How the major music labels killed DJ Drama's Gangsta Grillz mixtapes empire : Planet Money Mixtapes were the heart of hip-hop culture in the 90s. Until an arrest in 2007 brought it all down. | Today's episode is from our friends at Louder Than a Riot.

The Mixtape Drama

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hey, it is fundraising season, and the easiest way to support our show is to go to donate.npr.org/planetmoney and donate to your local NPR station. That is donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Thanks so much.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

SIDNEY MADDEN, HOST:

A warning before we begin. This is a PLANET MONEY adaptation of Louder Than A Riot. And this episode is explicit in every way.

It was a chilly January day in 2007. DJ Drama was in his Atlanta studio with his affiliates, working on his next big project. That's when Drama steps outside to move his car.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, HOST:

Now, Drama plays it cool 'cause he knows that 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.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, 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.

MADDEN: The four officers call Drama by his government name - Tyree Simmons. They tell him to get on the ground, and they take his ID. Then they get on their radios.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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

MADDEN: It's clear that these officers are looking for a lot more than mixtapes, especially from the way they're barking.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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

CARMICHAEL: His crime - being a mixtape DJ who got so influential, it threatened the whole power structure of the music industry.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JAMES SNEED, HOST:

Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm James Sneed, one of the producers here at PLANET MONEY. It's a pleasure to welcome two of my NPR colleagues, Sidney Madden...

MADDEN: Hey.

SNEED: ...And Rodney Carmichael...

CARMICHAEL: What up?

SNEED: ...Who have spent the last couple years working on a show about - well, why don't y'all describe it?

MADDEN: It's about the intersection of hip-hop and mass incarceration and how the criminalization of hip-hop is really a microcosm for the criminalization of Black and brown folk in America.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, and how the music industry can be complicit in criminalizing the art form.

SNEED: So today's show is from your series Louder Than A Riot. And it tells the incredible story of DJ Drama, a kid from Philly who grew up to be the mixtape king. Now, I was living in Atlanta not too long after this all went down. And there's a lot to the story I had no idea about, like mixtapes - how they're literally the origin of hip-hop distribution.

MADDEN: Yeah, mixtapes launched the careers of so many rappers.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, I mean, you can go all the way back to the Cold Crush Brothers.

MADDEN: 50 Cent, Jay-Z - that's mixtapes.

SNEED: Gucci Mane, Meek Mill - that's mixtapes, too. And this whole cultural phenomenon - DJ Drama helped make it a global movement until one day, it all just kind of came to a halt, taking mixtapes from a cultural innovation to a criminal conspiracy.

CARMICHAEL: And DJ Drama - he was at the center of it all.

MADDEN: And paid a pretty high price.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: 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.

CARMICHAEL: And no matter what alias he chose, at one point in time in the early 2000s, man, DJ Drama's voice - it might have been the most recognizable voice in hip-hop. But Drama's story - it starts back in 1996.

MADDEN: He's already dropped his own mixtape called "Illadelph," featuring Philly artists he's cool with, like Black Thought of The Roots. And he's made his way down to Atlanta to attend the historically Black Clark Atlanta University.

CARMICHAEL: And as a freshman in college, Drama was still unknown. But one thing he did know was how to hustle. He'd set his yellow boombox up on a campus trash can and, you know, hustle his mixtapes - homemade for the low-low - you know, two for $7 or three for 10. And on a good week, he might have made about $150. But even then, he had this mystery sauce that separated him from the pack - his marketing savvy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: I was like a one-man show. You know, I was like, yo, I got DJ Drama tapes. And people would be like, who's that? And I'm 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.

MADDEN: But the mixtapes DJ Drama was hustling on the AUC promenade, they weren't necessarily like the ones you were dubbing for your friends off the radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ MARS: Early mixtapes were recordings of park jams, you know, in New York City parks. Obviously, the Bronx is where it started.

MADDEN: That's DJ Mars. He's a famous Atlanta DJ, and he self-published the definitive deep dive on mixtapes called "The Art Behind The Tape." In the beginning, the only way to hear hip-hop was at the party or to hear it recorded on a mixtape. Mixtapes were the genesis of hip-hop distribution.

