originally published August 18, 2013
I’ll admit it, I’m the guy who made mixtapes for girls he liked. I also made them for friends and (mostly) for myself. My dad got me in the habit – he’d borrow or rent records (yes, back then there was a store in town where people would rent records), then make monthly mixtapes for both our family cars and each family stereo. It was an odd practice, but it taught me something about sequencing the perfect compilation.
Essayist, poet and editor-in-chief of the American Library Geoffrey O’Brien called the mixtape the most widely practiced American art form. And there is an art to it, though in all fairness to Nick Hornby I won’t spout my own version of John Cusack’s finest on-screen moment by delving into the subtle art of cultivating the perfect mix.
Like anything in music, it’s subjective. And like so many things in and around music as I knew it growing up, it’s becoming obsolete. Compiling a playlist for someone, or throwing some mp3s on a flash drive isn’t the same. Many people listen with shuffle turned on, which tosses out the emphasis on sequencing. A mixtape was a journey, just as the order of the songs on Dark Side of the Moon was deliberate and intentional.
These kids today, they don’t know what they’re missing.
From the late 60s through the early 80s, mixtapes were marketed at flea markets and truck stops – usually compilations of top hits or of genre favorites. Not a lot of people were set up to make mixtapes at home unless they had reel-to-reel machines or 8-track recorders. It wasn’t until the fidelity was improved on the lowly portable cassette that the art of the mix became an outlet of expression for commoners like us.
Starting in the mid-70’s, mixtapes became a widespread party phenomenon, with early DJ pioneers like Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, Afrika Bambaataa, and DJ Hollywood recording their mid-party prowess, then selling the tapes to people who wanted to party but couldn’t afford actual humans to spin the discs. These tapes represented the DJ’s vision, and really the first recorded evidence that sequencing a selection of other people’s music can be an art form itself.
Released in October 1974, Disco Par-r-r-ty was the first non-stop dancing record. It featured a number of disco hits from artists like Barry White, Mandrill and James Brown – okay, hold up… “Sex Machine” is not a disco hit; it is pure funk and pure awesome, but I’m getting off-topic here – sequenced together so that the beat doesn’t stop. Well, it didn’t stop for the 20-25 minutes they could fit on a side, anyway. But this is where the grey area between mix tape and compilation album begins.
The key to separating the two stems from anonymity. A bootleg mixtape by an underground DJ will have that DJ’s name all over it – he or she want you to know that each second of music is dripping with their personal tastes. A compilation is faceless, anonymous, and often simply a way for a record company to make more money off established hits. Where it gets a little murky is when Starbucks puts out their Artist’s Choice CDs, which are compilations (or are they mixtapes?) selected by specific artists like Johnny Cash or Sheryl Crow. iTunes also puts out celebrity playlists – probably closer to the mixtape side of the coin.
And this is why kids still know the term ‘mixtape’. Despite the fact that cassette tapes have been seeping beneath layers of dust for over a decade, the expression has carried on to define personally compiled CDs also. Some aspiring DJs still – and I make this claim without doing any first-hand research – call their recorded collections ‘mixtapes’.
I feel as though something has truly been lost with the disappearance of the mixtape from common practice. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not (yet) one of those backwards old folks who long for the days of yore, and I’d certainly never give up the ability to carry around over 10,000 songs and to shuffle through them on a tiny little iPod (ironically about the same size and shape as a cassette tape). But making a tape was a deliberate act of passion. It was about searching through one’s library of phonographs and finding the perfect song to come next in the mix.
My dad got lazy with his monthly mixtapes. When approaching the end of a side, he would tend to pick an instrumental song or one which he wasn’t particularly fond of, then allow it to cut off whenever the tape reached its terminus. I can still listen to “Axel F” and remember where that point of cut-off hit – it has stained the song for me forever. When crafting a mixtape, I had a stash of short songs – Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ “Stay”, the Beatles’ “Dig It”, or if my audience was up for it, Yes’ “Five Percent For Nothing” – that would fit snugly between the finale and the leader tape at the end.
Often I’d go back and re-record the last few tracks, stuffing that short filler song two or three away from the end so that I could still finish the side with a masterpiece. This was all about the aesthetic, and the limitations of the medium – in particular the inability to jump over tracks with a skip button – meant that each song and its placement needed to be considered carefully.
In 2003, there was an exhibition at the Museum of Communication in Hamburg called Cassette Stories, in which eighty mixtape enthusiasts gathered together with stories and actual tape submissions. Many took their perception of the mix as an art form quite seriously, believing their tapes to be works of art themselves, or acts of creation. For most of us, it was a way to avoid the album filler we didn’t care for, or to send a message to someone. Sometimes we used them to try to get laid. Whatever got our foot in the proverbial door.
I don’t know if heart-hungry kids still compile collections of music for those they fancy. I’d like to think some element of the mixtape culture besides that of the demo tape by the aspiring DJ still exists. All those hours trying to cram eighteen song titles onto a blank cassette label with only thirteen lines for writing… dammit, that was a skill I thought I’d use throughout all my adult life.
Now I carry around only one mixtape, and it’s thousands of hours long. It’s an improvement, but just a little bit impersonal.