DJ Drama, RICO Law And The RIAA Mixtape Raid That Changed Rap : Louder Than A Riot In the early 2000s, mixtapes transformed Tyree Simmons into DJ Drama and molded T.I., Lil Wayne and Jeezy into rap superstars. But in 2007, those same mixtapes landed Drama in jail with a bank account balance of $0.00. In this episode, we break down the raid that turned the mixtape from cultural innovation into criminal conspiracy, from the perspective of the man who took the fall when the cops came knocking. "If they can lock up Drama, nobody's safe. It's over."

The Day The Mixtape Died: DJ Drama

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


A warning before we begin - this podcast is explicit in every way.



Security at Means St. Studios in Atlanta is tight, so tight that even DJ Drama, who co-owns the place, needs help getting in.

DJ DRAMA: Another one.


DJ DRAMA: Fuck, I don't know the code (laughter).

CARMICHAEL: A 10-foot security fence with black privacy netting surrounds the compound like a fortress. There's not even a talk box outside the main gate for surprise guests. And like a lot of buildings in this part of midtown Atlanta, it looks like a nondescript warehouse from the outside. But once buzzed inside, the vibe is low-key but tricked out. A wall aquarium glows with exotic fish. A neon Mean St. sign radiates a cool blue.

MADDEN: Then there's the huge wall of Polaroid snapshots.

DJ DRAMA: So this is the wall of fame right here. I mean, this is kind of a, you know, who's who of who's been, you know, in the building. Top Dawg, Snoop Dogg, Cardi B.

CARMICHAEL: 2 Chainz, Jeezy, Mustard.

DJ DRAMA: Megan Thee Stallion, Pharrell, Ice Cube.

MADDEN: Stephen Hill (ph), Meek Mill, Nicki Minaj.

DJ DRAMA: Travis Scott, Tip, Big Boi. Rest in peace my brother Nipsey Hussle. Tyga.

MADDEN: And that ain't even the half of it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, man. Everybody who's anybody has been to Mean St.

DJ DRAMA: Yeah, so hell of a wall.


DJ DRAMA: Hell of a wall up here. So...

CARMICHAEL: And, clearly, Drama's resume is stacked. But he's on his second life now. Thirteen years ago, he had everything taken away - and I'm talking about everything.

DJ DRAMA: I feel like it's the gift and the curse of my name being DJ Drama. When I chose that name, God, like, smirked and laughed at me.

MADDEN: Drama can look back and laugh about it now, but it was no joke. He was targeted, arrested and jailed by federal agents. His crime - nothing more than being a mixtape DJ.

DJ DRAMA: I felt some guilt because I'm like, yo, this shit - the mixtape - I can't let the mixtape game die on my shoulders. Like, here's this culture I grew up loving, and then I go to jail for it.

CARMICHAEL: Now, the Feds turning a mixtape king into a criminal, it's not as crazy as it sounds.

MADDEN: And you know what? This story, it's not DJ Drama's alone.


CARMICHAEL: Yeah, because it's also about how a byproduct essential to hip-hop's survival became a scapegoat for the music industry's collapse, and how the players who turned this underground currency into legit capital became criminals in the eyes of the law.

MADDEN: See, in most of our episodes this season, we focus on what happens when artists get caught up in specific cases. But for this joint, we ask what happens when the culture itself takes a hit.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, the foundations of hip-hop, man, they're rooted in making something out of nothing. Just like the culture's ancestors turning old food into soul food, as Jay-Z puts it. So if you're living in the Bronx in the 1970s and music education is being cut from city schools, you make instruments out of two turntables and your parents' record collection.

MADDEN: If you don't have access to the museums, you turn your subway trains into rolling art galleries.

CARMICHAEL: And if the disc jockeys refuse to play rap on the radio, well, you know, you throw it on a cassette tape for underground distribution.

MADDEN: The criminalization of these early pillars of hip-hop is probably best summed up by NYPD Detective Bernie Jacobs while he's standing in front of a subway train covered in graffiti in the 1983 film "Style Wars."


BERNIE JACOBS: Is that an art form? I don't know. I'm not an art critic. But I can sure as hell tell you that that's a crime.


CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And just like that film, this story is really about the difference between art and crime - not only that, but who gets to make that call, because just as hip-hop was on the brink of becoming the most consumed genre in the country, if not the world, the cops came knocking.

MADDEN: And just like his namesake, DJ Drama found himself at the center of that storm.

CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden.


MADDEN: Where we trace the collision of rhyme and punishment in America.

CARMICHAEL: In this episode, we trace the timeline that winds up taking mixtapes from cultural innovation to criminal conspiracy and introduce you to the man who became a martyr for it all.


TYREE SIMMONS: My name is Tyree Simmons, also known as DJ Drama, also known as Mr. Thanksgiving, also known as Barack O'Drama (ph), Dram Cruise (ph) - some of my monikers. And then when people used to listen to me on mixtapes, they'd be like, hey, yo, it's the one and only Mr. Thanksgiving, DJ Drama. So, you know, I can kind of go ahh (ph) - or we can go, you know, regular voice with it.

MADDEN: No matter what moniker he chose on any given Gangsta Grillz mixtape, DJ Drama's voice was instantly recognizable. It may have been the most important voice in hip-hop for a good stretch of the early 2000s.

CARMICHAEL: But back in 1992, Drama was still just Tyree, a high school freshman in his hometown of Philly. And his hip-hop dreams, well, they were playing out on the big screen when the movie "Juice" hit theaters.

SIMMONS: You know, the plot is obviously a story of some teenagers, and they go through something.


TUPAC SHAKUR: (As Bishop) You right. I am crazy. But you know what else? I don't give a fuck. I don't...

SIMMONS: But the subplot is about this kid trying to be a DJ and trying to make it.


SIMMONS: I'll just never forget looking on the screen and being like, man, that's what I want to do.




CARMICHAEL: So Drama convinces his mom to buy him not two, but one turntable and a mixer. And he starts taking his lunch money to purchase vinyl records downtown. His big goal at the time?

SIMMONS: I would see all the flyers with DJ so-and-so and DJ so-and-so. So my goal was just, like, I got to get my name on a flyer. Like, that was what I wanted to do. I don't even think I had the name DJ Drama yet.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, man. You got to understand. Philly? I mean, this was a serious hip-hop city even back then. But it was still second fiddle to the birthplace, New York, in every category but one. Philly was known for having the illest DJs in the country.

MADDEN: Yeah, we're talking the mid-'80s, when DJs were still the cornerstone of hip-hop - matter of fact, the main ingredient. Like, you couldn't even call yourself a rapper until you had a DJ to team up with, and it was the DJ who got top billing.

DJ MARS: If you look at the big rap groups from the '80s, I don't care who you're talking about - Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince, Eric B. & Rakim - even though Run-DMC's namesake was Run-DMC, Jam Master Jay was the third member of the group, and you knew what it was when you saw Jam Master Jay.

