Originally appeared on Nahright.com
Words by Daniel Isenberg (@StanIpcus)
If you’ve ever heard a DJ Green Lantern mixtape, then you already know why he is so well-respected within the hip-hop community. His tapes are next level—from the crazy intros, to the sick scratches, to the blends, to the exclusive freestyles, remixes, and original production. There’s never a need to fast-forward. Just pop it in, and let it ride. Seamless. Detailed. Dope.
To continue with our Mixtape Memories series, we got on the horn with Green Lantern recently during a rare moment of relaxation (he’s been touring with Nas, DJing festivals, and holding down his weekly Invasion Radio show, among other things, all summer). For Part One of our interview, we discussed his early days coming up as a mixtape DJ in his hometown of Rochester, New York, how his work got on the radar of record label and industry heads in NYC, and his classic mixtape collaborations with Eminem/Shady Records, Jadakiss, and more. Plus, a look back at his upstate distribution grind, his view on “pause tapes,” and the production tricks that made him an Evil Genius.
Check out Part One of Mixtape Memories with the legendary DJ Green Lantern below, and stay tuned for Part Two, coming later this week.
Early Mixtape Days in Rochester/Inspiration
DJ Green Lantern: “I got exposed to the tapes around ‘93, ‘94. That’s when I started getting my hands on stuff. It kind of exploded around that time, in the mid-‘90s. There were only a few stores up until that time [in Rochester] where you could get them. [People] would go to New York [City] and get them, then come back and make their copies. Or go buy copies. However they were doing it—buying a master, or buying copies. So I was going to the little mom-and-pop stores, copping the new Clue?, Craig G, S&S. Then [Doo Wop’s] 95 Live came out, and [Tony Touch’s] 50 MCs came out, and they were making statements. Those were like albums.
“I was making beats and doing parties around that time. This is a little past high school. I started making live recordings of [my sets at] parties, and I would sell those. The parties were hectic, but not in a bad way. Like, really turnt up. So I started selling those at the mom-and-pop stores where they were selling real mixtapes. They were live recordings, and you could hear the crowd. That was my first experience with the tapes. [People were buying them], but I wasn’t going stupid hard with them. I just made a few of them, and they sold out. I didn’t make a big deal about it. It was limited. I knew that it was just a party [recording].
“Then I got the itch and the bug to start doing it for real, because I was listening to these tapes, like, ‘It’s cool, but I could do something different.’ I was a fan of Dirty Harry, and the creative guys that came from the blend tape era. Because at this point, in ‘96, ‘97, we were in full Clue? era, and all the guys that came up after him and saw what he did and wanted a piece of that. So now everybody’s got exclusives. The front page of the mixtape game is now ‘exclusives.’ So I was like, ‘Alright, cool. But, let me try some other shit.’
“I wanna say it was Chill Will From The Eastside Fruit Flava Vol. 6 and 7 [that really inspired me a lot]. This was obviously before he went to jail, and then he kind of left the scene. But around that time, me and my homies used to ride around listening to those like, ‘Wow, he’s really getting it in.’ He was putting that work in with the acapellas, and mixing non-stop. So you know there was some 4-track action going on.
“It was exciting, and added some real substance to it, more than just, ‘Yo, here’s a new song,’ and you hear it fade out and the next one comes in. That’s cool, because you never heard the song before. But you would get bored of that after two or three times listening to it. Whereas those types of tapes, the replay value [was high]. You would just ride out to that. So that was kind of the angle I wanted to take. So I started messing around with acapellas and beats. And people I guess really took to what I was doing.”
“[My first tape ever] was called Green Adventures Volume 1. [Laughs.] And there never was a Volume 2. [Laughs.] This was like, I wanna say ‘96, ‘97. There might of been a blend on there of Montell Jordan with something? I can’t really remember. All I know is I got dissed. This is so random. There was a security guard who was a homie, and he didn’t mean to diss me, but I took it as a diss, and went back to the lab and got ferocious with it. He was like, ‘Yo, that tape was mad mellow, man.’ He thought he was giving me a compliment, and I was like, ‘Bruh, that ain’t supposed to be mellow. That’s supposed to be turnt up!’ Like, huh? Mellow? I did something wrong.
