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Gangstas' paradise 

The Aphilliates massacre the streets with mix tapes

"Gangsta Grizzilz!!" roars the voice of Lil Jon over the loudspeakers, a promotional drop played over and over again over the next two hours. Just like they do every Saturday at 8 p.m., the Aphilliates are taking over Hot 107.9 (WHTA-FM), with DJ Drama, Don Cannon, DJ Sense, Jaycee, and several unnamed associates gathering around a bank of microphones and consoles.

The show, "Gangsta Grillz," features a vibe that -- to quote Queensbridge rappers Capone-N-Noreaga -- is thugged the fuck out. Most of the tracks they play are "exclusives," including a cut from T.I.'s upcoming album, King. Exclusives aren't commercially available and, in some cases, you won't hear them anywhere else except on "Gangsta Grillz." But you won't hear any wack-ass club singles on the show and, save for a song from Mary J. Blige (yes, an Aphilliates exclusive), no R&B, either.

This is hard music, from album tracks such as 50 Cent's "I'll Whip Ya Head Boy" and Three 6 Mafia's "Poppin' My Collar" to an exclusive joint from Bun B and Busta Rhymes, who pepper the mix with prerecorded snippets: "Trendsetter!" "Exclusive!" "Cannon!"

At one point, the Aphilliates play another prerecorded drop (a shout-out) from Lil Jon. "Y'all got too many exclusives! Stop it, Drama! Stop it!" screams the King of Crunk over the airwaves, causing everyone in the studio to burst into laughter.

"Aphilliates" blends the words "Atlanta," "Philly," and "affiliates." Separately, DJ Drama, Don Cannon and DJ Sense moved to Atlanta from their native Philadelphia in 1996 to attend Clark Atlanta University. "Coincidentally, we were all DJs from Philly who came on the same path to Atlanta," says Drama, adding that the three didn't know each other at the time. "We all clicked from the jump."

Over the years, other members joined the trio, including Jaycee, DJ Ox Banga, and DJ Jamad. Nowadays, the Aphilliates' careers as a group and as individuals are going so well -- from Don Cannon's production work for Young Jeezy (the club anthem "Go Crazy"), T.I. and Trick Daddy, to Jaycee's duties as tour DJ for Ludacris -- that they have too many projects to list here.

Much of their success can be attributed to the Gangsta Grillz mix-tape series. "Gangsta Grillz has been real influential in our careers, T.I.'s career, Jeezy's career, Lil Jon's career, and a whole host of other people," says Drama, who works as T.I.'s tour DJ. This year, the six-man Aphilliates crew issued 16 mix tapes, including T.I. and P$C's In the Streets and Down with the King, Lil Wayne's Dedication, and Big Boi's Got That Purp.

Before Young Jeezy's acclaimed Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101 hit stores last summer, Drama helmed Jeezy's Trap or Die mix tape. He estimates that more than 100,000 copies of it have since circulated around the world. Hip-hop magazine XXL named Trap or Die "Official Bootleg of the Year," and Vibe magazine called the Gangsta Grillz series of tapes "Mixtape Series of the Year." DJ Drama is currently working on a Gangsta Grillz album for Atlantic Records.

As a growing business, the mix-tape industry is often contradictory. Record labels, urban entertainment companies and artists often pay DJs to create and "host" mix tapes (or, more accurately, mix CDs) for them. Since many of those same artists are under contract with a record company, however, the mix tapes can only be given away as promotional items.

The Record Industry Association of America, the regulatory body of the U.S. record industry, officially states that such tapes are illegal bootlegs of licensed work. In fact, the RIAA occasionally organizes raids on record stores and flea-market vendors who sell mix tapes, claiming that the tapes steal income from artists. At the same time, major record labels funnel new tracks and songs slated for commercial release to the DJs, in hopes of creating a mix tape with a hot street buzz. Cannon says that the Aphilliates charge around $20,000 a mix tape, a price that varies according to the client.

The Gangsta Grillz mix-tape series began as "an outlet for us to do mix tapes," says Drama. "Since then, it's turned into a movement." He says that the phrase "gangsta grillz" is a synonym for quality street hip-hop. The gunshots and taunts sprinkled throughout a Gangsta Grillz mix only add to an atmosphere full of action and aggressive energy. The crime-oriented themes, however, serve as metaphors for the way the music makes you feel, not a blueprint to committing your own crimes.

"One thing about hip-hop, and black people in general, is that we have a way with words," says Drama. Many of the terms currently in vogue, from calling good music "crack" and "dope" to "piff," descend from words used to describe drug culture. "Obviously, people outside of our culture look at it as a negative thing," he says. "Realistically, 'gangster' is the American way. Everything was built that way. It's fucked up, though, because when it comes to black people, it's looked at different."

"We never hide from the fact that we went to school out here, or I got a degree and I got good grades," continues Drama. "That don't mean I can't make Gangsta Grillz."

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