CARMICHAEL: Now, that's DJ Mars. He's a famous Atlanta DJ, and he self-published a definitive deep dive on mixtapes called "The Art Behind The Tape."

DJ MARS: I get paid to play loud music for drunk people (laughter). Essentially, that's what I do on a consistent and global basis.

CARMICHAEL: And, yeah, like he says, DJs, they were the foundation early on, the party-starters, the curators, the conduits of the culture, long before rap got any radio love.

MADDEN: And mixtapes were the main form of distribution in all this. They were the currency that kept things in rotation as the culture evolved.

CARMICHAEL: Yep. And they've been there from jump, even at the park jams back in the '70s, where hip-hop first started.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Manhattan, Boogie Down Bronx - I need everybody cooperation right about this time. Come on. Give me a soul clap. Clap hands. Come on, everybody. Clap...

DJ MARS: Historically, as I know it, early mixtapes were recordings of part jams, you know, the New York City parks. Obviously, the Bronx is where it started.

CARMICHAEL: Then came the MC battles.


KOOL MOE DEE: Kool Moe Dee. One, two. One, two. Party people in the place to be, my name is MC Kool Moe Dee from the Treacherous Three.

DJ MARS: Yeah, the Treacherous Three - Kool Moe Dee versus Busy Bee battle.


KOOL MOE DEE: (Rapping) One, two. One, two. Do what you do now. Hold on, Busy Bee, I don't mean to be bold. But put that ba-ditty-ba (ph) bullshit on hold. We gonna get right down...

DJ MARS: That, you had on tape and that circulated, right? So that's one. That was how hip-hop started to be recorded and then passed around.


KID CAPRI: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. You know the flavor on this one.

CARMICHAEL: Fast-forward 10 years.

DJ MARS: And then you got Kid Capri, who would tape his parties - No. 1 - then he would make tapes in the crib. His tapes have so much energy they sounded like him at a party.


KID CAPRI: The man with flavor, beyond flavor. They call me the Kid Capri.

DJ MARS: Let's say a Kid Capri tape. You're listening to a DJ put together, like, his idea of what he felt like the best party records of that time was because his tapes sounded like a party.


UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) ...Feels so real. Ooh, what am I supposed to do? (Vocalizing) Oh, yeah.

KID CAPRI: (Rapping) And now, 10 (ph), as I see, we take you from point A to point B is to get you supreme, by all means, in the old school. You know how we used to do this shit, right? You know what I'm saying? Come on.

CARMICHAEL: Skip another few years and then there's DJ Clue.


DJ CLUE: DJ Clue back again, representing Queens to the fullest.

CARMICHAEL: In the late '90s, man, he came onto the scene doing something totally different and new. See - he would feature rappers doing exclusive songs on his tape. So in other words, if you wanted to hear your favorite rapper on some new stuff, man, you had to get that Clue tape.

DJ MARS: He would have artists come to the house (laughter) and make a song specifically for him. The only place you got that song was on a Clue tape. So he kind of changed it because before you were buying a tape because of a way a DJ was rocking; now you're buying his tape because of the exclusive music that he has catered strictly for him. A good DJ makes the record sound better. And then you say, yo, I got to go get that because the way he made it sound. If you take that energy from off of a mixtape, it's just songs. And the songs may be good, but they don't have that energy that a DJ uses to push those songs.

DJ DRAMA: The beauty of what a mixtape was is you didn't have to cross your Is and dot your Ts. So you didn't have to worry about clearances and splits and, you know, what the royalties were going to be and payouts. And it was just the wild, Wild West. That's where the concept jacking for beats comes from. Like, give me that beat, fool.


ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Give me that beat, fool. It's a full-time jack move.

CARMICHAEL: But jacking for beats - man, that ain't just a hip-hop thing. I mean, jazz wouldn't be jazz without players quoting each other's riffs in the middle of a set.


MADDEN: Of course. And what would reggae and dancehall be without artists passing around their riddim for the addi ting (ph)?


MADDEN: (Laughter).


CARMICHAEL: See, that's what I'm talking about. It's a natural element of hip-hop 'cause it's a natural element of Black music - always has been.

DJ DRAMA: If you love the art form, you're going to, you know, love what somebody does to it. It's hip-hop. It comes with the territory. Like, you put some hot shit out, somebody's going to rap to that shit. That's how it goes. If they accomplish it, they're going to make a better song than you made.


ICE CUBE: (Rapping) Is jacking for beats.

MADDEN: But here's the thing. Mixtapes, like sampling, used copyrighted material without permission.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And copyright law, you know - it was created way back in the day, like 1790.

MADDEN: That's back, back, back in the day.

CARMICHAEL: I'm saying. But yeah, it was created, you know, to give artists a financial incentive to create. But of course, it stifles hip-hop producers because they rely on sampling and recontextualizing old music.

MADDEN: Now, buying mixtapes wasn't as easy as it was in the early days of the Internet when you could just go on DatPiff. And remember, there was no Spotify or Apple Music. This was the era of physical mixtapes, dubbed straight to cassette.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, man. Distribution was hand-to-hand, and promotion was word-of-mouth. Either you knew where to go, or you didn't.

DJ DRAMA: The way mixtapes got out was just through the channels at the time - Canal Streets and the various mom and pop stores that would sell mixtapes. So, you know, you kind of had to really be connected.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, this was a strictly underground economy.

DJ DRAMA: You didn't talk about, like, selling mixtapes. There was definitely that, whoa, whoa. We don't - no, we don't sell mixtapes. These are free. You know, it's for promotional use only. Like, there was a code of silence among those who were in it.

CARMICHAEL: For promotional use only. I mean, sometimes you'd even find it stamped right on the cover art of the mixtape. I mean, basically, most mixtapes in this era were unlicensed compilations of previously released music, which means that there was really no way to collect the royalties owed to artists or their labels from the mixtape sales.

MADDEN: And the industry let it slide, for the most part, until 1995. That's when the Recording Industry Association of America took notice. The RIAA is an industry trade group created to protect and serve the major labels - specifically, their pockets.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, the music industry - it's got its own police force, so to speak. Now, the RIAA does a lot of other things, like certifying all those gold and platinum plaques that artists like to show off. But they also work with local and federal police departments to enforce copyright laws. Now, even with the music industry raking in more money than it ever had, by the mid-'90s, the RIAA had its sights set on the underground economy of mixtapes. In its 1995 year-end report, the association issued a warning about the growing popularity of illicit DJ mixes in CD format. That's a quote.

MADDEN: But for whatever reason, enforcement was spotty at best. You didn't have to search hard for mixtapes. They were sold in street kiosks and at flea markets and small independent record stores. You just had to know where to look. Drama would've been a junior in high school at the time. And just a few years earlier, he bought his first mixtape, "DJ S&S Old School Part 2," off a bootlegger on 125th Street in Harlem.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Hey, New York. It's old school, son. Here we go.

CARMICHAEL: But it wouldn't be long before bootleggers around the country would be selling Drama's mixtapes. And he'd be too big for the industry to ignore.


