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Mixed Messages 

The mixtape scene slowly rebounds nearly a year after DJ Drama’s bust

Wednesday, Nov 21 2007
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Last December, DJ Drama was comfortably on the throne of the nation’s hip-hop mixtape kingdom. The Atlanta-based DJ/producer’s signature series, Gangsta Grillz, earned him the crown in the fickle rap world through a slew of quality releases. Collaborations with some of the industry’s top-tier rappers, including T.I. and Lil Wayne, positioned Drama as the go-to DJ for Southern-fried mixes, and significantly boosted the careers of his collaborating MCs. Shit was looking good for everyone involved. But last January, local police, prompted by the RIAA and the Morrow County, Georgia, Sheriff’s Office, raided his office, throwing Drama into the messy world of copyright law — when all he was trying to do was deejay a party that the major labels actively (if unofficially) promoted. The story made national news: DJ Drama, hip-hop mixtape kingpin, busted for counterfeiting.

Nearly a year later, Drama still hasn’t been charged with any crime. But the bust sent a message to the community that the major labels were paying close attention to mixtapes, a crucial promotional tool for MCs and DJs that falls outside the realm of the labels’ control — and the most vibrant outlet for new music in a genre that thrives on freshness. “[Mixtapes are] like the veins to me,” says Drama over the phone from his home. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for mixtapes. The hip-hop industry wouldn’t be where it’s at if it wasn’t for mixtapes.”

From O.G.s like Ron G, Kid Capri and Funkmaster Flex to present-day big shots Kay Slay, Green Lantern and Clinton Sparks, the hip-hop mixtape has long been a part of the genre. Unlike the singles compilations of yesteryear, today’s mixtapes (actually mixed CDs) feature fresh collaborations between a big-name DJ and MC, often in advance of an official album release. High-profile examples from the past year or so include Busta Rhymes and Clinton Sparks’ New Crack City (preceding Rhymes’ The Big Bang) and Lupe Fiasco and DJ E. Nyce’s Touch the Sky (preceding Fiasco’s Food & Liquor).

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Studio technology has advanced to the degree that an artist can pop into a studio, rap over tracks that the DJ has provided and have a finished product at the end of the session. This quick turnaround time results in immediate coverage of current events. After Hurricane Katrina, cuts dealing with the storm and the inept government response sprang up on mixes almost as quickly as New Orleans was submerged. Lil Wayne’s “Georgia Bush,” from his and Drama’s Dedication 3 mixtape, is one of the most incendiary protest songs of the George W. Bush presidency. In addition to politics, MCs air out contrived and legitimate personal gripes, and beefs are created and squashed in rhyming couplets. Beats are both borrowed from recognizable samples and uniquely produced. Freestyles wrestle with reworked classics and are infused with fresh, personal introspection. This is an art form still in its infancy, developing with every new release.

The best mixtapes far surpass an artist’s corresponding major-label releases, displaying an irreverent and eclectic musical and topical freedom. Their function is similar to improv solos in jazz, revealing a less inhibited side of an artist. Free from label demands, rappers can do whatever the fuck they want. If Kanye wants to talk about how much it pisses him off when magazine interviews twist his words, he can rant for three minutes over Peter, Bjorn and John’s “Young Folks.” Lupe Fiasco revamped Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” on his mixtape, crafting a hyperpolitical treatise on blood diamonds out of West’s lukewarm examination.

After Drama’s arrest, mixtapes quickly disappeared from stores and Web sites, as retailers and DJs at the source lay low to see what the fallout would be. To some, it seemed like the industry they were helping to promote was stabbing them in the back — and shooting itself in the foot in the process. “I’ve gotten many a plaque from the RIAA that thanked me for helping them sell records,” says Drama.

