Rodney Carmichael and Sidney Madden are the hosts of Louder Than A Riot, a new podcast from NPR Music that investigates the interconnected rise of hip-hop and mass incarceration in America.
The foundations of hip-hop are rooted in making something outta nothing — just like the culture's ancestors turning "old food into soul food," as Jay-Z puts it.
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. If you don't have access to the museums, you turn subway trains into rolling art galleries. And if the disc jockeys refuse to play rap on the radio, you throw it on a cassette tape for underground distribution.
The 1983 film Style Wars gives a succinct explanation of the criminalization of these early pillars of hip-hop. In it, NYPD detective Bernie Jacobs stands in front of a graffiti-covered subway train and asks:
"Is that an art form? I don't know. I'm not an art critic. I can sure as hell tell you that that's a crime."
But the difference between art and crime depends on who you ask. And just as hip-hop was on the brink of becoming the most-consumed genre in the country, if not the world, mixtapes — a product essential to hip-hop's survival — became a scapegoat for the music industry's collapse. The players who turned this underground currency into legit capital became criminals in the eyes of the law.
For a good stretch in the early 2000s, DJ Drama had one of the most important voices in hip-hop, with mixtapes that launched the careers of artists like T.I. and Jeezy and put an entirely new sound on the map. Inside his Means St. Studio in Atlanta today, his wall of fame contains snapshots of artists who have passed through: Snoop Dogg, Cardi B, 2 Chainz, Megan Thee Stallion, Pharrell, Ice Cube, Big Boi, Nipsey Hussle — and that ain't even the half. Everybody who's anybody has been to Means Street.
But Drama's on his second life now. Thirteen years ago, at the height of his fame as a mixtape king, he had everything taken away. After a raid by federal agents on his studio, Drama wound up targeted, arrested and jailed – a martyr for mixtape culture.
In 1992, Drama was still just Tyree Simmons, a high school freshman in his hometown of Philadelphia. He remembers seeing a subplot of the movie Juice, about a character trying to make it as a DJ. "I just never forget looking on the screen and being like, 'Man, that's what I want to do," he says. So he convinced his mom to buy him a turntable and a mixer, and started saving up his lunch money to purchase vinyl records downtown.
Philly 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. This was the golden era, when DJs were still the cornerstone of hip-hop; you couldn't even call yourself a rapper until you found a DJ to team up with — and it was the DJ who got top billing.
Long before rap got any radio love, mixtapes were the main form of distribution, the currency that kept everything in rotation as the culture evolved. The beauty of mixtapes, Drama says, is that "you didn't have to cross your T's and dot your I's — you didn't have to worry about clearances and splits and royalties. ... It was just the wild, wild West. That's what the concept of 'jackin' for beats' comes from."
And jackin' for beats ain't just a hip-hop thing; quoting riffs is essential to jazz, just like passing the riddim is in reggae and dancehall. This borrowing is a natural element of hip-hop because it's a natural element of Black music.
But early mixtapes, like sampling, used copyrighted material without permission. And while copyright law was created to give artists a financial incentive to create, it actually stifles hip-hop producers who rely on sampling and recontextualizing.
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.
When DJ Drama was starting out, it was still the era of physical mixtapes dubbed straight to cassette — no DJBooth.net or DatPiff, no Spotify or Apple Music. Distribution was hand-to-hand, and promotion was word-of-mouth. Either you knew where to go or you didn't. "You didn't talk about selling mixtapes," Drama says. "There was a code of silence among those who were in it." The phrase "for promotional use only" was typically stamped on the cover since most mixtapes in this era were unlicensed compilations of previously released music.
And the industry let it slide, for the most part — until the 1990s, when the Recording Industry Association Of America started to take notice. The industry trade group is best known for certifying all the gold and platinum plaques artists like to show off. But they also protect and serve the major labels by working with local and federal police departments to enforce copyright laws.
By the mid-'90s, the music industry was raking in more money than it ever had, but the RIAA set its sights on the underground economy of mixtapes. In its 1995 year-end report, the association issued a warning about the "growing popularity of illicit DJ's mixing in CD format."
Drama would've been a high school junior at the time. Just a few years earlier, he'd bought his first mixtape, DJ S&S Old School Part 2, off a bootlegger on 125th Street in Harlem. And by 1996, he'd even dropped his own mixtape called Illadelph, featuring Philly artists like Bahamadia and Black Thought of The Roots.
When it was time to pick a college, Drama headed to Atlanta to attend the historically Black Clark Atlanta University. Drama's move came at the tail end of a mass movement of Black folk moving back to the South after migrating north and west for the first half of the 20th century. Atlanta was becoming the new Black Mecca — a better job market, cost of living and social mobility — but it was still a long way from becoming the hip-hop capital.
