There are hardly any real endings in hip-hop. Rappers almost never stay retired, and if they do stop making albums, there are always enough guest verses and one-off concerts to keep them in the conversation. Even when artists die, their records are dug up, re-recorded, innovated upon, and spun into eternity for those left behind. The major internal forces undergirding hip-hop proper — the drum, the turntable, the cypher — are all circular formations, as if the forebears included a cheat code to immortality in each unbroken rotation, waiting to be uncovered. When Nas reported hip-hop’s death in 2006, he sounded like a curmudgeon, less because of his age than because of his choice to frame the genre’s end as a kind of suicide. Nas was off-base: It simply isn’t within hip-hop’s nature for the culture to off itself, no matter how commercial it becomes. But his paranoia wasn’t entirely unwarranted. Two months after Nas’s premature declaration of its demise, hip-hop survived an attempted homicide at the hands of the state of Georgia.
This week marks 10 years since a SWAT team, flanked by officials from the Recording Industry Association of America, broke down the door to mixtape pioneer DJ Drama’s Aphilliates Music Group office in Atlanta. They raided the building for 81,000 physical mixtapes and charged both Drama and his then-protégé DJ Don Cannon with a felony violation of Georgia’s racketeering laws. Though the multimillion-dollar Southern rap empire that Drama had built up by that point was able to withstand the pillage, the informal economic currency of the street album on a national scale would never recover.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, no one was better at creating mutually beneficial agreements between mixtape DJs and budding Southern rap stars than DJ Drama with his Gangsta Grillz imprint. The street album model that produced hood classics–turned–national treasures like Lil Wayne’s The Dedication and Jeezy’s Trap or Die harkened back to hip-hop's grassroots beginnings in the late ’70s, when a DJ’s street team would pass cassette tapes directly into the hands of radio jockeys and neighborhood tastemakers, and, if the record was poppin’, it would undoubtedly make its way to the house party. This was hip-hop’s first real, informal economic system: It was a cypher that, if done effectively, led to black musicians seeing profits from their independently scored hood hits. DJ Drama took the system to new heights, especially in the South, where there’d been a recent dearth of mixtape DJs making national waves. But an infrastructure consisting of the IRS, the FBI, local police, and the U.S. Postal Inspector’s office was primed for the surveilling and elimination of budding black prosperity. The Atlanta mixtape raid was merely the most modern example of collusion between corporate types and the police to destabilize a self-sufficient black economic community — the cultural continuation of the 1921 firebombing of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, the ongoing gentrification of Black Harlem, and the corporate privatization of housing and education in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
If black folks start making real paper on their own terms, you can bet white lawmakers and corporate squares will be on them like horseflies on hot shit.
Sure enough, the impetus for the 2007 raid, according to Don Cannon, was a mistake on the part of Atlantic Records. Their recent signee CeeLo Green, fresh off his hit debut as half of Gnarls Barkley, had approached Drama and Cannon about compiling a promotional mixtape called A Trip to St. Elsewhere that would feature older recordings from Green’s Goodie Mob sessions. As Cannon tells it, execs at the label believed the mixtape was a bootleg and called the RIAA, who happily escorted the Georgia SWAT team to Drama’s office.
The RIAA’s war on bootlegging, which began in the late ’90s with several suits against Napster and peaked with the 2005 Supreme Court proceedings of Capitol Records, Inc. v. Thomas-Rasset, was about as misguided as America’s War on Terror, and it mirrored one of the same inherent dilemmas: the governing body was behind before it ever got started. And much like the War on Terror, the labels’ anti-bootlegging campaigns were liable to overreach: The 81,000 mixtapes seized in Atlanta were original works, not pirated material. The raid was particularly frustrating because many record labels in early 2007 had recognized that mixtapes were valuable promotional tools. Singling out Drama, then, was either an inexplicable error or a symbolic gesture aimed at breaking up a bustling black enterprise.
To some degree, it worked. The prominence of mixtape DJs like Kay Slay, Clinton Sparks, and Whoo Kid was dramatically reduced after the raid, and the physical street albums they hawked seem like relics in the digital age. But as the internet became the new street corner, rap artists could distribute their own mixtapes without spending a dime — and while a DJ cosign never hurt, it was no longer necessary. If the RIAA’s aim was to curtail illegal music downloads, they were already behind the 8-ball, as free mixtapes had begun showing up online as early as 2003. For all the hoopla surrounding the increasingly dismal outlook of physical album sales, the RIAA didn’t do itself any favors in recent years by allowing streaming services like Apple Music and Spotify to bang down the price of albums. This meant that any free buzz generated by mixtapes was now stuck behind a paywall, forcing less-popular musicians to decide between the exposure those services might provide and increased royalties via an independent route.
The backward rationality of the RIAA’s raid 10 years ago is emblematic of how state and corporate institutions should adapt with black innovation, not against it. But then, one must ask oneself if profit is really what groups like this are after. The cruel joke of anti-black power moves in a music culture dominated by black expression boils down to a familiar adage: We don’t die, we multiply. Chance the Rapper’s free Coloring Book was just nominated for a Grammy, and De La Soul became the first artists to earn a nod for a crowdfunded project, And the Anonymous Nobody..., showing that rap mixtapes continue to thrive and diversify into new forms.
When it comes to creating a self-sufficient economic program, history-averse airheads from the barbershop to the blogosphere love bloviating about what skinfolk haven’t done. Every week it seems there’s some newfangled financial idea: if only black people could pool their money together; if only black people could be thoughtful enough to focus on black-on-black crime. If only, if only, if only. These advice lines usually come from a genuine place of care, but they are often steeped in egregious historical misconceptions. They disregard how our hustle is systematically stifled by an inherently racist power structure and how after every supposed L, black folk still, somehow, bounce back. The end is never the end — and the spirit of the street album breathes within the modern mixtape, spinning in perpetuity.