AUDIO TWO: (Rapping) You must appeal. To the Two, we're rated R. We're gifted, and we're going far down the road to the bank. While I'm here, I'd like to thank mom and dad. They knew the time. Gizmo's scratching. Milk Dee's rhyming.

CARMICHAEL: It's 1996, and DJ Drama is locally respected. But now, his name has been on plenty of party flyers in Philly. He's even dropped his own mixtape called "Illadelph" featuring Philly artists he's cool with like Bahamadia and Black Thought of The Roots.

MADDEN: But when it's time to pick a college, Drama leaves Philly - not for New York, hip-hop's birthplace, but for Atlanta - to attend the historically Black Clark Atlanta University.

DJ DRAMA: I had kind of just felt this affection to Atlanta. That was the first time I had seen, you know, just so many, like, young people of color, like, just doing so many various things and being notable and making a name. And this is like Freaknik is booming. And, you know, you read about it in the magazines. And it's like becoming a scene down here.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. Drama's moved down South. It comes at the tail end of a mass exodus. Black folk were bouncing back to the South in droves after migrating up North and out West for the first half of the 20th century. This was the remix, the great remigration. And Atlanta? Man, Atlanta was becoming the new Black mecca - better job market, better cost of living, better social mobility. But the city was still a long way from becoming the hip-hop capital.

MADDEN: His freshman year at Clark Atlanta, Drama was still unknown too. But one thing he did know - he knew how to hustle. He'd set his yellow boombox up on a campus trash can and hustle his homemade mixtapes for the low low - two for seven or three for 10.

DJ DRAMA: I remember, you know, at the time, like, a good week might have been like $150.

MADDEN: And even then, his marketing savvy was the sauce that separated him from the pack.

DJ DRAMA: I was like a one-man show, you know. I was like, yo, I got these new Drama tapes. And people be like, who's that? And I'd be like, I don't know. He just told me to set up shop. I work for him. I don't know the guy, but his tapes are here. And, you know, I, like, that was my hustle.

CARMICHAEL: Drama eventually hooked up with a couple of other Philly DJs at Clark Atlanta - dorm roommate DJ Sense and another native, DJ Cannon. Together they formed The Affiliates, a DJ crew whose name was a nod to their Philly roots. But Drama's boom-bap pedigree was only going to take him so far on a campus where kids were coming from all over the country.

DJ DRAMA: I still had kind of like a, you know, stubborn East Coast-ness about me as far as like what I was - what I liked to play or what I was used to playing. And, you know, here I am in college a young DJ. And coming down here was the best thing for me because you have to learn to please so many variety of people from so many places.

MADDEN: Next thing you know, he's making reggae tapes on top of his hip-hop tapes. And he even starts an early neo soul series called "Automatic Relaxation."


UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Automatic, automatic, automatic, automatic relaxation. DJ Drama.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: D-d-d-dramatic (ph).

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) Automatic relaxation.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And at the same time that all this is happening, Drama, the East Coast, purist, he's starting to get his nose open to hip-hop below the Mason-Dixon line.

DJ DRAMA: One of the things that I always felt about Southern music early on, even when I started the series, was that I felt like Southern artists weren't getting their proper due and respect for the lyricism and the artistic value that they brought to the table.


OUTKAST: (Singing) Ain't no thang (ph) but a chicken wing. We's (ph) having a smokeout in the dungeon with the Mary Jane. It's just the pimps, players, mack daddies, East Point. It's all about that cess in yo chest. It's the joint.

CARMICHAEL: And, you know, even the most lyrical Southern act at the time, Atlanta's own OutKast, got booed at the 1995 Source Awards the year before Drama moved to Atlanta.


ANDRE 3000: But it's like this though. I'm tired of folks saying - closed-minded folks, you know what I'm saying? It's like we got a demo tape and don't nobody want to hear it, but it's like the South got something to say. That's all I got to say.

BIG BOI: Yeah.

REGINA N BRADLEY: I like to say that the South is not a monolith, so the hip-hop coming out of the South isn't a monolith.

CARMICHAEL: That's Dr. Regina N. Bradley.

BRADLEY: Please say the N. There's multiple Regina Bradleys out there.

CARMICHAEL: She's an assistant professor of English and African Diaspora Studies and co-host of the Southern hip-hop podcast "Bottom Of The Map." Now peep how she breaks down the complexity of Southern hip-hop and how that made it harder for the region to break big like the East and West Coast had.

BRADLEY: You think northeastern hip-hop, you think New York. You think West Coast hip-hop, you think California. The South? Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas. There are all these multiple sounds that are coming out of this hip-hop South because southerners were pulling from different influences. We're pulling from funk. We're pulling from gospel. If you're coming out of New Orleans or Louisiana, you're pulling from jazz too. You're pulling from bounce music. So it's really important to understand that the South was trying to establish a complicated identity that the Northeast and West Coast didn't have to worry about.


GOODIE MOB: (Rapping) What you niggas know about the Dirty South? What you niggas know about the Dirty South?

CARMICHAEL: True indeed. And in 1998, Drama's junior year at Clark, he expands its repertoire once again. He makes his first Southern mixtape. And dig this. He titles it "Jim Crow Laws."

MADDEN: The Namesake for the laws that once enforced segregation in the South.

CARMICHAEL: And this mixtape is straight-up Dirty South. And it sells like hotcakes. Even though the name doesn't stick, "Jim Crow Laws" ends up being kind of like a mixtape manifesto for Drama's next big move. About 2000, Drama - he's graduated from college. And after the success of "Jim Crow Laws," he decides he's going to launch a new Southern mixtape series just in time for Birthday Bash. That's the big annual summer concert hosted by the Atlanta hip-hop radio station HOT 107.9.

MADDEN: He coins the new series "Gangsta Grillz." The name is loud and menacing, like the shiny gold grills down South rappers like to flash for the camera.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, just like the King of Crunk.


LIL JON: Yeah, ATL, it's your motherfucking nigga, one of them motherfucking Kings of Crunk.

DJ DRAMA: So Lil Jon comes does the drops for me. I guess this is where you guys can put the legendary "Gangsta Grill" drop in right here. I don't want to have to do it. I want the people to hear it.


LIL JON: Gangsta Gri-zillz (ph).

LUDACRIS: (Singing) If you don't give a damn, we don't give a fuck.

LIL JON: Yea-uh.

DJ DRAMA: Yeah, that. So he does that. And - but he does it in the midst of him hosting the tape.

MADDEN: Lil Jon gives the brand an even bigger boost when Drama asks him to guest host on one of his early tapes.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. But the first rapper to pay him a visit after he launches "Gangsta Grillz," he's a relative unknown at the time.

DJ DRAMA: One of the first phone calls I get is from this guy Jason Geter.

CARMICHAEL: Who was a young hustler managing an up-and-coming artist in Atlanta.

