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Interesting Article on Mixtapes


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The Chicago Sun-Times has an interesting piece on DJs and mixtapes:

Too much drama


January 28, 2007

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic

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 the raid.

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 on Amazon.com.

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 comment.)

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 blockbuster releases.

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."

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