On the afternoon of Jan. 16, a combined squad from the Morrow County
Sheriff's Joint Vice Task Force and the Clayton County Police swept into the
offices of the Aphilliates Music Group on Walker Street in Atlanta and
arrested two men, DJ Drama (Tyree Simmons) and DJ Don Cannon. To outside
observers, it looked like a SWAT raid on the lair of some dangerous dealers.
But the police weren't after drugs.
They were after ... music.
In addition to four vehicles and all of the company's computers, officers
seized recording equipment and 81,000 CDs, which were the real targets of
Known on the street as mix tapes, these independently produced discs are
a vital part of the hip-hop scene in many cities, including Chicago, where
they serve as a way for fans to discover new artists or hear established
stars in different contexts. According to the Recording Industry Association
of America, the umbrella lobbying group for the major labels, they are also
illegal, since the music has often been copyrighted by the record companies.
The Atlanta raid resulted in Cannon and Drama, one of the most famous
mix-tape DJs in the United States, being charged under the Racketeering
Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) laws, which were written as a tool
for prosecutors to combat organized crime. And, as intended, the case is
having a chilling effect throughout the rap world, where many artists are
questioning whether the case will shut down a valuable way for them to get
their music heard.
Old idea for new music
The name "mix tape" lingers from the 1970s, when enterprising bootleggers
first compiled songs by popular artists on unauthorized 8-track tapes to
sell at flea markets and truck stops. Starting as do-it-yourself cassettes
and later shifting to homemade compact discs, mix tapes have been a part of
hip-hop culture since its birth, either as compilations of hits and
unreleased tracks by various artists or as collections focusing on one
performer and often highlighting works in progress.
Sold on the streets, via mail order and sometimes in record stores --
including some of the biggest chains -- the sound quality can range from
pseudo-professional to very poor. But mix tapes have the advantage of being
immediate, often featuring material recorded only weeks or days earlier, and
including collaborations, remixes, free-styles and outtakes often
unavailable on official releases.
One of the most successful forces in the music world today, Chicago's
Kanye West paved the way to superstardom by releasing a number of mix tapes.
Issued in 2003, "I'm Good" and "Get Well Soon" included tunes he produced
for other artists as well as tracks from his debut album "The College
Dropout" well before its official release. West sold the discs on eBay and
other Web sites, as well as in Chicago record stores.
Just nominated for three Grammy awards, Lupe Fiasco did the same thing,
first making a name in the hip-hop underground via mix tapes, then keeping
himself in the spotlight during his long wait for Atlantic Records to
release his debut album. One of Fiasco's most popular mix tapes, which
includes his version of West's "Touch the Sky," can still be found for sale
In recent years, mix tapes have gone mainstream. The host of "Hood
Radio," heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Chicago's Power 92
(92.3-FM), DJ Pharris sells his popular "I-94" mix tapes via his MySpace Web
site, and he recently was singled out as one of America's best DJs by a soft
drink's promotional campaign, which also praised DJ Drama. And the success
of local rapper Bump J. can directly be attributed to his mix tapes -- a
fact heralded on his official Atlantic Records bio. (West and Fiasco could
not be reached, and DJ Pharris and Bump J. did not respond to requests for
Issue not black and white
The economics of mix tapes are simple: Artists who produce their own keep
the profits from sales after production and distribution costs. DJs who
compile the work of numerous artists sometimes buy the songs from those
performers, or sometimes get them for free from artists seeking valuable
exposure and promotion -- though there clearly are also cases where mix-tape
DJs use songs without securing anyone's permission or financially
compensating any of the creators.
But many industry observers believe the RIAA is less concerned about
artists' rights than lost profits: The group has pointed out that sales of
hip-hop CDs fell 20 percent from 2005 to 2006, and it's blaming piracy
rather than the other possibility -- that there simply was a dearth of
Most music lovers would agree it's immoral as well as obviously illegal
for a bootlegger to buy one copy of Kanye West's "The College Dropout"; use
CD burners and color photo copiers to make thousands of duplicates, and then
sell those as the real thing, keeping all of the profits. Indeed, the RIAA
has singled out Chicago as one of 12 U.S. cities on its list of "piracy hot
spots," and it has enlisted the help of police several times in recent years
to crack down on that kind of bootlegging operation. (The last major bust
was in February 2006, when 3,000 pirated CDs and DVDs were seized from the
home of a local bootlegger.)
But what if we're talking about the artist selling or giving his own
music to a mix-tape DJ, or even filling that role himself? West was already
signed to Roc-A-Fella Records -- which meant the label owned the copyrights
for his songs -- when he released those tunes on his own mix tapes. In the
end, no one was hurt: Roc-A-Fella made millions of dollars when "The College
Dropout" was officially released and became a multi-platinum hit; West
became a wealthy and famous star, and his earliest fans can boast about
owning the now-rare mix tapes where his music was first heard.
This kind of mix-tape success story seems to be a very different case
from the bootlegger selling shoddy copies of "The College Dropout"
manufactured in his garage, but the RIAA makes no distinctions. "We don't
consider [the Atlanta raid] being against mix tapes as some sort of class of
product," Brad A. Buckles, executive vice president for anti-piracy at the
RIAA, told MTV News. "We enforce our rights civilly or work with police
against those who violate state law. Whether it's a mix tape or a
compilation or whatever it's called, it doesn't really matter: If it's a
product that's violating the law, it becomes a target."
Chicago DJs ducking, covering
Mix-tape DJs in Chicago and across the United States are hearing such
statements as a declaration of war, and many are running scared that they'll
become the target of a raid like the one against DJ Drama. But few think
that the mix tape will ever disappear. "It's just like anything else: If
there's a demand, somebody will be there to fill it," one veteran mix-tape
DJ told me, speaking on the condition that he not be named.
"Maybe this all will make it a little harder to get [the mix tapes] out
there, but they're not gonna disappear. If anything, the fact that you might
have to start looking harder [to find them] just means they're gonna be
hotter than ever."