DJ DRAMA: And he calls me. And he says, hey, I got this - you know, a new artist. We just signed to LaFace. His name is T.I. And, you know, can I bring him through to do a freestyle for you? And I'm like, yeah, sure. You know, I had never gotten a phone call like this ever. It's the first time anyone's ever called me off of one of my mixtapes to, like, do something for me.

So they come to the crib. And this young kid with bifocals, you know, this intense Southern drawl is like, you know, in my little apartment in this little room where I make my mixtapes telling me he's the King of the South. And I remember him leaving and me telling Sense, like, yeah, that nigga's crazy. Like, he said he was the King of the South.

T I: He looked at me like, damn, boy you want that kind of trouble? He looked at me like, man, you bold.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, King of the South. But at the time, T.I. was just a young A-Town hardhead on the come up.

T I: This is open territory to claim. I'm claiming it. Anybody don't want me to claim it, come take it from me.

CARMICHAEL: What would you say was, like, the special sauce that Drama brought to his mixtape series that made "Gangsta Grillz" so special?

T I: The special sauce - I think it's the (imitating Lil Jon) Gangsta Gri-zillz - you know what I'm saying? - and the drops and shit and DJ Drama - like, his voice. You know what I'm saying? It doesn't seem very hostile, but it seems extremely passionate. You heard Drama voice, you like, oh, shit, this motherfucker gon' be dope.


DJ DRAMA: Man, it's time to bang this tape out. Streets is fucking calling.

I kind of wanted to just do it a little different. Like, I just wanted to give it a sense of a narrative, not just regular shout-outs, like really like listening to the music and going along with what the music was about. You know what I'm saying? So you know, really becoming like a real host in a sense.


DJ DRAMA: Man, y'all niggas ready to do this "Gangsta Grillz"?

T I: Aw, man, you know what I'm saying? I'm born ready. I'm...

DJ DRAMA: Let's do it.

LIL JON: Gangsta, gangsta, gangsta, gangsta - Gangsta Gri-zillz.

DJ DRAMA: So the process is kind of like you collect a body of beats...


DJ DRAMA: ...That are, like, other people's instrumentals that are, like, big songs out at the time. I'm giving T.I. a script to read to create drops to almost give the tape a narrative.


T I: ...Trap star. Ay - all right. Hold up, man. Let me catch this right here. One time for the young blood, man, you know. We got to do out thang, man. Grand Hustle, pimp...

DJ DRAMA: So he's doing freestyles. We're putting records that aren't out yet.


T I: (Rapping) You better get your mind right - at any given moment, known to grip a nine tight with a beam on it. Flowing 'cause I rhyme tight. But try your luck, cuz. Shoot your truck up...

DJ DRAMA: And then I'm sprinkling in my ad libs and my sense of my narrative...


DJ DRAMA: Kicking us off, Pimp Squad Clique with Cannon...


DJ DRAMA: ...Trendsetter Sense.

AUTOMATED VOICE #2: Trendsetter, Trendsetter.

DJ DRAMA: They call me Dramatic, nigga.

So, you know, you layer it with the music, then you put the hosting - like, the DJ aspect of it on there. And then you add the drops, the bells and the whistles. And then you have this, like, mixtape.


DJ DRAMA: Here goes nothing. Another hood classic. PSC, down with the motherfucking king - D to the fuck Drama.

T I: Hey, what's happening, man? This T.I.P. - you understand that? - King of the South repping A-Town to the fullest.

DJ DRAMA: This is history.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Drama, he was in his little apartment making mixtapes. And this just shows you how raw and immediate the mixtape game is.

MADDEN: Right, right - no need for lawyers, drawn-out label meetings or booking expensive studio time. One minute you're on the phone, the next you're laying tracks. And Drama, he was finding his voice.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. And he's doing it at a time when the South and Atlanta, in particular, is developing a sound and subgenre all his own. Now, T.I., he's the first to label it trap music, a name inspired by the crack houses and traps where drugs were sold and consumed. But more to the point, man, trap is street music. If Atlanta's Black mecca appeal was built on this legacy of Black mayors, Black money and Black power, trap represented that dark underbelly - the underfed, the underprivileged and the misunderstood. And the music, with those booming 808s and triple-time snares, man, it sounded every bit as explicit as that reality.

BRADLEY: Ultimately, when you think about the foundations of hip-hop, there was a sense of criminality associated with it because you have young artists who are talking about living through the crack cocaine epidemic, Reaganomics. Like, there's still criminal elements involved that they are speaking to...

MADDEN: Here's Regina again.

BRADLEY: ...That's particularly important in the South because in the South, not only are we dealing with that back-and-forth tension between the past always being in the present - you know what I'm saying? - but as Southern Black people, we're also dealing with that long shadow of the civil rights movement and that romantic idea that the movement fixed everything, and it didn't. So the things that weren't fixed, I feel like Southern hip-hop picks those up, from unemployment, being undereducated, being illiterate, talking about these things.

CARMICHAEL: And trap as protest music - it lines right up with Drama's pedigree. His dad was a member of SNCC. That's the student group that organized sit-ins during the civil rights movement. So Drama - he grew up going with his parents to marches in the nation's capital. Being a product of political activists and the face of "Gangsta Grillz" - he really didn't see any contradiction in that.

DJ DRAMA: These are authentic stories, you know what I'm saying? I never felt like where I was and where I came from were far ends of the spectrum that, you know, it was a disgrace to my upbringing or what SNCC stood for or what, you know, my parents might have fought for in the civil rights movement. So I've always felt like hip-hop is a representative of the times and, you know, the social injustices at that.

CARMICHAEL: So it looks like Drama's got the streets on lock, right? That's when another artist reaches out. Now, he's originally from south Georgia. He calls himself the Snowman, and he's connected to a drug syndicate that would put the fictional Scarface to shame. The mixtapes DJ Drama and Young Jeezy end up making together turn both of them into certified street legends. And for their big breakthrough "Gangsta Grillz" mixtape, "Trap Or Die," nearly all their music is original. I mean, it was basically Jeezy's debut album before his debut album.


YOUNG JEEZY: (Rapping) No. Fuck with mind. Get your drama like the DJ. That's right. Now, tell me I ain't real. This AR that I'm holding got a gangsta grill. Went from old-school Chevys to Beamer coupes. Got a hundred niggas with me and everybody going to shoot.

MADDEN: Drama takes the blueprint from East Coast DJs like Clue and Whoo Kid, who helped break 50 Cent, and he applies it to the South. The outcome is Southern street albums that cross over the Mason-Dixon line.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, man. The kid from Philly - he was changing the course of hip-hop by representing the bottom - and not just the bottom of the map, but the bottom class.

DJ DRAMA: I didn't envision it. It kind of, like - it just happened. Like, you know, I get thrusted into this spot where I'm like, I'm the voice of the streets.


YOUNG JEEZY: Y'all niggas didn't believe us. We had a goal in mind. Set the streets on fire. I think we accomplished that.

(Rapping) Here I stand, a grown-ass man.

