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No Country for Old (Rap) Men: A Salute To Bootleg Vinyl

Robbie takes a look back at this once-important DJ tool

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Vinyl has been the domain of collectors and scenesters for some time now, but there was a time when it was an essential part of any DJ’s arsenal. Having access to loud vinyl pressings was the only way that records could be included in mixshows and club sets, which resulted in a huge demand for certain songs which weren’t released as singles or were CD-only bonus tracks.

Many of the earlier hip-hop bootlegs were simply white label pressings of popular rap singles that were only pressed in limited quantities or were ‘promo only’, during that period in the early nineties when major record labels decided it was time to kill off vinyl altogether when they figured out that CDs were infinitely more profitable than pressing LPs. At the same time, rare groove bootlegs became a major cottage industry as many of the original songs sampled on rap tracks became highly sought after as the crate digging culture became more widespread.

Before long, enterprising record collectors began releasing unlicensed collections of vaguely hard to find singles, unreleased tracks and remixes from artists such as Gang Starr (The Earlier Years), Das-EFX (Phat Classics) or Slick Rick (The Ruler’s Remixes), or instrumental versions of albums (including crudely looped ‘fake’ instrumentals taken from the first four bars of the song), but as demand grew, bootleggers began digging deeper to get their sweaty mitts on unreleased demos, alternate mixes of songs and highly sought-after radio freestyles.

The two volumes of Freestyle Frenzy, released by the UK’s Liberty Groove label, assembled legendary rhyme sessions from the Stretch Armstrong Show, showcasing some of the earliest appearances from Nas, Big L, Wu-Tang Clan and O.C. Available in a variety of different colours, these compilations once commanded high prices among rap fanatics who rarely had the opportunity to play this kind of material outside of 10th generation tape dubs.

Meanwhile, mixtape DJs such as Doo Wop and Tony Touch began to press up vinyl collections of their most popular exclusives from their tapes and CDs, while others assembled some priceless live recordings on wax. Even more exciting was the emergence of unofficial white label remixes, which allowed up-and-coming producers such as the Vinyl Reanimators, DJ Spinna and Frankenstein the opportunity to provide their own takes on popular acapellas, or popular mash-up remixes such as DJ Mighty Mi and Stretch Armstrong’s take on ‘1, 2 Pass It‘ or DJ Spinbad’s flip of KRS-One’s ‘Hip-Hop vs Rap,’ eventually birthing the rock/rap mash-ups such as the Stretch Vs Shady ‘Rockstar Remix‘ or the blend of 50 Cent’s ‘In Da Club’ with Nine Inch Nails’ ‘Closer.’

This trend peaked with projects such as 9th Wonder’s God’s Stepson and Dangermouse’s The Grey Album, both of which were originally CD projects which had limited vinyl pressings but they reflected the same mentality—the opportunity to flex your creative muscle outside of the restrictions of record label politics, licensing deals and copyright. But they also arrived at a time when the landscape was changing rapidly, with file-sharing levelling the playing field against the DJs who had previously carefully collected limited release bootlegs and white labels in the hopes of having deeper crates than the next man. With the arrival of Serato Scratch, now all you needed was a huge hard drive of exclusives and you were ahead of the pack.

Not that I’m complaining by any means—it’s great living in a time where one doesn’t have to drop $30 on a white label for a couple of hard-to-obtain gems. Still, there was a certain appeal to checking out how the faceless bootleggers of yesterday assembled their often eclectic track listings of rap curios. Let us take a moment to charge our glasses to the shady scumbags who ripped off hard-working rapper dudes in the pursuit of a fast buck, while helping many a mere mortal to get their hands on songs that may have been near impossible to get a hold of in the days before Ebay and Discogs.

Keep up with Robbie’s weekly ‘No Country for Old (Rap) Men’ here.

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