By Jimmy Ness and written for Passionweiss
Since Datpiff was founded in 2005, mixtapes have evolved from compilations traded on street corners to a career necessity for any rapper without Jay-Z’s Rolodex. Datpiff were among the first to pioneer digital mixtapes and took some of the distribution power from labels. This helped artists to freely share music online, whilst gaining new fans and satisfying old ones.
Datpiff has worked with superstars, helped thousands of careers, hosted over half a million projects, and permanently altered the music industry. But if you’re a rap fan who likes free music, you knew all of that already.
As a prelude to his June speaking engagement at NXNE Festival in Toronto, I quizzed Vice President Kyle "KP" Reilly on how Datpiff got started, which careers he helped launch, and if they let labels buy views. We also covered Lyor Cohen making him remove thousands of Gucci Mane tapes, his relationship with DJ Drama and his part in helping Meek Mill sign to MMG.
How did you and CEO Marcus Frasier start Datpiff?
Marcus is a coder and programmer, and he had the idea of putting together a site like Datpiff to share mixtapes with his friends online at a time when that was kind of impossible unless you physically burned them a copy of a mixtape that we would buy on Canal Street. He was looking for someone that would operate it and fill it with content so I came in right in the beginning. I started running the marketing and content side of things and getting artists on board by getting them familiar with what Datpiff is.
Google wasn’t really prominent at that point, it was more Yahoo. People were “Yahooing,” for lack of a better word, the terms “mixtapes” “free mixtapes” “buy mixtapes” etc and they just kind of stumbled across us. So we started seeing 50, 100 people on the site each day and to us it was crazy because we never really thought about that. We just wanted a site that we could show to our friends, promote on Myspace, and yeah so we started progressively seeing the growth and the potential for what it could be.
You guys didn’t think the mixtape industry would change to where it’s an essential element of almost every rap artist’s career?
I didn't. I hoped for it, especially as our platform grew. I had hoped that at one point we would grow to become a platform that could help artists that really didn't have the resources of those that were signed to major labels. I had always hoped it would get to a point where it would be what it is today where it's the standard. If you have a mixtape, it's got to be on Datpiff.
How did you convince people to give you their music? I'm sure you've heard how DJs used to have to do a lot of favours to get new songs and some of them nearly got killed in the process.
It was a lot of begging and persuading more than anything cut-throat. In the beginning, people didn't know what Datpiff was. Back then we had to sell people on what we were doing and why it was important to give away your mixtape online for free at a time when that wasn't what people were doing. People weren't giving away music for free, that was stupid. Why would they give away something they had worked on? People didn't realize the power that the internet could have, like it could open up doors for world tours. Wiz Khalifa was really the first major artist that blew up from Datpiff, where people realized you can profit very handsomely off giving away free music.
What are your main sources of revenue? Is it advertising?
Yep, it’s absolutely advertising. We have a company that we have worked exclusively with for about six years. I would say close to 60-65%.
When Meek Mill’s Dreamchasers 2 came out people accused Datpiff of allowing MMG to buy views and downloads as it was a surprisingly big launch. Is that something that you guys do?
We really pride ourselves on keeping everything 100% authentic and we’d be contradicting ourselves if we allowed that to happen because we ban users on a daily basis for manipulating their stats or paying third parties to do it. Our system actually scans and audits these mixtapes daily to flag fraudulent IPs or ones that hit our server 100 times in a couple minutes.
As far as the Meek Mill thing, I know exactly why it was such a big project. We’re a Philadelphia based website that has established our reputation here. I’ve worked with Meek for years before the MMG deal, before he had any mixtape. So the reason he did so well - it was a combination of Datpiff being more relevant and hotter than it ever had been, Meek Mill having a couple of songs on the radio at that time that were huge. So it was a combination of the push we gave it, our number one demographic, Meek Mill being the top MC in our area. A bunch of things working together to make a really really successful mixtape that was yeah, to an extent unbelievable.
Are your server and bandwidth prices crazy?
Absolutely, we’re talking north of about $70,000 a month. We have a library of about 450,00 mixtapes so you do the math.
How many takedown notices do you receive?