“So I just went back to the lab, and started stirring the pot up a little more, taking it up a couple levels. I just dug in, and started really going crazy with the 4-track. And I was getting my hands on exclusives. I was living in Rochester, and in Toronto, which is like a two and a half hour drive, they would get these bootlegs at Play De Record, which is a legendary record store that’s still there. Every Thursday, they would get these white labels. And for whatever reason, they would get exclusives.
“I think the A&R dudes were selling [unreleased songs] to them and they were pressing them up, and making a little money. Because these were exclusives that weren’t on the tapes. I was keeping up with Clue? and all the other dudes that were doing the exclusive shit, and they didn’t have any of these songs. I’d be like, ‘Wow, this is a new Ma$e song. I’m going to make a tape now!’ So that was a little goldmine. But the quality wasn’t always good.”
The Birth of an Evil Genius
“I was still producing at this time. I had the two turntables, the mixer, my Ensoniq ASR-X sampler—the black one—which is like their version of the MPC, and the 4-track. And I had this echo/delay box that I had the music running through as well. A bunch of DJs were using this same type of setup around that time. But it was [all about] what you were going to do with it. [For example], I would take something that’s low quality, and sample the whole song, because [the ASR] had a lot of sample time in it. And I would put hi-hats on top of it, to mask the fact that there was a hiss, just to try and make it good quality.
“And I would do little tricks with songs that I would get that weren’t on vinyl, that were on cassette or CD. This is before the CDJs came out. I would always want to be scratching a song, and manipulating a song somehow. So what I would do is sample a little piece of the song, like the top of the first verse, which is what a lot of DJs always bring back. So I would bring that back in the sampler, just hitting it, and [record that] on one track in the 4-track. Then, I would find on vinyl a song that sounded sort of like the piece I was bringing in, to make it sound like I was scratching it in. But it was actually a whole other song I was scratching, and on a whole other track of the 4-track. That was the first step of me ever being an Evil Genius. [Laughs.]
“[Another example is that] I made an instrumental [out of the] intro to Cam’s ‘Horse & Carriage’ that I had on a sampler tape. I got a cassette mailed to me, because I was on college radio, and I was on the [record label] mailing lists. Remember they had sampler tapes [with previews of songs on upcoming albums]? And a snippet of ‘Horse & Carriage’ was on [this particular one]. But the beginning of it had a little piece of [the instrumental], and I sampled it, and chopped it up, and remade it, and put it on a tape. And randomly, I got a call from Jacob York, who I didn’t know and was one of the main guys at Cam’s label, and he was like, ‘Yo, how did you get the instrumental to that?’ And I was like, ‘I made it.’ [Laughs.]
“It was shit like that. There would be songs on CD or cassette, and I’m scratching it [on my tape], or you think I’m scratching it. Like, Clark Kent one day was like, ‘Yo, how did you [scratch] that? Did you go to Church Ave. and press up dubplates?’ Because we used to do that too. We would go to the Jamaican spot on Church Ave. and make dubplates. So that’s what they would think I was doing. But I wasn’t though. I was just doing my little crazy shit in the crib.”
“I would do [these tricks] to bring some life into [my tapes]. Because in those days, the consumers were cool with just hearing exclusives. But the DJs and the hip-hop heads were like, ‘Aw, man, you’re just playing a song. That’s a pause tape!’ We were on the low hating that, even though that’s a brand new Biggie, and I wanna hear that. But [we’d say], ‘Oh, he ain’t scratching on it,’ or, ‘He ain’t doin’ nothin’.’ Because we come from the era of, ‘Yo, did you hear what the fuck Ron G just did?!’ So we were like, ‘That’s what you’re supposed to do. You’re supposed to put in work.’ Not realizing that it was just another level of work.
