Behind the words of your favorite articles on Billboard, Complex, and MTV News, Andres Tardio is a journalist and photographer from Los Angeles, who decided to go after his dreams in the name of Hip-Hop. Shooting and interviewing some of your favorite artists including Tech N9NE, Ab-Soul, J. Cole, and more, Tardio took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions about the mixtape culture.

What’s your favorite mixtape of all time and why?
Can’t pick just one. I have to talk about 50 Cent’s early projects — before Get Rich or Die Tryin’ — as an embodiment of the mixtape culture. There was no escaping 50 and G-Unit at the time. Gotta mention Funkmaster Flex and DJ Clue for their contributions to the mixtape culture. Same goes for artists like Joe Budden, Fabolous, and Lloyd Banks, who always had me checking for new verses. Also, Atmosphere’s Ant had the Melodies and Memories mixtape series, which broke down some important moments in hip-hop history; Blue Eyes Meets Biggie, was a super creative Frank Sinatra and Notorious B.I.G. mash-up by DJ Cappel and Smitty; and Danger Mouse’s take on JAY-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ The White Album with The Grey Album was crazy. I think those stand out off top, but no sole favorite.

What do you look for in a mixtape?
I don’t really have a criteria for this because, the lines between albums, mixtapes, EPs, and “playlists” are so blurry right now. I wish there was a better answer for that, but nowadays, you almost have to take an artist’s word for it. If Artist A drops a new project and calls it a mixtape, then it’s a mixtape. If they call it a playlist, it’s a playlist. You can’t really argue with the artist about that. Sometimes, artists say they dropped a mixtape, but then claim it’s an album when the Grammys come around. So, since there are no more clear distinctions, I don’t really think about “what to look for” in mixtapes anymore.

How has the mixtape game inspired your career in journalism?
I was thinking about this a lot, but I can’t really say that the mixtape game has inspired or impacted my career any more than the album game or the EP game. All of it has worked together in my career thus far.

Image via Andres Tardio

How do you think the mixtape culture shaped hip-hop?
I’d say that it’s shaped it in both positive and negative ways. The mixtape culture has amplified voices in unconventional ways. 50 Cent is a great example of that. Mixtapes have also allowed rappers to redefine their careers. Lil Wayne and Joe Budden come to mind on that front. In many ways, mixtapes have allowed artists to thrive creatively, flipping existing tracks into new ones. Then again, there have been so many copyright issues, resulting in so many lawsuits. Recently, producers have come out to describe the financial issues surrounding mixtape credits. So, the mixtape game has shaped hip-hop in different ways. When artists drop mixtapes nowadays, it’s usually over original beats versus someone else’s.

Do you think the mixtape culture is becoming a dying art?
I don’t know that it’s dying. It seems to me, that the culture is just evolving. “Freestyles” went through the same thing, when it became more about free-form verses instead of off-the-top bars. It’s just semantics, really. What you’re seeing is an evolution of that culture, something that’s happened because of the pros and cons we discussed earlier.

What’s your view on the industry trying to profit off mixtapes versus selling it for free?
Well, this is an interesting question and I’d say my ideas have matured over the years. Music is valuable and it should be treated like that. Free mixtapes are cool for fans, I get that, but that doesn’t typically help an artist feed themselves or their families. Moreover, free mixtapes are sometimes used as an excuse not to pay the creatives behind the scenes, including producers, engineers, guest artists, photographers, and designers. That’s not always fair. In the streaming era, that’s gotten even more complicated. In the end, I’m all for artists getting compensated fairly, and I’m not just talking about the rappers when I say artists.

Do you think mixtapes are still a source of discovering new artists?
It depends. Take a group of 10 people and ask them how they discover artists. You’ll see that everyone will have different answers. Some might say Spotify, others Soundcloud. There’s YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Then there’s word-of-mouth, which I still think is the most valuable resource.

Does a lane for mixtapes and its DJs still exist?
Yes, but it isn’t all traditional. That lane continues to evolve. Just look at DJ Khaled.