DJ Mars Reveals The History Of Mixtape Cover Art With New Book

art of the tape

In hip-hop we’ve seen the mixtape transform from a compilation of the latest hits to an artist’s collection of unreleased originals. But one thing has remained constant; the need for great covers. Marshall “DJ Mars” Thomas has rocked clubs around the world in addition to being a touring DJ for artists like Keri Hilson or rocking the radio as part of the Steve Harvey Morning Show. So he knows something about music. And with his new coffee table book The Art Behind The Tape on shelves soon, it turns out he knows something about art too; specifically the covers of mixtapes.

“If you take the cover art away from a tape, the energy is gone. Before you hear one song you look at the cover,” Mars explains “That’s usually the determining factor on if you will download the tape to today or download it tomorrow. The cover is just as important as the music.”

Mars, with help from Maurice Garland and Bril Ndiaye, set out to spotlight some of the key covers in the history of mixtapes and the stories behind them. Inspired by Miss Info’s chronicle of rapper jewelry Bling Bling, the project will include cover art from DJ Drama‘s iconic Gangsta Grillz mixtape series to classics from pioneers like Kid Capri. Mars and his team conducted over 90 interviews with DJs, artists and graphic designers on their quest to tell the story of the covers. What they found was not only the tales behind the graphics but the rich stories of hip-hop’s past.

KBX connected with DJ Mars via phone to talk about the book which is available on August 29.

KBX: Breakdown the idea behind The Art Behind The Tape.
DJ Mars: It’s a coffee table book that goes through the visual history of mixtape cover art. From the days when DJs would write their names with a marker in graffiti style to today where they hire graphic designers to come up with these illustrious pieces of art. The book details the history. They all tell their anecdotal stories of how they added their two cents to the culture.

What made you take on this project?
I bought this book called Bling Bling by Miss Info from Hot 97. And Bling Bling is a bunch of cool anecdotal stories about rappers and their jewelry collections. Slick Rick is talking about how he bought those big pieces. Run talked about how they got into the dookie rope chains. It was a different approach. It wasn’t a braggadocios approach to talking about jewelry. I started thinking to myself, “What other stories could be told within hip-hop that haven’t been told?”

What are some of the wildest stories that people told in the book?
This is a story that I kinda knew but I pulled it, pause, of the book on purpose; Ron G giving his perspective on how his early mixes shaped the Bad Boy remix phenomenon. He told me that he would get a call from Andre Harrell, I’m just paraphrasing, “Come down to the studio and bring your mix tapes with you.” So he thought he was giving them his tapes from a fan’s perspective. But he basically figured out that they were dissecting the blends that he was doing. And those would end up being remixes for artists on Uptown. Now the funny thing about that story is, I was saying that when those Uptown remixes were coming out. I would be like “that sounds like a blend on Ron G Remixes 5.” It was the same combination of records. It would be “You’re A Customer” by EPMD with “Impeach The President.” Then that ends up being the “Come And Talk To Me” remix. But those were only combinations that you would hear on a Ron G tape first.

So you uncovered some little known facts with this book?
Oh yeah. DJ Craig G told me that Kool Moe Dee used to baby sit him. Like come on man. That’s crazy. (Laughs) How does that happen? It’s a bunch of cool shit like that. Craig G ends up being a super important DJ in the mixtape era and now he’s a super important DJ on the radio in Connecticut. And Kool Moe Dee was his baby sitter.

What was the piece of info that you learned while doing the book that shocked you?
I interviewed Red Alert. He told me that when he started on Kiss his early mixes weren’t live. He turned them in via cassette. He’d do the mix at his crib then turn it in to the program director. The hustlers that lived around his way would be like “We heard your show last night on the radio. Obviously we are out here doing our thing. We can’t be at the crib to record. What do we gotta do to get a copy of that tape?” So he would make dubs of the tape that he had giving to the program director and give them to the hustlers. So the hustlers around his way were the first customers who bought copies of his tapes. That probably started the phenomenon of people recording Red Alert on Kiss. I would say that Red Alert is probably the most recorded DJ in the history of radio. If you had a Red Alert tape whether you lived in New York or Newfoundland, you were the man. The book is full of cool stories like that.

When we talk about mixtapes you can’t forget Connecticut. What role did that area play in the history?
MixUnit ended up being the biggest online outlet for mixtape sales. Huge. The inventory was huge. Their roster of DJ’s was huge and their based out of Connecticut. So when we are talking about commerce and how the internet helped the mixtape DJ grow and MixUnit being the biggest site out there. And they were based in Connecticut. They were the truth. They were killing it. There’s no way you can talk about mixtapes entering into the new millennium and not mention MixUnit.