CARMICHAEL: Now, after the park jams came the MC battles. They got recorded and circulated on cassettes. Then, came the era of the DJs creating mixtapes at the crib that sounded just like you were at the party.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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

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

CARMICHAEL: Now, he started doing something new - featuring rappers on exclusive songs that you couldn't find anywhere else.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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 buy his tape because of the exclusive music that he has catered strictly for him.

MADDEN: Mixtapes like this define the culture. It's what Drama grew up listening to, and it inspired him to make his own mark.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACKIN' FOR BEATS")

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

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but jacking for beats ain't just a hip-hop thing. I mean, how many early blues standards were borrowed and reinterpreted over time?

MADDEN: And jazz wouldn't be jazz without players quoting each other's riffs in the middle of a set.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEXTER GORDON SONG, "THREE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING")

MADDEN: It's a natural element of hip-hop because it's a natural element of Black music - always has been. But here's the thing - mixtapes, like sampling, use copyrighted material without permission. That's technically illegal.

Copyright law goes back to 1790, when it was created to give artists a financial incentive to create. But it's evolved over the years to be more and more restrictive. And now, it stifles hip-hop producers who rely on sampling.

CARMICHAEL: And remember, when Drama started making mixtapes, there was no Spotify or Apple Music. I mean, this was still the era of physical mixtapes, dubbed straight to cassette. Distribution was hand-to-hand, and, really, promotion was word-of-mouth. I mean, either you knew where to go, or you didn't. This was strictly an underground economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: There was a code of silence among those who were in it. 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.

CARMICHAEL: For promotional use only - sometimes you'd find it stamped right on the cover art of a mixtape.

MADDEN: Yeah. Basically, most mixtapes in this era where unlicensed compilations of previously released music. That means there was no way to collect the royalties owed to artists or their labels from mixtape sales.

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

MADDEN: Now, the RIAA does a lot of other things - like certifying all those gold and platinum plaques artists like to show off - but they also work with local and federal police departments to enforce copyright laws. But for whatever reason, in '95, enforcement was spotty at best. You didn't have to search hard for mixtapes. They were sold in street kiosks, flea markets, small independent record stores. You just had to know where to look.

CARMICHAEL: But it wouldn't be long before bootleggers around the country started selling Drama's mixtapes, and he'd be too big for the industry to ignore. That's after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JACKIN FOR BEATS")

ICE CUBE: (Rapping) ...Is jackin' for beats.

MADDEN: By 2000, Drama's graduated from college. He decides he's going to launch a Southern mixtape series just in time for Birthday Bash. That's the big annual summer concert hosted by the Atlanta hip-hop radio station, 107.9.

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

MADDEN: And just like the King of Crunk.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTRO")

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

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DAMN (REMIX)")

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.

CARMICHAEL: Man, "Gangsta Grillz" was like sonic wallpaper in Atlanta back then. Now, as Drama is launching "Gangsta Grillz," he gets a call from a local hustler who manages an up-and-coming artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: And he calls me. And he says, hey, I got this, you know, 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, and 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.

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

CARMICHAEL: Now, T.I. wasn't exactly the King of the South just yet. But through their early collaborations, Drama would help him earn that title. And Drama - he would become a kingmaker with a style all his own.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAL P FOR P$C")

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 shoutouts - 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIAL P FOR P$C")

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

TI: 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...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAP CITY")

TI: 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 our thang, man. Grand Hustle, pimp...

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

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAP CITY")

TI: (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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "24'S")

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

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Cannon.

DJ DRAMA: ...Trendsetter Sense.

COMPUTER-GENERATED 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WELCOME BACK")

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

TI: 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.

MADDEN: Drama - he was just in his little apartment making mixtapes. And this just shows you how raw and immediate the mixtape game is - 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 at the same time Drama's finding his voice, a new subgenre is emerging in Atlanta, one that would become known as trap music, a name inspired by the crack houses and traps where drugs are bought and sold.

CARMICHAEL: Now, around this time, Drama starts working with a doughboy-turned-rapper who goes by the name Young Jeezy. And for their big breakthrough, "Gangsta Grillz" mixtape "Trap Or Die," nearly all the music is original. I mean, it was basically Jeezy's debut album before his debut album.