“I grew into realizing that [being able to get those exclusive records was work in itself]. That’s a whole other skill. But there definitely was a divide. A super divide in the community of DJs and hip-hop heads versus the guys who made the pause tapes. And the guys who made the pause tapes were like, ‘Fuck y’all, we’re getting money. We’re doing parties. Fuck you.’ [Laughs.]
“But like I said, now I was getting exclusives, and I’m doing the cutting and scratching shit, making the songs talk to each other. It was hip-hop shit. Manipulating sounds, and turning them into a whole other thing.”
“A couple of my tapes bubbled up at the same time, kind of back-to-back. Shut ’em Down was like the first one I did with limited CDs. And there was one before that, Judgement Day. That was the first one that had me poppin’ in my area. So I’m driving, and going to these mixtape stores in Buffalo and Syracuse now. There was this studio in Rochester—Dajhelon Studios—that had this cassette dubbing machine, where they had a master tape dubber with fifty cassette decks hooked up to it, for people who had studio time there that wanted to get fifty copies of a cassette. So one of my homeboys, who was like my mentor, was an engineer there from back when the studio was being built. So I had a pass to just kind of walk in there whenever.
“So I would go there late night and buy cassettes in bulk from this spot around the corner that sold professional cassettes—not like TDKs or whatever—and spend all night there dubbing tapes while they were in the next room making music. And I would walk out of there with 500 tapes dubbed. And [the place where I bought the blank tapes] would give you mass sheets of the stickers, and you would do that yourself. So from ‘97 to like 2002, from the cassettes to when the CDs came, I was dubbing it, packing it, sending it, riding with it [to different stores], everything. The grind.
“Dajhelon happens to also be the famous studio that Jodeci rented out from like ‘92 to ‘95 to record Diary of a Mad Band. As a side note to that, Timbaland used to live in that studio. This was at the time that Devante had found all of Sista, which was a group with Missy and two other girls. So Missy was there, and Timbaland used to almost live in that studio, because it had a shower and all that in there. And Ginuwine used to work at the fucking Champs up there. Playa was up there. They were all from Virginia, but they were all up there.
“It was a very lucrative [business]. I wish I did more. If you were smart and knew how to do it, and kept the overhead low, [you could do well]. Even though it’s years later, I don’t really want to throw the whole number, because I still feel weird throwing those numbers out. That was our code. Don’t talk about the numbers. But, it was nice. It was really nice. I bought a Cadillac truck off of two tapes.”
“When I put out Shut ‘em Down, that got the attention of Cornerstone Productions, which turned into The Fader years later. Cornerstone was run by Rob Stone, who was a longtime record promo guy, who turned his record promo days with Arista promoting Biggie joints into his own promotion company. So in the late ‘90s, they used to put out these CDs called Cornerstone Mixtapes. So this guy Corey Llewellyn, CL, who went on to start Digiwaxx, was working at Cornerstone. And he calls me up randomly out of the blue and goes, ‘I just got this mixtape, and the shit’s crazy, and I wanna fuck with you.’ So now I’m randomly going back and forth from Rochester to New York City. I eventually end up getting a lot of exposure through Cornerstone Productions, which is now kind of thrusting my name into the industry.
“I ended up meeting Whoo Kid [around this time], or maybe it was through his manager, I don’t remember. But we ended up doing a collab mixtape [called Hate Us Now!!!], where I did one side, and he did the other. And this was obviously right when Nas’ ‘Hate Me Now’ came out. A lot of times, what people would do is if there was a hot song out, people would name their tape after that, because it was hot in the streets. And people would go and get it based off of that.
“I moved [to New York City] way later than anyone thought I would’ve moved. I moved in 2003. I ran through two trucks on the road, just putting miles on them. I had a kid up in Rochester, and a whole family and everything, so I was commuting way too much. It’s six hours [from Manhattan to Rochester], and I’m doing that twice a week. The record label dudes that are still around from back then, like Pecas or Puerto Rico Rob, they’ll be like, ‘I remember him from when he used to drive from Rochester. That fool was crazy.’ I eventually ended up moving to Jersey City, which is obviously right through the Holland Tunnel, right into lower Manhattan.”
