I t's only within the surreal landscape of the music industry that someone like Toronto hiphop DJ Mastermind could flip from villain to hero in a few short months. NThe switch from law-breaking pirate to major-label priority seems to have come out of nowhere. More than any other DJ, Mastermind was at the centre of last year's absurd crackdown on mixed tapes by the Canadian music industry.
Despite being fed records by label reps to plug in his mixes, the T.O. hiphop vet and radio programmer was fingered as a bootlegger when the industry decided the tapes they'd been using as a promotional tool were actually breaking copyright laws.
Charges were filed -- and later dropped -- and mixed tape culture, at least in Canada, went deep underground. Then, this spring, bringing Mastermind into the industry that initially had tried to shut him down, Virgin Records gave him a contract to make legitimate mixed tapes. A nice twist on the idea that if you can't beat the bootleggers, sign them up to work for you.
Learning process "This whole switch has been a learning process," Mastermind reasons over the gurgles of his 19-month-old daughter. "For the most part, it's been a positive experience. Suddenly it's for real, though, and that's strange. I get called an artist now."
Beyond a bigger budget, changes to the goods at hand have been mostly cosmetic. Mastermind's new Volume 50: Street Legal disc is a major-label version of his mixed tapes, featuring current tracks by Big L, Slum Village and Mos Def as well as exclusive collaborations between Saukrates and BrassMunk, Kardinal Offishall and Raw Digga, and Nefarius and Phife Dawg.
Trainspotters will notice an emphasis on Virgin-related records, but Mastermind insists this was strictly a way of making licensing easier rather than pleasing the folks who sign the cheques.
If there's one thing Mastermind has had to learn since going legit, it's the machinations of music-industry licensing. While in the underground those details were never crucial, Mastermind suddenly had to deal with labels not allowing certain tracks to be used and managers demanding extortionate amounts for their artists' guest verses. There was also the importance of promotion and recouping costs.
"For the most part, this is exactly what I wanted to do," Mastermind insists. "Of course, the kind of tape I would normally have made would never have had old tracks on it. When I made mixed tapes, it was all about new stuff. We had to compromise because, obviously, an entire album of new music wasn't going to happen.
Big money "In the old days, there was no red tape. Now we have to be official, and that's where record labels come in and say, 'Why should I give you this track when I can put it on my own Dance Mix 2000 compilation?'
"This is a big-money business, and for the most part I used that to my advantage. The collaborations would never have happened on the old tapes, because I didn't have those resources. Mixed tapes were small-scale."
Big business or not, Mastermind has retained his links with the local scene. Toronto content has always been at the heart of Mastermind's mixes.
Volume 49 of his mixed tape series was a promo-only set of specials devoted to local MCs like Nefarius, Choclair, Nish Rawks and Tara Chase. Many of the same players get top billing on number 50.
"I've been a big supporter of good Canadian talent forever," offers Mastermind. "We have so much stuff going on here, you'd be an idiot to ignore it.
"Volume 49 is mostly a promo tool for Volume 50, but I also wanted to give people who don't normally get any shine a chance. There are a lot of totally underground cats on that record, and it helped us all. We put out 15,000 of those across the country, and now 15,000 people know who Abdominal is."
MASTERMIND, Volume 50: Street Legal (Virgin) Rating: NNN