Bootlegging has always been a problem in hip-hop. In the past, cassettes were sold from wooden bins| on busted-ass card tables usually situated on a street corner in Lower Manhattan. The tapes looked like they'd been shelved for years, and the list of songs was usually faded to the point of being incomprehensible. Even worse, most of the tapes sounded like they had been recorded through two tin cans. The seller risked both a beatdown from the artist and a ticket from the NYPD.
And while enterprising individuals are still steady bootlegging, the Internet has changed everything. It's now easy to get a CD of unreleased/never-heard tracks, or whole albums by your favorite crews; and because the sales take place on the web, it's relatively anonymous. Online vendors need not fear the wrath of a disgruntled artist who's listened to Onyx's "Bitchassbootlegguz" one too many times. For between $12-$15 (plus $3 shipping and handling), you can order a 77-minute digitally recorded CD chock full of material you can't get anywhere else from some guy/gal who's only available address is a P.O. Box in Halifax, Nova Scotia. And the artist doesn't make a dime.
The culture has changed, gone are the days when bootleggers are regarded as pariahs. Selling CDs that fall somewhere between a mixtape and a full-length album knockoff is now a "legit" way to make a buck on the web.
Web sites focused on selling CDs without the artists or record labels' consent first came to the fore about a year ago, driven by sales of bootleg 2Pac albums. Makaveli 2 and 3 sprung up all over the web and sold in droves, with none of the money going to Tupac's mother, Afeni Shakur. There are now at least a dozen bootleg 2Pac albums, plus half a dozen remix albums, compilations, dedications, etc. (Tupac was rumored to be able to record up to six songs a day.)
And 'Pac is not the only victim of this practice. Tracks by Mobb Deep and Nas were so heavily bootlegged that they were forced to go back to lab to record new tracks, or in Nas' case, redo a whole album.
Operators of these Web sites don't necessarily feel their actions are amoral. The webmasters of hiphopspot.com, a popular unlicensed online store, aren't talking, but their associate, Paul Lewis, said there's "not a huge gap" between what they do and what someone like DJ Clue does. "It's the same thing in a different outfit," he said.
Lewis lamented that hiphopshop.com has gotten a bum rap thus far. "We've been singled out as the ultimate source for your bootlegging needs," he said, "and that's unfair. Selling CDs on the web is pretty prolific. We're not the only ones doing it."
Regardless of who is doing what, artists have been affected by it. When Mobb Deep heard that tracks from their album were popping up across the nation, they went back to the studio to record new material. However, they appear not to be too ticked off by the whole experience. Jonathan Lighty, Mobb Deep's manager, said that the group has moved on.
"We're not even worried about it," he boasted. "Niggas is upset because it's their money, but we ain't tripping. We're not happy, but we're not mad."
Lighty said that Murder Muzik, the group's fourth album, and Mobb Deep bootleg CD sold by www.hiphopshop.com have, at most, only four tracks in common. Most of the tracks on the bootleg are throwaway tracks recorded between the release of the third and fourth albums.
But this isn't always the case. Craig Mannix, Columbia Record's Canadian Manager of Urban Music, said the leak of 15 track led to the entire re-recording of Nastradamus, Nas' follow-up to the recently released I Am. He said the 15 tracks were originally supposed to be part of Am, which was scheduled to be a double album. When the tracks were leaked the double album was converted into two single albums. Mannix is still in disbelief that as many as 15 tracks got leaked, and said he heard "heads rolled" as a result.
Lighty said he doesn't know how the Mobb Deep tracks were leaked.
"Some of them were let out by someone who hangs out around us, and that was unfortunate," he said. "So we had to handle that. But after it was mastered and turned over to the label, 6,000 press copies were sent out. Lots of people had it at Loud, and they weren't as tight with it as me, the engineer, and Havoc and P (Prodigy) were. They didn't sit and work on it for two years. [Still], we don't know [exactly] how it happened."
Lewis explained they sell CDs as a necessary means to keep hiphopspot.com afloat.
"We operate Snoop's Doghouse and The Tank, a Web site for No Limit, which are both non-profit fan Web sites. But it's rather expensive to run these sites, and we need to make the money to make sure that hiphopspot.com can keep on running all their other great sites."
Mannix isn't buying it; he's still fairly critical of the whole endeavor. "You know, record companies have gotten a bad rap as far as ripping off artists. But selling bootleg CDs on the web affects the label and the artists. It can severely hurt their sales, and can really hurt their chances of making a living."