Once I became dependent on CDs and, later, digital audio, I honestly thought I’d miss listening to cassette tapes to feed my musical addiction. I thought I’d go through the world’s first fully documented case of cassette withdrawal, my hands shaking as they struggled to press “rewind”.
With cassettes, you had to be willing to contribute some elbow grease. You couldn’t sit back and “shuffle” the songs on your cassette deck—you either listened to the whole side of the tape or you got real friendly with the “fast forward” button. If you wanted to get fancy, you’d get a system with dual cassette decks and alternate between the two, or a stereo with that freaky button that would reverse the rotation of the reel and play the opposite side for you.
Tapes made you work for your music, which might explain why, when cassettes reigned supreme, you didn’t see many headlines about lawsuits between the recording industry and consumers looking to score copies of tapes from their friends. I’m not talking about bootleggers; I mean the usual ‘Joe’s’ and ‘Jane’s’ who didn’t mind paying for music but preferred to free up some money by trading copies. It’s like, “Hey, I’ll copy Whitney Houston’s first album for you if you’ll copy Bruce Hornsby & the Range for me. I’m not sure I wanna buy the whole tape just to listen to ‘That’s Just the Way It Is’.”
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Problem was, making a mixtape was a labor of love. You had to build your mix carefully, placing the original tape in one deck and the blank in the other. Then you would cue the original and press “record”, and you had to sit there and record the cassette, minute by minute. You could do it faster with the “high-speed dub” function—if the song had lyrics, it sounded like Alvin & the Chipmunks—but sometimes the quality wasn’t so good. If you were cherry-picking the songs you wanted to record from multiple cassettes, the process was even more painstaking, which means you couldn’t multitask the way we do now—no listening to tracks and videos from the PopMatters Media Center or downloading wallpapers of the cast of Heroes.
You could eat up an entire afternoon doing this, especially if you wanted to make the perfect mixtape. For that, though, you’d want a dependable brand of blanks, not the cheap ones that snap or get tangled in the deck after you’ve spent hours on your compilation. You’d also need some math skills and the ability to solve basic word problems to ensure that you use as much space on the tape as possible. Having too few songs meant you’d be leaving a lot of space at the end of a side, which would cause you to waste battery power on your Walkman (your portable tape player) if you had to fast-forward and rewind. Having too many songs meant you’d end the side in the middle of a song, which was terribly irritating. To avoid all this, you had to calculate:
If Latifah has a 60-minute blank tape, which means both sides have a duration of 30 minutes, how many of Latifah’s favorite songs can she fit onto the cassette if the songs have a running time of approximately 3 minutes and 30 seconds per song?
If everything went according to plan (in spite of interruptions or technical difficulties), you would experience the euphoria of filling a cassette with the right number of songs in the most enjoyable order.
Nowadays, “mixtapes” are on CD. The professionals—the rappers, in particular—use mixtapes to promote upcoming projects, to start “beefs”, or to release excess or remixed material. For consumers, the homemade “mixtape” is a drastically different experience from the days of the cassette. With digital media, you build a playlist of songs on your computer’s audio program, you slide a blank CD into the CD-ROM drive, and you press the “burn” button. It’s ridiculously simple. And, oh yeah, about those songs you’re burning—they are your own original works that were produced, written, arranged, composed, and performed completely by you, right? And with no contributions from anyone else? Of course they are.
As fate would have it, I don’t miss cassette tapes as much as I thought I would. I’m spoiled by technology; my friggin’ computer even has a remote that will control television, music, and DVD functions from across a hallway. Why would I want to fool around with a cassette? Nevertheless, I recently went digging through one of my many boxes of tapes and…well, I became nostalgic. I could tell you a personal story about each one (but, fortunately, I won’t). It was my nostalgia that motivated me to make a few mixtapes for you.
I’ll share the first one with you now. It’s a 60-minute tape of “oddball” hip-hop tunes. Whenever my friends have criticized hip-hop, I’ve had a tendency to make mixes with “socially-conscious” and “positive” songs, erring on the side of Brand Nubian, Paris, and Dead Prez. That’s one of our knee-jerk reactions as hip-hop fans—when we battle criticism, we start naming the “good guys”. “Oh yeah? Well, Public Enemy’s still around…sort of. And there’s Common, there’s Talib Kweli, there’s the Roots, there’s the Coup. Things aren’t so bad.”
In our zeal to defend the genre, though, we forget to hype the songs that don’t fall into neat categories, songs that aren’t about partying or fighting the power. Yet, these are the songs that surprise us, the songs that tap into humor and imagination, the songs that are just plain weird, and the songs that ultimately make us proud to listen to all those rhymes and all those beats. So, without further ado…I present the P.M. Mixtape: Volume One.