I would say maybe 1-2 a month tops, sometimes none. One thing we do now is work very closely with the label, which is funny because around ‘07-‘08 labels were at war with mixtapes because they hadn’t yet embraced what they could do for artists. Now a lot of our takedown notices have slowed down because with our relationships with the labels they are able to say “hey we really don’t want this out yet, would you mind pulling it and I’ll let you know when you can put it back up.” That’s really how the takedowns work now. We don’t get a lot of official ones.
A lot of artists will sign production deals with a random manager. When they start getting bigger and bigger, a few years later they sign a major label deal and forget about that production deal and that manager they had. So what happens is the guy sees the artist has a free mixtape on Datpiff and they sold it on iTunes. So they’re going to go and sue all of them because they were profiting off material that they own. That gives you an example of what the takedown notices usually are about now days. It’s somebody that’s bitter and claims to own the rights to somebody else’s music. It’s never really the label anymore. We take a lot of steps to make sure we’re good in that regard.
Do you think Datpiff is becoming more influential to the point where they have launched whole careers? I've read you had a lot to do with the success of Wiz Khalifa, Chance The Rapper, Mac Miller and more.
Yeah, I never used to say that myself until I saw others publish it. Until Wiz came to me and said "I owe you guys so much for everything." I would never have said, "we helped break them" because they're the artist and they make the music. We're just kind of a host of music, but yeah definitely those guys and others we helped catapult and propel their career to a new level. Meek Mill is another one, like I told you. He was really big in Philadelphia, but he had no presence on the internet. He didn't have a Myspace page. He didn't have anything. His manager was Will Smith's old manager who was very old school minded where if you have songs on the radio locally where you’re able to sell 100,000 mixtapes in the street, why do you need anything else? That was basically a win, that's all you need in life to be successful. So I went in and kind of had to tell them and beg them to listen. Forget about Philadelphia. What about winning fans in the UK? What about Meek winning fans in California, Texas, Detroit and Hawaii? You could do those kind of numbers. It's about getting your music out there and letting people hear it. You can continue being successful in Philadelphia for as long as you want, but why don't you think bigger? That's when I got him to do a project called Mr Philadelphia. I basically put that whole project together. I got the DJs on board and we did a big internet release for it and from there that’s where he signed to MMG and became what he is today.
Who do you think were some of the first artists to embrace the digital mixtapes?
Wayne and Drama, with the Gangsta Grillz they were doing. I would say Jeezy as well. Mixtapes have been around for a while, but at one point they were just compilations of what was hot on the radio. They basically were just a DJ remixing or scratching or having their drops and that was a mixtape back then. As far as rappers noticing that mixtapes are a body of work like a single project, I think definitely Wayne, DJ Drama, Jeezy. DJ Whoo Kid for sure, doing the projects he was doing with G Unit in the early 2000s. Projects like G-Unit Radio, those were projects that had exclusives from 50 Cent, Lloyd Banks, Tony Yayo, Game. Those guys were the ones that made it something more than just a mixtape on Canal Street that had radio singles on it.
When you think about the relentless release schedule of artists like Gucci Mane who puts out a tape every other week, do you think the South was ahead of the curve in embracing the mixtape culture?
I would say they totally were. New York was really the first to embrace the mixtape in general just because of the amount of DJs they had there as the origin of Hip-hop. So they were the ones who put mixtapes on the map. As far as having the bigger projects and artists putting out a free solo album, the South were really the ones that embraced that through DJ Drama, T.I, Young Jeezy and Lil Wayne. Even then, they were selling them. It was still a retail project, but it was still a mixtape of original music that evolved into what it is today.
What do you think of artists like Jay-Z or the TDE roster, who don’t really focus on mixtapes?
I think with Jay-Z it’s a little bit different. He comes from a time where artists didn’t really do mixtapes as albums. They weren’t going to the studio and putting together a body of work and saying “this is going to be my mixtape.” That was never a thing at that time. So it’s hard for someone like him, because he doesn’t know any better. Eminem doesn’t know any better. To them, they still look at it like “why would I give free music away? That doesn’t make sense.” They’ve never had to experience that learning curve of what a mixtape can do and how beneficial it is. But I can guarantee you, if Jay-Z wasn’t in the position he was in today, he would be putting out mixtapes. I can assure you they would be a lot more open and adaptive to putting out a mixtape.