DJ MARS: Jeezy's street sound got popular because of Drama's marketing. It wasn't like that was already the dominant sound. No, no, no. That sound got dominant 'cause of him.


DJ DRAMA: We make quality street music, something you can ride to.

DJ MARS: He made it global. Before him, Atlanta mixtapes were local. That's just what it - cut and dry. There's no other way to look at it. They were local. They looked local. They sounded local. He dressed them up. It made them hot, made it look fly. I was in South Africa. I walked into a sneaker store and heard a Drama tape in South Africa.

CARMICHAEL: Now, while mixtapes were on the rise, record sales were taking a nosedive. Remember where we are here. It's 2005. The industry is on its deathbed. The CD is a dinosaur, and whatever grip it has left on the marketplace is being cannibalized by bootlegging, especially in hip-hop. Online streaming - and it's still a pipe dream, for the most part. Piracy sites like Napster are being cast as the villain. The industry is so desperate that the RIAA is filing lawsuits against random fans for illegal downloading as a scare tactic.

MADDEN: But mixtapes are more popular than they've ever been. And DJ Drama - he's selling more than ever. The mixtape business had its risks, but it also had its rewards. DJ Drama didn't have to license any of the music. He didn't have to pay rappers. And it cost around 50 cents to print a CD, and he would sell it for 5- to $10.

CARMICHAEL: Did you have a sense of, like, how many tapes you were moving, like, a month - "Gangsta Grillz"?

DJ DRAMA: Yeah, we had a certain system that we were kind of aware of what the numbers were. There were some months when we probably easily, like - it could've been, like, 50,000, 75,000, something like that.

CARMICHAEL: And that's not accounting for the bootlegs that other...

DJ DRAMA: Not accounting for bootlegs. No, that was just what was coming from the Walker Street offices.

CARMICHAEL: Drama went from making a hundred dollars a week to averaging 50- to $60,000 a month. He remembers watching as his bank account grew into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

DJ DRAMA: It was a lot of money. I just had it sitting in the bank. I didn't even know what to do. Like, I had never seen that type of money. So I was just like - I would just look at it.

CARMICHAEL: And at the same time that labels were losing money, the mixtape business - man, that thing was booming. In 2005, though, the industry hit back. That's when the RIAA and local police in New York actually raided a record store in Manhattan called Mondo Kim's. They arrested five employees and confiscated hundreds of hip-hop mixtapes.

MADDEN: But the RIAA rarely went after individual DJs, so Drama was good.

MARSHA ST HUBERT: On the street level, the mixtape was king.

MADDEN: That's Marsha St. Hubert, who's now the senior VP of marketing over at Atlantic Records. She didn't agree with cracking down on mixtapes. Matter of fact, she had the opposite instinct. She'd seen the power of mixtapes - how 50 Cent used them to launch a major-label bidding war, how they helped T.I. salvage his career and get a deal with Atlantic in '03. She knew what a hot mixtape could do.

ST HUBERT: It could change the trajectory of your career, especially if at that time you were making a mixtape with Drama. He was able to get, like, some of the best - like, he was in the middle of trap music when trap music was the real trap music...


ST HUBERT: ...From T.I. to Gucci Mane to Lil Wayne to Jeezy.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, man. And the labels - I mean, they benefited from all of this 'cause if a mixtape blew up, then the artist's major-label release - it was destined to blow up, too.

MADDEN: Yeah. Like, take Lil Wayne. Weezy, he was already a vet in the game when he decides to reinvent himself with the Gangsta Grillz "Dedication" series starting in '05.


LIL WAYNE: This right here is the Dedication 2, D2. Drama. Dramatic and the Aphilliates, man. I appreciate everything y'all does for me.

ST HUBERT: You can tour off of it. They shot videos for it. In Atlanta especially, they played songs on the radio from there. So there was no filter. They could be as creative, they could be as street, they could cut up and cook up and shoot up whatever they want without anybody being like, oh, you know, this might be a little too blah, blah, blah.


LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) Howdy-doo (ph), motherfuckers. It's Weezy Baby. Niggas bitching, and I gotta tote the cannon. Listen close. I got duct tape and rope. I'll leave you missing like the fucking O'Bannons. One hand on my money...

DJ MARS: Wayne was already a star, right? But with the tapes, it showed the world Wayne could spit.

MADDEN: Absolutely. Mixtape Wayne? He was a beast with that series. And all that mixtape buzz, it boosted his major label bottom line. In '08, "Tha Carter III" became Wayne's biggest-selling solo album, triple platinum.


LIL WAYNE: Young Money. A milli, a milli, a milli...

MADDEN: His best-rapper-alive boast might have been debatable, but nobody could argue with Wayne being the bestselling rapper in the game at the time. Mixtapes did that.


LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) A millionaire - I'm a Young Money millionaire, tougher than...

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and Drama's career, it got a huge boost, too. In 2005, the Atlantic subsidiary Grand Hustle - T.I.'s label - signed DJ Drama to a recording deal to create a legit Gangster Grillz CD.

DJ DRAMA: It was great. Like, I got fucking signed to, you know, Grand Hustle-Atlantic. Record labels loved me. They were calling me all the time to work with their artists. Record labels would pay me checks. I started getting $10,000, $15,000, $20,000, $25,000 from labels to do Gangsta Grillz with their artists 'cause it was a way for them to now break their artists, per se. So, yeah, my relationships were A-1, all across the board with all the labels.

MADDEN: Drama's the industry's plug.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but Gangsta Grillz' popularity, it was starting to present some problems. DJ Drama made a deal with an independent distributor right about this time. They started selling his mixtapes in a major retail chain. Next thing you know, Drama says they were airing Gangsta Grillz commercials on BET. That's when he started to get a little nervous.

DJ DRAMA: They put barcodes on them. You can't put that in Best Buy with a barcode. That shit's - nah, you - no, like, I didn't even realize that what we were doing was that big that that was possible.

MADDEN: So Drama's the voice of the streets and he's feeding the major labels, playing both sides. But how long could this balancing act last?


CARMICHAEL: It's January 16, 2007, the day after the MLK holiday and a three-day weekend. And Drama's just racked up at the Justo Mixtape Awards, the first DJ outside of New York to win the coveted mixtape DJ of the year award. Now, Drama, DJ Cannon and the Aphilliates are all camped out at the studio, plotting their next move, "Gangsta Grillz: The Album," Drama's major-label debut.

MADDEN: At this point, Gangsta Grillz' impact on the culture is immeasurable. Over the last few years, the list of the artists that get the Gangsta Grillz treatment has expanded to include surprise standouts like Pharrell.


PHARRELL: I know what that is, you know what I'm saying? Now, who's the grimiest nigga in the street, you know what I mean? DJ Drama. I mean, especially - I mean, it's my first mixtape and shit, you know what I mean?

CARMICHAEL: Little Brother.


LITTLE BROTHER: It's Gangsta Grillz, "Separate But Equal." Little Brother. DJ Drama. Let's get it. I think I like that one. Yeah. That was one - yeah. Use that one Drama. Gangsta.

