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Unlicensed to ill

Bootleg rap and R&B vinyl is thriving, even though most of the music is easy to buy or free to download.



If you're a fan of rap or R&B and have a thing for vinyl, chances are you got the gift of wax this holiday season. Did somebody surprise you with an LP copy of, say, Kendrick Lamar's Section.80, Frank Ocean's Channel Orange, or Kanye West's Yeezus? Well, whether you know it or not, you're now the proud owner of a bootleg record.

Perhaps you'd assumed bootlegging died when sales of physical music media collapsed. Perhaps you thought bootleg albums were just a rock thing—they certainly were that, particularly in the 70s. But unlicensed vinyl existed long before then, and it continues to hang on to life in a business littered with obsolete formats and failed business models. "It goes back as long as there's been records," says Numero Group's Rob Sevier. "As soon as they were manufacturing records, bootleggers were literally taking rubber or shellac 78s and using them as masters and cutting plates."

Some observers maintain a distinction between piracy and bootlegging. In Bootleg: The Secret History of the Other Recording Industry, UK author Clinton Heylin says that an unlicensed record is a "bootleg" if it offers fans material not included in any formal, authorized release—unissued songs, out-of-print B sides, live recordings, et cetera. But the music industry doesn't differentiate, and in this context neither will I.

Many bootlegs, especially older ones, have an aura of outlaw cool. This is bolstered by the existence of beloved records—perhaps most famously Bob Dylan's Basement Tapes—that first saw the light of day as bootlegs. That sort of backstory makes bootleggers sound like devoted fans on a mission to share deserving music that's been locked away by short-sighted record labels, not like opportunistic profiteers stealing from the artists they claim to love. The music industry has attempted to co-opt that cool for official, licensed releases: Columbia's Bootleg Series, for instance, packages previously unreleased Dylan material. And in December indie label Glassnote released a "bootleg" vinyl version of Childish Gambino's Because the Internet, whose cover design—a rubber-stamped title on a plain white sleeve—was clearly inspired by early releases from early-70s bootleg label Trade Mark of Quality.

I first saw a real live bootleg in spring 2013 at the CHIRP Record Fair, at which point I'd already encountered online evidence of a bootleg vinyl version of Frank Ocean's Channel Orange. Local record distributor Groove Distribution had a handful of bootlegs at its table, and I dropped $20 on a copy of Frank Ocean's breakthrough 2011 release, Nostalgia, Ultra, largely because I couldn't believe that a vinyl version of a freely downloadable mixtape actually existed. Since then I've developed a minor obsession with bootleg LPs of popular rap and R&B artists, and I've found quite a few.

Most wouldn't qualify as bootlegs by Heylin's definition—they're unlicensed versions of previously released mixtapes or albums that either never came out on vinyl or are no longer in print. Reckless Records and Logan Hardware have stocked vinyl of Yeezus, Eminem's Infinite, and the Weeknd's 2011 debut mixtape, House of Balloons. I've seen ordering pages for bootleg LP versions of Drake's Nothing Was the Same and Kanye's Graduation on the site of an international record retailer called Vinyl Digital. One manufacturer was brazen enough to sell a $75 double LP of Section.80 on a Big Cartel page made to look like the work of Lamar's label, Top Dawg Entertainment—its Web address is tde​.bigcartel​.com, whereas the actual TDE operates at topdawgent​.bigcartel​.com.

Most of these records look and feel cheap, strange, and janky, even when they try to duplicate the legitimate releases they're copying, and that's a big part of their appeal. Are the bootleggers sincere but inept fans, or do they just not give a shit? The LP sleeves are thin and flimsy, sometimes with two or three LPs crammed into just one cover. They almost always bear the words "limited edition" somewhere, and the artwork is usually screwed up in one way or another. The color of the Channel Orange LP makes it look like it's been overcooked in a toaster oven, and the enlarged CD on the Yeezus cover is blown out and grainy. A vinyl copy of the Weeknd's House of Balloons does away with the original image—an artful black-and-white photo of a female nude in a bathtub partially obscured by falling balloons—in favor of a soft-porny shot of a topless model in her underwear stretched out on an exercise ball. An unlicensed version of the Geto Boys' We Can't Be Stopped attempts to reconstruct the original cover—a photo of Bushwick Bill after he was shot in the right eye, sitting in a hospital bed flanked by Willie D. and Scarface, his injured face exposed and swollen. But the new art is a mind-boggling Photoshop collage that super­imposes a clumsily doctored (and much newer) photo of the group on a hospital hallway. Willie D. and Scarface have been given hats that sort of match what they were wearing on the original cover, but their clothes are completely different—and in Scarface's case the new hat has been pasted in atop the backward baseball cap he was already wearing. Bill, who's been Photoshopped into a hospital bed even though he's clearly standing up, has his eye patch on, so a gory eyeball has simply been dropped over it.

Most of these bootlegs haven't attracted much attention, excepting from a few vinyl collectors and superfans, but that's not the case with the unlicensed Frank Ocean double-LP rarities compilation Unreleased, Misc.—it achieved such a high profile that Fact, NME, Exclaim, and Spin all wrote about it in July. This is probably at least in part because most of the music on it is impossible to buy legitimately in any format—Ocean posted some of the tracks online and others were leaked, but he's disowned a lot of them. Similar factors have doubtless influenced the production of many other rap and R&B bootlegs—people want this stuff on vinyl, and the labels aren't delivering. "What you're looking at today is more of a hole in the market," Sevier says. And bootleggers can get the job done cheaper than labels—they're not paying royalties, for instance, and they don't have to worry about promotion or PR. For legitimate businesses, Sevier says, "There's a point of diminishing returns if you can only move 1,000 units."

