Words by DeWayne Rogers
Photos by Michael Melendy for Steed Media Service
I think that the government likes to pick on black people that are successful. From Michael Vick to what they tried to do with the Aphilliates down in Atlanta, it’s all the same thing. Some one needs to stop them. –Gina, St. Louis, Mo.
On January 16, 2007, the underground hip-hop community would officially be thrown into crisis mode. On that afternoon, the police, working in conjunction with the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) raided the downtown Atlanta offices of the Aphilliates Music Group. Arrested were 28-year-old Tyree “DJ Drama” Simmons and 27-year-old Donald Cannon, also known as DJ Don Cannon. The RIAA was determined to put a halt to the unlicensed compilations (known as mixtapes), produced by the outfit, which had come to define the explosion of Southern hip-hop on a national level. Officers entered the office building, which also doubled as a recording studio, and seized over 81,000 CDs, four vehicles, recording gear, and “other assets that were proceeds of a pattern of illegal activity,” said Chief Jeffrey C. Baker, from Morrow, Ga., whose police department participated in the raid.
Both DJ Drama and DJ Don Cannon would eventually be charged with a felony violation of the U.S. Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO), and held on $100,000 bond. Immediately, the ‘Free DJ Drama and Don Cannon’ campaign would begin, sending a ripple effect throughout the entire hip-hop community, as supporters began to decry the charges as being baseless.
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The sentiments from average Joes to platinum-selling artists alike seemed remarkably unified. Exactly why was the government trying to tear down a mixtape infrastructure that had become so vital to the continued growth of the hip-hop nation? And how else were artists expected to stay connected to the streets which ultimately dictated their success? The questions abounded, but few answers could be found. Suddenly the Aphilliates had become the equivalent of hip-hop martyrs, instantly transforming them from street disciples into hip-hop giants.
But how exactly did these DJs become as big and as important as the artists whose careers they kept relevant? ro sat down with DJ Drama, DJ Don Cannon, and DJ Sense of the Aphilliates to get the inside scoop.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Take us back to when things first began.
Don Cannon: I always wanted to do music ever since I was young. I hated school. We all came together like Transformers. When I was in high school, my mom always pressured me to go to college. She told me that I was going to Atlanta because I had family down here. So I came down here to visit, and I saw how the scene was, and I liked it. I started throwing parties, and from there I hooked up with Drama. His story is similar to mine, but he was always poppin’ with his. He was a superstar in high school.
DJ Drama: (Laughs) I started deejaying in the ninth grade doing high school parties. I did my first mixtape back in 1994, and I sold it at my locker for like $4. I would eventually get down to Atlanta to start school at Clark, and I think that I met [DJ] Sense on the first day. We both stayed in Brawley Hall. I stayed on the second floor, and he stayed on the third. Someone took me upstairs to meet this other DJ that was from Philly, too, and we just started rocking ever since then. It was just good being at Clark during that time, because the AUC meant so much to what hip hop was, and to what it has become to the city of Atlanta. We took our experience from there, and it’s taken us to where we are today.
DJ Sense: In 1995, I was in high school, and I used to listen to the radio all the time. When I heard the mix shows that would come on the air, I knew that I could do that too. So I got some turntables from my next door neighbor for Christmas. I got the turntables, a mixer, and some speakers for $200, and started doing house parties. I realized that if I wanted to advance myself, then I would have to do it in another city. My mom was telling me that Atlanta was the place to be, so I came down here to go to school. Once I came down here, we just started killing the college scene. Drama was killing the mixtapes, Cannon was killing the college scene, and I was interning at the radio, so we started creating our own lanes for us to build our conglomerate. So long story short, we turned all of that into an empire which became the Aphilliates. We are still going strong to this day.
DJs are stars again. How do you feel about the transition from being in the background to now being in the foreground?
DJ Sense: DJs have always been stars to me.
DJ Drama: I have always looked at DJs like they were stars. From Funkmaster Flex to DJ Jazzy Jeff, they have always been in the forefront to me. We are just the newest generation of that. I think that if you take what we do, and you take what DJ Khalid does, then you can look at us like we’re the new Flex and Clue. [DJs] were going platinum off of mixtapes 10 years ago. We may be going through a resurgence right now, because DJs were down for a minute, but that’s just like with everything else in hip hop. Things go through cycles, so we are just in the upward part of our cycle.
Let’s talk about some of the negative publicity that you may have received. Do you consider negative publicity to be a good thing?
DJ Sense: Any publicity is a good thing if you know how to handle it, and you don’t fumble when they ask you the questions. Wait a minute, I can’t even say that, because the Michael Vick situation is definitely bad publicity that you don’t want. That may be one of the few instances that you can’t really escape the negativity.
DJ Drama: It may have been good publicity if he would have beat it, but coming from where we are coming from, it’s sad to see him being put through that. It’s ironic that we are doing this interview on the day that he had to take that plea. I was thinking about that even before I came over here. But you know, it wouldn’t even be publicity if nobody cared.
Well, let’s talk about it from a rap perspective. Do you think crime helps or hurts one’s career?
DJ Sense: It depends on what image you’re trying to portray. If you’re saying that you’re a gangster or a criminal, then the public will portray you as being real. If that’s not the image that you are trying to portray, then you may not want to go that way. It just depends on the artist as an individual … and it depends on what the crime is. If you’re doing something dumb like raping a girl, then I don’t care who you are, that’s not going to help you. But if you rob someone, and that’s what you rap about then you can say that you kept it real.
DJ Drama: I know that no one ever makes money when they are locked up, so that’s never a good thing.
Can you give us some insight into the experience that you had?
DJ Drama: We are having this conversation eights months after things happened, so I can say now that it was just that … an experience. From that day, looking back on it, we’ve been able to take the good and the bad from it. Everything in life is a learning lesson. We’re very positive and blessed people. As bad as it was, to overcome it is a great feeling. We haven’t been in a courtroom yet for the situation, but we still are going to do what we do. So that’s how I feel about the situation.
Most people don’t even know what happened. Can you give us some background information on exactly what went down?
DJ Drama: Well, we haven’t been charged with anything yet. On that day, they came down there and told us that we were being arrested for bootlegging and racketeering. And since then, those have been the last things that we have heard from the situation.
Note: That may have been the last thing that the Aphilliates heard from the government on charges against them, but it’s certainly not the last that you have heard from them on rolling out. So click here for an exclusive video right now to hear the remainder of our exclusive interview with the Aphilliates. From their idols to their own legendary status, all is discussed in a no-holds-barred manner. This is not something that you will want to miss.