Interested in learning how to make a mixtape?

As a former rapper myself, I can detail some tips and tricks on how you can get your D-I-Y project off the ground. First off, perfection is the enemy of good. These days it’s okay to create something more rough around the edges since it resonates more with people looking for authenticity.

I grew up on the Datpiff era where mixtapes were all the rage. Really, blogs like – Pigeons&Planes wouldn’t have been what they were without them. Sure, it was a mutually beneficial relationship, but that era of music discovery was something special. It was akin to the underground but for the digital era. As someone who came of age during that era, I think I can help unpack what your intended audience will look for.

I know executing a project can seem like a daunting task. So I thought I’d help guide you through the process.

Songwriting

As the saying goes, write about what you know. But also don’t be afraid to write from outside your perspective. You want to connect with your audience and write about a universal experience.

Songwriting, like most good writing these days, is about brevity. You want an economy of words to express an idea.

A song that recently came to my attention is Powfu’s “Deathbed.” The song works for many different reasons. Firstly, it taps into the universal by being about love. Then it plays into powerful emotions, expressing traces of melancholy, regret, and nostalgia.

The song’s concept is that a guy is writing to the love of his life on his deathbed. Powfu isn’t dying — he’s figured out what I figured out as a young songwriter, that while you can write about your experiences and it will resonate with some people — sometimes it’s more powerful to write from a different perspective. As a songwriter, think of yourself as the narrator of a story.

Use writing tools like Grammarly and the Hemingway app to distil your idea. We are now in the attention economy, so you’ll really want to captivate your audience. A radio single is 3 minutes and 30 seconds at the most. Some songs these days are 1 minute and 30 seconds. Make an impression.

Crafting a well-written song takes practice. Write up a draft of something. Then rewrite it. Writing is a rewriting process, so don’t be afraid of throwing something out, rejigging it and coming back to it. As many writers will echo, go ahead and kill your darlings. Cross out the extra words and trim the fat. Less is often more.

A condenser mic setup on a shockmount.Getting the Audio Right

When making a mixtape, you’ll want to ensure that you’re capturing the highest quality of raw audio possible.

You’ll want to invest in a good quality mic. If you can afford it, get a good quality condenser microphone. Microphones like the cardioid Shure SM7B.

This may seem like a contradiction to what I said earlier about being rough around the edges, but you’ll want to put your best foot forward and not compromise on the mic, at least. And for the love of all that is holy — do not record audio on a computer mic. Here are some cheap solutions for your bedroom studio; record in the closet; the smaller the recording space, the better. Soundproof the room, and you can use coat hangers and pantyhose as a cheap on-the-fly pop-filter.

If you want to know how to make a mixtape, study some of the classics. Kush&Orange Juice, Kids, No Ceilings, Acid RapThe Warm Up all come to mind. Not enough rappers study or analyze the music. Be curious.

It’s more than just a rite of passage or paying respect. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The ancient Greeks had a word for this called “mimesis.” It literally means to imitate or to mimic. And to begin, you’ll want to mimic before developing your own voice. This way, you can parse what an artist is doing to your advantage. Here are some examples; Kendrick’s delivery was influenced by Lil Wayne, Logic’s approach to flow was influenced by Eminem, and EarthGang’s musical style was heavily influenced by OutKast.

Hip hop has always borrowed from other music, so don’t worry about a supposed lack of originality. Your originality is going to come from your approach to music.

Think about a theme to your mixtape. This will help you map out a plan and structure accordingly. Making a mixtape about death but seem to be writing love songs? Consider lopping some songs off.

A mixing board is shown to help capture the audio of your mixtape.

Production

In order for people to really mess with your mixtape, it has to have good production. Set aside a budget for beats or be prepared to spend long hours on a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). I’m not saying you should buy software, and there are cheap options out there. Tools like FL Studio, Protools, and Abelton will help you make your mixtape. This will allow some creative license to your music-making. Common production techniques include pitch shifting, double up or layering your vocals, and adding compression.

Making a mixtape should be fun, so don’t be afraid to experiment. Sometimes there are happy accidents, especially when it comes to the creative process. The production technique of gated reverb used throughout the 1980s, for instance, was a happy accident. You can look up the Vox video that details its origin.

You don’t have to study music theory (believe it or not, Lionel Richie doesn’t know how to read music), but hey, it can help. Understand how certain sounds can evoke different emotions.

A good example of production is Dr.Dre’s Compton. Specifically, the track “Deep Water” uses production techniques to induce feelings of drowning, paranoia, and danger. Kendrick’s vocals panning during his verse, the various artists on the track having their vocals distorted, and the sounds of buoys peppered in the track. It all works.

Album Art and Promotion

People are visual. So yes, people do judge a book by its cover — or in this case, a mixtape by its album art. Use tools like Photoshop, Clip Studio Paint or Illustrator if you have the design skills. You can always outsource and pay a graphic designer, but my recommendation would be to have a rough sketch of what you want first. It doesn’t have to be perfect but give the graphic designer something to work with, and you’d be surprised at the results.

Here’s an old mixtape cover I had designed:

Mixtape Cover

The hand-drawn look gives it a sense of professionalism. Many people were impressed with the design, and the graphic designer did a good job. The concept behind this project was that it would be an EP/mixtape that was experimental in nature while dealing with socially conscious subject matter.

If you’re interested in learning more about graphic design basics, I’d highly recommend this book.

Color Scheme

Make your art pop. Apply color theory. Colors can symbolize many things, and the more psychology you apply to your product, the better.

Think of how color is applied to art like in movies. There are many excellent examples online of how color theory applies to cinema and the symbolism that different colors bring. But beyond that, also think about details like saturation (how much of a color’s value you want to bring out).

I won’t go into all the details here, but the theory of visual semiotics (the study of signs) can be useful. It sometimes pays dividends to apply the theoretical to the practical. My biggest advice when it comes to color is be intentional.

80/20 Rule – Promotion, Promotion, Promotion

In real estate, the most important thing is location, location, location. Similarly, in marketing, the most important thing is promotion, promotion, promotion. You want to create brand awareness.

Consider using social media marketing to your benefit. Facebook Ads are relatively cheap; you can upload your music to TikTok and use Instagram to document your process and provide behind-the-scenes content.

You’ll also want to sign-up for distribution with services like Tunecore, Bandcamp, Distrokid, and SoundCloud. If you want more information on that, you can listen to episode 74 of the podcast, where we go over some of the more overlooked aspects of the music business. Promotion being the most obvious.

In other words, it’s the Pareto principle. You’ll want to put 20% of your efforts towards the music and 80% towards marketing. At least to start.

For more insight, listen to Episode 74: Music Business Tips