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Pirate Treasure

Hip-hop bootlegging is causing brawls -- even as some industry insiders say it's a blessing.

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Once upon a time, bootleggers were gangsters operating moonshine stills. Now, however, they're more likely to be street-corner entrepreneurs selling gangsta rap. The December 1 stabbing of Untertainment music executive Lance "Un" Rivera at the Kit Kat Club, allegedly by Jay-Z, brought music pirating to national attention: The rapper reportedly suspected Rivera of bootlegging his soon-to-be-released album Vol. 3 . . . Life and Times of S. Carter.

The manufacture and sale of illicitly copied cassettes and CDs -- which many in the industry think has its source in unscrupulous recording-studio interns who turn over demo tapes to interested parties -- has an unusually influential effect on hip-hop, which takes its cues and gets its stamp of approval from the street.

Weeks before Nas's April release, several tracks from his album were being sold on the street and even on eBay (currently involved in a bootlegging lawsuit). The rapper scrapped several of those songs and added new ones from his arsenal of more than 30 tracks. (Similarly, Jay-Z, who is still committed to his album's December 28 release date, has added three new songs.) The availability of pirated music didn't deter Nas's fans from buying more than 500,000 copies of I Am . . . in its first week in stores, and the astonishing tally led to whispers that the artist might have been helped by the buzz created by all those unauthorized copies. "To a certain degree, you want to see your artists bootlegged," admits Blak Shawn, an A&R executive at Rawkus, "because that means your shit is hot." Blak Shawn maintains that, far from wanting to impoverish rappers by purchasing CDs that don't put royalty payments in their pockets, "the people who buy bootlegs are the ones most loyal to the artist, not to the label or the record store. They're the fans who want the music now, not later, and they don't care how they get it." (Not every executive is so sanguine: Earlier on the night of the Rivera stabbing, Damon Dash of Roc-A-Fella Records had urged the crowd at Jay-Z's record-release party to "fuck the bootleggers!" by raising their middle fingers in the air.)

The rap group Mobb Deep's album Murda Muzik was available on the street months before its August release. "We didn't make anything off it, and Mobb Deep certainly didn't, either," says Dan Smalls, Loud Records's vice-president of street marketing, "but we were happy to see that the record was so hot." Mobb Deep's Havoc even bragged to The Source that the album "probably went gold on the streets" -- and The Source ran reviews of both the bootleg and the official release (which deleted a few songs containing samples that couldn't get clearance). The wide availability of pirated versions didn't stop the record from making a top-ten debut and selling more than 1 million copies.

Oddly enough, hip-hop's obsession with bootlegging comes just when the music may be losing its most-wanted status among pirates. The Recording Industry Association of America reports that while the music industry loses about $300 million annually to "traditional piracy" (bootlegged cassettes and CDs, as opposed to recordable CDs and downloadable Internet sound files like MP3), seizures of pirated cassettes and CDs are down from 383,080 by midyear 1998 to 132,154 by midyear 1999. Even more significant is the RIAA's conclusion that "50 percent of all product seized by midyear 1999 was Latin repertoire." Perhaps Jennifer Lopez's billion-dollar insurance policy should focus on bootlegging instead of booty.


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