On Jan. 16, an Atlanta S.W.A.T. team in cooperation with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) conducted a raid on a downtown Atlanta office, looking for what they deemed to be illegal and counterfeit CDs. According to the New York Times, law enforcement officials arrested popular mixtape jock DJ Drama (Tyree Simmons) and DJ Don Cannon and seized 81,000 CDs, four cars, and recording equipment. Out on bail, the two currently await a court date. Insiders speculate that the RIAA may have made its disciplinary point with the arrests and seizures alone, but only time will tell whether the charges of Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO) made against Drama and Cannon are dropped.
While this waiting game plays out, an entire cottage industry, from the DJs to retailers (and e-tailers), is watching cautiously.
"If [Drama's RICO charges] stick, it's definitely going to change the game," says DJ Devro of Oakland's Demolition Men, the duo nicknamed "Bay Area Mixtape Kings." "He is one of the biggest DJs out there right now, if not the biggest, and to take a hit like that would trickle down to every single DJ and every mom-and-pop store."
For the Web sites that specialize in selling mixtapes, it appears to be business as usual both locally and nationally, though; an informal poll of online outlets in the Bay Area shows as much. There are a few notable exceptions to the contrary: One site, Mixunit.com, was recently mentioned in the New York Times and has since removed mixtapes from its inventory. And another top jock, Florida's DJ Smallz, has at least temporarily disabled his online store.
It might be surprising to note that, until its recent demise, Tower Records in the Stonestown Shopping Center was one of the best places in the city to find mixtapes. But on the whole, San Francisco retailers tend to shy away from selling this kind of product. "[Drama's case] has definitely put the scare into Amoeba and would make them think twice about selling stuff like that," says Luis Soria, a buyer for the hip-hop section at Amoeba's San Francisco store.
DJs like Demolition Men work with local independent stars, and therefore don't share the same hassles of someone like DJ Drama, who occasionally peppered a set with beats or songs owned by major labels. DM's mixes are popular in part because they're made from original and exclusive material, not tied up in any recording contracts. Mixtapes that openly violate music piracy laws are more likely to be weeded out.
"In the long run, it's not going to really hit us too tough," says Devro. "We just have to be careful on what instrumentals we let [rappers] rock on, [but] for the most part, everyone out here is independent. The RIAA really doesn't have an interest in going after the independent artist. In the end, I think it's going to give us a leg up on the rest of the country."
Still, local mixtape purveyors are advised to pay attention to the headlines and figure out how their business might be affected. Unless they're working strictly with original or permitted material, they might not be as shielded from the potential fallout as they might think. Ultimately, though, it seems mixtape DJs are being forced to get more creative, whether it's with musical content or merely dodging the law.