The Aphilliates’ inner circle, in their Atlanta studio, from left: Willie the Kid, DJ Drama, Jay Stevenson (the studio engineer), DJ Sense, DJ Don Cannon.
By SAMANTHA M. SHAPIRO In 1996, Sense and Drama, then both freshmen majoring in mass communications, met in Brawley Hall, their dorm at Clark Atlanta University. C.A.U. is part of the country’s largest consortium of historically black colleges, directly abutting Morehouse and Spelman. Drama and Sense were both aspiring D.J.s, and they were both from Philadelphia. After they met, they competed in a local D.J. battle and became friends. The following year they met Cannon, also a D.J. from Philadelphia (“Aphilliates” combines the Phil of Philadelphia with an A for Atlanta), and the three became inseparable. Each D.J. found his own niche: Sense interned at WHTA, Cannon spun records at college parties and Drama started selling his own mixtapes. Every night in his apartment, Drama made 10 copies of his latest cassette, and the next day he brought them to campus. Between classes, he would set up a cheap yellow boom box on a major promenade at C.A.U. known as the Strip and offer tapes for sale.
In his junior year, in 1998, Drama put together a compilation of Southern hip-hop, which was beginning to emerge nationally as a distinct sound and style. Often called dirty South, it was more dance-oriented and melodic and raunchier than hip-hop from either coast. That mixtape, “Jim Crow Laws,” sold well, and Drama decided to start a Southern series, which he named Gangsta Grillz. Amateur mistakes were made early on — “we actually spelled ‘Grillz’ with an S,” Drama recalled — but the series quickly took off. Through Sense, Drama met a young local rapper named Lil Jon, who had helped invent a frenetic new style of hip-hop known as crunk. Drama asked Lil Jon to be the host of a mixtape, and Jon did a manic series of drops throughout Gangsta Grillz No. 4. It was the first CD that Drama was able to get into stores.
Mixtapes have long played an important role in hip-hop. In the late 1970s, before rap music was ever recorded onto vinyl or played on a radio station, people found out about hip-hop acts through live recordings of D.J. sets from block parties or clubs. Those cassette recordings were duplicated by hand and sold on the street or in record stores, and given free to gypsy-cab drivers in the Bronx as promotional tools. Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, mixtapes remained an important subculture. In the last five years, though, they have risen to a more prominent place in the industry and made the most successful D.J.s rich.
Mixtapes fill a void left by the consolidation of record labels and radio stations. In the mid-1990s, sales of independent hip-hop albums exceeded those from major releases. But those smaller independent labels were bought out by major labels, and in the late ’90s, the last major independent distributor collapsed. This left few routes for unknown hip-hop artists to enter the market; it also made the stakes higher for major labels, which wanted a better return on their investment. As Jeff Chang, author of “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop,” a history of hip-hop, told me recently, “The whole industry shifted to massive economies of scale, and mixtapes are a natural outgrowth and response to that.”
Mixtape D.J.s came to be seen as the first tier of promotions for hip-hop artists, a stepping stone to radio play. Labels began aiding and abetting mixtape D.J.s, sending them separate digital tracks of vocals and beats from songs so they could be easily remixed. They also started sending copies of an artist’s mixtape out to journalists and reviewers along with the official label release. DJ Chuck T, a mixtape D.J. in South Carolina, told me that when label employees send him tracks to include on his mixtapes, they request a copy of the mixtape so that they can show their bosses the track is “getting spin from the street.” He also said record-label promoters want sales figures for his mixtapes so they can chart sales patterns, which they use in marketing their own releases.
Mixtape D.J.s have effectively absorbed many of the functions of an A&R department, the branch of a record label that traditionally discovers and develops new talent. Ron Stewart, a promotions coordinator at Jive Records, a subsidiary of Sony BMG Music, told me he prefers to test new artists out on mixtapes. “Budget permitting,” he said, “we’d do a few mixtapes with a few D.J.s, because they have different audiences in different regions.” Labels prefer to use established mixtape D.J.s like Drama, rather than produce promotional CDs themselves, Stewart said, because “the best D.J.s have a better brand than the average label does.”
Although the deals are informal and often secret, labels typically pay a prominent D.J. like Drama $10,000 to $15,000 to produce a mixtape for an artist. The label’s representatives, Stewart explained, adopt what amounts to a don’t ask, don’t tell policy about the D.J.s plans to sell the work; what the D.J. does with his copy of the master, Stewart said, “is his own business.” For successful D.J.s, mixtape sales can bring considerable revenue. Mixtapes sell for anywhere from $5 to $10 on the street or on a Web site like Mixunit, and overhead is low, since the CDs cost only about 50 cents to manufacture and D.J.s rarely pay royalties or licensing fees.
Although many hip-hop artists view mixtapes as an essential way to build their careers, some are critical of aspects of the system. One editor of a hip-hop magazine, who would comment only anonymously, told me: “in the aftermath of the raid, talking to artists, the stuff they say when Drama’s not around … there is a little bit of animosity, because he is clearly making money off these artists. They all saw his car being towed off on TV. What was it? A Maserati?”
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