The Art of the Mix Tape

I’m showing my age (and my geekiness) a bit here, but I’ve been thinking about cassette tapes quite a bit recently. No, seriously, I have.

I loved cassettes. In fact, I still have two large boxes full of them taking up valuable CD and DVD storage space in my room, but I’m strangely reluctant to get rid of them. And, somewhere or other, I still have a Sony Walkman (of the cassette variety) in full working order. It’s a cute little thing too; matte silver and about the size of a tape case, and still the best personal stereo I’ve ever owned.

I guess it might end up being a collectors item now that Sony have finally discontinued the cassette Walkman after thirty years on the market, but I won’t be putting it up for sale on eBay, despite this slightly disconcerting little snippet of information:

There is a bloke currently selling blank cassettes on eBay: unopened TDK MA-R C60s, to be exact. Before you take this as further proof that eBay is the great car-boot sale of cyberspace, it is worth mentioning that unopened TDK MA-R C60s don’t reside in the sad hinterland of 0 bids and 0 watchers. They are going for £75. Each.

Blimey. Run that figure past me again? £75? My precious Walkman didn’t even cost £75! For that much money, you’d be looking at some serious tunes – that’s probably the best mix tape in the world… ever.

And when it comes to great mix tapes, dammit, I’m the queen of them all. Just ask my friends. Everyone has their own set of random, esoteric skills, and one of mine is the compilation of brilliant mix tapes. I firmly believe that there is a true art to putting together a great compilation – and that quickly burning a thrown-together CD is just not the same.

In the article I quoted above, Alexis Petridis gets right to the nub of this contrast between mix tapes and CDs:

Cassettes are a reminder of a lost age, when you had to work a bit harder to be a music fan. You couldn’t make a compilation by disinterestedly dragging and burning in iTunes. You actually had to sit and listen to the music you were recording, noting down track titles on an inlay card as you went – which meant you really had to like what you were taping.

Petridis is spot on there (and I recommend you read the rest of his article; it is a small but delicious nostalgia trip for those who, like me, spent a large chunk of the 1990s with the radio on loud and a finger on the pause button of a much-used cassette deck), although I would add my own recollections to these almost Proustian memories of home taping.

Recollections like desperately hunting for a really short track to fill the few minutes that would always be left at the end of each side of the cassette, or spending hours neatly writing out tracklistings and an explanation of why I had chosen each song in purple or red ink on A4 refill pad paper.

If you’re going to make a kick-ass mix tape though, you’ve got to like the person you’re compiling the tape for. Personally, I’ve only ever made mix tapes for people I think are really cool. You’ve got to know them well enough to have at least an idea of what sort of music they might appreciate (or not, as the case may be). Are they going to like a tape full of obscure indie? Or classic thrash metal? Or brand new funky house tunes? Or a mixture of everything?

Although the whole point of a mix tape is to share the tunes you love with others, it is crucial to remember the tastes of the tape’s recipient at all times. I work on the principle that if I know someone likes a particular band or artist, there will always be other (often similar or connected) bands and artists they will probably like too.

Personally, the best mix tapes I’ve ever recieved have managed to achieve that, as well as cunningly combining lots of new tunes with a few classics that I know (and love) well – so even if I don’t like some of the new tunes on the tape, at least there’s something I do like on there somewhere and I’m more likely to listen to it all the way through!

If you’re feeling really flashy, you could even theme your mix tape. In the past, I’ve done themed tapes of brilliant cover versions, of political songs, and of my favourite tracks from a specific year. In picking a theme, you’re really only limited by your imagination.

You could put together genre-themed mix tapes, or compile a tape full of covers of, say, Bob Dylan tracks (I can think of at least half a dozen off the top of my head!), or songs with a sporting theme, or a collection of the best film soundtrack moments, or even a tape of tracks that have been banned by the BBC over the years, should you be feeling controversial.

I could go on forever. In fact, the simple act of writing this post has stirred up a mass of nostalgic feelings for the music I grew up on, and happy memories of sitting cross-legged on the floor by my much-loved second-hand stereo, surrounded by CDs and cassettes, and attempting to figure out whether I could get away with putting The Clash on a tape after a classic house tune…

And on that nostalgic note, it’s over to you, my music-mad readers, as I am sure many of you have practiced the art of mix tape making – how did you approach the compilation of a truly great mix tape?

And here’s a little challenge for you too: I’m handing out virtual C60s and I want you to compile your ultimate mix tape for me. Genres, themes, tracklisting – all up to you.

Post your playlists here, and feel free to let me know the reasoning behind your choices too, if you wish!

I look forward to your selections!

8 thoughts on “The Art of the Mix Tape

  1. Grant

    Ok, the playlist…

    1. Intro
    2. Bow Wow Wow – C30, C60, C90, Go!
    3. Scraps of Tape – Hands In The Air
    4. The Delta Mirror – And The Radio Played On
    5. Maybeshewill – Paris Hilton Sex Tape
    6. AmpLive – Video Tapez feat Del Da Funky Homosapien
    7. The Kills – Tape Song
    8. Black Tape For A Blue Girl – Knock Three Times
    9. Library Tapes – Slow-Wave Sleep
    10. Sleepy Sun – Open Eyes
    11. Autechre – Play
    12. Blindfold – Reverse
    13. The Dukes Of Leisure – Time Must Have A Stop
    14. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club – Mama Taught Me Better

    As you can see, there was a hint of a theme going through. Hope you enjoy, because I’m terrible at making these things, as much as I love doing it!

    Here’s the link to listen to it.

    1. Fantastic!

      This is great stuff – and nicely eclectic too. That’s exactly the kind of mix tape I love; you’ve clearly thought the theme through and chosen some excellent tunes (actually, I had been wondering if anyone would pick that Bow Wow Wow track – inevitable I guess!).

      Thanks for putting that together!

  2. Grant

    I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love to make mixtapes, however my success rate with people liking them is very low.

    The Bow Wow Wow one was absolutely nailed on really, given the subject matter!

    1. One of the things that mildly annoys me about people is that most of them (but not all, of course) don’t have the same eclectic and wide-ranging taste in music that the likes of you and I do!

      In my view, it’s the remembering of that point which is the secret of a successful mix tape – it took me a while to grasp the fact that while, with my eclectic tastes, I might love a tape full of hardcore punk, shouty hip hop and drum ‘n’ bass, someone who’s only into singer-songwriters and chilled-out indie would run a mile from it… But I’ve also got enough stuff by singer-songwriters to make a good tape for someone with those tastes too!

      Yep, mix tapes are about sharing much-loved tunes with friends, and yes, it’s a very satisfying challenge to convert someone to a genre of music they previously thought they didn’t like. But making a successful mix tape is, as I pointed out in the main post, about remembering the recipient’s taste in music and using that as a base on which to build. Every mix tape should be unique and particular to its recipient’s tastes.

      1. Grant

        It’s the classic “I love music, I do” line and then when you inquire as to favoured bands, they reply “Coldplay. Oh, and Muse” (The 21st Century version of Queen)

        1. Don’t you be dissing Queen! I loved them when I was little… ;)

          As for Coldplay and Muse – definitely agree. I quite liked the first Coldplay album, but they’re now just rewriting the same songs over and over and over. And I’ve just never got Muse. They’ve always wanted to be Radiohead a bit too much for my liking!

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