The sacred art of the mixtape

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… 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.

Back in the day, what seems like a long time ago, I was a DJ. For a long time, I thought it was my true calling. I set myself up with two Technics SLBD-22 belt drive decks, the cheapest Technics you could buy, and a battery-powered two-channel mixer. The fact that it was bought from Tandy should give you an idea of how long ago we’re talking.

I began learning to beatmix immediately. I was a regular reader of DJ and Record Mirror, and had a good theoretical understanding of the principle of playing two records at the same speed and matching the drums together. I didn’t have a lot of dance vinyl at that time, which meant I was either a) at the mercy of live drummers on records or increasingly b) borrowing my then-girlfriend’s precious collection of Jason Donovan records.

And from there it was just a short leap to creating mixtapes for friends. I was mixing to practise the craft anyway, and I taped them so I could listen back and see how my mixing was, so giving them away wasn’t much of a step. To begin with, they weren’t much of a personal statement and I certainly didn’t follow many rules, such as those alluded to in the quote above from Nick Hornby’s “High Fidelity”. They were mostly just created from the few records that I had to hand.

But slowly, surely, as my record collection and ability to mix increased, my mixtapes became much more of a personal statement. They frequently started off slowly, chilled, at a low tempo and then moved to a crescendo. My personal style evolved too, and the hurried mixes caused by using the 4-bar into and outro from Stock/Aitken/Waterman records was replaced by longer, verging on ridiculously epic transitions where I kept records in sync for 2-3 minutes or longer, especially when I added a third deck to the set-up.

But the defining change in both my mixing and mixtape style came when I discovered Ableton Live. Now, tracks became elements and sequences rather than songs. Mixing on laptop meant that I could endlessly loop a drum from here, a bassline from there, a guitar from there. I could edit tracks live, shortening or lengthening parts to suit my own devices.

Even though I’m technically retired from DJing, I still enjoy creating mixtapes. They’re the ultimate personal statement, created purely for myself, as much as technical exercise as a labour of love. Now, I do adopt Rob Fleming’s rules, just as a challenge. How many tracks can I fit into a CD-length mix? (my record is about 90). What’s the biggest difference in tempo between the opening and closing tracks of a mixtape I can achieve? (about 90 bpm). How many different genres, styles and eras can I use, what’s the most unlikely track I can get into a mix (s0 many contenders there!), how can I make a 60s psychedelic rock track blend seamlessly with underground European techno…

And this mixtape, created a couple of years ago,  is a good example of the sort of thing I enjoy. Starting off with Adele’s acapella, we move into Placebo’s alt rock. Later, the Stone Roses merge into The Jackson Sisters’ “I Believe in Miracles”, and coming out of that sequence we go through The Shadows and Kasabian, but five minutes later we’re in deep electronica territory courtesy of Hot Chip and Azealia Banks. It’s a mix that represents the inside of my head, also expressed in the kaleidoscopic mix of musings on this blog.

Click play to have a listen, or click on the Mixcloud logo to launch it in a new tab.

Tracklisting

  1. Adele – Rolling in the Deep
  2. Placebo – Taste in Men
  3. Beastie Boys – Intergalactic
  4. Friends – I’m His Girl
  5. Jessie Ware – 110%
  6. Labrinth – Express Yourself
  7. Prince – Alphabet Street
  8. Jackson 5 – ABC
  9. Dj Yoda – Wheels
  10. Eugene McGuinness – Harlequinade
  11. Grandmaster Flash – The Message
  12. Ice Cube – Bop Gun
  13. BlackStreet – No Diggity
  14. Marlena Shaw – California Soul
  15. Mtume – Juicy Fruit
  16. Beyonce – All The Single Ladies
  17. Skee-Lo – I Wish
  18. Rihanna – Umbrella
  19. Stevie Wonder – Wish
  20. Malcolm McLaren – Buffalo Gals
  21. Kasabian – LSF
  22. Prince – Kiss
  23. INXS – Need You Tonight
  24. Mansun – Stripper Vicar
  25. Barenaked Ladies – One Week
  26. The Stones Roses – Fool’s Gold
  27. The Urban All-Stars – It Began In Africa
  28. The Shadows – Apache
  29. Kasabian – Fire
  30. Mark Ronson – Record Collection
  31. Karmin – Brokenhearted
  32. Prince – Raspberry Beret
  33. Hot Chip – Over and Over
  34. Brassy – Play Some D
  35. Azealia Banks – 212
  36. Herve – Better Than A BMX
  37. Sam and The Womp – Bom Bom
  38. Foster The People – Pumped Up Kicks
  39. Yer Man – Weird Therapy
  40. Wanda Jackson – Whirlpool
  41. Men Women & Children – Dance In My Blood
  42. Calvin Harris – Ready For The Weekend
  43. The Shoes – Time To Dance

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