, Clue got his music fix via mixtapes by local Queens DJs like Grandmaster Vic, Dogtime and others before deciding to start creating tapes of his own. As for his name, the DJ attributes its roots to his inherent anonymity, and says it was calculated on his part.

"I liked the name Clue [because] I liked the board game. And being that I wanted to be behind the scenes, I had my name on it, I ain't have the picture on it. So, I made it make sense," Clue explained. Starting his mixtape at tape No. 26 to appear seasoned as a DJ, Clue set up shop in a record store in downtown Brooklyn, New York and he quickly built a buzz. However, by securing an internship at RCA Records under music executive Steve Stoute, DJ Clue gained a leg-up on the competition in a big way, gaining access to unreleased records by some of the hottest MCs in the game. While Clue refuses to reveal his sources to this day, let's just say that whoever was behind the exclusives was sitting on top of a goldmine, as he acquired some of the defining records of the mid-90s. Before long, songs like Method Man's "M.E.T.H.O.D. Man" would appear on Clue tapes, as would a few unreleased records by a certain Brooklyn rapper that would go on to claim the throne as King of New York: Biggie Smalls.

In 1994, The Notorious B.I.G. was presented as the flagship artist of Sean "Puffy" Combs' Bad Boy Records and his debut album,Ready to Die, became the biggest rap album of the year, largely on the strength of hits like the album's lead-single "Juicy." But, prior to being serviced to retail or radio, the song somehow wound up in the hands of DJ Clue, who included it on one of his mixtapes. This led to an irate Biggie famously calling the elusive DJ out live on-air during an appearance on Funk Flex's show on New York City radio station Hot 97. Having been immortalized by Frank White himself, the veiled threats would do nothing to stop Clue's run, as he would spend the latter half of the decade dominating the mixtape game with more unreleased songs and exclusive freestyles. Helping break classic album cuts like Nas' "Live Nigga Rap," DJ Clue not only dictated the sound of the streets, but also what was hot on radio. One instance in which DJ Clue helped swing the momentum for an up-and-coming MC was in 1995, when Irv Gotti introduced him to JAY-Z, who had a reputation as a battle-tested lyricist, but had yet to separate himself as a star or achieve chart success.

That changed the following year, when Irv Gotti presented him with "Ain't No Nigga," a song JAY-Z had recorded with Foxy Brown. After putting the song on his mixtape, the song would blow up in the clubs, as well the radio. This scored the Brooklyn hustler his first bonafide hit and sparked a relationship that changed the role of the DJ forever. Having patched up his differences with The Notorious B.I.G. and the Bad Boy camp, Clue was handpicked by the label to put together their first official mixtape, giving the DJ the opportunity to pick any two records off of The Notorious B.I.G.'s Life After Death album to include on the project. Those records, "Hypnotize" and "Mo' Money, Mo' Problems," both topped the Billboard Hot 100 and became the two biggest hits of the Bed Stuy rep's career. As a result of breaking those songs, in 1997, DJ Clue was contacted by Tracy Clohert, head of VP/Programming at Hot 97 at the time. She offered Clue his own radio show, an opportunity he jumped at. The weekly show was called "Monday Night Mixtapes." However, DJ Clue would get another shot to expand his brand, this time by signing on with Roc-A-Fella Records as an artist in 1998, making him the first non-rapping DJ to do so in the history of hip hop.

DJ Clue, who had amassed a small fortune by distributing his mixtapes across the eastern seaboard and beyond, says he initially blew off the idea of signing a record deal due to his success off the books. "Shit, I was making so much bread, I wasn't even thinking of going to no label," he says. "At that young age, I had so much bread, I didn't even know what to do with it. I used to walk around with pockets full of money. It was like go to Atrium, spend $2,500 on Iceberg. It's nothing. Pull up, clear it out." However, the enterprising DJ would eventually come around to the idea, viewing the opportunity as a chance to further expand his brand. "I mean, thought it was a good opportunity. I said you know what? Even though I'm still selling a bunch of mixtapes, I could make it on a bigger scale and get audiences across seas and stuff like that. Even though I was still already doing parties overseas and all that stuff, like independently, I still felt like I could get some of the bigger artists and do something exclusive. And back then, selling platinum was a big thing. I thought I could sell platinum, which I did." He may not have knew it then, but by inking this deal and becoming the first DJ to make the leap from the mixtapes to the majors, Clue would impact how DJs operated for generations to come.

Released on December 15, 1998, The Professional would cast DJ Clue as hip hop's ultimate fixer, bringing together the most biggest names in rap and facilitating some of the most exciting collabs in a way that the genre had never seen before. While DJs like Kid Capri and Funkmaster Flex had both released albums on major labels in the past, DJ Clue's project was something entirely different. Capri's 1991 Cold Chillin' debut, The Tape, featured him rapping, and Flex's The Mix Tape series included previously released records. With the downfall of Death Row Records and the Death of The Notorious B.I.G., 1998 was a year of transition for the rap game, particularly on the east coast with a crop of hungry MCs vying for the crown and ushering a new era for hip hop. At the head of this class was DMX, an artist who ironically built his buzz in part by demolishing various posse cuts and freestyles on mixtapes by Clue. The Ruff Ryder, who secured a record deal with Def Jam in 1997, hit the ground running. He unleashed his debut album, It's Dark and Hell Is Hot, which sold more than four million copies and helped restore the hardcore aesthetic on the east coast.

