Rappers like Gucci Mane and Lil Wayne use tapes to build buzz

In late 2007, Lil Wayne played Veterans Memorial Auditorium in the midst of his rise to the top of the music world. The opener that night was Gucci Mane, an Atlanta rapper on a climb of his own just a few notches down the ladder.

Gucci returns to Vets on Saturday, this time as the headliner. He'll do so as one of rap's biggest stars, a snarling, swaggering MC with a bustling cult following.

One common bond between the rappers: Both built buzz by kicking out an acclaimed series of mixtapes.

Mixtapes have been a part of hip-hop culture since the beginning, when DJs like Grandmaster Flash and Afrika Bambaataa would distribute recordings of their club sets on audio cassette. The format has evolved along with technology, but its purpose has remained constant: to generate hype for the artists in question.

The easiest way to do that is by rapping over "industry beats" - music popularized by other artists. Lil Wayne rode this formula to success on releases like "Dedication 2" and "Da Drought 3," establishing cred by outshining the original performers.

"That's when he went from Lil Wayne the down South rapper to Lil Wayne the guy who could actually spit," Columbus rapper-producer Blueprint said.

Rising local rapper Poitier used a similar strategy at first.

"What I was first shooting for was to use instrumentals that people were familiar with that would draw them in to listen to the project and just display my talents over the track," Poitier said.

Since he began working with his own producer, Poitier started viewing mixtape projects like his recent "Validity" as a chance to make great songs and establish himself as a brand. With artists such as Drake and Wale taking that approach, the line between mixtapes and albums is blurring. That's a good thing in Blueprint's mind.

"If they actually take it seriously," Blueprint said, "then they separate themselves."

Columbus DJ Johnny Cashola released a pair of compilation mixtapes to promote Get Right, his monthly local dance party with Detox that will add a New York edition next week. Cashola sees his mixtapes as a chance to introduce his audience to new tunes so they'll respond during Get Right. For rappers, it's different.

"I think it's more about creating a buzz for yourself as a rapper and getting the support of your city. Since music downloading has become so prevalent, it's necessary for rappers to do mixtapes to stay relevant," Cashola said. "As an artist, they can't put all of their material in the hands of record execs."

Rappers can make money selling their mixtapes, but many release them for free to hype up their live shows, where the real profits lie, Cashola said.

Of course, none of this works unless the rapper has talent.

"No one wants to listen to a trash rapper," Cashola said."If the artist is dope enough, they will succeed as long as they keep music in people's ears and it gets a good response."