But the Internet has a knack for subverting the letter of the law, the proof being the continued availability of ripped music in the post-Napster era. As such, mixtapes appear to be recovering from the shock of the Drama bust. A Google search turns up plenty of sources for downloading tapes. Sites such as DatPiff.com offer hundreds for free (“for promotional purposes only,” according to the site’s FAQ), a tactic that attempts to skirt the legal issues irking the RIAA. Johnny Juice, manager of the Melrose Avenue hip-hop staple Fat Beats, elaborates: “You can’t knock the hustle if it’s that way. It’s not illegal to sell whatever you are selling and give them something promotional for free.”

Recently, HiphopDX.com posted a streaming mix by DJ Phonetic called Madvillainy 1.5. This unofficial follow-up to MF Doom and Madlib’s classic collaboration features remixes and unreleased tracks, including guest appearances from De La Soul’s Posdenus and the inimitable Ghostface Killah. Lil Wayne, a rapper who’s based his entire career on extra-prolific mixtape activity (he’s dropped at least five mixtapes this year alone), recently released American Gangster, playing off the hype surrounding the Ridley Scott film of the same name. Though it’s more polished than his previous mixes, Wayne still sounds hungrier and more flippant here than on any of his albums. And if you’ve ever wondered how he might sound rapping over Yes’ “Owner of a Lonely Heart,” here is your answer (sounds great, by the way). But fuck serendipity, this is enterprise — American Gangster mixtapes from both the late Tupac and Jay-Z (who recently released an official album of the same name — and, it should be noted, is dropping mixtapes despite being president of the major label Def Jam) popped up around the same time.

Scoobs, an MC with the L.A. crew Custom Made, paints the 2007 mixtape situation clearly: “The music industry isn’t getting a cut of the profits. It’s like selling drugs. You sell drugs on the street, it’s all your money. It’s the same with the mixtape game. The music industry don’t like that.” Custom Made continues to release tapes, both independently and through labels like Babygrande, which can be found at www.custommade.com. The crew infuses its music with a decidedly East Coast, ’90s feel, a rare breed in the West Coast scene.

L.A. certainly isn’t the mixtape capital that New York is. “The majority of mixtapes are coming from the East,” says Fat Beats’ Juice. “By the time L.A. stores get them, they’re a week or two behind.” That is, when you can find them at brick-and-mortar retailers. The Drama bust scared them, and the effect on artists, producers, DJs and, perhaps most importantly, fans has been a marked decrease in access to mixtapes at physical stores. Amoeba Records no longer carries mixtapes. Hip-hop buyer Jon Liu says its policy has evolved over the past few years. “At this point, we’re just not taking unlicensed mix CDs,” he says. “There was always kind of a wariness, because of [their] shady character.”

And so we enter a brave new world for the mixtape, a medium that refuses to die despite the best efforts of the major labels and the RIAA. Though it declined to comment for this story, the organization’s Web site makes its position clear, defining piracy as “unauthorized duplication of sounds from one or more legitimate recordings . . . sometimes advertised as DJ or Dance mixes . . .”

Mike Nardone, host of KXLU’s long-running hip-hop show We Came From Beyond, has worked at labels such as Jive, Profile and Quannum Projects. He sees the industry’s crackdown as a futile response to decreasing record sales in an age of rampant downloading. “They’ve lost control and don’t know how to get it back . . . They’re reacting, and I don’t know that they know where to get that revenue stream they’ve lost.”

Instead of harnessing and perhaps co-opting what could be a huge (low-cost) unit shifter, the recording industry has tried, to no avail, to threaten the creators by accusing them of violating copyrights (and therefore dipping into profit streams). But it’s hard to sound the violins when Kanye West’s and 50 Cent’s new albums’ sales exceeded a million in their first week of release. It’s safe to say that Kanye’s Can’t Tell Me Nothing mixtape, released in May and featuring cuts off Graduation, helped more than hurt him. Even with the online resurgence, mixtapes have certainly taken a hit over the past year. “I would love to see the game get back to a point where mixtapes have the same potency that they had a year ago,” says Drama. “Being a fan as well as a player, it’s just a sad thing to see what mixtapes and the game has come to.”

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