ATLANTA — The number of well-wishers who lined up to greet DJ Drama on Wednesday night as he held court inside his VIP booth at Club Havana mirrored the line of those waiting outside the venue to get in.
It was just past midnight at the Buckhead hot spot, and Drama and the rest of the Aphilliates (sans Don Cannon) had just arrived. Young Jeezy’s “Get Ya Mind Right,” a banger from Drama and Jeezy’s collaboration Trap or Die, blasted through the house speakers. And then, as if it were one of Drama’s own mixtapes, the DJ behind the tables announced, “Big shout-out to DJ Drama and the entire [Aphilliates Music Group]!”
The club visit marked the embattled mixtape entrepreneur’s first public appearance since his arrest Tuesday night (see “DJ Drama Arrested In Atlanta Mixtape Raid” ). Drama and Cannon were taken into custody and charged by Fulton County Police with violating Georgia’s racketeering laws for the distribution of their immensely popular mixtapes. They were freed Wednesday on matching $100,000 bonds. A court hearing has been set for a later date.
Although the hip-hop community was disheartened by the news of Drama’s arrest and subsequent raid (see ” ’Play The Game Fair': Lil Wayne Responds To DJ Drama’s Mixtape Bust” ) — which resulted in 81,000 CDs and recording equipment being confiscated, along with other possessions like cars — Drama himself was noticeably upbeat.
He declined to comment to MTV News for this article, but the bottle in his right hand and smile on his face seemed to signal he was in high spirits — a sentiment echoed by DJ Sense, one-third of the AMG triumvirate alongside Drama and Cannon. “Basically, you see the Aphilliates is right here,” Sense said on Wednesday. “[We’re] not going nowhere. We going strong. The movement is stronger than ever right now.”
That may or may not be the case at the moment for AMG. Along with confiscating material from their downtown Atlanta office, their company bank accounts were also frozen by authorities.
Murrow Police Department Chief of Police Jeff Baker told MTV News that the raid wasn’t targeting Drama, hip-hop or mixtapes in particular. But after pairing with the Recording Industry Association of America in past efforts, which targeted bootleggers and mom-and-pop shops, the police sought to address the problem at a different level: the distributors who service bootlegs to retail outlets (see “RIAA Speaks On DJ Drama Raid: ’We Enforce Our Rights’ “ ).
“If you funnel it back to the source, to where the [mixtapes] are coming from — ’cause that’s what we typically like to do — under the RICO statute [a set of federal laws used to prosecute organized-crime cases] that they were charged with, it dissembles the criminal empire or entity, if you will, by taking away the means of them being able to distribute it out to everyone else,” Baker explained. “And that’s what we were focusing on.”
In other words, according to Baker, as the law is interpreted, Drama and Cannon are allegedly involved with leading an “organized distribution effort.” Through their office and Web site, along with the large number of CDs in their possession, AMG may be guilty of pirating material that fails to disclose the name of the owners of the material and fails to obtain permission from the holder of master copies. Repeatedly distributing the material qualifies the operation as racketeering, Baker added.
Attorney Robert Celestin — who’s best known for working on record deals for Mary J. Blige and Jodeci — says that in most cases, the sale or simply giving away a mixtape is illegal. “If you look at the black-letter law regarding copyrighting, technically, if you’re putting out copyrights, you’re infringing on a copyright of whoever’s music is on the mixtape.”
South Carolina’s Chuck T, who also was raided by police a couple of years ago, says the legalities of a mixtape are — in practice, anyway — merely technicalities, because in most cases artists themselves and their labels support them. “Mixtapes were illegal yesterday, they were illegal a month ago, they’ll be illegal tomorrow, but I personally feel that what I do is right,” T said. “I get my music directly from the labels, directly from the artists. I don’t bootleg a n—a’s sh–. I don’t put nothing out there they asked me not to put out. I don’t take advantage of doing a best-of or putting out leaked album tracks.”