Afterward, X was gearing up for the release of his sophomore album, Flesh of My Flesh, Blood of My Blood. This project was set to drop a week after The Professional. Tracks on it appear on the compilation twice. One solo track "It's On" and most notably the "Ruff Ryders' Anthem (Remix);" which features Drag-On, Eve, Jadakiss and Styles P. Rhyming atop a track provided by Swizz Beatz, the rappers all relinquish bars of fury, contributing an introductory cut that braces listeners for the firepower that is yet to come. Speaking of lyrical battle royals, the most prominent on The Professional may very well be "Fantastic 4," a free-for-all that pits four of the biggest contenders for Rap Rookie of the Year against one another. Cam'ron, Big Pun, N.O.R.E. and Canibus all go for the jugular with their respective verses, as Canibus and Big Pun pick up where they left off in their legendary freestyle session and turning in the best performances on the track. Being that The Professional was unveiled under the Roc-A-Fella banner, it was only right that DJ Clue's benefactor JAY-Z appear on the album. Hov, who was riding high off the breakout success of his Hard Knock Life album and on the brink of nabbing his first Grammy award, teamed up with "Can I Get A..." collaborator Ja Rule on "Gangsta Shit." This offering exudes a more grisly vibe than their radio-friendly smash.

With two years having elapsed since his last album release at the time, a Nas song or guest verse was in high demand in 1998, as fans went to extreme lengths to get their hands on new material from the QB poet. This would lead to a number of tracks from I Am..., his highly anticipated follow-up, to his sophomore album, It Was Written, being leaked and bootlegged on the street. This was a quandary for the rapper, but one that was indicative of his high regard within the hip hop community at the time. So, the fact that DJ Clue was able to acquire a Nas track for his album was a major coup, as the rapper appeared on the aptly titled "Queens Finest." This gave the maestro the three major players in NYC rap that he placed on one album, a testament to Clue's strong relationships and the reputation of bringing out the most touted rappers. In addition to various veteran-led crews appearing on the album, including EPMD's Def Squad ("It's My Thang '99") and Busta Rhymes' Flipmode Squad ("Whatever You Want"), The Professional was also a breeding ground for untapped talent like Fabolous, who made his debut appearance on the project. Coming out of the Breevort Projects in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn; the kid with the chipped-tooth smile caught DJ Clue's attention after inviting Fabolous to his "Monday Night Mixtapes" show to display his talents for New York City to hear.

"My man Skane called me and he said, 'Yo, I got this kid,'" DJ Clue recalls. "'He aight. He can rap, he cool, he got some potential. I want you to hear him.' I said, 'Cool, not only am I gonna hear him, I'ma bring him up and let him freestyle [live on air] right now.' That was the first time I ever met him or heard him. So, he walked, I met him. I said, 'You ready?' He said, 'Yeah, I'm ready.' I said, 'Aight 'cause you 'bout to freestyle after N.O.R.E. So, sit down, have a chair and grab a mic.' So that's how that happened." Impressed by the Fab's sheer talent and poise under fire, DJ Clue put the Brooklynite under his wings, christening him as Fabolous Sport and giving him a pair of slots on The Professional, a major look for an artist who had yet to be signed. But, the unknown upstart proved he belonged. Fab held his own against established stars Ma$e and Foxy Brown on "That's The Way," and flexed his metaphor-heavy rhyme style on his debut solo "If They Want It." This track set the foundation for what has turned out to be an illustrious career. Despite being an admittedly NYC-centric affair, The Professional packs some regional flavor with "I Like Control" (featuring Missy Elliott, Mocha and Nicole Wray) and "Bitch Be a Ho" (featuring Jermaine Dupri and R.O.C.), which help break up the monotony from the onslaught of bars, if even for a brief moment.

In 2018, DJ Clue remains a fixture in hip hop. He deejays various hot spots across the country and abroad, and hosts his own mix-show on New York City radio station Power 105.1. He's long left the mixtape game behind to focus on other ventures. But, occasionally, he restores the feeling like when he and Fabolous teamed up for their Friday Night Freestyles series back in 2015. However, despite walking away at the top of his game and a generation of rap fans who are fairly unfamiliar with his importance to the culture, DJ Clue remains an icon and a torchbearer for superstar DJs with the likes of DJ Khaled and others walking in his footsteps. In the wake of its release, many of the major players tapped to appear on The Professional would go on to enjoy legendary careers and are regarded as some of the greatest artists in rap history.

If it wasn't for the success of The Professional -- which was the first album from a DJ to achieve platinum status -- and DJ Clue creating the template for curators, the trend of putting your favorite rap artists from various crews and creating a project for the masses may not be possible. More than a reminder of the pinnacle of NYC hip hop during the late '90s, The Professional stamped DJ Clue as the preeminent DJ of the streets and helped take the mixtape mainstream, making it a pivotal body of work and one of the most important rap compilations of all-time.

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