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The rap mixtape is nearing the end of a decades-long journey from the margins of pop culture to mainstream credibility. Once an illicit-seeming format full of jacked beats and gun-flashing beefs, and distributed through liquor stores and Canal Street shops selling bootleg Chinese Louis Vuitton bags, mixtapes are now a multimillion-dollar business, and one of the most effective ways for a rap artist to launch a legitimate career. At least three songs on the Hot 100 got their starts on mixtapes before the major label promotional apparatus kicked in: Lil Wayne’s “Love Me” and Future’s “Karate Chop” (both originally released on Freeband Gang’s F.B.G.: The Movie), and Young Jeezy’s “R.I.P.,” which had been available via his It’s Tha World mixtape for two months before it got an official release through Def Jam.
But while the mixtape’s taken on a valuable role in the mainstream music industry, it still hasn’t been fully accepted as legitimate. The RIAA is no longer treating prominent mixtape makers like pirates, but it’s not showing the format much love either. The industry group recently announced that it will start factoring in streamed online plays towards a record’s gold or platinum status, but the list of platforms that will count towards those awards doesn’t include DatPiff or LiveMixtapes, the two largest and most influential mixtape distributors on the Internet. And despite the fact that an increasing number of chart hits got their start there, Billboard doesn’t count them either.