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In each hip hop generation, the way MCs have gone about cultivating their fanbases have had distinct similarities, but these artists execute through avenues specific to their time. Currently in the streaming era, strategies obviously differ from what they were in the mid-2000s, which differ from the ’90s, so on and so forth. Most of rap’s most prominent acts credit their early runs through the mixtape circuit as being the most important stage leading up to their eventual success. There once was a time where a mixtape with the right DJ was treated as a milestone and opportunity to get your music buzzing in the streets. For the greater part of the 2000s, that DJ was none other than Philly’s own DJ Drama.
What DJ Drama, Don Cannon and the Aphilliates were able to build that decade with the Gangsta Grillz imprint was and still is a special platform, tailor-made for “quality street music.” This is a platform that has not been duplicated since they shook the game back up in the early 2000s. They gave elevation to the underground, building upon the foundation that was laid by many great DJs and artists who came before them. You can look back at the legendary DJ Clue tapes to the work from Whoo Kid, Funk Flex, Green Lantern, amongst many others, to gain more understanding on the development of mixtapes.
Gangsta Grillz at its core was developed in the south. Projects from a young, brash T.I in 2004 who was beefing with Lil Flip, an emerging superstar in Young Jeezy, and Lil Wayne at his most prolific truly established the brand, and pushed Drama and Cannon into the space of gatekeepers. Drama was doing more than just talking his braggadocios talk when opening records, as he was catapulting careers in the underground, as well as the mainstream. Artists were looking at these tapes as opportunities to showcase their skills, get unlimited bars off and be their most authentic selves without a major label filter. With projects like Jeezy’s Trap or Die, Gucci Mane’s Mr. Zone 6 or the great Nipsey Hussle’s Crenshaw; fans got to hear music from artists who really represented the streets at their most unapologetic and authentic.
The reputation and immense respect that is connected to the Gangsta Grillz name is why we as fans got a Pharrell tape, as well as unexpected releases from artists like Chris Brown with In My Zone or Childish Gambino with STN MTN.
There are an abundance of projects from rappers and a few singers that are forever etched into the fabric of the series of releases. From Lloyd Banks to Freddie Gibbs to Jadakiss to Boosie, the list of quality tapes and unforgettable records is endless. Even after the infamous mixtape raid went down back in 2007; Drama, Cannon and the team brushed themselves off and kept it going for the culture. The beauty of the internet is that all of these projects are still available and waiting to be rediscovered -- or for some, found for the first time. In the spirit of appreciation and celebrating Black Music Month, we just wanted to take the time to celebrate what Gangsta Grillz brought to the game, and highlight just a few staples in the extensive catalog.
Lil Wayne and DJ Drama are a duo who have become synonymous with the term “dedication.” Looking at Wayne’s extensive career, as he’s gone on to be one of the most successful hip hop acts of all time, it’s his incomparable mixtape run that jumps out at you. In 2006, post-Carter 2, “mixtape Weezy” was in full effect as he and “the mixtape president” released an instant classic known as Dedication 2. Weezy by this time had already crowned himself as the “best rapper alive,” and his status in the game was quickly elevating. But, this project was a powerful moment that helped take both of their statuses’ to new levels. It was a showcase that found both in rare form and to this day is mentioned as one of the best tapes ever. Yes...ever.
Wayne fans have come to expect a Dedication project every few years, with each one being indicative of where Weezy is at that time in his career. You look at 2008 when Dedication 3 dropped and he used it as a way to prepare fans for the Young Money takeover, or the most recent Dedication 6 where a rejuvenated Wayne made it clear he still had a lot to offer as an MC. The Dedication is a signature series for Lil Wayne, as well as the Gangsta Grillz imprint, that laid a blueprint for countless other artists.
“Last time I checked I was the man on these streets.”- Jeezy ("Trap Or Die," 2005)
There are so many quote-worthy lines from Jeezy’s 2005 mixtape, Trap or Die, which served as the precursor to his game-changing debut album, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, released months later. In a 2005 interview with XXL, DJ Drama called this tape “one of the top three most influential mixtapes of the modern generation.” Jeezy’s raw style and vivid drug dealing raps were perfect for the Gangsta Grillz platform, as it spoke directly to the streets. Whichever way you choose to look at it, Jeezy was a motivator for the south.
Projects like Can’t Ban The Snowman and The Real Is Back, and others, further showcased why Jeezy and Drama were such a strong mixtape duo. They know their audience and speak directly to them every time.
With both Meek and Drama being representatives of Philadelphia, and running in a similar lane musically, it was an instant match when the two finally linked up. Meek was already eight mixtapes in and had already worked with Drama by the time the first Dreamchasers tape was released in 2011, and the momentum only increased after it hit the streets. The DC imprint has become an embodiment of the Meek Mill brand, and the narrative of Meek as a man is soundtracked throughout the series. From street classics like “Tony Story” to hit records like “Amen,” the artist showed artistic development from project to project. With the DJ Drama stamp on the first three installments, this series is one of the strongest entries to the DJ's mixtape discography because you are able to follow the growth of Meek. The mainstream success of these projects also helped solidify Meek as an industry force, but also delivered some big records to a new audience.
The career arc of Brooklyn MC Fabolous is an impressive one. For 20 years, the heavy bar spitter has maintained relevancy by consistently delivering quality projects.
With that said, his best work is found in his mixtapes like The Soul Tapes and There Is No Competition series, as DJ Drama showcased the chill, laid back rapper at his most boastful and competitive. With Drama as his partner in crime, even providing “eulogies for the competition,” Fab dropped memorable offerings with each of the mixtape releases.
Loso and Dram provided joints at the tail-end of the mixtape era’s peak. Gangsta Grillz fans hold this series in high regard, as the southern-dominated imprint joined forces with one of New York City’s finest.
What are some of your favorite Gangsta Grillz mixtapes? Let us know!
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