New World Order Pt. 2
“That’s actually my favorite tape, because I had come into my own technically. This is years later, 2002. The CDJ was out, which was a really big thing for me. It allowed me to not have to fuck with that sampler anymore when I had drops and exclusives that were on CD. I got to cut and scratch drops from Busta Rhymes, and guys I was getting freestyles from. I specifically remember on that tape being able to do things with the CDJ that I couldn’t do before. And I was coming into my own. I had some industry contacts, so I was getting some exclusive content.
“I can’t remember if the Eminem ‘Business’ acapella was exclusive or not, but that tape came out literally when I started [DJing] for him. There might be a drop on there from him. But on that tape, there’s some Sheek Louch, LOX stuff I did, like an extended ‘Grindin’’ thing. At that point, through my industry contacts, I was getting people to give me acapellas of freestyles they had put out. Like, ‘Let me get that acapella, and I’m gonna do something different with it.’
“People wouldn’t even realize that they had just heard that verse, because I was cutting and scratching [and blending] and doing all sorts of different shit to it. And the shit was just moving from the next song to the next song. Mind you, we’re still fully in the exclusive [mixtape era] where the song starts, fades out, DJ talks over the fade out, and the next song comes on. Whereas if you’re listening to this shit, you’re like, ‘Whoa, this shit is was all over the place.’ That’s why I was able to stand out on my own two, not against, but next to the Clue?s and the Kay Slays, who were killing the game because they had the new shit from whoever was hot. I made [my own exclusives, though]. I was able to semi-trick the game. [Laughs.]
“[I’d make people be like], ‘There was a Jay Z [song I never heard before], what was that!?’ That was from a bootleg record of when Jay Z was on Clue?’s Monday night radio show. He had Sauce Money and a couple other guys with him. I think it was Clue?. Clue? or Flex, whatever. But that freestyle ended up on a bootleg vinyl, and there was minimal DJ talking. And I cut that out of there, and chopped some other shit in there.”
50 Cent’s First Shady Records Freestyle
“Right at the time of when I was hired as Em’s tour DJ, exactly two weeks later, [50 Cent] got signed [to Shady]. And I remember riding in the truck with Em when he was listening to the mixtape when they were all on the cover, I think 50 Cent Is the Future. He was on a mixtape run, and you would see freestyles on Clue? tapes, and Cutmaster C tapes. He would do freestyles for most of the DJs during that six month time period. He would do them exclusive, and do one for [each DJ]. And I didn’t know 50 at this time, but when he got down with Em, they were doing this Anger Management mixtape, which was the name of the tour.
“So they were gonna do a mixtape that I was gonna mix, and getting content from all the people on the tour, and the label, and this one, and that one. And he was the new guy. So they were like, ‘You’re doing all these freestyles. We need one for this Anger Management tour mixtape.’ So that’s why at the end of it he says Shady [and my name], because he had just got down with them. He was reppin’ his new team he got down with. So it went on that, but it also went on the New World Order joint because I happened to be working on that at the time. That’s really what I cared about—my shit. [Laughs.]”
“‘Nail in the Coffin,’ I remember being in Detroit with Em and Proof, and we were doing some press for 8 Mile, which was around that time when that tape came out. There was some random show or whatever, and somehow I was in Detroit. And Em goes, ‘Yo, let’s go outside.’ And Proof happens to be standing there, so we all walk outside to get into this car, and he plays ‘Nail in the Coffin.’ And I’m like, ‘Yo, this shit is insane, man!’ [Laughs.] Me and Proof were looking at each other like, ‘Wow, this guy’s amazing.’
