Mixtapes whether they're the smash-hit mashups of Danger Mouse or the CD-Rs sold out of an up-and-coming DJ's backpack are an integral part of hip-hop culture. Perhaps more than in any other musical genre, these compilations build buzz for the featured artists and for the mixtape DJs themselves. The relationship is typically symbiotic, particularly when the artists are under-the-radar rappers who need the publicity. All good, right? Wrong. Because when the mixtape DJs start turning a not-insignificant profit, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) starts a paying a not-insignificant amount of attention.Which brings us to the developing case of Atlanta mixtape kings DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon. The pair, who distribute the popular "Gangsta Grillz" mixtapes, were arrested Tuesday under Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. According to an article published in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution, police seized 81,000 mixtapes, and Drama and Don Cannon (real names Tyree Simmons and Donald Cannon) each face one to five years in prison (plus a fine of $10,000 to $100,000) if convicted.
Crackdowns on alleged music piracy are nothing new, of course. Just ask any college kid who's nervously perused LimeWire for the latest single. The RIAA, in an ongoing attempt to clarify (and, some would argue, narrow) the definition of "fair use," has filed dozens of lawsuits in recent years. But what makes the DJ Drama/DJ Don Cannon arrest so interesting and so unsettling is that it strikes at the heart of one of hip-hop's strongest traditions. Many rappers, who don't have the funds or the marketing team to get their songs heard, depend on well-circulated mixtapes (and the well-connected DJs who make them). And those who create the mixtapes contribute to the idea of hip-hop as a genre that constantly reinvents and renews itself.
Mixtape culture is alive and well in St. Louis, a city that has so far avoided intense RIAA scrutiny.
"I think [the Atlanta raid] was probably an isolated incident," says Gabe Moskoff, a.k.a. DJ Trackstar, who put out six mixtapes in 2006 alone. "I don't think it's going to have much true impact, but I do think it could have a shock-value effect, where some DJs, retailers and distributors get scared off, thinking the same thing will happen to them."
And that would be a shame, particularly since mixtapes have long provided a boost not just to the artists but also to the record labels themselves. After all, if someone buys a mixtape and hears a hot track, chances are good they'll seek out more by the artist.
So what's a DJ to do?
"Until I hear something that connects the incident to a widespread crackdown on the mixtape industry, I'm not changing anything about what I do," Moskoff concludes. "Mixtapes are as hip-hop as hip-hop gets...and shutting down �cause we're scared the big bad RIAA is gonna raid us isn't very hip-hop, now, is it?"