His first year at Clark Atlanta, Drama was still unknown, too. But he knew how to hustle, setting his yellow boombox up on a campus trash can to sell his homemade mixtapes. Even then, it was his marketing savvy that separated him from the pack.
"I was like a one man show," he says. "I was like, 'Yo, I got DJ Drama tapes!' And people go, 'Who's that?' And I'm like, 'I don't know. He just told me to set up shop. I work for him.' ... That was my hustle."
Drama eventually hooked up with a couple of other Philly DJs at Clark Atlanta: dorm roommate DJ Sense and another native, Don Cannon. Together they'd form the Aphilliates, a DJ crew whose name was a nod to their Philly roots.
But Drama's boom-bap pedigree would only take a DJ so far on a campus where kids were coming from all over the country. So he started making reggae tapes on top of his hip-hop tapes, and even started an early neo-soul series called Automatic Relaxation. Then, he started to get his nose open to hip-hop below the Mason-Dixon line.
"Southern artists weren't getting their proper just due respect for the lyricism and the artistic value that they brought to the table," he says. Even Atlanta's own OutKast got booed at the 1995 Source Awards the year before Drama moved to Atlanta.
But the breakthrough for the South was a hard-fought battle. That's because Southern hip-hop isn't monolithic, explains Dr. Regina N. Bradley, assistant professor of English and African diaspora studies at Kennesaw State University and co-host of the Southern hip-hop podcast Bottom of the Map. While Northeastern hip-hop was centered in New York, and West Coast hip-hop in California, hip-hop in the South developed in a variety of regional scenes in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Virginia — all pulling from different influences.
"We're pulling from funk, we're pulling from gospel," she says. "If you're coming out of New Orleans or Louisiana, you're pulling from jazz too; you're pulling from bounce music. ... The South was trying to establish a complicated identity that the Northeast and West Coast didn't have to worry about."
In 1998, Drama's junior year at Clark, he made his first Southern mixtape, with a pretty provocative title: Jim Crow Laws, named for the Black Codes that once enforced segregation in the South. The mixtape was straight-up Dirty South and sold like hot cakes. Then, after graduating from college a couple of years later, he decided to launch a new Southern mixtape series called Gangsta Grillz — a name that was loud and menacing like the shiny gold grillz Down South rappers liked to flash for the camera.
Lil Jon gave the brand a boost when Drama asked him to guest host one of those early tapes. But the first rapper to pay Drama a visit after he launched Gangsta Grillz was a relative unknown at the time — an up-and-coming artist in Atlanta who had just signed to LaFace Records named T.I. And even during his first visit to the small apartment where Drama was making mixtapes, he was already claiming the title "King of the South."
As Tip tells it, the secret sauce that made Drama's tapes unique was their energy and storytelling; his boastful drops, shout outs and mini skits. "It doesn't seem very hostile, but it seems extremely passionate," TI says. "You heard Drama's voice [and] it's like, 'Oh s***, m*********** gonna be dope!'"
"I just wanted to give it a sense of a narrative," Drama explains. "Not just, you know, regular shout outs — really listening to the music and going along with what the music was about, you know? Really becoming a real host."
With Gangsta Grillz, Drama was finding his voice at a time when the South — and Atlanta in particular — was developing a sound and subgenre all its own. T.I. was the first to label it "trap music," a name inspired by the crack houses and dead-end traps where drugs were sold and consumed. But more to the point, trap music 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, underprivileged and misunderstood. And the music — with boomin' 808s and triple-time snares — sounded every bit as explicit as that reality.
There was a sense of criminality associated with trap, Bradley explains, because artists were openly talking about living through the crack cocaine epidemic. "That's particularly important in the South," she says, "because in the South, not only are we dealing with that back-and-forth tension between the past always being in the present, 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." And those things that weren't fixed, like unemployment, lack of access to education and illiteracy, were exactly what Southern artists were addressing.
Trap music as protest music lines right up with Drama's pedigree. His dad was a member of SNCC, the student group once led by John Lewis that organized sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement. Even though Drama grew up going with his parents to marches in the nation's capital, he saw no contradiction in being the product of political activists and the face of Gangsta Grillz.
Drama had the streets on lock when a newcomer named Young Jeezy reached out. Originally from South Georgia, he called himself The Snowman and was connected to a drug syndicate that would put the fictional Scarface to shame. The mixtapes DJ Drama and Young Jeezy made together turned them both into certified street legends. For their second Gangsta Grillz mixtape, Trap Or Die, nearly all the music was original, largely produced by Shawty Redd (with a track from Don Cannon); it was basically Jeezy's debut album. Drama took the blueprint from East Coast mixtape DJs and applied it to the South, making Southern street albums that crossed over the Mason-Dixon line while representing the bottom — not just the bottom of the map, but the bottom class. Before, Atlanta mixtapes were local; Drama made them global.
