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.
“Along with artists, producers, engineers, back-up singers, songwriters, and many others within the music community that are profoundly impacted by the kind of music theft Ms. Thomas-Rasset willfully engaged in, we take this case very seriously,” RIAA spokeswoman Liz Kennedy says.
The logic seems sound, but financially bludgeoning fans tends to generate bad PR. So, for the last few years, the industry has been moving away from the massive-litigation approach. All the same, the RIAA still faces a harrowing economic reality. In an age of file-sharing and music-streaming, music sales have dropped 47 percent, according to Kennedy. In January, Cake took the No. 1 album slot on Billboard by selling a mere 440,000 copies of Showroom of Compassion. “Global music piracy causes $12.5 billion of economic losses every year, 71,060 U.S. jobs lost, a loss of $2.7 billion in workers’ earnings, and a loss of $422 million in tax revenues, $291 million in personal income tax, and $131 million in lost corporate income and production taxes,” Kennedy says.
No wonder music companies have cheered as law enforcement got into the anti-copying act. By targeting unauthorized producers and distributors of copyrighted music—as well as clothing and movies—the authorities don’t risk the publicity backlash that comes when a collection of powerful entertainment companies sue homemakers.
The industry pushed hard to get cops involved. A training video leaked in 2008, produced by the RIAA with the National District Attorneys Association, suggested busting copyright violators could lead to drug and gun arrests. (“It might allow you to have probable cause for a drug house you couldn’t get in before,” an official says. “Well, now you can get in by purchasing or doing undercover purchases of illegal CDs.”)
In some cases, the RIAA has even put together teams of ex-cops to do its own police-style raids on those believed to be selling music illegally. The association’s executive vice president of anti-piracy has said the RIAA works with hundreds of law enforcement agencies across the nation and participates in the arrests of thousands of alleged bootleggers.
As local police departments and federal agencies turned their attention to pirates, and the cases switched to criminal prosecution rather than civil suits, the RIAA stayed involved.
The warrant that allowed MPD to storm ListenVision shows that D.C. police have their eyes out for audio contraband. Listen Vision once had a blue, neon sign hanging in its picture window that advertised mixtapes. “It’s just a compilation of original music. That’s our definition of mixtapes,” Beaver says.
The sign, which was mentioned in the warrant, could have been what drew an undercover officer to the studio on Nov. 15. According to court documents, the officer bought two CDs from the studio that included the following A-list artists: “T-Pain, KRS1 [sic], Beastie Boys, and Raheem DeVaughn.”
Listen Vision was selling “deceptively labeled and commercially pirated items,” the warrant said.
Beaver knows the CDs the warrant referred to, so when he was told why the cops were going through his establishment, he says he argued Listen Vision’s compilations were legit. Sure, the discs featured heavy hitters like the Beastie Boys and KRS-ONE, but he had worked with every one of them. “You’ve worked with the Beastie Boys?” Beaver says the RIAA rep scoffed.
Beaver doesn’t remember the rep’s name, but RIAA investigator Mike Middleton is mentioned in the search warrant. (Middleton didn’t return messages left at a consulting firm he’s associated with.) Kennedy says the RIAA regularly hires contractors like Middleton.
Confronted with the rep’s disbelief, Beaver says, he encouraged him to listen to the CDs, which include shout outs to Listen Vision by performers. On a track that features Ghostface, Cappadonna, and Garvey, one of the rappers spits: “When I step in the booth I commence to spitting behind DJ Boom/That’s a big collision.” And on “Bring the Real Back” by KRS-ONE and Rasi Caprice, KRS announces: “I’m rocking right now with DJ Boom/This is KRS-One all in the room.”
The thing is, though, that even if the artists did record with Beaver, he wasn’t necessarily allowed to sell their work. According to D.C.-based copyright attorney Elliott Alderman, “typically there isn’t a rights transfer involved in a recording agreement.”
Alderman and several other entertainment lawyers say it was possible that Beaver has that ability: The complex world of song rights creates endless possibilities. But Beaver hasn’t produced any contract explaining things one way or the other; he claims he’s encumbered by a non-disclosure agreement.
