I have compiled mixtapes ever since I began compiling mixtapes, and certain rules will apply. A theme does not tend to predominate, although I have occasionally complied genre-specific compilations. They may be annual or biennial, depending on my personal circumstances, enthusiasms, and the nature and quantity of music available at any given moment in time, the prevailing format and its utility. Individual tracks are not permitted to resurface on later mixtapes, and groups do not normally feature more than once on the same edition. If they do, then the tracks must not run sequentially – unless the tunes in question segue into each other and cannot be separated cleanly, or because the artist has deliberately intended for them to complement each other (for example, the opening tracks on Gang Starr’s album Daily Operation: The Place Where We Dwell and Flip the Script).
No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that the word 'mixtape' would continue to resonate well into the next. The physical archetype practically obsolete, it has been superseded by the 'playlist', but the concept is the same and the term 'mixtape' is understood as its equivalent.
There was nothing wrong with cassette tapes. One could record onto them from vinyl, compact discs, the radio, and from other cassette tapes. The point of engagement was controlled manually and so periods of protracted silence before and after a particular tune could be edited away. Volume could be regulated also, although you needed to have an ear for it. Finally, they normally came packaged with a J-card insert and a set of rectangular labels, allowing for a DIY aesthetic that other formats have lacked. Their weakness lay in a tendency to physically unravel, and the fact that you couldn't determine very accurately how much free space there was left to record upon; a song might cut out at the most inopportune moment. Some people might also cite a lack of audio quality, but I don't recall being too bothered at the time.
Cassette tapes were superseded – with respect to the making of mixtapes – by the MiniDisc. People who used them remember them fondly. Their size – and of the MiniDisc players themselves when compared to portable cassette players – was conveniently diminutive. The MiniDisc could be edited with unprecedented precision. Track listings could be shuffled at will and undesired periods of silence retrospectively isolated and excised. You could delete individual tunes if you got bored with them and replace them with others.
The format’s only evident drawback was its packaging. The sheaves those 68 x 72 x 5 mm housed discs slotted into offered small room for manoeuvre, and it was often a challenge to annotate track listings of length, or those of groups and songs compromised of many characters. Another concern was the same that plagues all digital forms: once a disc or machine begins to play up, that's that. I’ve disentangled many a cassette from its player and, using a pencil hexagonal in section, wound the tape back around the spools. There is no equivalent remedy when faced with a malfunctioning disc.
The MiniDisc began to die off sometime during the first decade of the 21st century. The iPod was undoubtedly responsible, and the MP3 player soon became ubiquitous. This represented more than simply a change of format. In some sense the MP3 player is an entirely disposable device. Portable cassette and MiniDisc players were something to be valued in the same way that hi-fi systems once were (still are by people who take a keen interest in such things). The iPod and the MP3 player, whilst not necessarily unattractive, do not leave so much of an impression, their size being prohibitive to the variance in configuration bequeathed upon its forbears. They are utilitarian, mere conduits designed to be tucked away in a top pocket, to travel light with. Moreover, the absence of any external data storage device, to be manually inserted into your player, means that the mixtape has become something that exists as a file in Your Documents, or as a playlist on Spotify. It is no longer a physical thing: it is an abstraction, a concept, and a malleable and fleeting one at that. The 21st century is not interested in permanence.
This elusive nature is not altogether a bad thing. Since owning a laptop and utilising MP3 technology, I’ve been able to create notional playlists to be manifested at will, as and when I acquire the digital information to satisfy them. The nature by which one obtains this data takes on many forms, none of which are as awkward as the real-time transference that recording on or from a tape or MiniDisc demanded. A playlist can be realised in a very short space of time, almost frivolously, and edited ad infinitum. Still rather have some sort of physical evidence that your playlist is more than a figment of your imagination? Burn it onto a CD.
This is what I’ve been up to. Not long ago I suffered a meltdown of my laptop and feared I may lose the playlists I’d pieced together since surrendering myself to the MP3 format. Fortunately, I succeeded in backing up most of my content before the laptop finally packed itself in. A piecing-together process ensued, and I decided I’d better get around to what I had intended to get around to years ago. The discs themselves aren’t so important. I may never even play them and will more than likely be able to transfer the material over to future laptops (or onto as yet uninvented data forms) by way of the memory stick.
The exercise is one of consolidation. Over the years, some of my playlists have become distorted, or have gone missing entirely, in between format changes and the migration of information. I have had to reconstruct certain arrangements from memory alone. In some instances, I am no longer certain they ever really existed at all. They are the sum of many parts, but they do represent something or other: a time and place, a house lived in, a state of mind and affairs, or maybe a journey taken to a foreign land.
The autumn of 1993, and I'd not purchased a hip hop album since The Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride II the Pharcyde nearly a year prior. I sensed this purchase to be symbolically conclusive of something, or an indefinite cessation of affairs at least – a result of the fashion for ‘gangster rap’ that had begun to proliferate, which I wasn’t so keen on. In the interim I'd enjoyed a dalliance with Acid Jazz, my father's collection of jazz proper (by no means exhaustive), and an incipient interest in 'indie' music that I was intent on developing.