The mixtape model had its risks, but it also had its rewards: Drama didn't have to license any of the music or pay artists, and it cost him around $0.50 to print a CD that he'd sell for $5-10. He says there were months where he was selling 50,000-75,000 mixtapes a month. He'd gone from making $100 a week in his college mixtape-hustle days to $50,000-$60,000 a month. He remembers watching as his bank account grew into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, more money than he'd ever seen.
At the same time, CD sales were taking a nosedive; websites like Napster and Limewire made it easier than ever to download music illegally with just a few clicks. So the record industry hit back; the RIAA started filing lawsuits against random fans for illegal downloading as a scare tactic. And in 2005, the RIAA and local police raided a record store in Manhattan, arresting five employees and confiscating hundreds of mixtapes.
Marsha St. Hubert, who is now Senior Vice President of Marketing for Atlantic Records, didn't agree with cracking down on mixtapes. She'd seen their power — 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 2003. She knew a mixtape could change the trajectory of an artist's career, and that the labels benefited from them, too: If a mixtape blew up, the artist's major-label release was destined to blow up, too.
In 2005, Drama's career also got a boost; the Atlantic subsidiary Grand Hustle, T.I.'s label, signed him to a recording deal to create a legit Gangsta Grillz CD. By now, labels were calling Drama, paying him money to work with their artists. He became the industry plug.
But Gangsta Grillz's popularity was starting to present some problems. Drama made a deal with an independent distributor that 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 getting a little nervous.
"They put barcodes on them," Drama says. "You can't put that at Best Buy with a barcode. ... I didn't even realize that was possible."
Over the next few years, Gangsta Grillz' impact on the culture became immeasurable. The list of artists to get the Gangsta Grillz treatment expanded to include surprise standouts like Pharrell, Little Brother and Gnarls Barkley. Drama won big at the 2007 Justo Mixtape Awards, becoming the first DJ outside of New York to win the coveted Mixtape DJ of the Year award.
So on January 16, 2007, DJ Drama, DJ Cannon and the Aphiliates were camped out at the studio to plot their next move: Gangsta Grillz: The Album, Drama's major-label debut. Drama stepped outside to move his car when he realized they weren't alone.
"I walked out the door," he says, "and then that was when it was just, like, SWAT and helicopters and, you know, here come the SUV and they just, like, pull from all corners."
Drama played it cool because he knew that whatever it was, he wasn't the target. But things escalated. Officers pulled up and jumped out with M-16s drawn, pointed at Drama. They called him by his government name, Tyree Simmons, and told him to get on the ground. They took his ID. Drama says he heard the officers get on their radios, saying: "We got one of the perps."
"So I start, in my mind, freaking out," he says. "Like, huh? Like, who? Y'all got one of them like — Wait, it's gotta be a mistake."
Then, all hell broke loose. Police stormed the offices, waving guns and telling everyone to get face-down on the ground. It was a full-on raid. Drama says they were looking through the building for guns and drugs — which they didn't find. What they did find was tens of thousands of mixtape CDs, which they confiscated along with studio equipment, computers, four cars, bank statements and even the hard drives containing songs recorded for Drama's new studio album. Then, they took Drama and Cannon.
They told Drama he was being arrested for bootlegging and racketeering under RICO laws — the kind of serious conspiracy charges used to take down dangerous crime outfits, like the mob. Drama didn't even know what RICO stood for at the time. Police rounded up everybody and took Drama and Cannon separately to Rice Street, where they were booked into the Fulton County Jail.
The news hit the streets like a tidal wave. 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, like he's lost his crown. Together, they look like two deer caught in headlights.
The next morning, Drama woke up in a jail cell for the first time in his life. He and Cannon were able to make bail for a $100,000 apiece. That's when they found out how serious the RICO charges they'd been slapped with really were. On the phone, T.I. explained something Drama didn't know: The feds can confiscate all your funds in a RICO investigation. T.I. told Drama to take his money out of his account, but when Drama looked up his bank records online, he froze. A bank account, consisting of several hundred thousand dollars, reduced to nothing. In that moment, Drama says, he broke down and cried.
When Drama found out his arrest was made in conjunction with the RIAA — the same trade organization whose seal appears on the gold and platinum plaques hanging in his offices — it felt deeper than a personal betrayal. It was a betrayal of hip-hop.
"The labels wouldn't know what was coming next if it wasn't for mixtapes," he says. "It's the veins of the culture. Everything in hip-hop from '95 to 2007 came from mixtapes. The blend style from Ron G, R&B vocals over hip hop beats. That's mixtape s***. That became a style of music that the labels got rich off."
"What we were doing is not wrong," he says. "Gangsta Grillz is the biggest thing, arguably, ever in the mixtapes history. This is what y'all make billions off. Don't sit here and tell me that what we're doing is wrong."