CARMICHAEL: And even the odd couple, Gnarls Barkley, just before they blow up.


DJ DRAMA: DJ Drama. Trendsetter. Sense. Don Cannon. CeeLo. Danger Mouse. Gnarls Barkley. Let's go.

CEELO GREEN: (Vocalizing).

CARMICHAEL: Now, back at the Aphilliates' Walker Street headquarters, it's time for Drama and the crew to put some of that magic into his own official album.

DJ DRAMA: We were working on my studio album, so we had gotten back to work after, you know, the long weekend.


CARMICHAEL: When Drama steps outside to move his car...

DJ DRAMA: I walked out the door and then that was when it just, like - SWAT and helicopters and - you know, here come the SUVs. And they just, like, pull from all corners.


MADDEN: Drama plays it cool because he knows, whatever it is, he's not the target.

DJ DRAMA: I'm not doing nothing, you know what I mean? I'm fucking DJ Drama. Like, I'm on the radio. I'm making mixtapes. And all right, like, we'll get to the bottom of this. That's what I'm thinking.

MADDEN: But then things escalate.

DJ DRAMA: As they pull up, they jump out with M16s, like, drawn, right at me. And I'm like - you know, I've never had an automatic weapon pointed at me.

CARMICHAEL: The officers called Drama by his government name - Tyree Simmons. They tell him to get on the ground and take his ID, then they get on their radios.

DJ DRAMA: And I hear them on the other end saying, we got one of the perps.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character, unintelligible).

DJ DRAMA: So I start, in my mind, freaking out. Like, huh? Like, who - y'all got one of them? Like, wait - this got to be a mistake.

CARMICHAEL: Now, this is when all hell breaks loose. Police storm the offices, waving guns and telling everybody to get face down on the ground. It's a full-on raid. And it's clear from the orders they're barking that these officers are looking for a lot more than mixtapes.

DJ DRAMA: Tell us where the guns and the drugs are. Tell us where they are, like - and going through the roof of the building and then just looking for all types of shit. Like, just tell us where they are so we don't have to look no more.


MADDEN: If the authorities are expecting Gangsta Grillz to live up to its name, they end up disappointed to a degree.

DJ DRAMA: Thank God there wasn't a weapon or a spliff in the building.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but what they do find is mixtape CDs, tens of thousands of them. They confiscate the mixtapes along with the studio equipment, computers, four cars, bank statements, even the hard drives containing songs recorded for Drama's new studio album. Then they take Drama and Cannon.

DJ DRAMA: They stand me up when I'm outside. And they take out the paper, and they say, Tyree Simmons, under the RICO law, you're being arrested for bootlegging and racketeering.

MADDEN: RICO, the kind of serious conspiracy charges used to take down dangerous organized crime outfits like the mob. Drama doesn't even know what RICO stands for at the time. Police round everybody up and take Drama and Cannon separately to Rice Street, where they're booked into the Fulton County Jail. The news hits the streets like a tidal wave.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...On the Internet. Fulton County SWAT team and officers from Clayton County raided DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz recording studio last night.

CARMICHAEL: In local footage on the 11 o'clock news that night, Drama and Cannon are dressed in blues with their hands cuffed in a courtroom. Drama's trademark fitted cap, typically cocked to the rear left side, is missing. It's like he lost his crown. Together, they look like two deer caught in headlights.

DJ DRAMA: This is my first time ever being locked up. You know, I'm in there. People start telling me, like, yo, you on the news. They start running the story. You know, local DJs get arrested for bootlegging and racketeering. I'm in a cell. People start hearing, yo, DJ Drama and Cannon are in here. So we go to court. As soon as we get in there and they tell us no bond, no bail, now I'm thinking, like, yo, I'm not going to see the sunlight again. Like, what the fuck did I do? I made - I was making mixtapes. Like, you know, how did this ever happen?

MADDEN: This is when Drama finds out his arrest by local authorities was made in conjunction with the RIAA, the same trade organization whose seals appear on all the gold and platinum plaques hanging in his office.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, for Drama, this is deeper than a personal betrayal; it's a betrayal of hip-hop.

DJ DRAMA: The labels wouldn't know what was coming next if it wasn't for mixtapes. It's the veins of the culture. Everything in hip-hop from '95 to 2007 that happened - all that shit - everything came from mixtapes. Biggie, even the blend style from Ron G with the R&B vocals over hip-hop beats - that's mixtape shit that became a style of music that the labels got rich off. Like, 50 Cent - that's mixtape. Jay-Z and Clue - that's mixtape. Lil Wayne - that's mixtapes. Young Jeezy - that's mixtapes, bro. Like, it's all from mixtapes.

When the raid happened and they tried to - making it out to something confusing - like, I'm sitting here waving the flag because I'm not going to let the shit die on my shoulders. Nah, what we were doing is not wrong. Y'all need us. There's no y'all without us. Like, what? Gangsta Grillz is the biggest thing arguably ever in mixtape history. That's hip-hop. Like, no, this is what y'all make billions off of. Don't sit here and tell me that what we're doing is wrong. It's - fuck that.

CARMICHAEL: The next morning, Drama wakes up in a jail cell for the first time in his life. He and Cannon are able to make bail after all, for $100,000 apiece. And that's when they find out how serious the RICO charges they've been slapped with really are.

DJ DRAMA: I talked to T.I. on the phone, and he - you know, he was like, yo, you good? And I was like, man, you know, shit's fucked up, but I'm out. You know what I'm saying? I still got all my shit. And he was like, you got - you still got all your shit?

T I: Who came to get you? And he told me. And I said, nigga, the feds? You better go get your motherfucking money out your account 'cause I don't - boy, you finna get fucked. They fucked - they finna fuck you over.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, T.I. - he knew something that Drama didn't. The feds, they can confiscate all your funds in a RICO investigation.

DJ DRAMA: So I went to online banking, and my shit said 0.00. And I just froze.

MADDEN: A bank account full of hundreds of thousands of dollars reduced to nothing. In that moment, Drama says he broke down and cried.

CARMICHAEL: Did you feel betrayed at all by the industry?

DJ DRAMA: I definitely did. I felt alone. Like, damn. Like, all this that I did and nobody really came to my aid.

CARMICHAEL: For Drama, it felt like a bait and switch. One day he's working with major labels to promote their artists; the next day, the industry trade group is working with law enforcement to haul him to jail.

MADDEN: And they're taking his money, money he made in part by working with the labels.

CARMICHAEL: So why, then, did the labels go after Drama? Well, we tried to ask them that. And despite several attempts, the RIAA would not talk to us on the record. But Carlos Linares, vice president of anti-piracy at the RIAA at the time - he said this to MTV News.


SWAY CALLOWAY: ...Arrested Drama and Cannon.

CARLOS LINARES: There is no RIAA policy geared towards going out and enforcing against mixtapes. We do, however, have an ongoing policy to help identify illicit music product and to bring it to the attention of law enforcement.