SIDE A (Running Time: 29:53)
“Intro [Call from Mom]” (0:47)—Boss, from Born Gangstaz (1992)
Back in the ‘90s, Boss was the woman to beat. Straight outta Detroit, Michigan, her flow was impeccable, with a frightening “gangsta” glare from a female perspective. She explored the psyche of street life in songs like “Deeper” and “Progress of Elimination”, and flipped the script on male chauvinists in “Recipe of a Hoe”. But the true masterstrokes of the album were the intro and outro. The intro, an answering machine message from Boss’s mom, gave Boss’s “gangsta” boogie a different spin. In response to Boss’s outgoing message (“I don’t give a fuck, not a single fuck, not a single solitary fuck. Yo, what’s up, motherfuckas, I ain’t even home so leave a message and I’ll get back wit’ch’y'all”), Mama Boss implores her to remove the message, saying, “Hi, Lichelle. Look, you should take that off your answering machine. It does not sound nice.” Mama Boss reveals that Boss went to Catholic school for 12 years and studied tap dance, jazz, and piano before going to college. She says, “I did not spend out all of my money on you for that gangsta stuff.”
“Autobiographical” (5:30)—Black Sheep, from Non-Fiction (1994)
Black Sheep hit the spotlight from the shadows of the Native Tongue family that included A Tribe Called Quest, Leaders of the New School, De La Soul, and Jungle Brothers. Black Sheep featured Andres “Dres” Titus and William “Mr. Lawnge” McLean and the group is best known for the revisited version of its hit “The Choice Is Yours” (remember the hook, “You can get with this / Or you can get with that”) from A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing (1991). Unfortunately, the duo didn’t sustain the momentum on its second album, Non-Fiction, though the first full track, “Autobiographical”, painstakingly described a young emcee’s journey from humble beginnings and meager living (“For the first years of my life I thought food stamps were money”) to a life in hip-hop. Rappers love to tell stories, but they don’t always share the details as Dres does here. Just when you thought Ghostface Killah’s “Whip You With a Strap” was the definitive rhyme about getting spanked, “Autobiographical” pauses the rhyme to reenact the ass kicking, mother’s voice and all. *Shiver*.
“Please Listen to My Demo” (3:01)—EPMD, from Unfinished Business (1989)
In the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Erick Sermon and Parrish Smith (EPMD, or Erick and Parrish Making Dollars) were always open for business, dropping one-liners and deft flows over stacks of funk tracks. “Please Listen to My Demo”, however, puts a hush on the funk and the big beats, kicking a softer, more serene side of the crew. It’s the age-old story of a man, his microphone, and his demo tape (notice I said “tape”, not “mp3” player), in search of an audience with little more to say than, “Pl-pl-please, please listen to my demo”. That urge to communicate, to say something and know someone out there is listening—EPMD brings it to life and makes it urgent and compelling. I always found “Demo” to be a poignant contrast to De La Soul’s tune, “Ring Ring Ring (Ha Ha Hey)”, which showed De La’s rather callous dismissal of demo hustlers. Got a demo? All you get from De La is the answering machine.
“The Showstopper” (5:00)—Salt & Pepa, from Hot, Cool & Vicious (1986)
A Salt with a deadly Pepa is a lethal musical combo. As the story goes, “The Showstopper” was the result of an assignment for friend Hurby “Luv Bug” Azor’s audio production class. It turned into a record deal and blossomed into a legendary career. “The Showstopper” is a fun record that steals “The Show” (literally) from Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh. Rick and Fresh’s “Oh-Oh-Oh My God"s were replaced by Salt & Pepa’s “Please-Please-Please—Stop it!“s. Hilarious.
“Zodiac” (2:45)—MC Lyte, from Bad As I Wanna B (1996)
MC Lyte goes astrological on this ode to the stars. Lyte interprets the zodiac in first person (she’s a Libra), taking the symbols of the sky and turning them into the freshest of rhymes. As she drops the “soul-ar facts”, you might be tempted to say, “What a weird song.” But, as always, Lyte ties it all together in the end: “Of course, if you check the math, it’s all symbolic / Horoscopes are purely logic.” Naturally, I considered including Lyte’s pre-Starbucks tale of adventure, “Cappucino”, but, damn it, I only had 30 minutes on this side and “Cappucino” is more than a minute longer than “Zodiac”. *Sigh*. I know, I know—this problem has been virtually obliterated in the digital age.
