April 26, 2008 / 12:35 AM / in 10 years

Bootleg "mixtape" CDs back from underground

NEW YORK (Billboard) - Fifteen months after mixtape pioneer DJ Drama was arrested for racketeering, bootleg hip-hop CDs are as popular as ever.

On a recent Billboard Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart, no fewer than seven mixtapes made the tally, five of which contained uncleared music from Lil Wayne, T-Pain, Young Jeezy, Rick Ross and Rocko.

What’s more, according to the labels and managers that represent these artists, none of these CDs were sanctioned, including titles “We the Best,” “Lil Wayne and Birdman Present: Happy Father’s Day” and “The Hitmen Presents T-Pain: The Midas Touch Man.”

“I don’t think it went away — it has gone underground,” says Rob Scarcello, senior VP of sales at Koch Entertainment Distribution, which released “We the Best” and “The Hitmen Present” on behalf of another label. “Is it making its second or third pass at the mainstream? There’s still huge demand for it.”

DJ Drama and his partner, DJ Don Cannon, were arrested in January 2007 on felony charges under the Racketeering Influenced Corrupt Organizations Act but never formally charged. (Drama told Billboard he believes his name is cleared.) The raid, led by the major music labels, resulted in the reported seizure of mixtape CDs, office computers, recording equipment and four cars. The company’s assets were also frozen.

As a result, the business of mixtapes, which were routinely used in the marketing campaigns for hip-hop albums, faced new scrutiny while retailers, DJs, artists and labels contemplated how to promote new music without breaking the law.

Universal Music Group tried to satisfy the market with a legal series called “Lethal Squad Mixtapes,” the best-selling title of which has sold 14,000 units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But according to a Universal source, the company’s laborious clearance process slowed the releases, negating the mixtape’s purpose as a rapid new-music source.

Instead, many DJs either released product quietly or via free online downloads like 2007’s Mick Boogie and Little Brother’s “And Justus for All.”

Chart-wise, it’s not abnormal to see two or three mixtapes on Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums; two mixtapes hit the charts the week prior to and following the raid on DJ Drama. However, as 2007 progressed, seven mixtapes had climbed onto the R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart by October.

One of the companies partially responsible for the new charting boom is RBC Records, a Los Angeles-based indie label and subdistributor. RBC released “We the Best” and “The Hitmen Presents T-Pain: The Midas Touch Man” — both distributed by Koch — which feature uncleared usages of songs from Universal and Zomba artists. They have collectively sold 13,000 units in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

RBC is even utilizing an apparently unlicensed brand name (“We the Best”) widely popularized by DJ Khaled, whose albums are also distributed by Koch. (Koch declined comment on this subject; RBC declined all comment for this article.)

“It’s not legal,” Universal VP of marketing Katina Bynum says. “We’re extremely unhappy about it. We never clear mixtapes, especially if the artist or label aren’t making money.”

Wayne’s upcoming album, “The Carter III,” has been delayed several times because of heavy bootlegging and now Universal is feverishly trying to plug the holes.

“I actually just saw ‘We the Best’ on iTunes,” Lil Wayne’s manager Cortez Bryant says. “I called my attorney yesterday to get to the bottom of it, then I walked into Best Buy and saw another mixtape, ‘Dedication 2,’ that we put out for free.”

And although high-profile artists like 50 Cent and Ludacris told Billboard that prosecuting each illegal mixtape is a waste of time and money, Bryant says he is pursuing legal action to stop the release of these tapes.

“Mixtapes put Wayne where he is in his career,” Bryant says. “But right now, its confusing the consumer. They’re thirsty for music so they go out and buy. They don’t know what to believe. I can’t believe these companies are so bold.”


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