2 Chainz & DJ Drama: From Mixtapes to Millions

A few years after the start of the millennium, the major record label system found itself in the midst of an upheaval. Obstructed by an archaic business model and illegal downloads, major labels failed to adapt to new technology, and, in turn, struggled to develop artists. Profits dwindled as the future of music commerce became more uncertain each day. The chaotic circumstances caused panic throughout the industry.

But hip-hop may have had the solution to weak sales and lack of artist development in-house so to speak — DJs and rappers solved the music industry’s biggest dilemma. What comes next is a tale of how a DJ and a rapper made it work playing by their own rules.

“So. Do you think I should sign a million-dollar [record] deal?” 2 Chainz asked of his confidante and fellow industry  insider, DJ Drama. As the two sat down at Dewayne Rogers’ photo studio on a brisk evening in downtown Atlanta, they took turns exchanging information and insight on the intricacies of the music industry.

And like an older cousin breaking it down and offering words of wisdom, DJ Drama said, “The way you are doing it is the way it is supposed to be done. If there is a situation for you that makes sense, it will only take you to another level. But it’s not like you haven’t seen a million dollars before. It depends on where the millions are coming from. I’m not personally hyped off of the million-dollar deal situation. Because there are people who sign the big deal, but it never pans out.”

2 Chainz and DJ Drama are perfect examples of hip-hop artists who achieved major success without depending on a major label. Their most important tool of the trade happens to be the mixtape.

Two years after leaving a major label to strike out on his own as a solo artist, 2 Chainz’s investment in himself is paying off. The release of two outstanding mixtapes, Codeine Cowboy and T.R.U. REALigion, rejuvenated his career and gave him worldwide recognition.

“I realized the power of the mixtape game after Codeine Cowboy dropped last February,” 2 Chainz says. “So with the latest mixtape [T.R.U. REALigion], I felt like the only thing that was missing was me going overseas. Everything I do, I want it to make sense. It got to a point where people were paying a lot more attention to what I do outside of Atlanta [and the entire U.S.].”

But when it comes to the origins of how the mixtape gained prominence, DJ Drama’s name should be at the top of the list. His Gangsta Grillz brand changed how rappers promoted themselves to the public. Young Jeezy (Trap or Die), Lil Wayne (Dedication) and T.I. (In Da Streets) are all artists who gained prominence during the early 2000s after teaming up with DJ Drama to release a Gangsta Grillz mixtape.

Eventually, mixtapes became a rite of passage for any rapper or DJ looking to build a buzz, remain relevant or rejuvenate a stalled career. It was a way for hip-hop artists to reclaim their art and reach fans without the help of a major label. That bold independence frightened the Recording Industry Association of America and its members prompted the police to arrest and raid DJ Drama’s office in 2007. The arrest played out as an act of desperation on the  part of the RIAA and it actually strengthened the mixtape business.

“{Now], there is no argument across the board [or] on any side of the industry on how important mixtapes are,” DJ Drama says. “If you look at any of the recent stars, they have released mixtapes at some point in their career. When I got raided in 2007, we started to see a decline in record sales. Here we are, years later, talking about how it all makes sense with 2 Chainz being able to work the streets and work his campaign. It shows artists are opting out of doing major label albums right now to put out mixtapes. It puts them in a good position to set up for an album and go on the road. We now have a whole generation of artists that consistently tour off mixtapes without ever releasing an album.”

2 Chainz understands how the politics of signing with a major label can destroy a career. He experienced a bit of success with Playaz Circle after the release of the hit, “Duffel Bag Boys.”

But after the label failed to properly promote the group’s sophomore release, Flight 360: The Takeoff, low album sales prompted 2 Chainz to leave his major label and embark on a solo career.

He now receives substantial revenues from touring and guest appearances. He’s featured on recent hit songs by Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, and T.I. provided a verse on the remix to 2 Chainz’s hit, “Getting It.”

“Independent is definitely more fun,” 2 Chainz admits. “I have made more money being independent and I have had more fun being independent. I have developed more relationships. I talked to people to create my buzz instead of someone else going in and talking for me. These are things that have changed for me [and] that I appreciate. I’m really in tune [with] what is going on in my career. I don’t mind being hands-on with my project. It’s all about me continuing to work hard, not getting complacent and definitely staying humble.”

After years of releasing music independently, DJ Drama decided to use a major label deal to take his brand to the next level. He released two albums on Atlantic Records, and his third album Third Power on E1 Music. DJ Drama contends that there are benefits to going the traditional route and signing to a major.

“I know all sides of both industries,” DJ Drama says. “The mixtape hustle taught me a lot and put me in the position to do a major label album. I learned how to make sure clearances were straight and all paperwork was signed. A lot of what I do is a self-contained movement, so I’m not a typical artist on a major. I’m able to maneuver in a different way, so it makes sense to me.”

2 Chainz and DJ Drama have both built brands from the ground up and they realize how important they both are to the culture.

2 Chainz on DJ Drama …

“Although there are a lot of deejays, people think of DJ Drama when they come to Atlanta. It’s the same in Miami. Most people only know DJ Khaled, but there are thousands who are doing it. He has worked enough to where he is a brand. You have to give him his credit for that.”

DJ Drama on 2 Chainz…

“I remember when he first let me hear the ‘Duffle Bag Boy’ record. We were on the way to Miami. A few years later, he said on one of his mixtapes, ‘I’m the hottest in the city without a Gangsta Grillz.’ And when I heard that line, it made me chuckle because I took it as such a compliment. He was basically saying ‘Here is Gangsta Grillz and you need this to be hot. And I’m hot and I haven’t even done a Gangsta Grillz yet.’ From that point until now, us doing our first mixtape was perfect timing.”

With mixtapes becoming more popular with hip-hop and R&B stars, fans are more accustomed to receiving free or discounted music. But mixtapes are also allowing rappers to earn a lucrative salary without ever signing a big contract. The question remains. Will major labels be needed in the future?

DJ Drama: “I believe in majors. I came from a major label and it was a good experience for me at that time when I did it. A major label has a lot of people in a lot of positions that get paid to do their jobs in a lot of different fields. But we are in a whole new time now, where a major is not necessary. It all depends on how the artist grinds.”

2 Chainz: “Major labels allow you to get a little further and maybe take some pressure off of your situation. And, of course, them offering so much money is kind of cool.

“Whether it’s major or independent, I’m down to keep doing what I’m doing, and get it however I get it. Because I’m in a position right now where I am very comfortable.”

Story by A.R. Shaw
Photography by DeWayne Rodgers  for Steed Media Service

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