Adding to the murkiness is a longstanding unspoken agreement among hip-hop artists. Mixtapes are done “not infrequently in the hip-hop area. It’s usually done with at least the tacit consent of the label,” says Kenneth Kaufman, a D.C. entertainment lawyer who’s taught a music law course at Yale. The tape creates a buzz, says Kaufman, and it probably doesn’t hurt sales. But “it depends on what the understanding is between the artist and the producer,” Kaufman says.
The understanding goes more or less like this: You can include my songs on a mixtape, as long as that mixtape isn’t wack. Unfortunately, that’s not the sort of agreement that courts and cops usually honor.
Beaver and his studio manager Kevin Carr make an odd pair. Where Beaver is garrulous and impulsive, Carr chooses his words sparingly. But a day after the raid, it’s Carr who sounds livid. “We’re just this little mom-and-pop shop,” he fumes. “How could they do this?” Carr recalls that the “siege” lasted three hours. “They held us for awhile. They questioned us for awhile,” he says. The studio later sought out a lawyer to look into filing a civil suit, but opted against it, he says. It’s a pity: A court case might have fleshed out some of the complexities of mixtape economics.
These days, those complexities can land you in jail. In 2007, Atlanta music promoters DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon were arrested after police seized 81,000 mixtape CDs from their business.
But even if Listen Vision was innocent, Beaver’s hands weren’t completely clean. He and mixtapes have a past.
Attending the posh Connecticut boarding school Loomis Chaffee, Beaver was a jock; his sports career ended after he blew out his shoulder at a football game. His reinvention began not long afterwards, while he was getting his hair cut at Manhattan’s Astor Place Hairstylist. Hip-hop blared over the radio. Beaver noticed how the music got the entire shop bobbing their heads. He convinced his parents to buy him two turntables for his 16th birthday. From then on, he had an alter ego called DJ Boom.
It wasn’t long before DJ Boom was on the club circuit. Beaver became popular enough to start putting out his work in the form of mixtapes that reorganized other people’s material.
When he came to the District as a George Washington University freshman in 1994, Beaver brought his tapes with him. As a way of making some money and getting to know the city, he says he rode Metro to distant neighborhoods with a backpack full of them, selling his product to local stores. “I was selling a hundred mixtapes a week at five dollars a pop,” he says.
Beaver began doing what DJs call “break records.” He says he amassed a small fortune, over a million dollars spread out over nearly a decade. The money was apparently enough to subsidize some nice real estate. After graduation, Beaver found himself living in a Dupont Circle penthouse with his then-girlfriend, who rapped. He got some equipment and staged a recording session in one of the apartment’s bedrooms. He began offering the service to friends. Soon, he claims, performers were lined up to hire him. In 2001, he landed a job at XM Radio, working as a production director on hip-hop programming.
After his relationship fell apart, Beaver went through his heavy drug-use period. But he also put Listen Vision on the map, renting a space and scoring better equipment. Beaver says the studio began making real strides when KRS-One recorded there in 2004. He claims that helped Listen Vision attract big-name clients like the Beastie Boys—though the group’s flak says otherwise.
By the time MPD left his studio in November, Beaver had watched the cops cart away 2,300 of his CDs. He says he received varying explanations as to why MPD was so interested. One cop told him that the sale of mixtapes had been connected to the funding of terrorists. Another suggested the police were still hyped up on the bust of one of Listen Vision’s former neighbors, Target Squad.
That store and recording studio, also on Georgia Avenue, was taken down in July 2007, according to court papers. Busting in to look for counterfeit goods like mixtapes, cops also found marijuana and two handguns (just as the RIAA video would later suggest they could). One of the owners of the studio copped to the guns, and did a year in prison.
There were no guns or drugs found at Listen Vision. But months later, MPD has neither charged anyone from Listen Vision nor given back the cache of CDs they seized. Beaver says most of the music belonged to independent artists.
Local hip-hop artist Rasi Caprice, who appears on one of the Listen Vision compilations, says things aren’t formalized between him and Listen Vision. “This is sort of the deal that me and Boom have,” he says. “We have an agreement, but it’s kind of an unofficial agreement. Ever since Listen Vision started, I sort of have played a role there.”
