Mixtape Madness

The impresario of viral high school basketball fights to stay on top
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It’s just after 3:00am on a frigid night last December and Nils Wagner and I are somewhere deep in Georgia, hurtling south in his 155,000-mile-old Chevy Aveo through the Interstate 95 darkness. A carton of decimated fast food sits forgotten beneath his seat. Extra clothes are stuffed in two plastic grocery bags in the back. High-definition camcorders and 25 mini-DVD tapes are tucked in the trunk, as Wagner navigates with his left hand.

Wagner’s Raleigh, North Carolina apartment is several hours behind us, and we’re still several hours from Fort Myers, Florida, where we’ll arrive just in time for the five-day City of Palms Classic, America’s top high-school basketball tournament and a showcase for dozens of soon-to-be collegians and several likely future NBA stars. At City of Palms, Wagner will spend upwards of 16 hours a day filming and editing “mixtapes”—highlight videos of young phenoms synchronized to the boom-clap of hip-hop beats.

At 26, Wagner is the basketball mixtape’s gonzo king. His by-the-bootstraps company, HoopMixTape, has become synonymous with the sport’s culture and helped launch the public awareness of numerous young NBA players like John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Brandon Jennings. His videos have been viewed online more than 120 million times, and he has more than 125,000 YouTube subscribers.

The exponential growth of HoopMixTape since its beginnings in 2006 has made it a full-time job for Wagner in the last three years. He now pays monthly salaries to two employees based in basketball hotbeds around the country and flirts with five-figure monthly advertising revenues—just enough to cover costs, he says, but the numbers are virtually guaranteed to continue climbing. In recent years, industry insiders like ESPN recruiting analyst Dave Telep have witnessed the evolution of the mixtape as a growing field, with Wagner and his contemporaries proliferating nationwide at winter high school games and summer Amateur Athletic Union tournaments. “The mixtape is to this generation what The Cosby Show was to my generation,” he says. “The Cosby Show was what we watched, and for this generation it’s highlight clips and mixtapes.”

In the landscape of sports programming, where high school athletics are the next frontier—and, indeed, become more commercialized by the year—Wagner and his competitors’ dramatic hype and frequent dunk-and-crossover mash-ups provide what networks often don’t. Massive online audiences validate the public appetite for hungry young stars lacking the veneer of corporate pitchmen. And the mixtape’s kingmaking status now plays a real role in the murky, moneyed intersection between amateur and professional hoops. Before signing lucrative sneaker deals, budding pros Jennings and Wall entered the NBA already well known to mainstream league and endorsement audiences thanks largely to their high school mixes. Even old hands like Sonny Vaccaro, the former sneaker-marketing mastermind largely credited (or blamed) for commercializing amateur basketball in the 1990s, recognize the mixtape as more than just another YouTube fad. “I honestly think they’re on to something bigger, and some of them one day will be very rich, successful young guys,” Vaccaro told me. “Somebody will make something big out of this.”

Like any emerging market, the mixtape game is “cutthroat,” according to multiple participants—rife with talent poaching, rumor mongering, and intense competition for access, uploads, and views. At City of Palms, Wagner will compete for shots with several other young hoopniks-cum-entrepreneurs, including HoopMixTape’s chief rival, Southern California-based BallIsLife.

To stay on top, Wagner travels tens of thousands of miles yearly to gather footage of elite prospects, sometimes driving thirty hours straight and living out of his car for weeks at a stretch. Around 5:30am it’s still pitch-dark out when Wagner picks up Ryan Currie, one of his younger employees, in an Orlando subdivision. Currie tosses a gear bag in the Aveo’s trunk and climbs into the back seat. He also brings a camcorder of his own.

“You charge your batteries?” Wagner asks.

“Yeah,” Currie says.

“Cool.”

Next stop: City of Palms, still three hours and one sunrise away.

The seeds of the modern mixtape were planted in 1998, when the shoe company And1 began a decade-long succession of popular compilations featuring streetball legends prodigiously humiliating opponents to gritty rap tracks. The videos went on to spawn several years of international tours. In 2006, Wagner joined BallIsLife, then a new company founded by two young basketball fans looking to apply a variation of the And1 model to high school ball, which had been recently transformed by LeBron James. “He single-handedly changed the culture of high school basketball,” Telep says of LeBron. “I don’t think there’s any going back. College basketball recruiting is mainstream now and we cover it like a sport. The genie is out of the bottle.”

