mix tape – part i.

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while…in fact, it’s been sitting in my draft file, half finished, for more than a year, I think. I’ve been on a mad blogging tear lately, so here goes.

When I was a young lad, record albums were on their way out but CDs hadn’t yet gained wide acceptance. The 1980s and early 1990s were the time of the cassette. They were less expensive than records, smaller than records and could be played on the go.

In the 1980s film Say Anything John Cusack used a cassette (and Peter Gabriel) to say what he couldn’t.

NPR’s Frannie Kelley gave aEulogy for the Boomboxand NPR Music did a story on thedemise of the Walkmanand how someniche record labels are releasing new music on cassettes. Sony released theirWalkmanin 1979, the year I was born, and that ushered in a revolution that has (so far) ended with the iPod and other MP3 players. I’ve seen fashion accessories (belt buckles, purses, boxer shorts) made in the iconic shape of a cassette or with cassette print. Besides, everyone knowsSoundwaveandBlasterwere the coolest Transformers ever because they had the awesome little cassettes that turned into animals and whatnot.

The cassette tape’s lasting and most important contribution to western culture, however, isn’t portable music – it’s the mix tape. The mix tape is why the cassette is iconic. Despite popular belief, making a mix tape is not simply putting music you like onto a cassette tape. You shouldn’t even do that if you’re making a mix tape for yourself. There were rules…not hard and fast rules, mind you. I mean, they could be broken in rare cases but it was best to stick to them, fundamentally, unless you had a very good reason to break them.

Making a mix tape was significantly more difficult and more time consuming than simply pointing and clicking in your iTunes to create a playlist, then burning that playlist to CD. You had to think about who you were making the mix tape for, what the purpose of the mix tape was, what kind of mood you wanted them to be in while they listened to it and what the end result was. Were you making this for a friend? Someone you wanted to be more than a friend? Were you trying to make someone who was sad, happy?

The most important thing is that the mix tape start off strong. The opening track must encompass the main feeling or statement of the tape. This is a rule you can never break, for any reason. Your goal is to simultaneously let the person you made it for know exactly why you made them the tape and get them hooked in one song. This can be especially difficult if you have very different musical tastes from the person for whom you made the tape and/or you’re making it for someone you want to date but you don’t want them to know you want to date them. If you don’t hook them with the first song, or you send too strong a message, they may not listen to the entire tape, which would mean they would miss the more subtle clues and hidden gems buried deep within the tape.

Much like the spice inDune,the songs must flow. You can’t really have something Metallica flowing into Jewel, the songs sort of have to go together. The end of one song and the beginning of the next song sort of have to have a similar sound and tempo. They need to have a bond, like a water molecule. (Well, okay, maybe they don’t need acovalent bond,but they need to be in some small way linked, otherwise the spell of the mix tape will be broken.)

Also remember that cassettes have two sides and so you need to make sure that the song which ends side 1 flows into the song that starts side 2, but that side 2s initial song can stand alone. Also remember that it is never acceptable to end the side of a tape in the middle of a song. When I had that happen, I’d go back and tape over the song, then start side 2 with it, if the song was an appropriate way to start side 2. Songs should never be cut off part of the way through.

If you’ve kicked your mix tape off with a killer track and the flow and order are done correctly, the tape should take on an almost mythical quality. It may take several iterations to reach this rare space. For example, a mix tape I still listen to took two tries for my friend to get it right. And it was a collaboration of sorts. It started out as our crusing tape. In the first iteration my friend Jared made, it was an okay tape. It provided excellent audio accompaniment for our nights spent driving around dark country roads (again, at the time I lived in rural Missouri…there wasn’t much to do.) We, my friends and I provided some feedback for it, however it was ultimately Jared’s call what would be added and subtracted, what would be substituted and how it would be changed.

The second version of The Tape, as it was known, which he sent to me after I moved away, nailed everything a mix tape has the potential to be. It flowed perfectly, it contained a mix of tracks from different genres that somehow all fit together and it captured a specific time and place. It isn’t just music, it’s a time machine. Hearing that tape transports me back to those times, with those friends and I can relive them, in a way.

Not to mention the cover are, which Jared (I assume) spent a great deal of time creating in Adobe Pagemaker in our high school shop class. There are many iconic images from our youth represented on the cover but, and this is a very important yet often over looked addition, there are liner notes. Not just a list of the tracks included on the mix tape but a paragraph or two about each song and why it was/is important to us. Would The Tape be a great mix tape without the liner notes? Yes. But it’s so much better with them and there are things in the liner notes I might have otherwise forgotten (“dinosaur noises” during In A Gada Da Vida, for example) and that makes the entire experience so much better.

That’s all I’ve got for right now, later I plan on evaluating a few mix tapes I’ve been given and a few I’ve made in part ii, so stay tuned.

Mix tape
One of my favorite mix tape of all time, The Classical Companion

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