(SOUNDBITE OF MIXTAPE, "TRAP OR DIE")

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: This kid from Philly - he was changing the course of hip-hop by representing the bottom - not just the bottom of the map, but those perceived to be at the bottom of society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTRO")

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.

LIL JON: Gangsta Gri-zillz.

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

CARMICHAEL: Now, while mixtapes were on the rise, record sales were taking a steep nosedive. It's 2005. The industry's on its deathbed. Major-label releases are basically being cannibalized by bootlegging. Online streaming is still a pipe dream for the most part. And piracy sites like Napster are being cast as the villain. And the industry is so desperate that the RIAA is filing lawsuits against random fans for illegal downloading as a scare tactic.

MADDEN: But while all that's happening, mixtapes are becoming more popular than ever. And DJ Drama - he's selling more than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "INTRO")

LIL JON: Gangsta Gri-zillz.

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

COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: Trendsetter.

MADDEN: Yeah. The mixtape game - it had its risks. But it also had its rewards. Drama didn't have to license any of the music. He didn't have to pay rappers. And it cost probably 50 cents to print a CD. And he would sell it for 5- to $10.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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

DJ DRAMA: There were some months when we probably easily, like - it could have been, like, 50,000, 75,000 - something like that.

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

DJ DRAMA: Not accounting for the bootlegs.

CARMICHAEL: He remembers watching as his bank account grew into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

MADDEN: So even though the labels were losing money, they were benefiting from the mixtape game, too, because it meant free promo for their artists before their official projects dropped. Like, take Lil Wayne. Weezy was already a vet in the game when he decides to reinvent himself with the Gangsta Grillz "Dedication" series starting in '05.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BEST IN THE BUSINESS")

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

MADDEN: Wayne's already a star by this time. But mixtape Wayne - he was a beast with that series.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CANNON")

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) Howdy-doo, motherfuckers. It's Weezy, baby. Niggas bitching, and I got to tote the cannon. Listen close. I got duct tape and rope. I'll leave you missing like the fucking O'Bannons.

MADDEN: And all that mixtape buzz - it boosted his major-label bottom line. His next major-label release, "Tha Carter III," ended up becoming Wayne's biggest-selling solo album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A MILLI")

LIL WAYNE: (Rapping) Young money. A milli, a milli, a milli, a milli, a milli...

MADDEN: As of 2020, it's six times platinum.

CARMICHAEL: Mixtapes do that.

MADDEN: Yeah. And Drama's career - it got a huge boost, too. In 2005, the Atlantic subsidiary Grand Hustle - T.I.'s label - signed Drama to a recording deal to create a legit Gangsta Grillz album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: Record labels loved me. They were calling me all the time to work with their artists. I started getting 10,000, 15-, 20-, 25-, like, thousand dollars 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.

CARMICHAEL: But Gangsta Grillz' popularity - it was starting to present some problems. DJ Drama made a deal about this time with an independent distributor, and 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 - can't put that in Best Buy with a barcode. That shit's - no, you - no. Like, I didn't even realize that what we were doing was that big that that was possible.

MADDEN: By this point, Drama was selling mixtapes of Southern rappers on his Gangsta Grillz website, which also had stuff like Madonna, Michael Jackson remixes on it. So it's one thing to be a kid selling mixtapes on your college campus, but it's something else entirely to be selling tens of thousands of dollars a week in CDs all around the world and not paying a penny in royalties to the songwriters or labels you're trying to profit off of.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, 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 but who also weren't getting paid from the mixtapes directly, like Lil Wayne.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

CARMICHAEL: And all that heat from the RIAA - that's what led to that day in 2007 when the SWAT team showed up at Drama's studio.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: Tell us where the guns and the drugs are. Tell us where they are. Like, thank God there wasn't a weapon or a spliff in the building.

MADDEN: Yeah. But what they do find is mixtape CDs - tens of thousands of them. They confiscate the mixtapes, along with studio equipment, computers, four cars, bank statements, even the hard drives containing songs recorded for Drama's upcoming studio album. Then they take Drama and his Gangsta Grillz affiliate, Cannon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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.

CARMICHAEL: RICO - that's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations. But these are kind of serious conspiracy charges used to take down dangerous organized crime outfits like the mob. But Drama doesn't even know what RICO stands for at the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: 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 is missing. It's like he lost his crown.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: This is my first time ever being locked up, and 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. And 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 those gold and platinum plaques hanging in his office.

