Throwback Thursday: Mixtapes (’80s-’00s)

Remember your old school mixtapes?

What: Mixtapes

When: 1980s to 2000s

Featuring: Power Ballards, Love Songs, Smooth Grooves, Road Trip Tracks

Reason for the throwback: Nobody makes mixtapes any more. Not only that, they’ve become a “things the geeky guy does” trope in television and films these days because “who still does that?”

An entire generation will grow up with iPods and access to whatever music they want, whenever they want it, all at the touch of a button. Even those that grew up in the mixtape era have divorced themselves from the practice. And no, making a new playlist on your iPod isn’t the same thing, thank you very much.

Point of distinction: I’m not talking about the “I made this myself” compilations aspiring artists make either; those are demos of their own work and they’re not the same things.

Mixtapes (and later, mixed CDs) weren’t just about cramming a bunch of random songs onto a cassette in some haphazard order. There was an art to it – an art best described by Nick Hornby in his classic, High Fidelity:

To me, making a tape is like writing a letter — there’s a lot of erasing and rethinking and starting again. A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do. You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention (I started with “Got to Get You Off My Mind”, but then realized that she might not get any further than track one, side one if I delivered what she wanted straightaway, so I buried it in the middle of side two), and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch, and you can’t have white music and black music together, unless the white music sounds like black music, and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs and…oh, there are loads of rules.

For the record, the book is significantly better than the film starring John Cusack and I say that as someone that has committed the film to memory and has it on my desert island, all-time Top 5 list of favourite movies…. but I digress.

The thing with mixtapes is that they were a way to express what you were thinking, feeling and liking in that moment and it took work to make them. You had to put effort into it. Like Horny said, it was hard to do and no one ever came up with a killer mixtape on the first try. If they tell you they did, they’re a liar.

If you were hardcore about it (and I was hardcore about it), you created your own cover art and laboured over figuring out how to get the name of the song and the artist onto that impossibly small amount of space the jerks at Maxell, BASF and TDK gave you. And those stick on labels that you had to put on the tape itself so you knew which cassette had your R&B jams and which one was your secret, “Yeah, I like country every once in a while” tape.

Now getting the music you want in one place takes a couple mouse clicks or finger taps – you can drag and drop songs onto a new playlist and cycle through your sad songs, happy songs, workout jams and West Coast rap classics in no time flat. Clicking a check box gets the album cover downloaded with the song. It’s expedient and easy, but there is no art to it any more – no science, no effort, no pain, no misery.

Making a kick ass mixtape was a labour of love – something you planned out, put effort into and were proud of when you were done because there was something satisfying about having the tape you could start at Side One, Track One and let run straight through.

I still have a bunch of different mixtapes kicking around my mom’s place – ’70s rock, random ’90s hip hop, a complete hodgepodge of stuff that doesn’t go together at all that stands as a reminder of what a bad mixtape looks like – and a couple different mixed CDs that remain in rotation in my car. Yes, I still listen to CDs in the car at times.

I still have them because they’re not just a collection of songs – they’re reminders of the point in time when they were made, the feelings and experiences I was going through at those times and the people they were made for. They’re more meaningful than an iPod playlist because out of all the songs in the world, these were the 18-21 tracks that made me think of my then girlfriend, now wife in the summer of 2008 when I made Sarah’s Mix, Vol. I.

And I miss that, so if you’ll excuse me, I think it’s about time I got around to making Sarah’s Mix, Vol. II.

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