The History and Legality of Mix Tapes We take our hip-hop series for a spin with one of today's hottest DJs, DJ Drama, and explore the art of mixing and the legal ramifications of it.
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The History and Legality of Mix Tapes

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The History and Legality of Mix Tapes

The History and Legality of Mix Tapes

The History and Legality of Mix Tapes

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

We take our hip-hop series for a spin with one of today's hottest DJs, DJ Drama, and explore the art of mixing and the legal ramifications of it.

DJ Drama. Getty Images hide caption

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DJ Drama.

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Last week as part of our Hip-hop series, we examined the art and legality of sampling that is taking bits of one record and incorporating them into another. Mixtape artists are consummate samplers, though the DJs who can make a name and often a livelihood out of inter-cutting multiple hip-hop songs into extended remixes. There's just one problem. It's not always legal.

DJ Drama is an Atlanta-based mixtape artist who has seen the financial and critical upside and the legal downside of this business. He told me just how much time and energy goes into making a mixtape.

DJ DRAMA (Mixtape Artist, Atlanta): You know, when it comes to hip-hop, you know, a lot of the music normally starts in the streets. Meaning that before you know, the mass has heard it, you know, the hardcore hip-hop listeners normally has already got their hands on it and that's where I come into play. So, you know, for me to put together a mixtape is basically, like, me putting together a mini album with an artist. You know, we go through a lot of the songs and the concepts and, you know, choosing beats and, you know, direction on where the mixtape is going. And you know, I pretty much handle all sides of it.

CHIDEYA: Now, when a lot of us think of mixtapes we think of the things that we used to put together like by holding your player up to the actual speakers and pressing play, and then you just put one thing after the other, after the other. That's not what we're talking about here, is it?

DJ DRAMA: No. Not anymore. Those are some of the original (unintelligible) of it. I mean, if you take mixtapes back 25, 30 years, you know, a lot of the way people first heard hip-hop recorded was through, you know, mixtapes, which were like Brucey B or Lovebug Starski, which were live at the party. You know, them - basically recording the party and then passing it around on tapes. And you know, we get everywhere across the country and across the world.

But since then mixtapes have become just that like many albums have become music exclusively that, you know, you're not going to get on someone's album or you know, that's not released through the major labels or what not.

CHIDEYA: Mixtapes are a compilation of a lot of different voices from hip-hop, and you are now facing felony charges under RICO, which was used to basically get people who were big-time gangsters back in the day. Tell us a little bit about what happened and why?

DJ DRAMA: Well, on January 16th - I call it the day the game changed - you know, I was back to work. It was the day after Martin Luther King's birthday. So I was at my office/studios in downtown Atlanta and about 5:30, I was outside about to an interview when about two or three Tahoes pulled up on the side of our street. You know, about 15 to 20 cops jumped out of the cars, you know, full gear on, M-16s drawn, you know, pointed directly at us. They put me under arrest. They - you know, they told me that I was being charged under the RICO law with bootlegging and racketeering. And also the RIAA was involved in the raid of my studio and they confiscated, pretty much, everything in my studio, you know, under - so, you know, they…

CHIDEYA: So DJ Drama, let me just interrupt you, and I hate to do this…

DJ DRAMA: Go ahead.

CHIDEYA: …but I know we don't have a lot of time.

DJ DRAMA: It's all good.

CHIDEYA: RIAA is the Recording Industry Association of America.


CHIDEYA: And some people have found it very interesting that there's been this legal action against folks like you who put out mixtapes when at the same time mixtapes can go and blow up album sales because of how they are viral.

DJ DRAMA: What I do and what mixtapes are and what mixtapes DJs are, is vital to the hip-hop community and vital to hip-hop as a business. I mean, if I could just name you three people - 50 Cent, Jay-Z, P. Diddy, you know, those are three very successful people that are probably worth well over a billion dollars combined that have all used mixtapes as a platform to their success in their business and their music.

And, you know, I myself, you know, take the example of mixtape idea with Young Jeezy called "Trap or Die." Before Young Jeezy's album came out on Def Jam, you know, you can ask anybody in the industry and it helped Young Jeezy sell well over two million records for Def Jam. So, you know, the industry really needs to thank me for what I do instead of put M-16s to my head.

CHIDEYA: You got a mix called "Taking Pictures." Some people call it…


CHIDEYA: …"Feds Taking Pictures." Tell me a little bit about that.

