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The record industry has been in trouble for years, but it just passed a dubious milestone. Last week was the worst week for album sales in two decades.

NPR's Zoe Chace reports that hip-hop has an alternative for artists who still want to make albums the old-fashioned way.

ZOE CHACE: It feels like everyone in this crowd knows this song.

Unidentified Man: Oh my God.

CHACE: The arena is packed to see some of the biggest names in hip hop.

(Soundbite of music)

CHACE: But whats unusual here isnt the turnout, its the setlist. A Tribe Called Quest, Snoop Dogg, KRS-One, the Wu Tang Clan are all playing the albums that put them on the map twenty years ago, from Track One to Track 12, just like you used to hear it on your tape deck.

Mr. SNOOP DOGG (Rapper): Hey yo, how many of y'all bought "Doggystyle" when it came out? Did you buy it on cassette or CD?

CHACE: Snoop Dogg takes the stage in a jumpsuit made out of a giant bandana. In 1993, "Doggystyle" was a best-selling album. Back in the early '90s, all you needed was an album like this one on a cassette tape to throw a party.

Ms. STACY GLOVER: We had the double album, and I think it was you, me and Kai.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHACE: Stacy Glover and her friends are nostalgic.

Ms. GLOVER: And we just, we played it. We blared it and just danced and just celebrated.

Unidentified Woman: We had no furniture down there.

Ms. GLOVER: We had no furniture.

Unidentified Woman: That was perfect. We did "Soul Train" lines.

CHACE: The reason they loved to listen to the whole record, says DJ Jay Smooth says, is because every single song on the album was made by the same charismatic team of people: a DJ, an artist and a producer, at a minimum.

Mr. DJ JAY SMOOTH: This mythological team, like sort of a team of superheroes that had their own really strongly defined persona and brands, and when you had an album-length representation of that persona and that mythological character, it gave you a whole world.

CHACE: Those days are over. Now it's not uncommon for each song on an album to have a different producer.

Mr. SMOOTH: So albums don't really represent one particular artistic statement, just sort of the artist buying 12 lottery tickets, hoping to get that one platinum hit single, and they might not really have that much in common sonically.

CHACE: Make no mistake. Hip hop artists still make their name by releasing a collection of tracks that tell a story, they just aren't called albums, and they don't make any money.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LIL WAYNE AND DJ DRAMA (Rappers): (Rapping) (Unintelligible).

CHACE: This mix tape was the first of a series by the rapper Lil Wayne and DJ Drama. Its 29 tracks long, each track leading to the next, unified by one DJ, kind of like an old school album except its downloaded for free and passed around online.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. WAYNE: (Rapping) Everything is everything. We're gonna do it for y'all. We're gonna also do it for us, but we gonna do it because we need to do it.

The record labels tolerate this behavior because: A, they don't really have a choice, and B, it raises the profile of their artists. When Lil Wayne puts out a mixtape hosted by a high profile DJ like DJ Drama, and it gets passed around on the internet, it's free publicity.

Unidentified Man: If you have that DJ pedigree, if you have that stamp on you, that's like being in Oprah's Book Club for hip-hop, and, you know, I think theory is at least that your next album should have much more credibility because of that.

CHACE: Aspiring artists still dream of making that classic album, a collection of tracks that announces who you are to the world.

Mr. MARTE GARNER: I'll probably make an album with an artist. That's what I'm kicking towards right now.

CHACE: Marte Garner is 17 years old. He feels that even though a mix tape gets his name out, he'll tell his story on an album.

Mr. GARNER: For me, I like to tell what my album will be about so you can know what to look forward to, and basically, like, if I do that, I think more people will actually buy the album.

CHACE: The success that Garner wants is old-school, inspired by someone old like Snoop, playing to a sold out crowd that knows every word of the album that put you there.

Zoe Chace, NPR News.

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