Wednesday, January 17th, 2007

DJ Drama, Major Labels & The New Rap Distribution Game

By now, it’s probably old news that DJ Drama and Don Cannon have been arrested. (24 hours, damn, welcome to the wired world.)

I think Noz is on point when he says: “As far as I know, it is the first time they have cracked down on an artist rather than a store. In case you were wondering the RIAA is not a government agency. They are a private sector trade group that represents many of the larger record labels and distributors. But they will use your tax dollars to kick in your door if they think you’re fucking with their money.” Emphasis on “fucking with their money.”

But what I find most interesting is how the situation actually reflects a larger change in the distribution of rap music. It all starts with the inability of major labels to meet the demands of the rap market.

Mixtapes have surged in popularity over the past 5 years because they meet the demand for rap that the major labels can no longer fulfill. As media monopolies have grown bigger and labels have consolidated (look for EMI to be sold very soon), there are fewer hip-hop artists receiving major distribution and release dates come fewer and further between.

But hip-hop will always find a way to get to its audiences with the newness, major labels and their big clunky distribution be damned. So mixtape masters like Drama fill the void by keeping up the excitement amongst the hardcore heads. (As often as not, they’re funded either directly or indirectly out of major label promotional budgets.) Mixtape DJs can work as fast as the artists want to get the stuff out, which is about as fast as the kids want it.

At the same time, indie distribution companies are stepping into the breach–getting mixtapes some decent placement in stores and through digital download spots like iTunes and eMusic. For major labels, it brings back bad memories of the period through the early 90s when indie labels controlled the rap business (an intolerable situation that caused majors to go on a crazed buying spree in the mid 90s). This is new, and it’s an important development. Not a few years ago, when you asked about mixtape distribution, folks stammered.

As for the question of demand, since production has sped up again via mixtapes and distribution is more and more viable, we as fans have now conditioned ourselves to pick up and rip the mixtapes, or download them as opposed to sitting around and waiting for the major label product. Why wait on this corner forever when there’s another one open up the street? The product eventually isn’t too different.

And then everyone goes home wondering why the rap industry has come off one of its worse years since the 80s.

That’s even more of a reason that major labels don’t want to go back to a time when they didn’t dominate the rap game and have a hand in most of all the dollars being made. So whether or not the artists approved the music on the mixtapes, whether or not the majors’ own funds made them possible, and despite the fact that the whole mess is one of the major’s own failures to meet the demand in the first place, the main issue at stake here is that the labels still aren’t getting their cut.

The RIAA had to move on someone making mixtape money. DJ Drama has become the first casualty of the new hip-hop distribution game.

It will be interesting to see in the coming months how the major labels try to move on:

1) the big mixtape distributors to either shut them down or cut a deal, and
2) their own artists to enforce the exclusivity and copyright clauses in their contracts…

Mixtapes won’t die. But 2007 may be the year that the mixtape begins to really be absorbed into the machine, which may be a kind of a slower death.

UPDATE 1 :: RIAA: “We don’t consider this being against mixtapes as some sort of class of product. We enforce our rights…”

UPDATE 2 :: Chief James Baker of the Morrow Police Department said this is the second raid in an effort to stop pirated CD sales. “Our first raid also happened in Atlanta on Metropolitan Parkway on Oct. 11, 2006,” says Baker. “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.”

UPDATE 3 :: Davey D breaks down an industry insider perspective + Aishah Simmons, acclaimed filmmaker and the sister of DJ Drama, brings the context…this is a must-read.

posted by @ 10:27 am | 10 Comments

10 Responses to “DJ Drama, Major Labels & The New Rap Distribution Game”

  1. Jay Smooth says:

    great post, and that MTV link gives a lot of perspective.. I just posted my thoughts here..

  2. Terry Marshall says:

    Part One by Terry Marshall •
    Hip-Hop Media Lab • Soul Survivors • 5th Element • Hip-Hop Sustains

    Nas proclaimed that Hip-Hop was Dead. Well the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) must not have gotten the memo cause it seems they are doing their best to KILL IT! Last week January 16 in Atlanta a 30-man (est) SWAT team raided the offices of the Aphilliates Music Group. Several employees were detained, CDs, studio equipment, cars and bank accounts were confiscated, and DJ Drama & DJ Don were arrested and later released on $100,000 bail.

    According to they are being charged with the R.I.C.O. (Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations) laws, which were created to bring down the mafia and were used to attack the Black Panther party. Now one is probably thinking that this is another black eye for Hip-Hop. Another case of some one making it but just couldn’t leave behind the lure of the streets. What did the police find? Guns? Drugs? No, the purpose of the action was…. Mixtapes! I guess they were expecting more seeing how one of the agents said “Usually, we find other crimes during these types of busts.”

    But still, all of this over mixtapes? Well yes and no.