CARMICHAEL: 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 - it happened - all that shit - everything came from mixtapes. Biggie, even the blend style from Ron G with 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. "Gangsta Grillz" is the biggest thing arguably ever in the 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.

MADDEN: So why, then, did the labels go after Drama?

CARMICHAEL: Well, we tried to ask the RIAA that, and despite several attempts, they wouldn't talk to us on the record. But Carlos Linares, who was vice president of antipiracy at the RIAA when Drama got arrested, he said this at the time to MTV News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

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

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

CARMICHAEL: After Drama wakes up in his cell that morning, he finds out he and Cannon are able to make bail after all for $100,000 apiece. And that's when they find out how serious those RICO charges they've been slapped with really are.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

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: Drama and Cannon, they 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 them with a RICO charge on top of that for mass distributing the CDs.

MADDEN: After the arrest, the charges against Drama and Cannon were dead docketed, which means they would not be prosecuted, but the charges could be reinstated at any time. And Drama says the DJs were never given back all that money that was seized. There's a real irony of what's happening to him because he'd done all this for the culture of hip-hop, which the industry benefits from, and then the industry turned on him.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, Sid, and, you know, like so many Black cultural innovations before, man, the industry criminalized the mixtape, then they co-opted it.

MADDEN: Today, playlists like Spotify's RapCaviar serve to fill some of the void mixtapes left.

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, but the main thing missing is the curator who weaved it all together - the mixtape DJ.

MADDEN: I mean, of course, mixtapes still exist in name, and some of them do record-setting numbers and even get Grammy noms. But the era of the mixtape DJ discovering new artists and shaping the culture is over. DJ Mars said the mixtape game came to a dead halt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST

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. So it just dried up completely - totally.

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. If they can lock up Drama, nobody's safe. This shit's done. It's over. It's a wrap.

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

MADDEN: Because 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: And the same industry that locked him up, it wanted him back in. See, now that Drama had a criminal record thanks to the music industry, his label, Atlantic, was more hype than ever to drop his debut record.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

DJ DRAMA: My record label was superexcited. 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.

CARMICHAEL: And guess what that first single was called.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEDS TAKIN' PICTURES")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: You ain't got the right nigga for this shit, man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Gangsta Grillz, you back?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Feds takin' pictures of me.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Unintelligible).

CARMICHAEL: "Feds Takin' Pictures."

MADDEN: And that might sound like paranoia in overdrive because for the rest of the world, it's just entertainment, but for hip-hop, it was real life.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE REAL IS BACK")

DJ DRAMA: 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.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Gangsta, gangsta.

DJ DRAMA: And only 'cause the streets need us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SNEED: If you enjoyed this episode and want to support journalism like this, support your local NPR member station. You can do that by going to donate.npr.org/planetmoney. That's donate.npr.org/planetmoney. Big thanks to the whole Louder Than A Riot crew who put together the original episode - editors Michael May and Chiquita Paschal, producers Dustin DeSoto, Matt Ozug and Sam Leeds, Josh Newell, the engineer, and senior supervising producers Rachel Neel and N'Jeri Eaton.

MADDEN: Original music by Kassa Overall, with additional scoring from Ramtin Arablouei. And shoutout to Jacob Ganz, our digital editor, and Will Chase, our fact-checker.

CARMICHAEL: Y'all hit us up on Twitter. We're @louderthanariot. And to follow along with the music that you heard in this episode, you could check out the Louder Than A Riot playlist on Apple Music and Spotify. This episode was produced by James Sneed.

SNEED: Hey, that's me.

CARMICHAEL: Appreciate you, folk.

MADDEN: Pew, pew, pew. Engineering help from Gilly Moon. Jacob Goldstein was this episode's editor. Alex Goldmark is PLANET MONEY's supervising producer. And Bryant Urstadt is PLANET MONEY's editor.

SNEED: If you want more bass-heavy shows, check out the whole Louder Than A Riot series wherever you get your podcasts. They just had their season finale. I'm going to binge the whole thing this weekend.

MADDEN: I'm Sidney Madden.

CARMICHAEL: I'm Rodney Carmichael.

SNEED: And I'm James Sneed. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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