My RSS aggregator’s on fire today with the news that Don Cannon and DJ Drama, two of the most popular mix-tape producers in hip-hop right now, have been busted like common pirates by the Atlanta cops, apparently at the behest of the RIAA. Way to go, guys. If anyone had any lingering doubts about major-label ineptitude, I’m sure they’re erased now. 

There are several different levels of fucked-up in this situation. Cannon and Drama aren’t street-level bootleggers, for one. Check out the video report from Atlanta’s Fox affiliate and you’ll see that the CDs (“mix tapes” are usually CDs)  the authorities are seizing (check out those butch FBI-style RIAA windbreakers) aren’t burned copies of the new Young Jeezy. They’re the latest installment of the latest Gangsta Grillz mix tape, and every rapper on it is there by his own free will, not from getting his shit jacked over Limewire. Mix tapes at Drama and Cannon’s level are comprised of exclusives and “officially” leaked tracks–it’s a point of pride that they don’t have to steal. Cannon and Drama aren’t ripping off these rappers — they’re making their careers. At this point Drama’s considered one of the most respected and successful tastemakers in hip-hop, and the Dedication Vol. 2 mix tape he did with Lil Wayne last year ended up on a ton of major year-end lists. And Young Jeezy owes more than a little of his platinum success to Cannon’s tour de force production on “Go Crazy.”

Although the modern mix-tape industry operates as sort of a light-gray market in terms of legality, it’s been steadily gaining importance in the major-label rap game. Until now, higher-ups at the labels have been more than willing to ignore the beat-jacking and the not-so-contractually-legit appearances by their artists in order to reap the benefits they offer. Some of them even pay for the opportunity. Mix tapes are where new rappers are discovered; they’ve broken artists like 50 Cent who’ve gone on to make the labels millions. And even established acts depend on them. Popularity cycles turn over even faster in hip-hop these days than they do in trend-conscious indie rock. Mix tapes let rappers stay on their fickle fans’ radar  between legitimate releases. They’re also effectively free promotional tools for those releases. A pre-album mix tape is de rigueur in the rap world: it primes the record-buying audience, gives rappers a chance to start or rekindle any beefs they have going on, and imparts street cred to even the poshest MC. The prequel to Young Jeezy’s recent album The Inspiration, entitled I Am the Street Dream, was produced by DJ Drama.

At this point, it’s hard to imagine rap music without mix tapes. They’ve evolved from an adjunct to the mainstream scene to an integral part of it, and for the fans and artists who get off on the anarchic thrills they offer, they’re probably the best part. With this bust, the RIAA isn’t just saying that it’s no longer willing to let Drama and Cannon keep making money on their side hustle. It’s saying that it doesn’t give a fuck about hip-hop.