The increased exposure, heightened expectations, and intensified hype of this new youth-basketball scene created a perfect niche for the stylized highlights from HoopMixTape, BallIsLife, and others. Meanwhile, the social media boom overhauled the ease and scope of online publishing. Today there are several mixtape outfits—YayAreasFinest feverishly promotes Northern California talent while others run smaller national operations; even the establishment grassroots brand Five-Star has entered the fray. Still, in overall stature and recognition, HoopMixTape and BallIsLife sit atop basketball’s new wave.

The online mixtape has become so ingrained in the amateur basketball world that shoe company-sponsored AAU teams sometimes pay a mixtaper’s costs to follow them to tournaments around the country raising the team’s profile, and their players’ national reputations. Some tournament directors have caught on as well, paying the cost of the mixtape teams’ travel in exchange for the resulting publicity for their events. And the young players themselves are certainly aware of whose cameras are on and when.

“The kids know when those guys are in the gym,” Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Eric Bossi says. “Watch those mixtapes—the kids know where the cameras are. They’re constantly turning around, saluting them after plays. It’s really kind of crazy if you think about it.” (Wagner’s company has even transcended noun status, gaining currency as a verb among some players and fans. “Hoopmixtape”: the act of viciously dunking on someone for media immortalization. See also: “posterize.”)

As a high school player himself in Winchester, Virginia, Wagner resisted basketball’s thankless chores. “I was always about the exciting plays,” he says. He recalled going for one dunk, missing it, and then spending the following several games rooted to the bench. Wagner’s taste for the spectacular had also drawn him to the And1 compilations and compelled him to tape SportsCenter’s top 10 plays nightly for years.

When he first began filming high school games, watching players like future NBA MVP Derrick Rose convert 360-degree layups and leap head-level to the rim blew Wagner’s mind: “I was like, ‘I don’t know how, but I have to find a way to do this professionally.” Soon after parting ways with BallIsLife, Wagner started his own similar company, HoopMixTape.

He discovered gaining momentum was tough; Wagner and his original partner Jonathan Durden would go without food some days, sleep in their car most nights, and hope to sell enough DVDs at events to afford gas money for the next one. Wagner was stocking shelves at a North Carolina supermarket in 2008 when he got his big break—an invitation to join YouTube’s partner program, through which select content creators earn money by hosting ads on their videos. According to a YouTube spokesperson, advertisers typically pay between $5 and $15 per thousand ad views, more than half of which goes to the partner. Shortly after, Wagner walked out of his supermarket-stocking gig mid-shift to film a game in Virginia. He hasn’t had a day job since. “It’s an obsession,” Wagner says. “If I go to a game now and I don’t have a camera it’s, like, pointless for me, because if anything happens I’ll never be able to see it again. I’m just a fiend for it. I love basketball.”

At City of Palms, Wagner is in his element, surrounded by basketball players, basketball games, basketball coaches, basketball scouts, and basketball fans for hours on end. As he enters the gym through the press and team entrance, Wagner shakes hands and chats cordially with familiar reporters and the tournament’s director. Three years prior, when Wagner first attended City of Palms with his camcorder, he had barely been able to finagle his way past a skeptical doorman.

Some 40 current NBA players competed in the City of Palms Classic as teenagers. Over the coming days, the tournament will showcase touted prospects headed to powerhouse teams like Kentucky, Duke, and North Carolina. Dick Vitale, Coach K, Worldwide Wes and other luminaries of the basketball world will attend games. Inside the gym, corporate banners—State Farm, Under Armour, Hooters—halo the court. “One of us will probably go baseline, one of us in the stands,” Wagner says, explaining his strategy for taping the first game of the tournament, which features an All-America power forward from Virginia named James McAdoo, nephew of NBA legend Bob McAdoo.

After the teams warm up, Wagner and Arek Kissoyan, BallIsLife’s star editor and cameraman, jog onto the court. Each drops to one knee. They hunch over their cameras and shoot upward as the starters are introduced. The players do not appear bothered by the attention. Later, Wagner and Kissoyan station themselves underneath the basket where McAdoo’s team tries to score. Kissoyan’s large shoulder-mounted camera has an LCD screen and microphone attached. Wagner peers through the viewfinder of his small camcorder, its LCD broken from overuse. They don’t speak or fraternize, scarcely acknowledging one another’s presence, but their heads and cameras swivel in unison as shots go up and bounce off the rim, and they exchange gratified looks with allies after great plays.