Caprice says the Listen Vision CDs help with promotion and are akin to a studio release, “the kind of thing Bob Dylan used to do.” He says he’s not interested in working out any rights disputes at the moment. “With each artist, I would have to say, it’s a different case,” he says.
But talk to representatives of some of the other artists Beaver says he’s worked with, and a different pattern emerges. Take Raheem DeVaughn. Michele White, DeVaughn’s assistant manager, says DeVaughn has never been to Listen Vision, despite the fact that his song, “Miss Hi-Heels” appears on one of Beaver’s CDs. “He’s never recorded at the studio before, and he’s never given permission for the song to be used,” White says. “He was like, ‘I ain’t never record there.’”
Through White, DeVaughn does say he remembers cutting the song with “some producer dude” at XM Radio. He couldn’t recall if it was Beaver. Messages left at XM (which has, since Beaver left, merged with Sirius) inquiring about Beaver’s rights to the material weren’t returned.
Then there are the Beastie Boys. A track of theirs appears as “Right Right Now Now (H.H. Remix)” on the Listen Vision Best of Compilation. But Beastie Boys spokeswoman Laura Eldeiry says the “Beastie Boys have never used Listen Vision Studios, and DJ Boom did not produce the song.” She insists the band produces all their songs at their own Oscilloscope Studios in New York.
It turns out some of the tracks on the Listen Vision CDs were actually recorded—or simply remixed—during Beaver’s two years at XM Radio. “A lot of the big names I worked with were at XM,” Beaver admits when I ask him about the artists’ denials. The Beastie Boys were never in the studio with him at all, he allows, but he insists it’s still appropriate to include them on a compilation because he’s the founder of Listen Vision: “As a producer I have the right to collect and highlight my work.”
That’s not necessarily a theory of copyright law many people—or courts—would agree with. But Beaver sticks to it. “I guess in some way, shape, or form XM has rights to it, but in some way, shape, or form, we have rights to it, too,” Beaver argues. He claims he has paperwork proving he’s allowed to sell all the tracks on the compilation CDs MPD confiscated.
Except he also says his lawyer has advised him not to make the contracts that would prove his claims public. “It would be a legal move that would be pretty questionable,” he says. “My lawyer and myself aren’t comfortable revealing the contract because it would be a breach of privacy.” The contracts allowing him to sell the tracks, Beaver says, include non-disclosure agreements.
Beaver does produce videos or photos of artists like Run-DMC, Flo Rida, Rick Ross, and Ghostface Killah at Listen Vision; KRS-One recorded a whole theme song for the studio. But at least some of the tracks on his compilations appear to be in the same legal area as many hip-hop mixtapes—which is to say, a murky one at best.
Why, though, does MPD care? If mixtapes help promote the artists and the studio, and everyone involved agrees to wink and nod about the legal arrangements, are a few compilation CDs really the sort of thing the city’s law enforcement authorities should be focusing on?
The RIAA’s Kennedy says Listen Vision had an “inordinate amount of illegal CDs” that violated “true name and address” law. “As you would guess, it’s clearly illegal to affix the Listen [Vision] name on any CDs for which the individuals or entity does not own the copyrights to, including many of those at issue here,” she says.
D.C. copyright law says a business can be guilty of counterfeiting or piracy if it sells a recording or a DVD that doesn’t “clearly and conspicuously” display the name and address of the manufacturer. That information has to be on the cover, label, or jacket of the item. The belief is that those selling the products illegally wouldn’t want to provide a valid name and address. The law represents a good way of going after mixtapes or bootlegs. Beaver’s compilations have an address, though it appears inside the cover, where it might be hard to spot. He says many of the discs confiscated without addresses were part of the studio’s library.
Even assuming that all the CDs MPD seized were pirated, the studio represents, at most, a small problem. Selling CDs isn’t a major component of their business model. That means the labels aren’t looking at a major threat. Likewise, the artists on the Listen Vision comps won’t likely be knocking down Beaver’s door soon. Mixtapes, after all, are hip-hop tradition. You could make a pretty good case that MPD should focus on other things.
Beaver, though, wouldn’t agree with you. He believes the RIAA should be going after music pirates. Occasionally, he runs into bootlegs of his own material. “My products and my beats have been stolen for years,” he says. “I’m more of a victim than anyone else. That’s the irony of the situation.”