Vinyl sales continue to rise, even as all those "records are back" trend pieces fade from memory—according to Nielsen SoundScan, the stateside numbers jumped 18 percent from 2011 to 2012, for a total of 4.6 million LPs sold. Sales in the UK nearly doubled from 2012 to 2013. But vinyl still accounts for a very small portion the total music market—in 2012 it was just 1.4 percent in the U.S.—and most rap and R&B fans appear to be moving away from physical formats altogether. "It's kind of dwindling," says Fake Shore Drive founder Andrew Barber. "More so than anything, people print up CDs to throw them out at shows."

Barber says Chicago rap artists have been putting all their eggs in the digital basket over the past three to five years, and hip-hop and R&B fans all over the developed world seem to prefer to consume music as 320 kbps MP3s, not 180-gram vinyl. "The people that are buying vinyl are either true collectors or they're just people who like the way it sounds," Barber says. "It's definitely not super popular within the hip-hop landscape."

All that said, the fact that so few rap and R&B artists release vinyl—combined with the format's anomalous resurgence, even as CDs continue their free fall—means that there's a small market to be tapped. Enough rap listeners are also vinyl collectors for some labels to get in on the action; in the fall Universal launched a cross-label reissue series called Respect the Classics, which is rolling out LP reissues of popular rap albums such as 50 Cent's Get Rich or Die Tryin', Public Enemy's It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, and, in February, Kanye's 808s & Heartbreak. Of course the folks behind Respect the Classics have an advantage in that sales of such beloved records are all but guaranteed.

Most rap and R&B albums will never get a Respect the Classics release, and that's where bootleggers come in. They're able to fill these gaps in the market—and not get caught doing it—in part because they manufacture LPs in small quantities (generally between 250 and 1,000) and sell them internationally, meaning their product is spread so thin it's difficult for rights holders to notice, let alone police. It's also next to impossible to track down the people doing the bootlegging—something I proved to myself when I investigated an unlicensed CD version of Chance the Rapper's free Acid Rap mixtape. A "label" called MTC sold 1,000 copies of it this summer, landing the CD on two different Billboard charts and bringing the illegal release to widespread notice. I could easily determine that Houston company 1-Stop Distribution was responsible for getting the CDs into stores, and the manufacturer ID in the CD's bar code led back to small Houston label Music District, whose owner suspected 1-Stop had been using his bar codes. But that's where the trail went cold—if MTC actually exists, I have no idea who runs it, and I can't definitively pin anything on 1-Stop.

The rap and R&B bootlegs I found don't even present me with clues I can follow that far—the retailers I've talked to have no idea where the vinyl originates, and none of the records includes a bar code. When a bootleg has a matrix number—a code carved into the dead wax near the hub label, which can provide information about an LP's manufacture—it's often an obviously bogus riff on the artist and title, such as "KENDRICKDRANK001" for an unlicensed 12-inch single of Kendrick Lamar's "Swimming Pools (Drank)." Nearly every bootleg I found states on its hub label that it was manufactured in Europe (Germany, the Czech Republic, France) and that it's "for promotional use only."

That disclaimer doesn't protect manufacturers from legal liability—nor will it help anyone selling a bootleg, not even consumers flipping used copies on eBay. According to Chicagoland attorney John Miranda, a copyright holder can sue anyone who sells a bootleg LP for "actual damages," aka the profit recouped. If the rights holders have registered the copyright (which most do as a matter of course, unless the music contains uncleared samples), they can sue for statutory damages, which according to Miranda top out at $150,000 per bootlegged title. But considering how good most bootleggers are at hiding, it's not typically worth the time, trouble, or expense to track them down—generally the most effective way to attack the problem is to send cease-and-desist letters to retailers and distributors.

Unlicensed LPs continue to trickle into record stores because people keep buying them. Maybe these customers are like me and let their curiosity get the better of their good sense; maybe they simply don't realize they're depriving the artists of sales. "I think that there's a weird psychic damage that happens to artists when their material is bootlegged," says Sevier, who's certainly dealt with his share of artists burned by labels acting like bootleggers. If there's an upside to this activity, it's that bootleggers inadvertently alert labels to instances where they're leaving money on the table. "Labels need to get more in touch with what record collectors desire," says Chris Lantinen, founder of record-fiend blog and consumer guide Modern Vinyl. "The recent bootleg release of Kanye West's Graduation is a perfect example. Why not ever press this album, allowing for a bootleg producer to take advantage of that miscue?"

Bootleggers will probably never disappear entirely, no matter how savvy labels get, because they create objects that a certain breed of collector desires. Barber brings up the Makaveli tapes—unlicensed CD bootlegs of unreleased Tupac Shakur tracks that started hitting the streets after he was murdered in 1996. "After Tupac died everyone wanted Tupac material," he says. "They were on CD, and people could sell them at ridiculous rates. At the time nobody had CD burners other than bootleggers." Today you can download the entire Makaveli collection with little trouble (and many of the tracks were remixed for official posthumous releases), but some people still want the original illicit objects themselves. The present-day bootlegs I've written about occupy a similar niche. Even though most of the material is easy to find in other forms, the unlicensed vinyl versions are transgressions and anomalies—and because they somehow continue to exist, they're irresistible.

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