How DJ Drama Became The King of Mixtapes

He was the world’s most successful mixtape DJ until a raid in 2007 (and the digital world) changed his approach

DJ Drama feat. Chris Brown, Skeme, Lyquin - Wishing

DJ Drama stands in front of a height chart, next to Chris Brown. Proof of their alleged crime – cocaine bricks – flashes on the screen. This video for Drama’s 2016 single “Wishing” gets stranger: The cops sizing them up are women, who they fantasize of getting to know better. But the scripted drama pales in comparison to the reality Drama was living in just a decade ago.

On January 16, 2007, a SWAT team raided the Atlanta studio belonging to Drama, then 28, and producer Don Cannon. Reps from the Recording Industry Association of America came, too. They didn’t find any drugs or weapons – just 81,000 mixtapes in slim jewel cases. Cops called them “counterfeiters,” but the music wasn’t pirated. This was original material, mostly by hip-hop artists, with Drama and Cannon at the helm. The music industry had even started to recognize the increasing strength of their brand. Months prior, Warner Music Group inked a distribution deal with their company, the Aphilliates.

“During the raid, there were people [at the labels] that were like, ‘Why is this happening?’” Drama said in Ben Westhoff’s Dirty South: OutKast, Lil Wayne, Soulja Boy and the Southern Rappers Who Reinvented Hip-Hop.

There is no mistaking Drama’s place within the music industry now. But he earned his position by operating within a legal gray area. Up until his arrest, mixtapes were transforming hip-hop from outside the major label system. Drama, the biggest mixtape DJ around, was a huge reason why.

Mixtapes used to be cassette recordings of party mixes, with DJs like the Bronx’s Kid Capri acting as master of ceremonies. By the time that Drama, born Tyree Simmons, moved down south to attend Clark Atlanta University in 1996, mixtapes featured original freestyles in addition to remixes over preexisting production. It was the dominant style on DJ SNS’s Old School Part 2, which Drama got during a day trip to Harlem – the first tape he ever bought. Plus, everyone on the Clark campus also had at least one tape by DJ Clue. Both SNS and Clue became known for having exclusive tracks before other DJs, far before they reached the radio.

Drama met DJ Sense his first year on campus. The following year he met Don Cannon, another Philadelphia native, who proved that he could also produce by handing Drama a beat tape. Before the Aphilliates became a music company, working with major label acts like OutKast to produce mixtapes under the Gangsta Grillz banner, it was a DJ crew. Cannon performed at parties, Sense interned at a radio station and Drama was hawking mixtapes, as he had since freshman year.

[The South] didn’t want to hear no new records, no talking, no exclusives, no freestyles, none of that... I took a different approach, and went totally against the grain.

DJ Drama, as told to Nah Right

Drama had already tried selling two different types of tapes. One was of underground New York hip-hop artists. The other was of the R&B and neosoul that had overtaken his native Philadelphia, presented as a series called Automatic Relaxation. But when he took his tapes to Atlanta-area stores like Tapemasters, Drama would see that DJs like Clue and Whoo Kid had long beat him to the songs featured on his tapes. He also couldn’t ignore how customers wanted rowdier Southern anthems. The South, though its hip-hop artists were as prolific as ever, was still underserved. “There wasn’t a real big mixtape movement in the South,” DJ Drama said to Philadelphia Weekly, seven years after he released his first Southern hip-hop mixtape, Jim Crow Laws, which featured Cash Money, Three 6 Mafia and OutKast, among others.

Drama has said a million times over that when he was coming up, the only game in Atlanta was Big Oomp Records. The label had eight storefronts throughout the South, a big sell being mixes by DJ Jelly. (The Organized Noize collaborator, who also DJed at the Magic City strip club and radio station V-103, was an early adopter of mash-ups.) Big Oomp catered to what they knew their customers wanted – Drama saw that. But he wanted to distinguish himself as a DJ. He figured he could use the basic template of his beloved East Coast tapes to boost a new wave of Southern hip-hop. Drama looked to Doo Wop’s 95 Live, the mixtape that established Doo Wop as one of the first DJs to boast exclusives – rappers like Q-Tip, Busta Rhymes and Mobb Deep had gone over to his home to record, just for him. Drama wanted to do 95 Live, but for fans of Big Oomp.