“Bridging the Gap” (4:03)—Nas, from Street’s Disciple (2004)
Joining forces with his father, jazz musician Olu Dara, Nasir “Nas” Jones reinforces the links, rather than the divisions, between blues, jazz, and rap, and infuses “the history of music in this track”. In addition to bridging musical gaps, the song bridges the generation gap. As opposed to the Fresh Prince’s humorous “Parents Just Don’t Understand”, Nas says he “discovered his father’s music like Prince searchin’ through boxes in Purple Rain”. Meanwhile, his father handles the chorus:
See, I come from Mississippi
I was young and runnin’ wild
Ended up in New York City
Where I had my first child
I named the boy Nasir
All the boys call him Nas
I told him as a youngsta
He’ll be the greatest man alive.
I think it’s important for older listeners and younger listeners to understand each other’s music—I don’t really get why there’s such a divide, perceived or otherwise, in the first place. But, for hip-hop, there seems to be a generational conflict within ranks, as the “old school” fans square off against the “new school” fans. It’s almost turning into a new beef amongst the fans, replacing geographical and posse allegiances held by the performers. The “old” crew longs for the “golden age of rap” (circa 1990), while the “new” crew says, “Face it, yesterday’s gone.” So listen up, Old School Heads and New School Fans—if you all don’t get it together soon, or get Afrika Bambaataa to peacefully mediate the dispute, I’ll have to put together my own canon of hip-hop essentials and the result won’t please you. Trust me, I’ll leave off Kool G. Rap and Young Jeezy just to show both of your camps I mean business.
“Swiney Swiney” (3:11)—Monie Love, from Down to Earth (1990)
Believe it or not, U.K. rapper Monie Love has beef with pork, dedicating a few minutes out of her best album, Down to Earth, to explain why you shouldn’t “boil it, fry it, or even buy it”. What’s that noise, you say? Monie answers, “Somebody’s fryin’ bacon / Without realizin’ the great risk they’re takin’.” Monie wasn’t alone in her attempt to upgrade our menus. Dead Prez tried it later on their isn’t-it-a-great-day-to-eat-vegetables track “Be Healthy” from Let’s Get Free (2000). A Tribe Called Quest did it too, on “Ham ‘N’ Eggs”, from 1990’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, singing, “I don’t eat no ham & eggs ‘cause they’re high in cholesterol.” And people say hip-hop is all about killing people! *Gasp*. Look, the rappers tried to warn everybody about eating the pig’s feet and chitterlings (“chitlins”). I guess it’s true what they say—you can lead music fans to the rap section of the record store, but you can’t make ‘em listen.
“Want It All” (5:32)—Digital Underground, from Future Rhythm (1996)
You could probably make a mixtape of “oddball” rap with nothing but Digital Underground songs. Popularly known for doing the “Humpty Dance”, with group leader Shock-G dressed up alter ego Humpty Hump (he reminds me of Groucho Marx with a big brown nose). But Digital Underground was deeper than the Humpty Hump disguise. One of my favorite D.U. tunes is “Want It All”, a manifesto for all of us who want more out of life, but are so unsure of what we really want that we end up wanting everything and nothing. At times, our desires cause us to lead contradictory lives—wanting to live forever while wondering what it’s like to die; wanting to live “righteous” but going back into the street to “act crazy”; wanting to “smoke the fool tryin’ to take mine” but also wanting to fight crime. Best lines: “I want to be a real humanitarian / Eat fish and become a vegetarian / But after the party’s over at 2AM—then I WANNA GET A FATBURGER!”
(That’s the end of Side A. Turn the tape over for Side B.)
SIDE B (Running Time: 29:54)
“Something 2 Dance 2” (3:24)—NWA, from Straight Outta Compton (1988)
No introduction is necessary for NWA, the self-proclaimed “world’s most dangerous group”, the group that put Compton on the hip-hop map and put the police on notice that some people, at least on wax, were no longer confusing the carotid chokehold for a friendly hug. Described as thuggish, violent, misogynistic, and a host of other characteristics we didn’t find so objectionable in the movie Goodfellas, NWA had this one really strange track on Straight Outta Compton: “Something 2 Dance 2”. You don’t hear anybody discuss it much, but the song proves the Compton boys genuinely enjoy music, as they prance around on this deejay-techno groove at the tail end of an album that includes “Fuck the Police”, “Gangsta Gangsta”, and “Dopeman”. Delightfully bizarre.
“Club That Much” (4:15)—Superiority Complex, from Stand Up (2006)
Okay, so you’re at the club, having a good time, when a fight suddenly breaks out. The “authorities” arrive to question you, even though you had nothing to do with it. What do you say? Well, if you’re like me, you’ll probably say what Superiority Complex said, “Man, I don’t even go out to the club that much!” In the middle of the bass-heavy club track, there’s an interrogation between an officer and Iron Monk, one of the group’s emcees, in which the officer assures Iron Monk that he’s not going to get in trouble over the incident. Iron Monk responds, with increasing irritation, “I know I’m not in trouble, I didn’t even do shit!” The genius of the dialogue is Iron Monk’s insistence that he’s famous, “You need to stop askin’ me all these questions. Don’t you know who I am? I’m the Iron Monk! I’m the motherfuckin’ Iron Monk! I’m a ce-le-bri-tee, you know what I’m sayin’, I’m a ce-le-bri-tee…you betta recognize game all up in yo’ face.”
