What constitutes a mixtape in 2011? Good question. Usually, it's a collection of MP3s bundled together and given away as a free download by rappers on the Web. But occasionally it's a burned CD that some guy outside the Bulldog is trying to peddle for $5. Sometimes a mixtape features original music by the artist, similar in nature to a traditional album. Sometimes it's a rapper spitting his own verses over the beats of popular songs — Lil Wayne brain-dumping all over a Black Eyed Peas track, for example.
Call Greg Enemy an early adopter. Since he was 10 years old, the 23-year-old KC rapper has been making rap mixtapes that aren't so different from what's currently in vogue.
"I had an older cousin, who later passed away, but she would play Crucial Conflict or Bone Thugs, and we would sit and listen to the songs on tape and write down the lyrics," Enemy says. "That's actually kind of how I subconsciously learned how to write songs. I learned how to split songs into verses and choruses that way.
"But, yeah, for birthdays or holidays, my parents would only buy me singles, never the whole albums," he continues. "So I'd just have the one Missy Elliott song or whatever. But that ended up being cool because with singles, you get the explicit version, the radioedit version, and the instrumental version. And we had a karaoke machine at our house, so I'd play the instrumental version and rap over it with the karaoke machine. And eventually I started rapping my own lyrics over those beats and making these little bootleg mixtapes myself."
Enemy is essentially still doing this. Xtra Small, his latest release — a follow-up to his 2008 solo debut, The Greg Enemy EP — finds him rapping over beats both familiar (TLC's "Creep") and obscure (he digs electronic sounds from the Brainfeeder label). "I was wanting to explore some sounds I wouldn't be able to make myself," he says. "A lot of the beats [on Xtra Small] are from strictly instrumental or experimental producers who haven't had anybody rap over them before. Or at least nobody I've heard. And I'd been absorbing those sounds for about a year or so, trying to get a feel for how to fit in the pocket of some of those beats, which can be really hard because the beats are so bizarre."
He cracked the code with "Muggsy Bogues," a track referencing the Charlotte Hornets point guard who was famously short — a quality that Enemy shares. It's a breezy beat, punctured with fat synths and tight snares, and Enemy's smooth, rumbling baritone lopes along with it, weaving in and out when it feels right. Guess they style's more of a slam dunk/My shit was more like a finger roll, he drawls.
"That beat is from an early Samiyam project, and when I heard it, I knew exactly how I wanted to rap over it," Enemy says. "And then after I finished 'Muggsy Bogues,' I was like, 'OK, I want to try and do this on another 12 or so songs, make a full mixtape of it.' And that's where the challenge came in. Because soon it was like, 'Whoa, this is way harder than I thought it was going to be.' "
Credit to Enemy, then, because Xtra Small's woozy swagger feels loose and organic. Lucid, too, as a result of his vaguely professorial rapping style. Enemy pronounces most of his words in full and at a leisurely pace. Sometimes you can hear the sticky, slow-motion sound of his lips parting as he gears up to drop another 16. Enemy's lyrics add to the pedantic vibe. The dude has eclectic tastes, and he seems to relish dropping high-art names (James Baldwin, Salvador Dali) and broader cultural references (Tap-dance on your grave like I'm Gregory Hines/Cool down the pace like you Gregory Isaacs, goes "Saint Gregory the Great"). The pioneering bebop percussionist Max Roach, who gets a shout-out on "Muggsy Bogues," is a favorite of Enemy's.
"He'd be fully dressed up in a three-piece suit when he played, and he would just straight up not break a sweat," Enemy says. "It's incredible. He'd keep his face so straight, just totally in the zone, not even flinching. That's kind of how I'm trying to play it with what I'm doing."