By Evan Serpick
Updated May 30, 2003 at 04:00 AM EDT
DJ Kay Slay: Kevin Knight

When 50 Cent seemingly emerged from the rap ether last year and scored two huge singles, then sold 822,000 copies of ”Get Rich or Die Tryin”’ in a week — a SoundScan record for a major-label debut — mainstream music fans practically died tryin’ to understand why. But 50’s success didn’t surprise devotees of hip-hop’s teeming mixtape market. For years, the Queens, N.Y., rapper stealthily built a reputation with star-making, unpaid spots on homemade tapes (actually, they’re CDs now but still called mixtapes) sold in shady record stores, on street corners, and online. The CDs thrive on a formula of exclusive cuts, MC freestyles, and feuds. Now, the undisputed mixtape champ, DJ Kay Slay — called the Drama King for releasing dis tracks that fueled disputes like Nas vs. Jay-Z and Eminem vs. Benzino — makes his legit debut with The Streetsweeper Vol. 1.

Harlem’s Kay Slay isn’t the first mixmaster to enter the mass market — former street DJs Funkmaster Flex and Clue also hit it big — but his ascension still marks a new era. Flex and Clue became producers for big labels, creating beats and musically shaping albums. Not Kay Slay. At first, it’s difficult to tell what he adds to this record, other than his occasional, unremarkable vocals and his ability to draw top names. He seems like a glorified A&R exec.

”Streetsweeper” boasts A-listers Cam’Ron, Nas, and Busta Rhymes. To include Eminem and 50 Cent, he reprises 50’s ”50 Shot Ya” and Em’s vicious freestyle attack on producer Jermaine Dupri from recent mixtapes. Kay Slay balances the marquee acts with unknowns such as Posta Boy, Shells, and J-Hood — all of whom were signed when word got out that they’re included here. New York rapper Shells delivers the disc’s funniest quip, a swipe at rap’s faux Muslims: ”One minute it’s ‘A-salam aleikum’/Two minutes later it’s ‘Where’s my salami bacon?”’

More than other major-label mix makers, Kay Slay retains the variety-show feel of the best underground tapes: ”The Champions” features raps by rival DJs like Clue, Funk Flex, and Kid Capri; ”Seven Deadly Sins” gathers such favored female MCs as Vita, Amil, and Angie Martinez; ”Nino Brown” inventively pairs new-jack producer-singer Wyclef Jean with vet DJ-rapper Hollywood.

The beats on ”Streetsweeper” are understated and — other than one by Dr. Dre — produced by relative unknowns, a policy favored by thrifty mixtapers. Several producers use the technique du jour of speeding up old R&B vocals to create a chipmunk quality (think Cam’Ron’s ”Oh Boy”). EZ Elpee employs the effect best, melding an accelerated sample with a propulsive bass line on ”I Never Liked Ya Ass,” to back verses by Scarface, Raekwon, and Fat Joe.

”Streetsweeper” doesn’t challenge listeners with new ideas or conscious lyrics, but it pulses with the populist power of the street. Nothing here sounds like a hit single, but it’s as steady and current as hip-hop radio at its best. It’s on a major label, but it offers the communality of a neighborhood block party. DJ Kay Slay is no hip-hop innovator, but sometimes it takes a man of the people to pull together a crowd-pleaser like this.