Mixed-Up Raid

Artists Under Attack


On January 16, 2007, 30 police officers in SWAT gear stormed the studio of Atlanta's DJ Drama, one of the most influential hip-hop figures in the country. Footage provided by a local TV station shows officials from the Recording Industry Association of America accompanying police on the raid, wearing dark slickers emblazoned with the letters RIAA in bright yellow.

Drama and DJ Cannon, another musician, were arrested for violating Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by illegally selling copyrighted material. But subsequent reports by The New York Times and MTV News indicate that Drama and Cannon weren't selling bootleg CDs. The raid was part of the recording industry's effort to crack down on the practice of selling mix-tape CDs.

Such CDs typically include remixes of popular songs, performances by new hip-hop artists, B-side tracks, and unreleased tracks from signed artists. They are the lifeblood of hip-hop music, giving new musicians the chance to hone their talent before seeking out a record contract. It's unclear whether they violate copyright law, and the recording industry has long had an ambivalent attitude toward them. The CDs often offer sneak previews of upcoming albums, helping to build the hype that leads to better sales.

Best-selling rapper 50 Cent got his start on mix tapes, and artists such as Lil Wayne and Young Jeezy owe their careers to DJ Drama. At least until the January raid, Drama himself was preparing for his first major-label release.

Enacted as a weapon against violent organized crime syndicates, RICO statutes are increasingly being used to charge abortion protesters, overseas Internet gambling operators, and other nonviolent suspects. In 1999 then-Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) even suggested that drug legalization advocates be prosecuted under the federal RICO statute. In this case, the recording industry's complaint against DJ Drama was essentially civil in nature. RICO laws made it criminal, enabling the unnecessary show of force.

A spokesman for the Fulton County Sheriff's Office says that even though there was no specific reason to think Drama or Cannon posed any threat, the SWAT team was used because many bootleggers also possess drugs and weapons. Police found no drugs or weapons, only several thousand CDs.