Hip-Hop's Mix-Tape Tradition Meets with the Law DJ Drama, a hip-hop mix-tape artist, was arrested and charged last week with selling unlicensed CD collections and remixes. But many hip-hop artists and record labels cooperate with mix-tape artists as a way to get their music to the public.
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Hip-Hop's Mix-Tape Tradition Meets with the Law

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Hip-Hop's Mix-Tape Tradition Meets with the Law

Hip-Hop's Mix-Tape Tradition Meets with the Law

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The name DJ Drama may not be ringing any bells for you, but in hip-hop circles - especially those oriented towards Atlanta's burgeoning scene - DJ Drama is a really big deal.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1 (Rapper): (Rapping) Point your fingers and ask why. You need people like me. I'm the bad guy. Nigger. Point your fingers and ask why.

BURBANK: His series of mix-tapes - which, by the way, are CDs not tapes, actually - feature lots of well-known and little-known rappers calling each other out, stealing each others beats, trying all kinds of things they might not do on their real records.

These mix-tapes are huge sellers. The problem is that DJ Drama doesn't officially have the rights to any of the music he's been selling, which last week led authorities to file racketeering charges against him and one of his associates.

Kelefa Sanneh has been covering this story for the New York Times. He told me that mix-tapes have been around almost as long as hip-hop itself.

Mr. KELEFA SANNEH (Reporter, New York Times): You know, back in the late '70s, early '80s, people used to record parties, because at that point, there really wasn't that much recorded hip-hop you could buy. You could argue that the hip-hop mix-tape actually predates the hip-hop album.

And so the only way to capture the excitement of these parties and these DJs playing these records was to literally make a tape off the sound system and then go around and selling them.

In the '80s, obviously, as hip-hop became part of the music industry, mix-tapes changed slightly. And so you'd get DJs putting together compilations specifically to be mix-tapes. They'd talk in between. They'd get exclusive tracks. They'd get new tracks, etc.

I guess what's really changed in the last five, 10 years is that mix-tapes themselves have gotten a lot more commercial. At one point in hip-hop, it was strictly for the connoisseurs. If you were really into it, then you'd go seek out the mix-tapes. Now, if you're a casual fan of 50 Cent, you'll want the new 50 Cent mix-tape.

BURBANK: Well, okay. So, mix-tapes are sort of a big part of the industry now. Let's talk about this guy DJ Drama. Where does he fit in?

Mr. SANNEH: Many mix-tape DJ's would disagree with me. But you could make a case that he is the most influential mix-tape DJ.

(Soundbite of audio from "Gangster Grills")

Unknown Man #2: Gangster grizeal(ph), grizeal, grizeal…

Mr. SANNEH: He made a series of tapes called "Gangster Grills." And in a weird way, "Gangster Grills" became kind of a prestige brand in the world of mix-tapes. If a rapper was asked to do a "Gangster Grills" mix-tape with DJ Drama, it was a sign that that rapper had kind of made it and was respected. And so a lot of the most beloved "Gangster Grills" mix-tapes - the ones done by Young GZ, TI, Bunbee, Lil' Wayne, a lot of other southern rappers - really helped introduce them and really helped to get them respect in the wider hip-hop world.

BURBANK: So this sounds like it's a pretty good thing for the artist, which by extension means it's a good thing for the record label. Why is DJ Drama getting sent up on RICO charges?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SANNEH: Well, it's this interesting thing, where mix-tapes are not licensed. They're not legal. That's the whole idea, because they're full of music that's copyrighted in all sorts of ways. They're full of tracks that have been leaked, as we say, from albums, sometimes willingly by the record label and sometimes they just find their way out of the studio.

They're full of tracks where you have rappers rapping over other people's beats. And that's not cleared either, because those beats themselves are copyrighted. And then mix-tapes are also full of tracks that have samples, and the samples aren't cleared.

So, that's three different ways in which mix-tapes are full of copyrighted material and the copyright holders aren't getting paid. And instead of coming up with a legal framework to make mix-tapes part of the music industry, what record labels have done is two things. One, they've insisted through the RIAA -which is that record company trade association - that mix-tapes are still illegal and reserve the right to prosecute people who do them.

On the other hand, record companies have supported them, often, even by writing checks to the people who make mix-tapes. So, what you have is two things at once. The mix tapes are funded by the record industry often, but also still not quite legal. And this has created attention because you have a demand for a musical product that's endorsed by the artist but that the record company says it's not quite legal to sell. And obviously, that situation is untenable and couldn't last all that long.

But what you started to see - especially with DJ Drama tapes and some of the other more popular mix-tapes - you just started seeing them for sale at chain record stores. You started seeing them for sale online, places like Amazon.com. You even started seeing them for sale on iTunes. And so, obviously, as this crept more and more towards the mainstream, something was going to have to give.

BURBANK: Well, Kelefa, before I let you go, your number one recommendation -best mix-tape song that we can play on NPR, or at least part of on NPR?

Mr. SANNEH: One of the interesting ones is - one of the guys who was arrested with a guy named Don Cannon, who's DJ Drama's protege. And they're actually on the Lil' Wayne Dedication 2 mix tape, there's a song - it's called "Cannon" -where they take the sample of someone saying, cannon. And in tribute to Don Cannon, all the rappers rhyme around that sample. And it's kind of interesting that the guy who was just arrested was recently the subject to the tribute from one of the successful rappers he worked with.

BURBANK: Kelefa Sanneh, music writer extraordinaire for the New York Times. Thanks for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Mr. SANNEH: Thank you, guys.

(Soundbite of song, "Cannon")

Unidentified Man #3: (Rapping) Cannon, cannon, cannon, cannon.

Unidentified Man #4: (Rapping) (unintelligible) groove's album. It's on the way.

Unidentified Man #5: (Rapping) Dedication 2. Jam.

Unidentified Man #4: (Rapping) Talk to him. Talk to him.

Unidentified Man #6: (Rapping) Howdy do (unintelligible) baby, in the (unintelligible) in the gutter so desperate?

Unidentified Man #3: (Rapping) Cannon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #6: (Rapping) Listen close, I've got duct tape and rope. I leave you missing like (unintelligible). Howdy do…

BURBANK: I've got to get a theme song. More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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