mix tapes: the original information superhighway

now available in a dazzling array of colors and cases...

(originally published in ON THE VERGE v3.0 e-mail monthly - June 6, 2001)

Q: What's the best way to ruin a nice apartment?
A: Start with 2000 records…

That's according to my man tonypuma. A few months ago, he declared "tape war" on me. No warning or nothin'. He just handed me a tape one day of all this obscure stuff. Like this Kojak record that Prince Paul used for various samples on De La Soul Is Dead. Like various breakbeat origins or novelty records or disco singles on 45. Between these cassettes, his love for classic black cinema, various B-movie fodder, and his copy of Mr. T's educational video Be Somebody or Be Somebody's Fool (which stays with you long after the closing credits have finished), my wife is convinced that he needs serious help. Nonetheless, I return fire with IDM laptop compositions, free jazz catharsis, Flavor Flav solo cuts, taped phone conversations, MLK and Kraft Foods PSAs, and original works from OTV's extended fam. There's no sign of a "cease fire" in sight, and he's recently upped the ante by including liner notes - rather detailed ones, at that. Damn, I gotta rethink my battle strategy…

Back in April, I received a package from a friend upstate including five of the latest mix tapes from Albany's finest DJs. It was a taste of home - my DJ home, anyway - that has been sorely lacking at my lower Westchester residency. So now I bounce around the kitchen, handling the chores for the day while checking out where my comrades in beats are travelling within the mix. And I just started on this tape for one of my co-workers. The idea was spawned by a conversation about hip-hop. She ended up mentioning her disdain for Eminem and asked, "Do you have to be angry to be a rapper?" Well, there's a long answer and a short answer to that question, isn't there? When it comes to talking about music, I've never been capable of short answers. So if I'm gonna give a long answer to this one, it may as well be in the form of a 90-minute tape filled to either ends of the leader with unparalleled lyrical skill from B-Boys and B-Girls all over the world. That's the kind of answer she can't argue with; in her hand will be proof of the range of hip-hop - the very thing that she has been missing out on because she didn't know where to look. After the truth's been revealed, however, she'll have no excuse: it will be up to her to investigate further.

For me, mix tapes are the original information superhighway. The Internet's cool for what it is and it really has helped to create the "global village" that Marshall McLuhan alluded to a generation ago, but there's something warm and personal about mix tapes. And I'm not talking about the professional cut/scratch fests or perfect blends on chromium oxide, I mean the real deal. Homemade compilations for road trips. Quick 60-90 minute mixes you make for friends to turn them on to sounds they probably wouldn't have bought themselves. The ones you make for your significant others or make in light of the fact that you hate people with significant others. Those person-to-person normal bias pocket-sized jukeboxes that burst through with raw emotion, exposing sides of ourselves that we may or may not have meant to put on tape.

But once again, technology has taken things to the next level. In a world of mindisc recorders, CD burners, and MP3 rippers, will the analog mix tape go the way of Betamax? I doubt it. Not as long as there are heads like tonypuma around. Ask him about MP3s and downloads and he'll shoot you a "fool, I ain't got time for that" look. And that's probably putting it nicely. Why the grimy demeanor, you ask? Examine what that format has to offer him. I like MP3s, I think they're useful, but I can see where he's coming from. No J-cards, no liner notes, no cover art (you know good and damn well that attached JPEGs don't count)…there's nothing to hold onto or marvel over. All of the fun tangibles of earlier audio mediums have been taken away. You still have a piece of music, but its form is an abstract one - and still totally foreign to more people than you might think.

Not only are mix tapes concrete, they also must be judged as a whole (for the most part). You're sort of forced to sit there and listen to the whole thing. CD mixes are all right, but they also demonstrate how convenience is ultimately the whole point of technological advances. By no means is this the artist's intent; it's just the nature of technology. It's much easier to skip through and bounce past tracks on a CD than a cassette, so the possibilities of the final product being previewed randomly and not in a linear fashion is much greater. It's always interesting when someone decides to use this technology, but removes some of its fringe benefits. Ever notice how agitated some people get when they receive a CD mix and it's not split up into tracks? It's just one continuous 60-75 minute track that they have to fast forward through? They'll act as if you just cut off one of their limbs, as if nothing could be more torturous.

(It's also a sure sign of how spoiled all of us really are. CASSETTES KEEP YOU GROUNDED. Every time I play one, I'm reminded of how my pause button was once on the brink of giving up the ghost due to my guerilla-style experiments in musique concrete during my high school years.)

For some of us, if it wasn't for the cassette player in our cars, our tapes would get no play at all. If you're guilty, it might be time to get reacquainted with a few of those Maxells, Memorexes, or TDKs. And if you've been promising someone a tape for the past few months, don't put it off any longer. Run through your music collection and pick stuff at random, then march right over to your stereo and push play and record. As I have learned from my ongoing "tape war," that's usually the best way to do it. Besides that, you'd be surprised what you can inspire in the one that receives your audio attack.

Feel free to fire one my way…the headphones are always on and the ammo's at the ready. Person-to-person, tape to tape, it's the friendliest fire there is.


{jason randall smith}

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