On January 16 in Atlanta, a SWAT team—at the behest of the Recording Industry Association of America—raided DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz recording studios, arresting both Drama and his fellow Aphilliate, Don Cannon, on charges of racketeering. Police also confiscated recording equipment, computers, money, bank statements, vehicles, and over 50,000 mix tapes before shutting down Drama's www.gangstagrillz.com. Considering that Drama is the number-one mix-tape DJ in the U.S. these days, this is a very ballsy move—or just indicative of how supremely fucking clueless the RIAA is.
If you're familiar with the mechanics of contemporary hiphop, then you understand how vital the mix tape has become to the industry. Street buzz in the major urban centers is created almost solely via artist-centered tapes, mixed and hosted by DJs almost or just as famous as the rappers they tirelessly promote. The biggest example of this is probably the white-hot Trap or Die, the mix tape that turned Young Jeezy into the hottest new rapper in the South and brought Def Jam a-knocking on his door; Trap or Die, just like the enormously successful 2006 Lil' Wayne tape Dedication 2, are both part of DJ Drama's best-selling Gangsta Grillz series. Record labels not only scour the streets scooping up the most buzz-heavy mix-tape artists, but once they sign them, they leak records to superstar DJs like Drama, Kay Slay, and Green Lantern. Why? Because it's invaluable promotion, and long recognized in the hiphop industry, even having its own award show (R.I.P. Justo). Despite the "gray area" that mix tapes inhabit—their worth has been proved time and time again, and label CEOs like Jimmy Iovine, Lyor Cohen, and Shawn Corey Carter depend on cats like Drama to find new artists and to keep their established ones hot.
So why in the hell did a SWAT team—a fucking SWAT TEAM—arrest the guy standing right next to T.I. on this month's XXL? The nonstop work put in by Drama to pump up T.I.'s release King was no doubt instrumental in it being the biggest-selling hiphop album of 2006. There is probably no more visible face for the mix-tape game than Drama, from Pepsi ads to magazine covers to the upcoming Atlantic release of his Gangsta Grillz: The Album.
As much as I'm tempted to think last week's flagrant move represents the RIAA's switching to a zero-tolerance stance on mix tapes, I really do believe they haven't a clue about who the self-described "iPod King" actually is. RIAA rep Matthew Kilgo was on the scene during the raid, telling local news he couldn't believe criminals like Drama and Cannon operated a "massive counterfeiting operation" fully out in the open—even disbelieving their brazen nerve at selling their CDs online. An Atlanta cop actually tells the news cameras that it's not uncommon to find drugs and guns in such raids—even though no such thing was found in this one.
No sir, hiphop ain't dead—but between this and the draconian state of sampling laws, the RIAA's blundering ass is certainly doing its best to kill it.