HoopMixTape and BallIsLife mirror one another in competition throughout the tournament, racing to post clips of individual plays between games or during halftimes, and pulling all-nighters to put out mixes. If BallIsLife—sporting a slick website, expensive equipment, and last year staging its own All-America event—represents where the mixtape game could be headed, Wagner—barnstorming the country with camcorder and laptop, manically uploading to YouTube, pouring earnings back into HoopMixTape—might represent its soul.

“It’s all about momentum,” Wagner says at one point, hurrying to the media room to transfer a dunk from camera to laptop to web. “You’ve got to get it out first.” At an event like City of Palms, brimming with touted prospects but with everyone gathering essentially the same footage, being the first with the most is especially crucial. Lunching one day in the tournament’s food tent as a lesser game begins on the event’s closed circuit television, Wagner spots Kissoyan poised beneath a basket with his big camera. “I’m going back in,” Wagner says, throwing down the remnants of his cheeseburger and fries. “He’s not getting anything I don’t get.” There are other strategic considerations, too, all learned over the years through trial and error: videos posted Sunday get the most views; avoid uploading on Friday or Saturday; never post a video to Facebook too late at night. “It’s just a crazy grind,” Wagner notes one afternoon, after staying up until 7am working on a mix.

As McAdoo’s Virginia squad struggles against a scrappy team from Miami, Wagner, Kissoyan, and Currie follow the action with their cameras. A dramatic driving lay-up with seconds remaining finally secures the win for McAdoo’s team. Wagner and Kissoyan scurry back onto the court to film the teams as they line up and shake hands. It had been a hard-fought contest, characterized by hustle, team defense, and good sportsmanship from both talented squads; in other words, a basketball purist’s dream. There had been few snazzy moves, only two pedestrian dunks, and McAdoo, the main draw, hadn’t dazzled; in other words, while the game may have been fundamentally sound, it was a mixtape guy’s nightmare. “That game was tight,” Wagner says afterward, rolling his eyes.

* * *

That gap between a solid play and a flamboyant highlight reflects the main criticism of high school mixes—they glamorize and reward the things coaches try to steer young players away from. Aspiring stars don’t get YouTube views by setting a hard screen or acquiring floor burns. Watching a mix from an individual game, it’s easy to be dazzled by flashy moves—often edited so heavily it’s unclear whether they produced tangible results—but have little idea which team won and how. “Now we have prospects constantly aware of the cameras and are playing to impress video guys who have attached themselves as ad hoc publicists,” Rivals.com analyst Jerry Meyer wrote this June. “It seems to be the next step in the denigration of American basketball.”

Ironically, Wagner says scouts impressed by mixtape highlights overrate some players. “I could tape a kid four games and if he can just get like three dunks a game and hit like two jump-shots for me, I can make him look great,” he says. “And he could not even be that good, as long as some part of his game is really crazy, like dunking or ball handling.” But Wagner understands the critique and remembers taping Brandon Jennings when Jennings was a prep at Oak Hill Academy. Jennings nearly lost a game for his team, Wagner recalls, continuously trying to pull off showboat moves for the camera. Still, it’s the flashy, not the fundamental, that sells—especially when sport is as much about programming as actual competition.

When LeBron made his infamous “Decision” on ESPN in 2010, nearly 10 million people tuned in. Just 7.4 million watched his first actual game with the Heat. Despite their difference in subject, “The Decision” and the mixtape—a spectacle also viewed by millions but centered on kids, many of whom can’t yet shave or drive a car—are both emblematic of the actual game of basketball becoming a backdrop for heavily produced entertainment. (Remember Blake Griffin’s dunk contest win, replete with embedded Kia advertisement and fully robed—and singing—gospel choir?)The New York Times recently reported on a company developing a program touted to notify fans when to tune in to games by rating contests on a 100-point exhilaration scale. Users “receive alerts whenever their personal threshold for excitement is reached,” thereby eliminating the need to watch an entire game.