It was an odd period of my life. From 1988 through to 1992 I’d listened almost exclusively to hip hop, which lent itself to the compiling of compilations, but now, in this transitory phase, almost none – or nothing that was not already in my possession. Had I ever put something together to represent 1992/93 – my A-level year, the year I turned 18, an enjoyable year – it could have run something like this:
- Hercules – Aaron Neville
- Grounded – Gloria Taylor
- Neighbour! Get Your Own – The Rimshots
- The Girl Who Was Death – Corduroy
- Gimmie One of Those – The Brand New Heavies
- Riot On 103rd Street – Mother Earth
- New World Order – Galliano
- Cool and Funky – Ronny Jordan
- Atlas – The Robin Jones Seven
- Ta Caliente – Patsy Gallant
- Cucaraca Macara – Harvey Averne Barrio Band
- Besame Mucho – Wes Montgomery
- Far More Blue – The Dave Brubeck Quartet
- Poova Nova – Dudley Moore
- Summertime – Modern Jazz Quartet
- Mas Que Nada – Odell Brown And The Organ-izers
- Afinidad – Erroll Garner
- Little Green Bag – The George Baker Selection
- Hounds of Love – Kate Bush
- Shallow Then Halo – Cocteau Twins
- Dusted – Belly
- Not too Soon – Throwing Muses
- You Are the Everything – R.E.M.
- Someone Keeps Moving My Chair – They Might be Giants
- Weirdo – The Charlatans
- Rid of Me – PJ Harvey
This list chronicles a more enthused excursion into soul and jazz than I’d cared to remember, but it explains how I must have got by on not adding to my hip hop collection. A couple of these tracks resurfaced on future compilations, and around the turn of the millennium I would explore the genre in much greater depth.
The inspiration in the first instance was hip hop, especially those acts who sampled jazz and funk. This was compounded by the discovery of a club night called Jelly Jazz, taking place every Wednesday at the Quay Club, a small establishment overlooking the Barbican in Plymouth. My forays into nightclubbing had been generally disappointing up until this point: Ritzy, the Warehouse, house music all night long, Newcastle Brown Ale and the spectre of violence. Jelly Jazz provided an alternative outlet and broadened my musical palate to incorporate soul, funk and Latin music. I'd go there with a few friends, wearing a Brand New Heavies T-shirt, but also a pair of Dr Martins because I had yet to discover the desert boot or old school sneaker. It didn't matter, the place was eclectic in the sense that a lot of these rare-groove infused places were, elsewhere, in London, where Soul to Soul, Gilles Peterson or Eddie Piller took control of the decks. I don't suspect drugs were particularly prevalent, although I’d have been oblivious to them anyway. There was certainly never any fighting. Some local cat used to stand around wearing flared jeans, a roll neck jumper, Chelsea boots and a leather jacket. My friends and I thought he was really cool but didn't have the confidence to plagiarise his look. We wouldn't have known where to pick up those sorts of threads anyway.
Acid Jazz was a strange musical phenomenon. Groups such as Corduroy and the James Taylor Quartet took their lead from the swinging sixties – E-Type Jags, Michael Caine, the Hammond organ. The Brand New Heavies and Mother Earth erred more towards the funkier, seventies end of the spectrum, with soulful vocals thrown over the top of their retro wig outs. Corduroy and the James Taylor Quartet wore their hair short, were clean shaven, almost beatnik in appearance; The Brand New Heavies and Mother Earth were more hirsute – especially the latter – and wore beads and flares and Cuban heels. It was all very retro before retro became the thing, before the independent music scene appropriated it.
Acid Jazz was also a record label that, as well as releasing records by current artists, re-released material dating back to the 1960s and ‘70s. Taking the the Acid Jazz compilation Totally Wired 6 as an example, of the nine tracks that comprise it only five are contemporaneous. Interestingly, of the four that aren’t, I’ve included three on my notional compilation: Hercules by Aaron Neville, Grounded by Gloria Taylor, and Neighbour! Get Your Own by The Rimshots.
Looking back, it's hard to know when and why I started listening to indie music. I know where I got the stuff – off a friend, at his discretion – but what was it that piqued my interest? It certainly wasn't anything to do with ‘grunge’ – Nirvana held no sway – and the prevalent vernacular amongst my comrades was dance music and rave culture (although there was probably more interest in alternative music forms than I observed at the time).
It could have been this: Sheffield Sound City 1993: "One Week of Music Live to the Nation on Radio 1". I chanced upon it, an incidental foray into uncharted territory. I recall hearing Weirdo by the Charlatans, which was great; something by the band Kingmaker, which begged indifference; and Glam Racket by The Fall, which bewildered and intrigued in equal measure.
This was after 'baggy' and before 'Britpop'. These were the years in between when indie bands didn't tend to bother the top ten and being into this sort of music could invoke the rancour of those who weren't. Youth culture was clearly demarcated, and even a fondness for something as ostensibly benign as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers could attract negative attention. If you were into The Levellers you'd better watch out (I liked neither).
What was it that drew me in? What was it that made me buy the April edition of Select magazine without knowing anything about the bands cited on the cover, and what was it that I could have possibly got out of it other than the free Reservoir Dogs poster? Did in fact my desire for a Reservoir Dogs poster inadvertently determine the course my record collection would take over the years that followed?