    The Players

    This isn’t the first time the RIAA has taken action like this and it’s a good indicator that it won’t be the last. RIAA stands for Recording Industry Association of America ( It is the trade group that represents the U.S. recording industry. Their Mission “is to foster a business and legal climate that supports and promotes our member creative financial vitality” i.e.: make sure they make the money and survive. We’ll come back to that word vitality in a moment.

    RIAA’s 1995-year end report had a warning of “the growing popularity of illicit DJ mixes in CD format” (source NYT 6/16/05). On May 12th 2005, a day before the death of Legendary Justo Faison, founder of the Mixtape awards, RIAA announced a crackdown on “pirated CDs”. On June 8th 2005 a RIAA representative accompanied the New York Police on a raid of an east village video & record store, Mondo Kims. Five employees were arrested and 100s of CDs were confiscated. The police seemed to focus on Kim’s well-stocked Hip Hop section. A RIAA official released a statement saying the police department’s “steadfast commitment to the fight against piracy has stamped out yet another significant illegal operation”.

    Now the Police have arrested and charged DJ Drama and DJ Don with RICO charges. In each major raid the RIAA was trying to send a message. Mondo Kims was popular record shop that was frequented by industry types and the like. DJ Drama, who is on the cover of this months issue of XXL, is arguably the #1 Mixtape DJ in the country right now. He picked up 4 trophies at the recent Justo’s Mixtape Awards, Just signed a deal with TI’s (one of only 3 hip hop artist to have a platinum record this past year) Grand Hustle/Atlantic records, and his mixtapes series “Gansta Grillz” has a following that can challenge many Industry releases. In each case the association went after the big names to make a point that they were not playing around. But it’s the bust and raids that don’t make the headlines that should be more alarming. According to one popular Boston Hip-Hop DJ, the same week that The Aphilliate Music Group was raided, “all mom & pops stores that sold mixtapes were getting hit up 150gs each”. It’s these attacks that tip the scales of making this an all out war on mixtapes and Hip-Hop in general.

    Decline of the OLD Media/Its Bigger than Hip Hop

    But why? Again we ask “all over some mixtapes?” This is when we come back to that word ‘vitality’. In the RIAA mission its says their job is to “promote our members creative financial VITALITY”. Their client’s vitality is endangered. The recording industry, in fact the whole media structure, as we know it IS DYING!
    Look at the numbers:

    • (USAToday 1/5/07) Overall album sales from 2001 were 712million. By 2004 they were 666.7million. And they are still dropping; compare 2005 sales?654.1 million to 2006 sales? 646.4 million. These drops don’t seem to be changing anytime soon.
    • (NYT 1/19/07) Time Inc. recently announced that it was cutting almost 300 jobs from its magazines in order to focus more on their websites. 172 coming from the editorial staff. Time Inc. is a unit of Time Warner, one of the 6 media conglomerates (G.E., Disney, News Corporation, Viacom, and CBS).
    • (WIRED Magazine 12/06) October 2006, NBC Universal announced a cut of 700 jobs as part of a $750 million retrenchment plan. Due to advertisers waning interest.

    They are being attacked from all sides: recording, print, T.V., radio, and the web. Because while all these drops have been happening there have been rises:

    • (USAtoday1/5/07) Digital track sales grew by 65% over 2005 and nearly caught album sales for the first time: 581.9 million tracks were sold, compared with 588.2 million albums.
    • (WIRED Magazine12/06) Youtube’s online audience grew from 5million in Jan 06 to over 35million in Aug 06. By Sept. 06 they were getting 70 thousand uploads and a 100million hits daily

    These are the 2 examples of the new media. The old structure is scrambling to get in because they are not equipped for it. A large part of that is because of how the new media is fueled. Not by YOU, as Time Magazine would like you to believe, but by EVERYONE.

    The record labels are trying to grab control of the digital album thing but that came about from them trying to stop the P2P file sharing. Myspace and Youtube would be nothing without millions of people providing the content. What makes that content so potent is the networking it opens up. Mixtapes create a grassroots distribution network that provides big name and unknown artist access to place where they could not have gotten on their own. The old structure was not built for the PEOPLE to have so much power. They are losing control and they know it.

    Instead of figuring what they may have done wrong to end up in this place, they come after the consumer and increasingly the producers and emergent network of this new medium. They shut down mom & pop stores for selling mixtapes. They sue 12-year-old suburban kids for downloading music. They arrest mixtape DJs, that get their music sanctioned by the record execs, and confiscate all of their equipment.

    The Mixtape Game

    So what does DJ Drama & DJ Don’s arrest mean for the future of mixtapes? Well for one it has terrorized the mixtape community. As you read this 100s of online mixtape sites are disappearing. The mixtape industry is moving more and more underground. Soon it might be easier to find an I Love Castro poster in Miami than to find a mixtape. What would that mean for Hip Hop?

    In today’s Hip Hop, mixtapes are the corner stone. As a subaltern part of the record industry mixtapes have operated off the original essence of Hip Hop. I’m neither being nostalgic nor purist. The first mixtapes started circulating around New York in the late 70s early 80s as DJ recordings of Hip-Hop Parties. You could hear the latest mc battles or the hot party you missed. It was one of the biggest reasons hip-hop was able to spread to all 5 boroughs of New York and across the country.

