The Culture Report: Why one site’s shutdown scare panicked hip-hop fans everywhere

Published on: March 19, 2023 5:30 AM EDT

Illustration showing download window, cursor clicking on zip folder with music files, and young man putting on headphones plugged into mid-2000s era desktop computer.
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There was a collective mourning online from hip-hop fans earlier this week when news of mixtape-hosting site DatPiff shutting down began to circulate. The site, which started in 2005, was pivotal to the circulation of underground rap music for the better part of a decade.

Though it may seem outdated now, the way we’ve become accustomed to artists — especially those that fall under the hip-hop culture umbrella — uploading music on their own terms whenever they feel like, is certainly influenced by the autonomy DatPiff provided rappers during its rise.

Luckily, news of the potential shutdown was dispelled by its team, even though their site and app still aren’t working. “Despite the rumors, we are happy to report that we will still be supplying you with all the mixtapes you love. We’re working through technical issues on our site and app, but still actively update our youtube!” DatPiff tweeted on March 13 to its more than 650,000 followers. “Thanks for all the love and concerns but we promise, we are still here.”

The fear and anguish is worth unpacking, though.

In the mid-2000s, the music industry didn’t necessarily revolve around artists’ needs. Most had to submit albums to their labels months in advance for approval. Samples had to be cleared. Surefire radio singles were a must, as was the marketing plan to maximize the earning power of those singles.

When artists wanted to forgo that process by putting out music without the burden of clearing already-used beats and samples, they dropped mixtapes in physical form that circulated in their home regions or wherever they had relationships with DJs and bootleggers. When the projects did show up online, you’d have to download them from file-sharing programs like BearShare or LimeWire.

DatPiff revolutionized the mixtape by providing a centralized home to listen to these passion projects from already established artists and attempts from hopeful up-and-comers looking to grab new fans. You weren’t just downloading and leaving; you logged in and saved your downloads to create a digital collection.

My early experiences with molding a musical taste came from sites like DatPiff. Lil Wayne’s “Da Drought” series, Gucci Mane’s “Wilt Chamberlain” tapes and hard-to-find Gangsta Grillz mixtapes were personal favorites in high school. When I wanted to dodge inevitable malware from sketchy download sites, it gave me somewhere reliable to go.

And as record labels suffered from the late-2000s economic crisis, DatPiff became even more powerful. The backend of the blog era exploded with artists like Drake, J Cole and Big Sean, who benefitted greatly from being valued by true rap connoisseurs.

The “Damn!” that rung out from so many of us in the digital rap sphere came not only because of the nostalgia the site holds, but also because a lot of what is featured there is found nowhere else on the internet. The Apple Music, Spotify and Tidals of the world have established such a monopoly on digital music that it’s hard for alternatives to survive.

And considering that the bulk of mixtapes uploaded there (especially in the 2000s) gave rappers the opportunity to use uncleared production and samples from other artists, many of the songs can’t even be uploaded to the big streamers without legal consequences.

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In essence, DatPiff is the most valuable digital archive of underground rap music today. Its closure would mean losing a huge chunk of hip-hop in its purest form.

The panic for me went further than the fear of losing deep cuts from some well-known rappers. My mind went straight to the local Baltimore mixtapes that lived on DatPiff, Live Mixtapes and Spinrilla that are virtually impossible to locate elsewhere.

If the big streamers essentially push these trusted underground platforms to the brink, where will I find the late West Baltimore natives G-Rock and Lor Scoota’s early output? Where will I find Lor Choc’s first attempts at making a name for herself? Even though I’ve gone to the lengths of downloading just about every Baltimore mixtape I know of just in case these very things do happen, that doesn’t solve anything for my fellow fans of local rap who haven’t done the same.

DatPiff may still be around, even though it’s currently nonfunctional. But I think the grief earlier in the week came from knowing, deep down, that the internet isn’t as limitless and infinite as we sometimes think.

So much of what the digital world looked like in my 2000s youth is unrecognizable in 2023. It’s very likely that these relics will fade away at some point. My only advice is to stock up on some external hard drives and get to downloading immediately before it’s too late.