You can fault them [TDE], because when an artist is at their peak it’s hard to say “ok, let’s give away free music and grow a little bit more.” Because you know on the flip side, you can put out an album and the same amount of people will buy it and you make $8 a pop. A different example I can give is someone like Wiz Khalifa, who we are doing a brand new mixtape with in about 20 days. Wiz knows that his fanbase loves and expects mixtapes from him every couple of years. He doesn’t necessarily want to put out a mixtape or think it’s the best idea, but he cares about his fans. Let’s give them what they want, they buy my t-shirt, they spend $60-70 to come see my concert. Let’s give them something for free.
You work a lot with Don Cannon and Dj Drama? Drama is from Philadelphia too.
Yeah, Don Cannon is as well. In 2011, we were thinking why don't we just sign the DJs who are hosting these projects so we can be involved in the process from the beginning instead of artists saying "hey I have a mixtape coming out, what can I do?” By having the DJs on our side we're involved from the beginning. When an artist says “hey Drama I have a mixtape coming and I want it to drop next month,” he comes to me and says “hey KP, so and so hit me up he has a project coming. I want you guys to get on the phone and hash out the details and the plan for it.” We have Don Cannon, DJ Holiday, DJ Drama all signed to us so basically all of their projects have to be distributed through us exclusively. That's the deal we have.
So what they get through that is they have a lot of independent hosting where an artist will pay them $5000-10000 to host a project and what we do in turn is host that project. We give a little bit of social media push, we in turn help them with the smaller projects which makes them hotter because kids know “ok if I work with DJ Drama he'll host my tape and also get me a good placement on Datpiff.“ We work very closely with almost any and every project they’re involved with.
Does Datpiff have a lot of security so you don’t get hacked and have mixtapes stolen?
Yeah, now it does. In the beginning we were just using Gmail. What would happen is we would have competitors that were very computer savvy and they would just get in and there was really nothing that I could do about it. There are people overseas you can pay to get just about anything. If I wanted to get every spreadsheet off your computer right now, I could get your IP address, contact a guy from Sweden and have all of the files off your computer within 6 hours.
So this stuff has happened to you?
That has happened hundreds of times, not just a couple. People are able to download music from the back end of Datpiff before it’s even released to the public. We take many precautions and we fix something whenever we get penetrated, but the kids always one-up us. There’s always a kid that’s always smarter than us. Now we have a process where if I have a file with a mixtape it’s password protected, the password is texted to me so you have to go through three or four clues to find the actual link.
We had to do a lot of that with how popular we've grown and how popular some of these releases have grown. We had one point where we were releasing Lil Wayne's Dedication 5, and all of my personal emails were inaccessible in a way because people were changing my passwords, people were logging in and that was my personal email not even my @datpiff email address. My wife was receiving spam messages just from being associated with me and there's definitely kind of a community of hackers every time we have a major release that are doing everything and anything they can to try get the file.
What have been your most hyped mixtape to date?
I'd say Dedication 5 and Dreamchasers 3.
I see Future's Astronaut Status currently holds the record for most downloads with almost 500,000?
Yeah, that one has been more of a stretched out build up. When I say Dedication 5 and Dreamchasers 3 were the most impactful, that's because of the immediate buzz or attention on the day of release and the day after. Future's mixtape is really popular, but that came as he started getting bigger and people came to the website searching for that. That has grown as Future’s grown.
The amount of rookie rappers spamming you on social media must be crazy.
It's funny because I always joke with the guys who work in my office or people in the industry. It's an internal joke at my office. The best Tweets we get are "Follow back, so I can DM you." It's the artist asking you so they can get the follow and then DM you about something THEY want. That's usually always the case and that's funny cause I get those the most and laugh at those now. “Follow me so I can DM you about biz.” It’s funny cause my email is in the open, we have contact forms on the website. You can tell me what you want, but you’re tweeting telling me to follow you. Yeah I absolutely get spammed a lot, on Datpiff it’s borderline impossible to keep up with the mentions feed. That’s part of the nature of it. With anything that people can promote you’ll get spam. I think I have close to 600 people blocked on Twitter just for that. We actually got sued by the New York City Sanitation Department.
