Several clerks spent the night in prison after allegedly selling a bootleg mixtape to an undercover officer last week. According to Pitchfork:
“After the sale, police produced a search warrant, fingered the arrestees, shut down the store for roughly five hours, and confiscated, according to the RIAA, “500 CD-Rs, 27 Music DVDs, Nine DVD burners, and a scanner,” among other items, which include the computer containing the store’s database and recent sales records.” — NYC Record Store Mondo Kim’s Raided by RIAA, Pitchfork, 10 June 2005
To people outside of hip-hop, bootlegging of this sort seems a cut-and-dry case of piracy. Upon further examination, however, the situation reveals itself far cloudier. Once purely regional, the underground mixtape trade is responsible for launching careers, testing potential new singles, and carrying news throughout the decentralized rap network. Recognized sports figures and famous radio DJs are often found hosting mixes while artists and producers leak out exclusive mixtape-only remixes to start street-level buzz.
50 Cent and G-Unit, the biggest artists in hip-hop today, got their start on the mixtape circuit. Rising stars (and blog favorites) the Diplomats and Swishahouse have both established themselves based on relentless mixtape appearances. Groups such as these often move more than 10,000 copies of a mix produced, manufactured, and distributed completely independently of existing industry structures. With this type of success, artists are effectively creating a new hip-hop middle class.
The increasingly frequent crackdowns on the mixtape economy evidence a hypocrisy permeating the entertainment industry’s assault on democratized media production. While collecting revenue from hip-hop superstars, major record labels are working to choke out the very farm-league systems that wean them.
Furthermore, the mixtape trade is one of the last areas of contemporary music to retain the regional nature that once characterized pop music across the U.S. Houston’s mixtapes are slow and hazy. Miami is nasty and puerile. New York backpackers value wordplay and sample-based production while the Puerto Rican population churns out reggaeton remixes of every song on Hot97.7.
In the struggle for a liberated culture of critical creativity, the hip-hop mixtape economy deserves to be supported and lauded as an example of bottom-up media democracy in action.
Update: Be sure to visit DJ Ripley’s blog for valuable further discussion.