    Kid Capri is largely responsible for how we know mixtapes today. In mid 80s He began producing them in his house and made them clearer than the club versions. Down the line others innovated by taking acapellas and mixing them over different beats and creating the “exclusives” mixtapes (songs that have not yet been released by records labels).
    Along the way this progression has given rise to many things:

    • Alternative Economy: many local neighborhood store service mixtapes to communities, Many Previously unknown DJs and MCs blow up off of mixtapes.
    • Alternative distribution network: mom & pop stores, street vendors, trunks of cars, and even some major retail outlets serve as part of a grassroots network
    • Promotion service: Mixtape DJs break records better than mainstream corps. Primarily because of the relationship to the streets/people
    • Alternative media: mixtapes are often experimental spaces for new styles, new beats. MCs and DJ often get away with saying and doing things on mixtapes that their major labels would not let them.

    Many record labels (the same one that the RIAA say they are representing) caught on to the importance of this network. They give songs and money to DJs to make a mixtape around their artist. After 50cents meteoritic rise through the mixtape game, it would seem like some labels have a whole mixtape arm!
    Now here in lies what makes mixtapes, as opposed to downloading, difficult for the RIAA to tackle. They hold a peculiar position in that they help with sales and promotion of official albums while at the same time challenging copyright laws.

    Mixtapes like hip hop its self is a collaborative process. Remixing, sampling, tagging on a wall. All of these things challenge what we consider to be “legal“. Mixtapes push the barriers of the old copyright laws. May be its time we made new ones, to fit our reality and our culture.

    In Light of this state/corporate terror what can we do?
    Artists should start to look into creative commons licenses:
    We can even create our own much like the FAM Foundation:
    There are already examples of folk doing this: Fresh out Media allows artists to upload their songs onto their website for free promotion under the creative commons license.
    The Hip Hop Media Lab, which produces mixtapes with independent artists, is starting to use a version of the creative commons license as well:

    With Hip Hop being ‘Dead’ and ‘Killed’ maybe we can save it by doing what folks did in the beginning. Take what we’ve been given and do our own thing.

    OPERATION RESTORE DRAMA is being set up to by Wend day to help support DJ Drama & DJ Don. For more info send e-mail to:

  3. LKNGA68 says:

    Mixtapes and independent distributors are an integral part of hip hop – I get that. What I don’t get is how that need translates into an “OK” to do business illegally. Use big money’s own system against them, and nobody goes to jail. Doing whatever the hell you want only works when nobody cares. Not only that, where are all those artists that benefit from distro of these mixtapes now that there’s a problem????

  4. Carrie Daniels says:

    The RIAA- Recording Industry Association Act can fight against mix tape distribution, but all resources will not die.

    The market demands the next best thing and that’s what makes money for labels. I agree that “when labels don’t fulfill it, mix tape distributors will do it.”

    Labels chose what “they” think is best for the market at that given time and those recordings are placed on record. Artists create rhymes of like 20 + mixes and only maybe 12 make the cut. Given talents are hidden and should be credited to the artist. Mix tape distributors are considered a resource for that market.

    I do not agree that mix tapes should be taken without the consent of an artist…cut a deal.

  5. Christina T. says:

    I believe that the RIAA and record labels are fighting a battle that they will probably never win. There will more than likely always be a way to get around them.

    They need to worry about producing better quality material and not this mess they put out now with 10 songs on it and charge what like $18 for it.

    People are not crazy and they know what they want and they are not getting it from the labels so they get it from people like DJ Drama and the countless other mixtap producers, bootleggers, internet sites and whereever else they can find it.

  6. Rebekah G says:

    It seems to absurd to arrest someone who was put major label artist on the map. These mixtapes that are usually endorsed by the artist themselves serve more as promotional tools than anything. The mixtapes are fresh material that is usually not on the artist album so that the listener becomes more acustomed to the artist rather than just a hit single. A MIXTAPE CREATES A FAN NOT JUST A CASUAL LISTENER OF WHATS POPULAR!

  7. Anonymous says:

    I think that it is crazy that the major labels are upset at the rise of mixtapes. If they gave the artist the creative control to make an albulm full of hits instead of just a couple, people woudn’t be so drawn to hip-hop.

  8. Tiffany Hall says:

    I’m sorry. I meant to put hip-hop mixtapes.

  9. Anonymous says:

    as a dj myself a lot of times artist will give music for a mix tape that is better than what they usualy put on there official albums plus we dont ask for payola money like a lot of the radio and video stations do

  10. Anonymous says:

    plus with out mixtapes the mainstream audience would not have heard of artists like m.i.m.s , 50cent, joell ortiz , papoose and many others artist’s who were getting rejected by major record label’s becouse they weren’t MTV enougth for them

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