Graeme Worthy

So, I think this is big news. In Atlanta, GA on January 16th, DJ Drama, Don Cannon, and 17 others were arrested for racketeering — that is, being members of a criminal organization. A group of record producers, Drama and co. are responsible for a series of MC mixtapes called Gangsta Grillz. Mixtapes are the lifeblood of hip-hop, representing up-and-coming rappers, and keeping established rappers on the scene between major-label releases. They’ve existed in a quasi-legal state for years, but with this latest crackdown their fate is now in question. The copyfight’s favourite supervillain, the RIAA, participated in the raid, and is now taking flack from all sides. People are up in arms. The southern hip-hop scene is angry, alleging conspiracy. Why did this happen? Had the record industry taken aim at mixtapes, blaming them for flagging record sales? I’m gonna say there was no conspiracy — after bathing in the streams of internet, I’ve formed an opinion, and now I’m gonna shove it down your throat.

So here’s how I see it.

Sometime in 2006, the police station in Morrow, GA, population 4,882, gets a visit from a coordinator for a joint task force on piracy. An impressive-looking man from the big city brings out an impressive-looking PowerPoint and shows on a big graph how many millions of dollars are being lost every year to pirates. This blue suit and matching laminated name-tag tells the local policemen how much it would be appreciated if they were a member of this impressive-sounding ‘joint task force.’

Suckers eat it up.

Weeks pass. Then in October of 2006, the small town gets its first bust. These quotes are from a interview. “Our first raid also happened in Atlanta on Metropolitan Parkway on Oct. 11, 2006,” says Chief James Baker of the Morrow Police Department. “It was run by a bunch of immigrants, the majority here illegally, from West Africa. We seized over $14 million of counterfeit CDs, five vehicles, cocaine and marijuana.”
High off the back-slaps and engraved Lexan trophies from the RIAA that say “Keep up the good work, you’re part of the team,” the locals stumble across their next big bust — bootleg mixtapes, which are like candy to the mouth-breathing boys in blue. They’re stamped all over with “promotional use only, not for resale,” which is just the sort of thing the man with the PowerPoint said to look out for. While the aura of “underground” plays well with hip-hop audiences, the cops aren’t used to this kind of marketing. They take “illegal” at its face value. And now the new members of the “League of Junior Copyright Defenders” call the main clubhouse, and the trap is set.

Except this bootleg ring isn’t a two-bit CD piracy organization run by a bunch of “immigrants from west Africa” dubbing copies of last season’s 24, complete with colour photocopy covers. These are MC mixtapes: handcrafted, small-run MC mixes, a tight coterie of up-and-coming MCs documenting the fast-moving world of southern hip-hop. Rappers flow over the tracks of contemporary masters, commenting and layering, mixing it up and showing off their skills in the studio version of live rap-battles. It’s a lively scene, and DJ Drama was making a name for himself─he’d just signed a deal with Atlantic to take his Gangsta Grillz series and make a mainstream album, where all the copyrights would be nailed down, all the samples cleared and all the expensive lawyers happy.

Some have alleged that this was a conspiracy to shut down the mixtape scene, but from where I’m sitting, half a continent away in a messy bedroom, it’s apparent to me that this wasn’t the intent of the raid. It was stupidity: the RIAA’s talking head at the scene, Matthew Kilgo, told the ignorant and head-bobbing FOX reporters that, “Statistics show you can make up to 900% profit just on the resale of counterfeit CDs.” It’s clear they had no idea that this was a productive working studio. They thought they were just dubbing someone else’s music for resale.

But these mixtapes are part of what keeps contemporary music lively — they launched the careers of modern heavyweights 50 Cent and Lil’ Wayne. They’re the porches and dancehalls of today, places where new music is generated, new stars are recognised, or so I hear. I’ve never been to Atlanta, and the southern hip-hop I know comes from a movie about singing hookers.

Now, 30 SWAT team members with loaded guns handcuff artists in a recording studio. Did you know that the RIAA has their own jackets? Like the ATF, they say “Anti-Piracy Unit” across the top and have a big RIAA on the back. These dudes are not fucking around. But they’re trying to resuscitate a dead fish by having troops stomp on its heart with jackboots. Nobody is buying their CDs, their distribution model is faltering, and somehow the RIAA keeps ticking, desperate to find out where the customers have gone.

I’m an optimist, but maybe this presents an opportunity. Even if what Cannon and Drama were doing was illegal under contemporary American copyright law, they were making music, the real stuff that people listen to. They were doing so on the edges of the law, and they were making money at it. This is something the RIAA seems only able to do by suing its customers.

So let’s say that our friends at the RIAA decide their lawyers are going to roast these dudes over hot coals. Let’s say that they don’t relent. If the dogs-in-suits don’t let go, maybe there’s something here to look forward to, if Drama and crew can get their asses together to get off this beef.

It could mean a legal recognition of their art. Or, maybe some innocent dudes are gonna go to jail for “crimes” that shouldn’t be crimes.