“[Em] was pissed. He was still pissed [while he was playing us the song]. He was really mad at the fact that Benzino came at him. Obviously, Benzino started it. He acknowledged it. That whole story played itself out in the public, so everyone knows how that shit went. But Em was still tight at that time. And he vented, and expressed himself in that song. And we were blasting that shit in the car, driving around this parking lot, like, ‘This shit is crazy!’ I knew from then that the tape was gonna be crazy. But I wanted to have my presence on it. So I did an intro, and my little shit. And it was on at that point. Next thing you know, Benzino’s talking shit about me. You know, as he’s talking shit about them, my name gets thrown in it. But, whatever. It is what it is.
“Paul [Rosenberg] was actually [the reason why I became Em’s tour DJ]. He wanted to spice up the live show, and was like, ‘Well, this guy’s doing some creative shit on the tapes. Let’s see if he can work together with Em.’ And we clicked. I’m cool, he’s cool. Boom.”
Invasion Part II: Conspiracy Theory
“Out of all the tapes, that might be my biggest tape ever, along with the 2Pac tape. They’ll talk about the series, but they’ll go to Invasion Pt. II because there’s more sensational content. There’s a few diss records on there.
“We were on tour, and I gave Em the ‘Hail Mary’ beat. I just randomly came across the beat, and was like, ‘Yo, I think you could rock this shit.’ This was months [later], and no one was thinking about beef or any of that shit. I just randomly came across it, like, ‘Wow, one day I’m gonna get him to rap on this 2Pac instrumental.’ Because Em’s a big Pac fan. So I burned it onto a CD, and I gave it to him.
“About six months later, he was like, ‘Yo, I think I know what I’m gonna do with that ‘Hail Mary’ beat.’ [Laughs.] Then, about a week later, he’s like, ‘Yo, remember that ‘Hail Mary’ beat?’ [Laughs.] It had 50 on it [when I first heard it]. And then it made its rounds through the Violator office, but it didn’t have Busta on it yet. And this is around the time that Busta’s car got shot up in front of Violator [and there was allegedly a connection to the shooting and Murder Inc.] I think then he got on it. So now Busta’s on the joint, and it’s these three [superstars on one diss track]. This is big! This is huge!”
D-Block “2 Gunz Up”
“At this [same] time, I got a new slot on Hot 97 on Sunday nights. And I got an interview and a freestyle from The LOX, but I had to pre-record it during the week. So I went up to Hot 97, and we went into the back room, and I had to load the beat into the computer, and they had to freestyle into the production computer. So the vocals were [recorded] separately from the beat. I had them rap on the Mobb Deep ‘Bump That’ beat.
“So in that freestyle, Jadakiss goes, ‘Everywhere we go, people wanna know…’ That’s the start of his verse. And as he’s saying this, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m taking this shit. I’m making a song out of this shit.’ Because now I know that I can take these vocals [because they were being recorded separately from the beat].
“I aired the show with the regular freestyle beat. Then I take [The Lox vocals], because I’ve got this tape coming, and I don’t have a whole tape full of Eminem and 50 Cent shit. I gotta fill this tape up. So I know I got that shit, so now I gotta make a song. So I played off that little Army chant, and found some footsteps from this Army movie and sampled them. And Styles was locked up still at this time, so I found this acapella from a freestyle he did over something. And I [made ‘2 Gunz Up’]. And it became just as big as the beef shit. I woke up the next day [after the tape dropped], and it was playing on the radio. Then Sheek was coming out with an album, so it ended up living on Sheek’s album. And the day they filmed the video was the day of the New York City blackout. Before my little cameo, the whole shit blacked out. That was a crazy ass day.”
Rap Phenomenon II
“Vlad and Harry did [the first] Rap Phenomenon [featuring Biggie], and I’m riding around listening to that. Then, I meet DJ Vlad at a Juelz Santana listening session at Def Jam, on the elevator. He’s like, ‘I’m DJ Vlad.’ I’m like, ‘I know you. You’re dope.’ He’s like, ‘We’re doing part two to the Biggie shit, with 2Pac. You wanna get down?’ I’m like, ‘Hell yeah.’ I didn’t even think about it, and I’ve never done that before. Everyone’s always asking me to do tapes, and I’m like, ‘Nah, I’m busy.’ And I am. But I’m just weird. I like to work by myself. But I liked what they did on the Biggie shit so much, and I instantly knew what I could do with 2Pac.