“[The South] didn’t want to hear no new records, no talking, no exclusives, no freestyles, none of that,” Drama said to Nah Right. “Just play the shit they know. I took a different approach, and went totally against the grain. I started talking all over my tapes. Playing new shit. I came from an era where DJs used to do shout outs on tapes to the artists on the songs, different stores they were hustling at, and their homies and their crews.”

One other key factor helped Drama succeed. Major labels were buying out independent labels, and wanted a better return on investment. Unknown hip-hop artists had fewer options for making themselves heard – but they had Drama’s Gangsta Grillz. Over time, that mixtape series became one of the most trusted brand names in hip-hop.

T.I. - U Don’t Know Me

T.I. is just one case study. Arista had dropped him due to low sales of 2001 debut I’m Serious, but his business partner Jason Geter spotted a Drama tape at the barbershop, which led to Gangsta Grillz Meets T.I. & P$C and 2004’s Down with the King. You could hear the scrappy Bankhead native sharpen his songwriting chops; “U Don’t Know Me,” which peaked at number 23 on the Hot 100, first appeared on Down with the King. But throughout, T.I. also calls out rap luminaries from Lil Flip’s native Houston over his alleged reputation. Drama’s sequencing from one diss to another helped sell this mixtape-length takedown of T.I.’s then-rival as a mini-album.

Drama’s next win was when he coined the term “quality street music” to describe his own efforts. It was 2005, and Young Jeezy was still referring to cocaine by its name, rather than by some oblique reference. Trap or Die was both artists treating this low-stakes mixtape format as if assured of the work’s singular nature. Moreover, Trap or Die plays out like the first draft of Jeezy’s platinum-selling Def Jam debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101. He tests out punchlines (“You ain’t even seen them pies / I’m talking so much white, it’ll hurt your eyes”). He tries out boasts about shopping sprees at Walter’s, the sneaker store-turned-downtown Atlanta landmark. He even lifted songs wholesale from Trap or Die for Let’s Get It, like “Get Ya Mind Right” and, of course, “Trap or Die.”

Young Jeezy - Trap Or Die

On the heels of these successes, the Aphilliates collective signed a joint venture deal with Asylum Records in 2006. They had two radio shows: one on Fridays for Eminem’s Shade 45 on Sirius XM, and one on Saturdays for Atlanta’s HOT 107.9. Small distributors began selling Drama’s CDs, with barcodes, at Best Buy.

“I could put out a mixtape and we could get it right next to everybody else’s mixtapes at Tapemasters and Fat Gear and Big Oomp’s stores without any record label affiliation because of the company and the regime that we built from Aphilliates,” Drama protege Willie the Kid said in mixtape history tome The Art Behind the Tape. “And really it was what Drama did with Gangsta Grillz that anchored it all. The credibility of Gangsta Grillz really held it down.”

Lil' Wayne - Sportcenter

That gold standard would be further established once Drama met Lil Wayne in 2004, when he was T.I.’s touring DJ. “Everyone know if you do a mixtape, you gotta come through Drama,” Wayne says in Dedication 2, the warning shot before “A Milli.” This former Hot Boy was approaching the height of his powers, recording four to five songs at a time. Freewheeling freestyles like “Sportscenter” demanded respect from beyond the South. Who was to argue with Wayne? Or Drama, who called himself the best, crowing over how he’d gained some weight while the rap game was hungry to hear more?

Some details in the story of Drama’s arrest are still fuzzy. The number of CDs that were reportedly confiscated by the RIAA grew from 25,000 to 50,000 and, at last, 81,000. A similar confusion surrounds how much artists and labels would have been paying Drama to create them. (One reported sum was $20,000.) In the raid’s immediate aftermath, all he would say is that he “got rich” as a mixtape DJ, with mixtapes being his primary source of income. “Every time I was approached by a mixtape D.J., they tried to sell me the dream there was no money in it, and it was something artists need to do to help their album sales. But I know how much bread can be made,” Pimp C said to The New York Times. “If you’re making money, chop it up with me.”

