Mixtapes are hip-hop’s street currency. The ubiquitous CD-Rs carry regional news, hype, shit-talk, rare material, unreleased tracks, remixes, and freestyles from the hood to the world. Every city has a mixtape DJ and every rapper wants to be his friend. Mixtape appearances have launched and re-launched the careers of dozens of BET/MTV superstars: 50 Cent, Young Jeezy, The Diplomats, T.I., Lil Wayne.
The mixtape economy is an independent network of DJs, producers, fans, street merchants, record store owners, and websites. Prolific DJs can drop a dense 80-minute mixtape every month.
For years, the major label music industry has turned a blind eye to the mixtape game. Artists with major label deals appear on mixtapes to freestyle, talk to the streets, and even leak their own unreleased tracks. Both illegal and stunningly creative, the construction of a mixtape represents the collaboration between DJ and MC that has defined hip-hop since the days of block parties in the Bronx. Pulling together hot tracks, unsigned MCs, established artists, raw material, and rugged samples, the mixtape is a ‘snapshot’ of a moment in time.
As hip-hop has taken to the web, the mixtape trade has gone international. This transition continues to transform the mainstream hip-hop sound as regional styles spread far beyond the boundaries of the local bodega boombox. Were it not for the mixtape DJ, we might never have heard the biggest sounds of the decade – crunk, hyphy, snap, screw.
Now, through a trainwreck of arrogance and ignorance, the RIAA, a representative group of the Big Four major labels, has deemed mixtapes criminal “counterfeit” products that infringe its monopoly right to sell recordings of the artists it finances. Using the police as muscle, they organized a raid on the Aphiliates’ studio in Atlanta last Tuesday resulting in the arrest of perhaps the biggest mixtape DJ of the minute: DJ Drama. Just a day before, we’d all caught a glimpse of the ATL mix king on the cover of XXL:
… and now the RIAA is having him arrested and the cops are dismantling his studio on FOX news? What’s wrong with this picture?
“This not about mixtapes-its about power [...] If some of these head label honchos aren’t stepping up and telling the RIAA to fall back [...] then like that great urban philosopher Flava Flav would say- You know what time it is.” — Davey D, January 18, 2007.
Hip-hop is under attack. This raid represents an aggressive escalation on the part of a few fearful, dying corporations. Rather than adapt to an emerging culture of fans, independent artists, and radical street entrepreneurship, these former leaders of industry prefer trying to revive their embarrassingly outdated business model. Until we walk away, they will continue their campaign to squash innovation, creativity, and culture.
It’s time to save the mixtapes and Free the DJs. This is a movement.