For Drama, it felt like a bait and switch. One day, he was working with major labels to promote their artists; the next, the industry trade group was working with law enforcement to haul him to jail and take his money — money he made, in part, by working with the labels.
Why, then, did the labels go after Drama? NPR reached out to the RIAA, and despite several attempts, the group refused to talk on the record. At the time, Carlos Linares, who was then the Vice President of Anti-Piracy at the RIAA, told MTV News there was "no RIAA policy geared towards going out and enforcing against mixtapes." But, he said, the group did have "an ongoing policy to help identify illicit music product and bring it to the attention of law enforcement."
Drama and Canon 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 added a RICO charge because they were mass distributing the CDs.
The charges were "dead docketed," meaning Drama and Canon wouldn't be prosecuted, but the charges could be reinstated at any time. Drama says the DJs never got their money back; according to him, law enforcement claimed they couldn't prove what was earned from legitimate mixtapes and what was from illegal bootlegs, so they kept it all.
But the culture paid the biggest price. The mixtape game came to a dead halt.
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.
"I felt some guilt because I'm like, yo ... I can't let the mixtape game die on my shoulders," he says. "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 s***'s done. It's over. It's a wrap."
The pushback wasn't just coming from the RIAA, either. The success of Gangsta Grillz was breeding contempt, even among artists like Lil Wayne who'd benefitted from the series most but who weren't getting paid from mixtapes directly.
"This is the same guy that also wound up saying, f***mixtape DJs," Drama recalls of Lil Wayne. "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."
But Drama wasn't completely left out in the cold. After all that drama — the raid, the arrest, the damaged hard drives and the emptied out bank account — he had something beyond street cred. Now that he had a criminal record, Atlantic was more hype than ever to drop his debut record.
By December 2007, nearly 12 months after that fateful day, the Gangsta Grillz album debut — the one Drama and the Aphilliates had been working on the day of the raid — came out. And the first single from that album, "Feds Takin Pictures," features Young Jeezy, Willie the Kid, Jim Jones, Young Buck and Rick Ross — all talking about the long arm of the law watching their every move.
As for mixtapes, Drama still makes them from time to time. But now, they're only a small percentage of the business that keeps him busy. He's an A&R, and he and Cannon run their own label, Generation Now, distributed through Atlantic and responsible for the careers of artists like Lil Uzi Vert, Jack Harlow and more. And Drama says he doesn't have any qualms about having gone back to working with the industry.
"It's not personal, you know what I mean?" he says. "Whether I was an example or whether I had to take the fall or be a martyr ... We took the fall, we stood strong and I hope we made the culture proud." He says when he and Cannon went back to get their property from the police, the police even asked for autographs.
But what remains clear is this: None of the authorities involved in taking down DJ Drama — least of all the RIAA — 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, this squeeze on mixtapes felt like a modern-day remix. Call it the Rap Codes — or, yet another way to police black cultural production.
"Historically, Black folk weren't meant to be citizens of this country," says Bradley. "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 I'm living in, 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 'super predator,' there's always something criminalized in trying to recognize a Black experience. And if there isn't a criminal aspect to it, then it gets overlooked in favor of one that shows a stereotypical representation of what criminal Blackness looks like."
And for all the reformed trappers turned rappers who thought they'd found a way to go legit, it felt like the game was rigged.
"It made us feel like what we were doing was illegal and we might as well keep selling dope," says T.I. He argues that the labels don't have the moral authority because of the way they've cheated Black artists for decades, if not centuries.
"You don't manipulate the people who didn't have no money and didn't have no way in life to goddamn sign away all of their intellectual property for pennies," he says, "and you want them to not use their intellectual property to promote and pay themselves? ... What gave you the right to this material? You used deception to acquire it."
In a way, that explains how Gangsta Grillz became a victim of its own success. It was the loudest, most menacing mixtape series in a genre where being loud and menacing attracts the most attention. Over time, Gangsta Grillz became impossible for law enforcement to overlook.
But what happened to the mixtape DJ? Mixtapes still exist in name, but they definitely aren't the same in spirit. Now, they're much more a means of cultural cache than archetypal format. And as of 2016, mixtapes can even go for the gold and win Grammys.
In the hyperspeed age of music streaming giants like Spotify, Apple Music, SoundCloud and more, the scrappy, covert operation of making mixtapes is obsolete. Today, rappers drop whenever they want and playlist curators dictate exposure, playing the role of keyboard pinch hitter DJs by pushing the button. But the main ingredient — the showmanship of the DJ — is what's missing. Drama may have dodged a bullet, but the culture took a hit.
This story consists of material published within an episode of the NPR Music podcast Louder Than A Riot. It includes editing and reporting by Dustin DeSoto, Matt Ozug, Michael May, Jacob Ganz and Marissa Lorusso.