3. They Gonna Make an Example : The Arrest of DJ Drama

The legal consequences for artists breaking the cultural mold are real. By participating in methods of cultural production that do not conform with what American jurisprudence views as legitimate, artists risk their finances and freedom. To see the results in action, one needs look no further than the arrest of DJ Drama in 2007.

DJ Drama (Tyree Simmons), an Atlanta-based music executive, is one of the foremost mixtape producers in the country. Just as his Gangsta Grillz compilations have launched him into the elite of mixtape MCs, so has his influence boosted the careers of rappers T.I., Lil Wayne, and Young Jeezy. In 2007, Atlanta police, working with the Recording Industry Association of America's Anti-Piracy Division, arrested Drama, protégé DJ Don Cannon, and seventeen associates following a multi-week investigation into Drama's music production business. Drama and Cannon were charged with felony violations of Georgia's RICO statute on allegations of heading an extensive ring of copyright infringement through the production of mixtapes. Authorities also seized over 50,000 mixtapes, along with other assets, as proceeds of a pattern of illegal activity.

The fallout among the hip-hop community was immense. Said George DukeDaGod Moore, head of Artists and Repertoire with Diplomat Records: This is like D-Day in hip-hop. Artists questioned the rationale behind the raid: Nobody is dying, nobody is killing nobody. It's just music being made. One DJ noted that the majority of the 50,000 CDs confiscated were up-and-coming artists, and that the mixtapes were a purely promotional marketing tool that were looked at the wrong way by the authorities. Said another: I think they're trying to make hip-hop illegal or something.

The RIAA denied such motives. Brad Buckles, executive vice president of the RIAA's Anti-Piracy Division in Washington, D.C., made the following statement regarding the raid and arrests:

We don't consider this being against mixtapes as some sort of class of product. We enforce our rights civilly or work with police against those who violate state law. Whether it's a mixtape or a compilation or whatever it's called, it doesn't really matter: If it's a product that's violating the law, it becomes a target.

Even some DJs and rappers admit that the mixtape industry was violating norms of the business. Lil Wayne warned mixtape DJs to smarten up, and look to DJs who release mixtapes through record labels. Said Lil Wayne: It's a bad thing . . . but you gotta play the game fair. If you don't play fair, all kinds of things can happen. He directed DJs to watch people like DJ Clue, watch people like DJ Khaled. They do it right. While those DJs built careers on mixtapes sold on the street, they have also been successful at releasing official mixtapes through record labels. Another rapper-producer even suggested holding mixtape seminars, in which the RIAA could educate artists as to what forms of mixtape production are permissible.

Such pragmatism is laudable, and hopefully the music industry and mixtape DJs will find common ground in which mixtape production can thrive. But for the moment, authorities view sampling as a zero-sum game in which a sound recording is either copyrighted or it's not, and continue to misinterpret the technology as a tool used by artists for the sole purpose of securing monetary gain. The truth is quite to the contrary. Said a DJ who wished to remain anonymous in the wake of Drama's arrest: I've never made a mixtape and sold it. Every mixtape I made is given away. Such a mentality exemplifies the nature of a gift economy, in which artistic expression is freely exchanged without the restraints of commoditization.

DJ Drama himself was surprised and disturbed by the raid. In light of the role mixtapes have played within the hip-hop community, as well as his own status as an artist, businessman, and proud mixtape DJ, Drama called the events of the day a travesty. Said Drama: I saw cops jump out, M16s drawn, and they put me directly on the ground, . . . basically asking, Where are the guns and drugs?

This dangerous rhetoric comparing mixtape production to drug trafficking was echoed in statements made by the RIAA itself. Following the raid, the RIAA's Matthew Kilgo was quoted as saying: Statistics prove that you can make a 400 percent markup on a kilo of heroine [sic] or cocaine, and statistics also show you can make up to a 900 percent profit just on the resale of counterfeit CDs. Artists noticed the comparison as well. One noted that, despite the fact that the CDs confiscated in the raid were not for profit, authorities treated . . . [Drama and Cannon] like they was [sic] . . . drug kingpins. Such equation of digital sampling to the illicit drug trade echoes the race-laden calls for law and order of the Nixon era and conflates a stereotype of black crime and lawlessness with what is one of the largest African-American art forms.

That said, query whether some hip-hop artists have invited this comparison. Rap moguls have long analogized their musical entrepreneurialism to drug dealing; whether they themselves are former dealers or simply exaggerators is often unclear. Jay-Z's unprecedented success, like Biggie Smalls' before him, was intertwined with his past as a drug-dealer. As Jay-Z once bragged, I sold kilos of coke, I'm guessing I can sell CDs. Rapper Rick Ross, interestingly enough, brags about extensive work in the drug trade (and luxuries resulting there from) but his claims likely amount to little more than puffery. In any event, the language used by the RIAA, while incredibly troublesome, should be placed in the proper context.

But the RIAA's hypocrisy is exposed in other ways. According to the RIAA, sampling is aimed at profit, even more profit than can be made through the lucrative drug trade. But whose profit is the RIAA really worried about? Clearly, not DJ Drama's--most mixtapes do not actually make much money. The record industry tends to frame its anti-piracy efforts in terms of artists' rights, yet most of DJ Drama's mixtapes begin with enthusiastic endorsements from the [sampled] artists themselves. While the RIAA claims that illegal mixtape regulation takes money from rich musical pirates and compensates artists, the rights to original work are often held by corporations rather than the artists themselves. The truth is that digital sampling enables black artists, both DJs and otherwise, to produce their own cultural and economic capital in the face of a monopolistic music industry.

The raid on DJ Drama's studio was not the first of its kind, but rather followed a series of raids on small music retailers. In raids in Virginia, Indiana, Rhode Island, and New York between 2003 and 2007, police cracked down on independent record stores selling mixtapes, resulting in large fines, criminal liability, and even business closings. Such crackdowns on small operators are particularly alarming considering that large chains such as Best Buy have been known to sell mixtapes, yet face little intimidation by law enforcement.

The treatment of DJ Drama and others by the recording industry and law enforcement, taken on its own, is troubling enough. But prior court decisions and police actions become particularly distressing when compared with white artists who utilized digital sampling technology and who receive comparably favorable treatment by the legal system.