I’ll tell you why. This kid was going around with stickers that had the Datpiff URL for people to download his mixtape. The sanitation department found all these stickers and pulled them down. They went after him and they went after us because we were the URL on all these stickers across New York City. Now obviously we had nothing to do with the spamming of those stickers, but we got involved because this kid was spamming all over New York.
What do you think about artists becoming creatively burnt out? They’ll have a great run of mixtapes, but their debut album will be mediocre because they’ve ran out of ideas.
You know what it is, artists really prefer making mixtapes to an album. I would say 70% of them would tell you that and it’s true because of the creative freedom they have. For example Schoolboy Q, when he put out Oxymoron he wanted that to be a mixtape and the label kept saying “no, we need an album from you.” Then when it came time for him to turn the album in they said “this sounds like a mixtape, we need at least two or three radio records and Schoolboy got so furious that he was saying “this is what I hate about labels making me do this stuff, I don’t do this for radio singles I do it for my fans.” I think that sort of mentality is common, obviously they respect the label that’s why they signed a deal with them in the first place, but they don’t like to have their creative freedom stripped.
When artists do mixtapes, the label has a lot less control?
Yeah. In a lot of cases they have no control. For example when we do a Chief Keef mixtape, the label never wants a Chief Keef mixtape out and I go in knowing that. Interscope is one of the labels I don’t have a relationship with so I don’t care what they think. Chief Keef will say “I’m putting out a mixtape, the label doesn’t care and they won’t support it, but I don’t give a shit.” So labels really don’t have any say unless there’s some of deal the artist signs where they have control over every aspect of their career. They do have a say to a point, but the artist can do a mixtape whenever they want.
Is Interscope slightly old fashioned in the way they perceive mixtapes?
They are, and they have a lot of pop artists. Atlantic, Warner, Def Jam they get it so much because of the urban roster they have. They have a bunch of artists that this can be of use for. Interscope they have a few, but a lot of their roster is superstars so they don’t really have a need to put out mixtapes or do anything like that. They don’t agree or think they need it. When Lyor Cohen was running Warner that’s when we had the biggest fight because he did not like that when you would Google Gucci Mane one of the top 5 search results was his free mixtape on Datpiff. So Lyor Cohen in 2008/2009 went on a rampage. We had to remove every single mixtape that had Gucci Mane’s name or song of his from the site. We are talking about probably 30-40,000 mixtapes.
Wow, that’s insane. Mixtapes shaped his career.
Exactly, and there’s a reason he’s not on Warner anymore. They eventually adapted and now we work closely with them. It’s funny because Lyor is now running his own label called 300 Ent. and we just released a project today for one of his artists. Lyor, who was our biggest enemy in 2008, is now asking us to help break these new artists on his label and it’s funny how that stuff goes full circle.
How do you stay competitive with all the other options available? Why do people still come to you?
I think people that know about this stuff, know us as the innovator and the originator of digital mixtapes. Obviously, there were mixtape websites before us that would sell mixtapes as physical copies, which we found out was very very illegal. There was stuff like that, but I think people recognize us as the first to really do what we do. We’re very hands on with the projects, almost every big release that we do I spend hours and hours on. I work with that artist and their management team throughout that time period. So I'm very hands-on with the project.
So you're involved in the campaign behind the mixtape as well?
Exactly, yeah. Think about YouTube. We kind of operate like that, where we allow the users to upload their own videos and share but we also do a lot of premiers. That's kind of how we operate. YouTube has tons of competitors. I could create a website tomorrow that does the same function as YouTube, but there's a reason that YouTube is YouTube. They’re the original. They’re the standard and they have great content from regular Average Joe users to artists. No matter how many websites come along throughout this time period, Datpiff will be thought of as the originator and as the key source.
It’s really all about staying ahead of the curve. We paved the path for this, we know what we can do to grow things even more and take things to a new level. We’re launching Datpiff 5.0, the new version of the site in probably the next three months or so and we’re incorporating all of the things we’ve learned in the last four or five years.