CALLOWAY: Even if this was an isolated incident...

DJ DRAMA: There's a lot of legend to the story or, like, what really happened. And, honestly, I might never know. But what I think it was, was there was a little stand in the mall in Morrow, Ga. And there was a Peppermint Music, which was a music store, and the woman at the stand used to sell my mixtapes along with others.

She was doing so well that she was bothering Peppermint Music. So they called the cops on her and told her, yo, this woman's selling bootlegs in the mall - blah, blah, blah. So when the cops come to see her at the little stand, she says, these aren't bootlegs; I get these from DJ Drama. Like, these are good. Like, these aren't bootlegs. These are authorized CDs. So the cops start an investigation and look into it.

CARMICHAEL: Now, whether or not that's exactly what happened, it's a perfect metaphor for the whole situation. The music industry was basically shot out by this time. CD sales were down by 50% in less than a decade, and record stores were really struggling just to get people in the door.

Now, in 2007, there was a large bootleg CD and DVD market. A lot of it was controlled by organized crime. And there was a lot of money to be made, especially on bootleg versions of the latest hit records. Now, the RIAA had agents all across the country working alongside local law enforcement, as well as federal agencies like the FBI and the ATF. And the RIAA was called in, and they took a look and found that some of the CDs being sold on Gangsta Grillz' website were actually remixes of top sellers. There were even tapes full of remixed Michael Jackson songs.

DJ DRAMA: Which were still, quote-unquote, "mixtapes." But here's songs that are unauthorized usages that, you know, they just ordered off - that's technically illegal.

MADDEN: There's a good argument to be made that Gangsta Grillz were original, but not so much with the Michael Jackson remixes. And that is what the RIAA claims it was going after. Drama and Cannon were charged with a Georgia state law that made it illegal to sell CDs without putting your name and address on them. Essentially, it was a way for the state to enforce federal copyright law. And they hit him with a RICO charge on top of that because they were mass distributing the CDs.

ST HUBERT: We just couldn't even wrap our heads around it.

CARMICHAEL: Now, at the time, Marsha from Atlantic was DJ Drama's product manager for his upcoming major label album. And to her, man, the label should have never participated in the raid in the first place. It was bad business all the way around.

ST HUBERT: Like, this doesn't even make any fucking sense. This is mixtapes. What are you talking about? So at the time, it was kind of like, what is happening? And then, eventually, when it started to unfold that they were trying to build - that the RIAA wanted to build a whole real case and statute out of this, it was like, wait a minute - hold on, hold on, hold on. And that's when it became, like, a real conversation.

MADDEN: After the arrest, the charges against Drama and Cannon were dead docketed, which means Drama and Cannon would not be prosecuted, but the charges could be reinstated at any time. And Drama says the DJs were never given back the money that was seized. According to him, law enforcement claimed they couldn't prove what was earned from legit tapes and what was from illegal bootlegs. So they kept it all.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but the culture - man, the culture paid the biggest price. The mixtape game, it came to a dead halt.

DJ DRAMA: Mixtape DJs went into a frenzy. Like, all the mixtape websites turned off, like, stopped. Everything halted.

DJ MARS: Distribution kind of died. You see this - these two dudes getting locked up on TV - nobody wants that (laughter). Like, nobody wants that. The artists aren't dropping tapes like they used to. It just dried up quickly. Other DJs who were on that level - I noticed they stopped. So it just dried up completely, totally.


CARMICHAEL: In a larger sense, Drama even started to blame himself - not for the arrest, but for the impact it was having on mixtape culture, on hip-hop.

DJ DRAMA: I felt some guilt 'cause I'm like, yo, this shit - the mixtape - I can't let the mixtape game die on my shoulders. Like, here's this culture I grew up loving, and then I go to jail for it. If they can lock up Drama, nobody's safe. This shit's done. It's over. It's a wrap.

CARMICHAEL: And the pushback wasn't just coming from the RIAA, either. The success of Gangsta Grillz, it was breeding contempt even among artists who really benefited from the series the most, but who also weren't getting paid from mixtapes directly.

MADDEN: (Laughter) Lil Wayne was definitely one of those cases.


LIL WAYNE: I'm not into that no more. I'm doing Lil Wayne. I'm against it.

DJ DRAMA: This is the same guy that also wound up saying, fuck mixtape DJs.


LIL WAYNE: Fuck you if you're a mixtape DJ.

DJ DRAMA: And I wound up having him call into my show to explain, and then we wound up doing "Dedication 3." I never really felt personally betrayed by Wayne even when he made them comments. My grandmother wasn't too happy about it. She definitely was pretty hurt.

MADDEN: Ha - Grandma Drama had some words.

CARMICHAEL: Man, tell me about it. But what remains clear is this - right? - none of the authorities involved, least of all the RIAA, even understood the value of mixtapes, a culture the industry was profiting from. Like the Black Codes that restricted the movement of freed men and women after slavery, the squeeze on mixtapes - it felt like a modern-day remix, call it the rap codes or yet another way to police Black cultural production.

BRADLEY: Historically, Black folks weren't meant to be citizens of this country. So if I'm not a citizen of the country, I'm an enemy of the country. If I'm an enemy of the country living in it, what do I do? I criminalize it - from the Black Codes during Reconstruction to Jim Crow to the three-strikes rule in Georgia, which a lot of artists were talking about, to this idea of being a superpredator - there's always something criminalized in trying to recognize a Black experience.

And if there isn't a criminal aspect of it, then it gets overlooked in favor of one that shows a stereotypical representation of criminal - what criminal Blackness looks like.

CARMICHAEL: And for all the reformed trappers-turned-rappers who thought they'd found a way to finally go legit, it felt like the game was rigged.

T I: Man, ain't no feel-like, bro; hip-hop was under attack. We were making too much money. And we're developing the acknowledgment of independence. We started seeing that these motherfuckers really ain't doing shit. We doing all the work. We out here getting ourselves hot. Man, I'm getting more money on shows than I am on royalties. I could drop a mixtape to do shows. What the fuck I need a record deal for? And when they start goddamn kicking it like that, that's when they're like, no, these mixtapes too strong.

CARMICHAEL: What do you feel like ultimately - the impact that had on hip-hop in terms of the mixtape era?

T I: It made us feel like what we were doing was illegal. It made us feel like what we were doing was illegal. Man, we may as well keep selling dope.

CARMICHAEL: That's a good point. I mean, in a sense, though, it was illegal if you look at the copyright laws. I mean, I know that's minor compared to the way they were acting.

T I: Not really simply because it was still ours, though. It was still ours. You're talking about copyright law, man, all this shit, man, is just goddamn - you done manipulated people who didn't have no money, didn't have no way in life. They goddamn signed away all they intellectual property for pennies, and you want them to not goddamn use their intellectual property to promote and pay themselves? Come on, bro. How the fuck you gonna do that? And what you gives you the right? Martin Luther King say, a law that is unjust is no law at all. So therefore what gives you the right or what gave you the right to this material, you used deception to acquire it.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, T.I. - he's basically saying labels don't even have the moral authority because of the way they cheated Black artists for decades, if not centuries.

