These days, staying on top of the rapidly changing underground hip-hop scene requires nothing more than a device and an internet connection. But in the mid-2000s, things were a bit more complicated. Die-hard fans would scour brick-and-mortar “mixtape shops” and leave with a clutch of CD-Rs, which reliably contained a mix of fiery new voices and soon-to-be also-rans. But even in this active, constantly growing scene, the Vancouver-based DJ Chong Wizard stood out.
Though he began by making pause-tapes at home, he quickly began to hone his DJ and production skills, releasing acclaimed mixtape projects like American Ironman—which mashed up Jay-Z and Ghostface a cappellas and instrumentals—and Kung Fu Hussle, a collection of exclusives and remixes hosted by the Wu-Tang Clan. “It was a big time for mixtape DJs, and I was making good money,” he says. But towards the end of the decade, the mixtape business began to change. People stopped buying CDs, and the profitability died.”
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When DJ Drama, one of the leading figures in the mixtape world, was arrested and had his Atlanta offices raided in a crackdown backed by the Record Industry Association of America’s anti-piracy division, a sense of panic shot through a cottage industry operating in the margins of copyright law. “The whole Drama thing was crazy when legalities got into it,” recalls Chong Wizard. “They were doing big things with those Lil Wayne mixtapes, selling hundreds of thousands of copies and trying to distribute them to retail stores—that’s when things got out of hand.”
Faced with an uncertain mixtape market, Chong Wizard took a hiatus from music in 2011, which lasted for around five years. But eventually, his attention was piqued by a new strain of underground hip-hop that updated the creative but resolutely rugged tenor of late ‘90s and early 2000s indie rap. Instead of resurrecting himself as a mixtape DJ, Chong Wizard pivoted and cast himself as an executive producer. 2017’s Star Wars-themed The Last Mixtape heralded the change, with Chong Wizard curating “unique combinations of the right MCs with the right producers.” In the past, Chong Wizard would blend one MC’s vocals over another producer’s instrumental; now, he was directing original collaborations between artists.
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His new career as an executive producer took another leap forward with the creation of the Infinity Stones, a series of six comic book-themed EPs. In this series, Chong Wizard selects rappers and pairs them with producers, suggests song concepts, ensures there’s a balance of better known and totally new artists, adds scratches during post-production, and occasionally contributes beats himself. (Rob Israel provides graphic novel-style artwork for each release, with the idea that the vinyl covers can be displayed as wall art.)
On “Wakanda,” from the series’ first installment, Chong Wizard assembles an MC squad that includes the gravel-voiced Washington, DC spitter Ankhle John and animated Chicago-based rappers Vic Spencer and Chris Crack (the latter’s off-kilter style is described by Chong Wizard as “Outkast in a world of Mobb Deeps”). Inspired by a hulking Sadhugold beat punctuated by dramatic stabbing brass, the trio recite verses packed with references to comic books. Similarly, EvillDewer‘s menacing production on “How To Kill Spider-Man” (from The Reality Stone), inspires al. divino, Estee Nack, and Haze to threaten Peter Parker. Standouts from the third Space Stone EP include “Fly Lord,” on which Fly Anakin (from Virginia’s Mutant Academy) and Toronto’s Lord Juco drop bars over a crawling Hobgoblin beat that’s laced with haunted-house atmospherics. Then there’s “Super Sons,” where Vic Grimes‘s kooky, baritone-oboe backdrop inspires Ras Austin to kick a caper as “the world’s greatest detective.”
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Beyond the surface-level comic book theme—which is more prevalent on certain songs than others—Chong Wizard’s savvy ear and ability to spot upcoming talent turns the Infinity Stones into the definitive document of the modern underground. He namechecks groups and labels, including Company Flow, Atmosphere, Anticon, and Living Legends as standard-bearers of the ‘00s, and anoints a current crop led by the Griselda camp, Hus Kingpin’s The Winners crew, Mutant Academy, Chris Crack, and Vic Spencer as the heirs to their throne.
Asked to consider the new movement’s place in the rap firmament, Chong Wizard recalls something he heard from Estee Nack, a rapper in the Tragic Allies clique. “He said he saw people saying that this is ‘the new golden age,’ but was like, ‘Nah—it’s the renaissance.’ These new guys are doing slightly different flows, and the beats are way slower—like, a lot of them are 70 BPM with no drums, just samples and loops.” But the raw appeal of the rap underground remains the same: “It’s this lo-fi, rough-around-the-edges hip-hop, and everything is not perfect—but there’s beauty in the roughness.”