DJ DRAMA: Well, the song was actually done after January 16th. It was the first official street leak off my album. And I mean, you know, it's kind of I owe it to, you know, what happened to me and the affiliates on January 16th, you know, kind of awaken, you know, just to really, more than anything like, you know, I consider what happened to me like, you know, a bad thing but with hip-hop, you know, I mean, we come from struggle, we come from overcoming the obstacles and everything. So, you know, I kind of wanted to let the world know that I'm all right, everything is good and, you know, we're still rocking.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: How and when and why did you get into doing mixtapes specifically?

DJ DRAMA: I've been DJing - actually my sister, Shahidah Aishah, she took me to New York in '92. I was in ninth grade. We went to 125th Street. I got my first mixtape, DJ S&S "Old School Part 2" and, you know, I was a student at the game. I studied all facets DJing but there was always something about mixtapes, and always something about mixtape DJs that, you know, stood out to me and I mean, you know, mixtapes was a direction for me that, you know, I didn't have to rely on the club or I didn't have to rely on the radio to really, you know, get my name out there. I could make my own product and, you know, get it out to the world, and I mean, it has taken me all over the world and made me a household name.

CHIDEYA: There's so much to talk about and I don't want to get into something that I can't get out of. Explain to me how mixtapes got into the mix of hip-hop. I mean, there was obviously street crews who used to DJ and now there's folks who are international stars who travel all over the world making a ton of money and doing advertisements. Where does the mixtape game fall in between those two points of hip-hop?

DJ DRAMA: Well, basically, I mean, taking it back, you know, you have people like Kid Capri who made huge names for themselves from mixtapes, you know, who then went on to be known on Def Comedy Jam or you have a DJ like DJ Clue who pretty much changed the game in the mid-90s to late '90s by making the mixtape game about the exclusive, the newest music and then you have 50 Cent. I mean, 50 Cent and what he did with the mixtapes basically killed the demo tape in hip-hop because 50 Cent was pretty much putting out his own music on mixtapes and, you know, he created his own buzz off the streets and…

CHIDEYA: Let me just stop you - I hate doing this - stop you for a second, a demo tape is when…


CHIDEYA: …someone creates a piece of music that's not for sale to sort of show how great they are. Tell me - explain exactly what you mean by the 50 Cent-thing.

DJ DRAMA: Okay, a demo tape - normally in hip-hop, the way people were getting major deals was, they would take your demo tape to the record label and say, please, listen to my demo and, you know, the A&Rs and the executives will listen to it and say, okay, I'll give you a deal and then we can put out an album.

You know, a lot of that was changing in the new millennium but 50 Cent pretty much crushed it because here's a hip-hop artist that created a whole movement behind him from what he did in the mixtapes. So he didn't go to any record labels and say, here, listen to my demo. He made his music, gave it to the streets, and the streets already made him a superstar.

So after that, you know, our artists couldn't go to the record label and say, here's my demo because the record labels are saying, well, what do you got going on in the streets, where's your movement, where's your hometown and are they loving you, you know what I'm saying? Are you getting that support from the streets already?

CHIDEYA: Now you are someone who, again, is very prominent in this whole scene because of the legal issues that you face right now. Someone named DJ Doo Wop who is a longtime mixtape veteran has…

DJ DRAMA: A legend.

CHIDEYA: A legend. Has actually done a song "2 of America's Most Wanted." Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite of song, 2 of Amerikaz Most Wanted.")

DJ DOO WOP (Rapper): Tell me if I (Unintelligible), me and my man slap and (unintelligible) until there's no end of you. With the South Carolina film crew, when the boys rolled out, waving the things like nobody move. Can you imagine what my mind was going through? Not me, I ain't perfect but I ain't committing no murder…

CHIDEYA: Tell me what that's about.

DJ DRAMA: That song right there is basically him taking the perspective of speaking for me during the raid on January 16th and, you know, what I was going through and, you know, I'm talking to the people.

CHIDEYA: So where from here in terms of the legal sense and the creative sense?

DJ DRAMA: Well, legally, you know, I've yet to be indicted. I've - myself and Don Cannon, we have yet to see a day of court. You know, the case is not over. I guess, it was to say it's still pending at this point so, you know, I'm hoping for the best. But, you know, I have to admit our positives have outweighed my negatives. I mean, I've been on the cover of numerous magazines. I've been to Japan, Tokyo and Europe, and I've been about 35, 36 states since the raid so, you know, in an ironic kind of way, you know, I might have to say thank you.

CHIDEYA: Well, DJ Drama, thank you so much.

DJ DRAMA: I appreciate it.

CHIDEYA: DJ Drama is a mixtape artist based in Atlanta. He produces the "Gangsta Grillz" series and also as the tour DJ for rap star, T.I. He spoke with us from Georgia Public Radio.

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