Childish Gambino - Move That Dope / Nextel Chirp / Let Your Hair Blow

What was clear, though, was how Drama helped boost this second wave of Southern hip-hop. In fact, the success of Down with the King, Trap or Die and Dedication 2 (“230,000 units strong in these streets!” Drama boasts to kick off Trap or Die) is why artists from all regions would come to treat Gangsta Grillz as a rite of passage. With over 150 mixtapes in that series, Drama has shown how he was more than happy to be that gatekeeper. Before Childish Gambino’s STN MTN contribution, there was Little Brother reminding that not all Southerners do trap rap. There was Meek Mill, the lyrical Tasmanian devil from Drama’s native Philadelphia. Chris Brown worked with him. So did Jeremih, and even comedian Katt Williams.

According to Don Cannon, the impetus behind the 2007 raid was A Trip to St. Elsewhere, by CeeLo Green, Danger Mouse and the Aphilliates. “Gnarls Barkley came to us saying they started a new group, are going to be huge, just signed to Atlantic Records, and have this new single called ‘Crazy,’” the Aphilliates in-house producer said to The Art Behind the Tape. He adds that, even though A Trip to St. Elsewhere also featured older CeeLo, Danger Mouse and Goodie Mob cuts, Atlantic’s upper-level executives thought the project to be a bootleg version of Gnarls Barkley’s 2006 debut, St. Elsewhere.

Drama and Cannon were both working at V-103 when they were arrested and charged for racketeering. When Drama’s lawyers got his charges dropped from a felony to a misdemeanor, he was still convicted on Georgia’s “names and addresses” statute. This ruled that, for mixtapes to be considered legal for sale, a CD needed an address on it – a mere technicality.

The streaming and various platforms have kind of made the mixtape DJ somewhat irrelevant, to be honest. Things are changing.

DJ Drama

Granted, that incident wasn’t even the first of its kind. Retail stores had been targeted. Sites like MixUnit stopped carrying mixtapes altogether. But the sight of Drama and Don Cannon in navy prison garb, and at the height of their careers, was what inspired DJs to collectively ditch their jewel cases and host their mixtapes online.

“I took the fall for hip-hop” is how Drama describes the incident, opening his 2007 solo debut Gangsta Grillz: The Album. “The Setup” relates what happened that night, but with a smirk. In this scenario, the first officers to apprehend Drama and Cannon received a bottle of Scotch. Once the squad begins sifting through the so-called illegal wares, though, their leader complains. “Don’t break all of them. I’m taking some of them home to my kids.”

Drama is still a marquee act, his face as recognizable as it was when it appeared on Wayne’s Dedication. But Drama’s relationship with the music industry has changed significantly. Gangsta Grillz: The Album was a Grand Hustle/Atlantic release, and in 2014, he joined Atlantic’s A&R staff. While Gangsta Grillz mixtapes were looser displays of an artist’s prowess, thrilling in unexpected ways, Drama’s solo releases are blockbuster events, overstuffed with marquee-name features. Quality Street Music 2, of which “Wishing” is the lead single, isn’t different – guests include T.I., Jeezy, Meek Mill, Wiz Khalifa, Young Thug and Lil Uzi Vert.

Uzi is signed to Drama’s Atlantic imprint Generation Now – Drama is now presenting new artists through the music industry’s more traditional channels. “Wishing” also features two more signees, rappers Skeme and Lyquin, who may represent Drama’s best shot at navigating the industry now. No one quite knew what If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late was when it popped up for sale on iTunes. That is, until Drake spoke up: “This is just a mixtape, the album coming soon.” (Datpiff co-founder KP Reilly later revealed that If You’re Reading This was originally to be a Gangsta Grillz and Datpiff exclusive.)

Meanwhile, on Coloring Book — another release that was free, though only for Apple Music subscribers — Chance the Rapper wondered aloud whether anyone still cares about a mixtape. Similarly, during a Twitter Q&A, Drama questioned the role of mixtape DJs in 2016. “The landscape has changed,” he said. “... the streaming and various platforms have kind of made the mixtape DJ somewhat irrelevant, to be honest. Things are changing. That’s why I went and got me a record label.”

Lil Uzi Vert is from Philadelphia, though he has relocated to Atlanta to seem plucked from the city’s post-Wayne wave of oddball rap. His two full-length efforts so far (Luv Is Rage, Lil Uzi Vs. the World) appear right at home with the mixtape-album hybrids released in wake of the 2007 raid. Drama’s voice isn’t heard yelling on either project, as he would on a Gangsta Grillz tape. The DNA is still there, though.

By Christina Lee on August 15, 2016

On a different note