First time that format is recognized in rap category

In 2007, music journalists fell all over themselves trying to predict the effects of Radiohead’s self-distributed, “pay what you will” release of its “In Rainbows” album, little realizing that the true distribution sea change was occurring in the hip-hop world, where free, self-produced mixtapes were fast emerging as the preferred promotional model.

For the first time in Grammy Awards history, this Sunday’s kudocast will see two songs that originated on free mixtapes contending for rap solo performance awards: Kid Cudi’s “Day N’ Night,” and Drake’s “Best I Ever Had.” Both were subsequently re-released in traditional physical form with the backing of major labels. Their presence among the nominees suggests the recording industry is beginning to approach these tapes with a new seriousness.

“In the past, to the extent that distribution models have changed, we’ve changed the way we review digital releases,” said Recording Academy president Neil Portnow, when asked if the Grammy organization would consider nominating a mixtape or creating a dedicated category. “It’s certainly something we would review.”

Long common in the hip-hop community as cheap platforms for up-and-comers, free mixtapes became indispensable elements of rap promotion once the Internet allowed wide dissemination. Yet the format truly took off thanks to Lil Wayne, whose seemingly unending flurry of tapes in 2007 and ’08 helped build massive hype in advance of 2008’s major label release “Tha Carter III,” which went on to sell more than 3 million copies.

Since then, the gulf between official releases and mixtapes has shrunk considerably, with tapes like Wale’s “Mixtape About Nothing,” Freddie Gibbs’ “midwestgangstaboxframecadillacmusic” and Cudi’s “A Kid Named Cudi” setting new benchmarks for production quality and commercial appeal. Yet many are finding it harder than ever to replicate Wayne’s success — despite vast advance publicity and acclaim, Wale’s Interscope debut, “Attention Deficit,” failed to dent the charts upon its release last fall, while Cudi’s singles successes have yet to push his major-label debut past gold certification.

Whether Grammy recognition will help boost these young rappers is an open question. Perhaps the bigger problem is that rap success still largely exists as an all-or-nothing proposition, without a solid indie-rock-like structure to support aspiring acts long enough to build a paying career.

“Rap needs a Jagjaguwar or a Polyvinyl, let alone a Merge or a Matador or a Sub Pop,” notes hip-hop journalist Jeff Weiss. “Rap once had a proud indie tradition — Def Jam and Bad Boy, Cash Money and No Limit were all once scrappy indies. The problem is a new generation never emerged to replace them.” Until they do, it’s likely rappers will continue giving their music away, hoping that eventually someone will find a way to secure a return on their investment.

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