On the evening of Nov. 23, Jeremy Beaver woke up with a shotgun in his face.
Beaver, 34, also known as DJ Boom, owns Listen Vision Recording Studios, a mid-sized recording studio on Georgia Avenue. He’d just finished a long afternoon session in the control room, sweating over some recordings for local hip-hop artist Black Rain. He figured he’d crash on the old couch in the back room for a few minutes before the next client arrived. The gun woke him up.
The fact that the hand gripping it belonged to a cop didn’t help much. The cop tossed Beaver to the floor and cinched a pair of handcuffs around his wrists. As Beaver ate carpet, he says he heard doors being kicked open.
The Fourth District vice squad moved through with a precision that comes from raiding drug houses and brothels, places where there’s a decent chance suspects will be armed and resistant. The studio wasn’t that sort of place. When the six or so Listen Vision employees around that day heard the words, “Police, get on the floor,” they complied.
Beaver, though, wanted to know why his business was being ransacked. “Would somebody please me tell what’s going on?” he remembers asking. Beaver was told to pipe down. MPD says it won’t comment on an ongoing investigation.
Beaver’s mind raced. He had a past: “A horrible relationship with cocaine for about two years,” he says. But he hasn’t touched drugs or alcohol in four years. Could the cops be there for an employee or client carrying contraband?
After about thirty minutes, the black-clad officers seemed to find what they were looking for. They relaxed, cracking some jokes: “Smells much better than a crack house in here,” one of them said. One cop tried playing a few licks on an electric guitar.
Beaver says he caught sight of a man in a dark suit standing in the background who resembled the late comedian W.C. Fields. Fields, he recalls, seemed to ooze authority and contempt. He eventually told Beaver who he was, or at least what he represented: the Recording Industry Association of America.
The man, it turned out, was key to this most unlikely of busts: “They said we were selling mixtapes,” Beaver says.
A mixtape can be a lot of things. In some cases, it’s something you’ll find in an attic full of 1980s memorabilia—something a young music lover might have taken pains to create before the rise of compact discs and MP3s. Pressing the thick buttons of a tape player to score a compilation of favorite songs, the connoisseur would have struggled to time and order the songs in a way that communicated something personal.
But as hip-hop flourished, a mixtape became much more.
Sometimes, it was a demo where upcoming rappers covered established ones, or spit new lyrics over tracks belonging to someone else. Other times, it was a DJ showcasing his or her mixing and scratching skills by manipulating songs. A mixtape could also mean a DJ acting as radio station, compiling the newest or hottest or most forbidden tracks. And it was sometimes unreleased songs that were likely leaked on purpose.
The items cost as little as four bucks, and were sold on street corners as well as in music stores. One thing most mixtapes had in common, though, was that they were technically illegal, as they contained copyrighted material.
These days, mixtapes aren’t even usually tapes. Most take the form of CDs or online downloads. According to local mixtape maker and go-go promoter DJ Supa Dan, they’re most often used by artists who want to “market their product prior to the debut of their official album. Unfortunately, there aren’t any more tapes, but we continue to use the terminology since it’s been used for so long.”
Though they exist in a nebulous corner of copyright law, mixtapes have been tolerated—and for good reason: As promotional tools, they help new artists make names for themselves, and even help big record companies sell albums. But with the bust at Listen Vision, that look-the-other-way status quo didn’t seem to apply.
The RIAA’s membership consists of the major music industry labels. Even today, these labels—such as Columbia, Warner Bros., and Virgin—still supply about 80 percent of the country’s music.
Formed in the 1950s, the RIAA was once lauded for helping musicians fight censorship. But its righteous reputation has lately taken a hit. Nowadays, it’s better known for suing music fans for illegally sharing songs online.
In 2005, the RIAA began filing copyright lawsuits seeking judgments up to $150,000 per stolen melody. It told accused violators they could settle out of court at a much cheaper price. Some, like Jammie Thomas-Rasset, didn’t. The RIAA won a $1.5 million judgment against the Minnesota single mother in November. Thomas-Rasset had been accused of sharing 24 songs.