What’s clear is that the RIAA sees no distinction between pirating — selling an unauthorized, often cheaply reproduced copy of an officially released CD — and mixtapes, which are compilations or material usually provided with the consent of the artists and/or labels, who generally overlook any loss in royalties or revenue from mixtapes because of the exposure they provide. “It’s just another tool for promotion. I would never say there’s anything wrong with them, and I’m an executive,” said Block, CEO of Block Entertainment (home to Yung Joc and Boyz N Da Hood). “You can use my music, because at the end of the day, you’re helping me.”
Some label execs don’t like where the RIAA is coming from. “If the RIAA isn’t speaking to someone like myself or someone at a label to get an idea … where problems are, then they’re kinda shooting in the dark,” said Kawan “KP” Prather, head of A&R at Sony Music.
Block said he had a chance to sit down with RIAA reps recently and found them to be off-base with their goals. “We just had a meeting, and they came to us like, ’If we get on the bootleggers and all these warehouses, then y’all as a record label should try to help us stop the mixtapes.’ It’s impossible [to stop mixtapes].”
Prather, who has worked extensively with T.I., said Drama in particular was instrumental in launching Tip’s career as well as other southern MCs such as Young Jeezy. “If this was a guy with a plant pressing up [bootleg] CDs, I’d be cheering [the arrest],” Prather added. “Because it’s Drama, who I know put in a lot of effort and a lot of work to build his name up to be almost an authority on what’s next. That’s why it hurts. I haven’t known Drama to do the bogus compilation playlist mixtapes. That kind of burns me a little bit. But there are some other DJs who I wish would get locked up because they’re terrible. They can’t mix, they can’t scratch.”
Although Prather said Drama may have been wrongly targeted, he does say the authorities need to keep their eye out for some other mixtape DJs who are really violating the industry. “There are a lot of mixtapes that go against what we’re doing at labels, making money off songs that people spent money to make,” he said. “If I go to Drama’s house and rap over an original beat Don Cannon made, that’s not illegal. The label doesn’t have a problem with that. But if I take a guy’s single along with a bunch of other singles that are now on the radio, then that’s illegal. It’s a Now [That’s What I Call Music!] compilation. You’re wrong then. For one, you’re not being creative. It’s not that mixtapes are wrong; it’s how you do it. It’s based on you creating something.
“DJ Drama, most times, is in the studio with the artists and producer doing songs particularly for a mixtape,” he continued. “That doesn’t hurt. That’s why the Gangsta Grillz [mixtape series] is so great because [it’s a] platform to get the artists seen. It’s somebody I trust saying, ’This is the next guy.’ ”
Already, hip-hop is seeing a partial fallout from the Drama and Cannon situation. Many Web sites that regularly sell mixtapes have stopped altogether or are not actively promoting the street CDs, and some mixtape DJs are saying they want to lay low for a while.
“I really think a lot of DJs are going to fall back from doing mixtapes,” Chuck T said of mixtapes’ immediate future. “Thank God it’s the first quarter, because not a lot of music is out anyway. A lot of the artists who depend on mixtapes as far as getting exposure who came out in the fourth quarter are going to dodge the bullet. But a lot of artists who are coming out in the second quarter are going to feel the effects. At the end of the day, mixtapes play a key role in getting people’s music out. All the n—as I deal with don’t watch BET because they’re out in the streets. They don’t listen to radio, because they’re out in the streets.
“The best way to get exposure is through mixtapes or through street DVDs,” T continued. “It’s going to weed out a lot of people who are not serious about it. They’re just in it to make a quick buck. So whenever we do come out of the drip, there’s only going to be a few people who survive. Artists are going to suffer the most because they’re not going to have that free or inexpensive promotion.”
Philadelphia’s DJ Wreck actually sees some light at the end of the tunnel, and seems confident that the RIAA will come to understand that mixtapes, in an authorized context, can help the music business. “It’s gonna help the game,” Wreck said. “I think Drama has big enough clout and respect in the game regarding labels and artists. I believe the RIAA is gonna take a backlash. They’re really gonna feel it, and they’re going to back away from their raids.”