More than slick production, though, the real essence of the mixtape’s appeal lies with its subjects. Webb Wellman—who headed another prominent mixtape company before last year joining BallIsLife in an effort “to take this thing over” from HoopMixTape—told me he “looked at basketball in a completely different light” before he started doing mixes in 2008. “It’s a different level of hungriness with these kids,” Wellman says. “The passion you see is stuff you’ll never see in college or the pros. In high school you’re seeing these kids as raw as they can be.”

Wagner echoes that. Before driving down to City of Palms, he tells me about a sensational but then-unknown high school sophomore from Baltimore named Aquille Carr. “He’s on tape dribbling at a kid and just being like, ‘You can’t guard me, bitch,’ and then cussing at him after he hits a three. It’s like, ‘What?’” Wagner laughs. “This little five-foot-five guy acting like that. He’s so ’hood, man. He’s sick.” A month later, in January of this year, Wagner posted Aquille Carr’s first HoopMixTape mash-up to YouTube; it got more than a quarter million views its first week. The video now has well over two million views and Carr has since become a quasi celebrity, featured on national television and profiled by GQ.

As is the case for nearly every kid Wagner and Wellman cover, though, that mixtape could end up being the peak of Carr’s fame if dreams of million dollar contracts—or even college stardom—don’t pan out. “They’re still young, and it’s not clear what the path for them is going to be,” Wellman says. “That’s where the passion comes from.”

Jahii Carson is another hoop dreamer who rose from relative obscurity to national relevance with the help of spectacular online mixes. In March he wrote this tweet: “I like to thank @ballislife. Cuz without them my career wouldn’t be were its at today them gave me my first video.” Carson is currently sitting out his freshman season at Arizona State as the NCAA investigates his academic eligibility.

Similar to the basketball hopefuls they film, the mixtape crews at City of Palms are driven by a future full of potential, but with nothing guaranteed. A typical day for Wagner consists of filming prospects for over 12 hours, then rushing back to his motel to upload and edit until sunrise, and napping for a couple hours before heading back to the gym to do it again.

Late one night, after a full day of taping, Wagner sits in his room transferring footage and working on a mix using Sony Vegas editing software on his rugged PC laptop. He first matches the very best plays to the biggest points of the beat, filling the rest in later and slowing down the footage on certain moves to accentuate their virtuosity or better match them to the track. Wagner gets most of his beats from an underground European producer called Anno Domini, whom he pays a monthly fee for the use of tracks. The other key is sequencing the highlights; Wagner tries to always begin a mix with its second-best play and end with its best dunk, interspersing other special moments throughout. “If you don’t get something in every fifteen seconds, a kid will go elsewhere with their attention span,” Wagner explains, hunching over his laptop. “But if you give them something every fifteen seconds and then end it strong, it will leave them thinking, ‘Okay, that mix was good,’ because the last thing they remember was the best play. If you leave it on a layup, though, you just screwed your whole mix.”

Later in the tournament, a now squint-eyed Wagner has a run-in that seems to hint at the basketball mixtape’s long-term relevance, as well as reflect the sport’s overall trend toward the pubescent. Entering the gym, he spots a baby-faced 13-year-old standing under one of the baskets. “JMBasketballVideos” is embroidered on the kid’s baseball cap and scrawled in marker on his white Nike high-tops. He holds a video camera. A year prior, young Justin Mages, who lives not far from Fort Myers, had become enamored with mixtapes and started his own YouTube channel and website. He says he looks up to Wagner, and the two talk shop on the baseline. I ask Justin who his favorite mix-makers are. “Probably HoopMixTape and myself,” he tells me. He adds that he too hopes to make mixes for a living one day, and I ask how long he hopes to do it. “My whole life,” he says. “Until I get arthritis in my hands.”

As the City of Palms week continues, taping all day and editing all night becomes increasingly grueling. Wagner nods off in his car at a stoplight one night; on another, he pulls into the motel parking lot only to fall asleep for a couple hours behind the wheel with the car still running. He sticks around Florida for several days after the tournament ends, through Christmas, editing and uploading footage. He’s finally finished the big City of Palms tournament recap and is about to post it online from his motel, but runs out of time before having to leave for Raleigh, where another tournament is starting soon.

“It should be solid,” Wagner says, cruising north up I-95. “But I’ve still got a ways left to drive.”

This article has been edited to correct the terms of Wagner's departure from BallIsLife.


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