T I: So now you can go against the grain, but I can't. I thought this how we were playing? You tricked me in this motherfucking deal, knowing that you get everything and I get a little bit of nothing. So why the fuck can't I make me some goddamn side hustle to subsidize myself?

CARMICHAEL: Like so many cultural innovations before it, the industry criminalized the mixtape then it co-opted it. In the streaming era, SoundCloud and playlists like Spotify's RapCaviar, it made mixtape DJs practically obsolete.

DJ DRAMA: I mean, look at where we are now. Like, RapCaviar is no different than Gangsta Grillz. The billions of streams - like, the industry is making more money than it has ever made. People are on their phones streaming billions of records off of playlists. The playlist is the mixtape game. That's where it all comes from. What they took me down for is now what is running the industry.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but Drama, he wasn't completely left out in the cold.

MADDEN: 'Cause after all that drama - the raid, the arrests, the damaged hard drives and the emptied-out bank accounts - DJ Drama had something beyond street cred.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and the same industry that locked him up wanted him back in. Now that DJ Drama had a criminal record, his label Atlantic was more hyped than ever to drop his debut record.

DJ DRAMA: My record label was super excited. Oh, my God, you can't pay for this type of publicity. We're putting your album out ASAP. Move the release date up. Like, you're the biggest thing in hip-hop right now.

ST HUBERT: Now it was like, all right, my nigga, like, we need to get focused and get this shit out the door because this is getting insane. And, of course, like, his name was in the news. Like, this is the perfect time to put it out, to be completely honest.

CARMICHAEL: By December 2007, nearly 12 months after that fateful day, the Gangsta Grillz album debut, Drama and the Aphilliates had been working on the day of the raid, it comes out.

MADDEN: And the first single from that album, "Feds Takin' Pictures," might sound like paranoia in overdrive, but maybe they had reason to be.


YOUNG JEEZY: Dram. Yeah.

DJ DRAMA: Mr. Thanksgiving.

YOUNG JEEZY: We went and got the right nigga for this shit, man.

DJ DRAMA: Gangsta Grillz, you bastards.

YOUNG JEEZY: They taking pictures of me.

DJ DRAMA: AMG. The moment continues.

BRADLEY: It just reemphasized that concern and paranoia in hip-hop communities about police brutality. That was a form of brutality. You're messing with that man's livelihood. You were messing with that man's - his stature, his status. That's why - feds taking pictures - of me is so important 'cause he's like, no, no, no - I said what I said. This is what happened. But respect me when respect is due, you know what I'm saying? I didn't disappear. Here I am. I took the fall for hip-hop so hip-hop could take it to the next level - sacrificial lamb almost.


DJ DRAMA: I told y'all I can't be stopped. What? You want me to smile for the camera? (Laughter).

MADDEN: As for mixtapes, Drama still makes them from time to time, but they're only a small percentage of the business that keeps him busy. Now he's an A&R, and he and Cannon run their own label, Generation Now, responsible for the careers of artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Jack Harlow and more. But what happened to the mixtape DJ?

DJ MARS: The good DJs stopped making them. I couldn't even tell you who a popular mixtape DJ is today. I have no idea. And I'm still in the culture. I couldn't tell you one.

MADDEN: So even though Drama dodged a bullet, the culture took the hit. I mean, of course, mixtapes still exist in name. Some of them do record-setting numbers and even get Grammy noms (ph). But they definitely aren't the same in spirit. Throwing a project on streaming services now and calling it a mixtape, it's more about the cultural cachet.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and the thing that used to be the secret ingredient, the DJ, is the main thing that's missing now. From its inception in this country, Black expression and the means used to create and disseminate it have been suppressed, criminalized, even banned. Let's not forget - slave masters even outlawed the drum out of fear that enslaved Africans used it as a tool of covert communication.

At their height, mixtapes were hip-hop's talking drum - bought and sold on the black market, dictated by the streets and bankrolled by the industry. But the bigger they got, they became every bit as threatening to the major labels that owned the masters in the music business. See - the reason hip-hop runs counter to America's systems of power is because hip-hop is a product of the inequality built into these systems.

MADDEN: DJ Drama's security system, on the other hand, might make it hard for the feds to bumrush Means Street Studios the way they raided their old spot back in 2007. As Drama finishes giving us the grand tour of all the state-of-the-art recording studios inside, we can't help but notice all those gold and platinum plaques from major artists that decorate his walls, each one bearing the stamp of a certain music industry trade organization. So we asked him about it.

DJ DRAMA: That's funny. I mean, yeah. I mean, I had that same contradiction back then, even with them. Like, yo, like, y'all really locked me up. Like, y'all send me plaques. Like, I'm like, did y'all really, like, allow this to happen? Like, it bothered me for a while. Like, y'all are really trying to make me out to be the bad guy? Like, look at my walls - there's plaques with your certification all throughout. Like, I'm on your side, guys. Come on now. Like, no, don't send me to jail. You know, whether I was an example or whether I had to take the fall or be the martyr or - it is what it is, like, you know.

Like, shit happens, you know what I'm saying? Like, you got to keep going. Like, I don't want to just be remembered for that. Like, I don't want to be like, yo, remember - like, that - I don't want to be that guy, you know what I'm saying? Like, you know, I'd rather be - my cup half full, you know what I'm saying? Where, you know, it's more work to do. It's like, it's legacies out here, you know what I'm saying? So, you know, we took the fall, you know? We stood strong, you know? And I hope, you know, we made the culture proud, really.

But I never - no, I had no qualms. It wasn't personal. You know, when we went back to the - to get our stuff from the police, they were talking to us like fans and getting autographs and stuff.


DJ DRAMA: All right, let's get a few things clear. We wasn't the first to do this mixtape shit. But after we showed up, shit ain't been the same since and only 'cause the streets need us.


MADDEN: This episode was written by Rodney Carmichael, Dustin DeSoto and me, Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: Michael May edited this one, with help from Chiquita Paschal. It was produced by Dustin DeSoto.

MADDEN: With help from Matt Ozug and Sam Leeds. Josh Newell's our engineer.

CARMICHAEL: Senior supervising producers are Rachel Neel and N'Jeri Eaton.

MADDEN: And shoutout to the bigwigs - Steve Nelson, Lauren Onkey and Anya Grundmann.

CARMICHAEL: Original music by Kassa Overall. Additional scoring by Ramtin Arablouei.

MADDEN: Our digital editor is Jacob Ganz. Our fact-checker is Will Chase. Hit us up on Twitter. We're at @louderthanariot. Rate and review us on Apple Podcasts. And to follow along with the music you heard in this episode, check out the LOUDER THAN A RIOT playlists on Apple Music and Spotify now.


MADDEN: And if you want to email us, it's

CARMICHAEL: This has been LOUDER THAN A RIOT from NPR Music.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.