There's no shortage of animosity towards the mainstream record industry from its customer base, but the RIAA's thug mentality's become brutally obvious of late. The major labels have relied on DJ mixtapes to scout new talent and promote the most popular artists on their rosters, expending significant resources to fund their efforts. And now they've turned on mixtape DJs, supporting the efforts of Federal authorities to raid prominent studios merely for doing the work the labels paid them to do.
Fifty years ago, the equivalent would have been for the labels to tell the FBI to kick down the doors at American Bandstand, and lead Dick Clark off in shackles for promoting their records.
I'd heard mention of the story a few weeks ago on most of the music news and hip hop sites I follow, but the best explanation was Jay Smooth's video on hiphopmusic.com.
Then, this Sunday's New York Times covered the story of DJ Drama's arrest and the raid on Gangsta Grillz in depth:
Drama and Cannon’s studio was not a bootlegging plant; it was a place where successful new hip-hop CDs were regularly produced and distributed. Drama and Cannon are part of a well-regarded D.J. collective called the Aphilliates. Although their business almost certainly violated federal copyright law, as well as a Georgia state law that requires CDs to be labeled with the name and address of the producers, they were not simply stealing from the major labels; they were part of an alternative distribution system that the mainstream record industry uses to promote and market hip-hop artists. Drama and Cannon have in recent years been paid by the same companies that paid Kilgo to help arrest them.
What's happening, in short, is exceptionally underhanded and despicable, even by the standards of the recording industry. Every major label uses underground mixtapes to promote their work -- whether it's the ceaseless parade of MCs dissing each other, new artists getting their big break by dropping a few verses on someone else's track, or major artists testing out new singles and sounds by giving a taste to the mixtape crews first, this is an essential and integral part of contemporary music promotion. And it has, of course, been part of hip hop culture since the very earliest days.
And just like Dick Clark's early popularity in the 50s and 60s, this channel has grown in popularity due to sheer necessity. A vital, evolving musical scene needs a champion who has the credibility of being close to the street while also having the reach and distribution to catch the attention of a wider audience. Major artists like Lil Jon and T.I. have gotten their start or gotten a big push from Gangsta Grillz mixtapes. And now DJ Drama, the driving force behind Grillz, has spent time in jail at the behest of those he was helping.
How bad does it get? Check out this definitive example of shoddy local news reporting -- The Fox affiliate in Atlanta manages to get an R.I.A.A. spokesperson acting typically shady, and a law enforcement officer pointing out that "no drugs or weapons were found this time". (Hint to the Feds: The really huge drug stashes are in the offices of the actual record labels.) To be clear: The R.I.A.A. is implying that their distribution, promotion, and A&R partners are drug dealers with stashes of illegal weapons. Of course, they already think their customers are criminals, but this must mark a new milestone.
The overall cluelessness and lack of literacy about Atlanta's own local music scene in this TV report should be shocking, but sadly, it seems inevitable.
A note to Matthew Kilgo: These people you're calling criminals are fundamental to generating the income that your salary is leeched from. The only positive effect that might come from your efforts is that you might stop feeding the stream of money that lets you keep your job.