“Vlad came with all this material. He had a gang of 2Pac acapellas. And Harry had a bunch of shit already done. So we just started brainstorming on shit. I went and got the guest verses. We had Jadakiss, Wyclef, and all the stars aligned for that shit. And Vlad came with a lot of creative ideas for mixes. Our names were on all of it, but I don’t know if everyone gives him the credit he deserves for the creative shit. He’s a big business guy now, but he’s a really creative dude. He came with some dope ass ideas. And it all culminated with a marathon studio session at The Cutting Room, where we were in there for 72 hours straight, just mashing out, trying to finish it and put the ribbon on the shit.
“Rolling Stone asked Chris Rock for his 25 favorite [hip-hop] albums of all-time [in 2004]. It’s No. 3 on Chris Rock’s [list]. This is not mixtapes, it’s albums. And it was No. 3. And Vibe Magazine, they did some mixtape list, and our shit was No. 1. It’s one of those things where you never know. Had I been an asshole about it [when Vlad asked me to do the tape], it might not be in my catalog.”
The Champ Is Here
“That’s definitely one of the Holy Grails. That’s a top five in my catalog. Basically, that was just slated to be him and Big Mike. Mike was competing with Kay Slay for that new shit lane, and Jada was rocking with him. [Jada was like to me], ‘Yo, you take mad time with your shit. Your shit is stupid.’ So I was like, ‘Let’s do something.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I got this tape coming out with Big Mike. You wanna hop on it?’ So I was like, ‘Bet, let’s do it.’ And I was already cool with Mike, so we just ended up doing it together.
“[Jada] already had the ideas of some specific instrumentals he wanted to rap over, some old shit. So I took those, and I took acapellas, and started scratching shit in, and did my little frosting on top of the cake. It would’ve been a great ass tape even without me, but it probably would’ve just been in and out. Song starts, song stops. And that’s the tape.
“I’ll never forget this shit. We were in the studio, and Big Mike was in there, and he was like, ‘Yo Green. I have never taken this long in my life to do a fucking tape, you are killing me right now.’ [Laughs.] I was like, ‘Welcome to my world, bro!’ But it’s worth it. This is how I made my career. The details. When you listen back to it, that gives it the replay value. That’s what I built my whole career off of. I’m gonna go above and beyond to give the listener an experience.”
The Death of Mixtape Money
“At this point, the Africans [on Canal Street] took over [the distribution game]. I was always selling masters, because people wanted masters to make copies. But when the Africans came in, they just killed the game. They took the wholesale price way, way down. It went exponentially down to like zero, where it wasn’t worth anything to sell tapes. They fucked everything up. They destroyed everything. The technology was such that now there were CD burners, so the quality of the bootleg was basically the same as the master. So you’re a store owner, and you come to New York to cop [the new tapes], and you’re seeing that you can cop on Canal Street and it’s cheaper than what you’re paying the DJ. And it’s the same now, because it’s a CD. And that was it. It was over.
“After that, it was just promo. My last hurrah of making some money off it was a couple years prior. After Invasion Pt. II, that was it. And that was moving purely off of the hype of what was on it. I remember, I had the homies on payroll, and we ran through an amazing amount of those. I want to say the number, but I don’t want to say the number.
“To say that [the Jadakiss tape] did 30,000 [on Canal Street] is an understatement. The shit probably did 300,000 [total]. Look at his whole catalog. If you look at it, where are you gonna rank [The Champ is Here]? Okay then.”
Stay tuned for Part Two.
Pics via DJ Green Lantern Instagram and Facebook, Chill Will cover via Tha Original Hip Hop