ATLANTA — The only time you saw a pressured look on the faces of the artists coming in and out of T.I.'s Grand Hustle studios on Monday afternoon was when it came to fighting for bragging rights at "NB2K7," which was being played on a wide flat-screen TV upstairs.
You'd never know that the camp has a lot at stake in the next few months. T.I., the ringleader of the unit, is trying to follow up being the top-selling MC of 2006 after rap — like all genres of music — saw a heavy sales decline last year.
On Sunday night, Tip had Ciara in the lab working on his July release, T.I. vs. T.I.P., and on Monday he was preparing for producer Jazze Pha to put his soulful take on the album. Tip, who was taking full advantage of the summer-like temperatures on this early spring day, wore shorts, black sneakers and a T-shirt. After looking for and finding a script he'd left in one of the control rooms, Tip had a grin on his face as wide as the one he sported on Grammy night when he took home two wins (see "Timberlake Rocks; Blige Weeps; Chicks, Chilis Clean Up At Grammys").
"Hey, shawty," he said in his welcoming drawl. "I'm on my way to Detroit to see Eminem for this record."
Meanwhile, in another room, DJ Drama, who was waiting on a very late lunch of pizza and salad, killed some time by playing Gangsta Grillz, his first official label release (Drama is signed to Atlantic Records via T.I.'s Grand Hustle imprint). He got the name, of course, from his mixtape series, which has elevated him to the top of the food chain in the street-music game.
Drama, who also spins at some shows for T.I., turned his local popularity into national prominence over the past three years by working directly with artists to make albums for the streets. T.I., Young Dro and especially Young Jeezy can thank their installments of the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes for helping to break their careers, while Lil Wayne's two Gangsta Grillz: Dedication albums started getting him recognition as one of the nicest on the mic. Big Boi of Outkast, Busta Rhymes, Nelly and even Pharrell Williams are just some of the others who have worked with the DJ on freestyles and songs for his series.
In the Grand Hustle studio, Dram shares a big City of Brotherly Love smile with fellow Philadelphia native DJ Sense, his manager and business partner. He plays "Art of Storytelling 4," featuring Outkast and Floetry's Marsha Ambrosius, a definite highlight from the official Gangsta Grillz LP. Although they've played the record a thousand times over the past couple of months, it sounds just as fresh as if they had recorded it yesterday. When you hear Andre 3000's leadoff narrative verse, you almost want to pray that his rhyme never ends.
"She said why in the club you don't make it precipitate," Dre's recorded voice beckons as Drama stands up and raps along, his Aphilliate Music Group artist Willie the Kid nodding along. "You know, make it rain?/ When you can make it thunderstorm?/ I'm like, why? The world needs sun, the 'hood needs funds/ There's a war going on and half the battle is guns/ How dare I throw it on the floor when people are poor?"
Toward the end of the song, Drama himself comes on the track and makes one the boldest statements of his short career: "I took the fall for hip-hop."
"[That's] for what happened on January 16," he explained (see "DJ Drama Arrested In Atlanta Mixtape Raid"). "Police raiding the Aphilliate office and going on television and saying, 'DJ Drama and Don Cannon are bootleggers.' [Given] what mixtapes have meant to hip-hop in the last 25 years, this is a travesty. With what I've come to have as my career, to get to the levels of that and to get arrested ... I am an artist, a businessman, and more than anything I am a mixtape DJ with pride, so I took the fall for the game. After that I said, 'I took the fall for hip-hop.' I said, 'I stand here before you stronger than ever. Watch what happens next.' "
It's been more than two months since Drama and Don Cannon — one-third of the AMG triumvirate, with Drama and Sense, and one the top up-and-coming producers in rap — were put in handcuffs outside AMG headquarters in downtown Atlanta and taken into custody on charges of running a crime ring, bootlegging music and breaking racketeering laws under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute. Drama and Cannon were standing outside the building that served as recording studio and business office, getting ready for an interview when the police took charge.
"I saw cops jump out, M16s drawn, and they put me directly on the ground," Drama recalled. "They were screaming and yelling, causing a ruckus. It was a shock, really. My first reaction was to stay cool, calm and collected. Under the circumstances, you got an M16 to your head, you follow directions. Really, I was confused. I didn't know what was going on. I thought it was a mistake until I was moved over from where my vehicle was and the cop said, 'Tyree Simmons, you're under arrest under the RICO law.' I was shocked.