“Ode to Tanya” (5:03)—Tanya Morgan, from Moonlighting (2006)
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times: Tanya Morgan isn’t a woman. Okay, I’m sure there are plenty of women out there with that name but, in this case, it’s the name of a hip-hop group. These three male emcees—Ilyas, Donwill, and Von Pea—decide it’s not enough to record rap songs under a band name that sounds like a “neo-soul” singer; they take the social construction of reality further with an ode to the dream girl. In doing so, they trade verses dissing each other in order to win “her” affections. In the end, she’s not havin’ any of them, responding, “Are you guys too busy hatin’ on each other to fuckin’ even realize that I’m a woman?! Y’know? Hellooooo? I thought you all were supposed to be ‘boys’.”
“Underwater” (2:03)—Ghostface Killah, from Fishscale (2006)
After the initial splashing noise, Ghostface Killah pulls an Aquaman, accompanied by the loveliest flute you’ll hear this side of Bobbi Humphrey. He travels through murky waters filled with the usual sea residents, plus “mermaids with Halle Berry haircuts” and Sponge Bob smackin’ his boo for eyeing Ghostface too closely. Do I really need to say more? This track is dope.
“New World Water” (3:11)—Mos Def, from Black on Both Sides (1999)
If Mos Def hadn’t recorded this song, maybe Al Gore would’ve done a conservationist rap of his own. Mighty Mos strikes again, this time on the environmental tip, promoting the virtues of hydration. You can drink trendy alcoholic bubbly and fancy wines if you want, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t have water. That’s right, folks, good old-fashioned H-2-O: “There are places where TB is common as TV / ‘Cause foreign-based companies go and get greedy / The type of cats who pollute the whole shoreline / Have it purified, sell it for a dollar twenty-five.” This song makes me incredibly thirsty, yet ghastly afraid to drink anything.
“Bitties in the BK Lounge” (5:39)—De La Soul, from De La Soul Is Dead (1991)
What would hip-hop have been without our quirky De La Soul buddies? I don’t know and I don’t wanna find out. “Bitties in the BK Lounge” is a comical ditty set in one of these fast-food joints that claim you can “have it your way” in their commercials, but nevertheless give you the mayo you told them to hold and the cheese you wanted them to leave off. The best part is the insult-fest between the rapper behind the “BK” counter and a female customer. She goes, “Excuse me, would you take my order, I’ve got to go. Shashawna’s got a real job, dag, don’t you know?” and he goes, “Oh yeah, it’s you. Now I recognize. The real, real bitty with the fake, fake eyes.” Irreverent and petty, along the lines of the Pharcyde’s “Ya Mama” and Common’s “A Film Called (Pimp)” (featuring MC Lyte), “Bitties” gets props for its unusual setting and fantastic dialogue.
“The Mission” (3:50)—Special Ed, from Legal (1990)
The very lyrical Special Ed takes us on a James-Bond-meets-The Karate Kid fantasy trip. Apparently, a “five-foot-ten black-belt karate master” named “Liu Chin Chin” stole some rhymes, forcing Special Ed to undertake the mission to hunt him down. Special Ed says, “You can smile now, but you won’t for long / ‘Cause, sucka, you’ll be sorry that you stole my song.” Word.
“DJ’s Get No Credit” (1:54)—Big Daddy Kane feat. Mr. Cee, from Prince of Darkness (1991)
Step aside, Big Daddy Kane, it looks like your DJ’s got something to say. Long-time pal and mix master Mr. Cee shares a few choice words with the Big Daddy. People just don’t know what DJ’s have to go through to make sure the party gets started and stays in overdrive. Mad as hell, he says, “I’m always in the background, supplyin’ the sound, but my props has yet to be found.” We feel your pain, Mr. Cee.
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“Outro [A Call from Dad]” (0:31)—Boss, from Born Gangstaz (1992)
And so we end where this mixtape originally began, with an outro from Boss. This time it’s Boss’s dad who objects to Boss’s “I don’t give a fuck” outgoing answering machine message. But after expressing his disapproval, Daddy Boss ends his message with, “Oh, by the way, baby—thanks for the Rolex!” And hasn’t that been the story of hip-hop in a nutshell? “You hate my style,” Hip-Hop might’ve said, “but you don’t mind consuming it.”
// Notes from the Road
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