"They took me away, and I noticed Cannon was being arrested, too," Drama added. "They brought the dogs in there, basically asking, 'Where are the guns and drugs?' You tell them a bunch of times, 'Nah.' As you've seen on the news, they confiscated everything in the building. At this point, I was at the police station, so I saw it on the news like everybody else."
The news footage looked like something out of "New Jack City," when Ice-T and Mario Van Peebles' characters raided the infamous Carter housing project, and Chris Rock's Pookie character met his bloody demise. Instead of cocaine and money and weapons, though, it was mixtapes being confiscated — thousands and thousands of them. Also taken were studio equipment and hard drives containing Drama's just-about-finished album, which was originally scheduled for release this winter.
When Drama and Cannon were released the next day, they returned to their headquarters, only to find it looking like it did a year ago, when T.I. relocated his Grand Hustle offices and handed them the keys to the property: just about empty. For all intents and purposes, it is shut down indefinitely — but that barely slowed down Drama and crew at all.
"It was a shock to walk through there and see everything we've built from the ground up, bringing so much quality music to the game, gone," Drama said. "In a way it was shattering, but in a bigger way it was motivating. From the minute I got out, everybody pretty much came up to me and Cannon. We sat outside my house and had a talk: 'It's time to get to work.' Plain and simple. As shocking as it was not to see our stuff in there, it was like, 'OK, get some more stuff and get to work.' "
Drama maintains that although he was originally told he was being arrested on RICO violations, neither he nor Cannon have been formally charged with anything, and neither he nor Cannon have been back to court. He says he doesn't know what's going on with the case and is letting his lawyers handle everything. Instead he's been focusing on redoing his album. After getting acts like Young Jeezy and T.I. on the original version of the LP, he had to start over basically from scratch, since his hard drives are still sitting in police lockup as evidence. He was able to re-create some of the material, while other tracks, like his first single, "Takin' Pictures," are completely new.
Willie the Kid, who's featured on the record, originally made the Dame Grease-produced song for his debut LP. But after everything that took place within his camp, everyone decided it should go on Gangsta Grillz. On the chorus, a voice repeatedly says, "Feds taking pictures," which now serves as a musical wink to the fact that Drama and company were under surveillance.
Drama called out to his friends Young Jeezy, Jim Jones, T.I., Young Buck and Rick Ross — a handful of the MCs who also lent him their personal support — to join Willie on the track (see "T.I., Jeezy, Jim Jones Blast Mixtape Raid On New DJ Drama Track").
"I've gotten good support from the community," Drama said. "In the days after [the arrest] my pager just exploded with support from the streets and the fans. The first single was a song that had already been in the works and came to life after the situation had taken place. Instead of being in the dumps, I got on the phone and was like, 'It's time go to work.' Everybody was like, 'Drama, we got you.' "
At Grand Hustle studios, Drama showed how much love he's gotten in the wake of his arrest.
There's the album intro with Lil Jon, who actually does the "gangstaaaah grizzzills" mixtape callout, hyping up the track. Next comes "Million Dollar Baby," a dream pairing of producer Just Blaze with Lil Wayne, who comes to the battle with a finessed, talkative flow — his words are drowned in noise but still lyrically fly.
"I see the game like a umpire," Weezy boasts. "I'm fly and your boyfriend's a ostrich," he raps before taking a shot at radio DJ Wendy Williams. In between verses — or, in this case, rounds — Drama acts as the Birdman Jr.'s corner man, coaching him with the intensity of Burgess Meredith's Mickey in "Rocky." A tandem on the album that Drama took extra pride in bringing together were Beanie Sigel and Cassidy on "No Rules."
"They're both from Philly like me," Drama said with a grin. "I had to do it for the hometown."
After a few more selections, another posse cut, "Put Your Sets Up," caps off the preview. There, Willie the Kid, Yung Joc and Jadakiss form the lineup.
In the next few weeks, regardless of whether he is indicted, Drama plans to be dedicated to promoting the June 5 release of his album, continuing the Gangsta Grillz mixtapes and making AMG stronger. More mixtapes are definitely coming (see "What's Next For The Mixtape World After DJ Drama Raid?" ).
"I don't know, man," he said when asked why exactly the Recording Industry Association of America had targeted him. "All I can say is, 'Where do we go from here?' Now I'm in the position to help the game, help the youngsters, let people know mixtapes are vital to the game, vital to the streets.
"The past two months have been really good, to be honest with you," he added. "Obviously, after the situation occurred, some things changed — I call it 'the day the game changed.' But I've been working on the album. It's gotten a lot more attention, but we're doing what we do. The album is ready. Our positives have outweighed our negatives."