On Making Mixtapes

The hotel sat off a highway, across the street from an open field. It had snowed, but because of the back-and-forth of thawing and freezing, the parking lot was a lumpy, crunchy, brown mess, sloppy and frozen in a way that only someone familiar with midwestern parking lots in early winter will ever understand.

I was on a hunting trip with my father and his hunting buddy. I didn’t hunt, but I was on the trip because, I dunno…bonding? All I remember is that I had one goal at that moment: to get out of that hotel room.

So I walked into the field. It was dark; behind me, the lights of the hotel. I was going nowhere, walking toward the horizon. Each snowy crunch comforted me.

In my Walkman: a mixtape.

More specifically, Metallica’s greatest hits. But my own selection. In chronological order, obviously.

So I walked. I rocked, more like. Beyond that, I remember nothing. I don’t know how long I was out there. I don’t remember what the hotel looked like, or what we watched on television, or even whether I had a roll-away or if I had my own bed.

I don’t remember anything else about the hunting trip. But I remember that mixtape. I remember that music.

So, I’m Making Mixtapes Now. Kind of.

I read Rebecah Tuhus-Dubrow’s Personal Stereo last week and became mildly re-obsessed with the idea of mixtapes. I miss them.

So before I spend 1,300 words talking about creating music playlists and recording mixtapes and how much I loved my old Walkman, I want to announce my new mini-project.

Once a month, for me and also for you if you like, I’m gonna make some mixtapes. I mean, they’re gonna be on Spotify (sorry, non-Spotifiers), but the purpose is the same: to achieve the old aesthetic of a mixtape (and its child, the burned mix CD) in everything but its medium. The playlist will be 60 minutes or less. It will include a wide range of things that I enjoy. It is going to be a mode of self-centered self-expression, in which I do a bit of “omg you have to hear this” mixed with “omg let’s go deeper” mixed with “omg remember this one?”

Embracing my often scattershot tastes, unrelenting in my dadness, I will give you a 60-minute cassette’s worth of music each month, lovingly curated by me, as the record clubs always say.

The first one is here:

Embarrassment as Creative Fuel

“Some crazy fucker carved a sculpture out of butter and propped it up in the middle of the Bonanza breakfast bar.
And I am stuffing toast and sausage into my pockets under a sign that says Grand Opening while my dog is waiting in the car.”

– Ani Difranco, “Garden of Simple”

For Christmas this year, my dad brought over a box of old cassette tapes. Some old Fugazi cassettes and some old demos recorded by local bands, but mostly it was just old mixtapes.

Music does a large part in documenting specific points in our lives, and there certainly was a history in the mixtapes my dad brought over. But it was a history that I didn’t want to relive. It was a history of my early tastes, and a history of old girlfriends, and random dalliances with Rush. It was a history of feigning knowledge: so many of the tapes were attempted summaries of genres I didn’t yet understand.

It was a box full of old journal entries, and I didn’t want them around anymore; a display of butter sculptures that had gone rancid, their utility long gone after the grand opening had passed.

February 2018: The First One

  • “Garden of Simple” — Ani Difranco
  • “Can I Kick It? (J. Cole Remix)” — A Tribe Called Quest
  • “No Time To Play” — Guru
  • “It’s Got to be Mellow” — Leon Haywood
  • “Mistadobalina” — Del the Funky Homosapien
  • “I Wish You Love” — Friends of Dean Martinez
  • “Sand Castle” — Beta Minus Mechanic
  • “Workinonit” — J Dilla
  • “400 Miles” — Blackalicious (f/ Chali 2NA and Lateef the Truthspeaker)
  • “If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up” — Betty Davis
  • “Goldfinger” — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings
  • “We Don’t Sleep” — Har Mar Superstar
  • “Chaquitad” — The Dave Clark Five
  • “Push th’ Little Dasies (live)” — Ween
  • “And Your Bird Can Sing (Anthology 2 Version / Take 2)” — The Beatles
  • “Black Magick” — Ty Segall
  • “Jesus, Etc. (live)” — Norah Jones
  • “Because the Night (MTV Unplugged)” — 10,000 Maniacs

I sold the Fugazi tapes. I kept the demos. And I totally threw away all of the mixtapes.

A week later, I told someone that I threw away the mixtapes and, finally, felt a sense of loss. What had I done? A small town local punk scene was the center of my music tastes during my formative years, and apparently it’s still hard to get over the punk point concept — that every action, every movement, every musical choice was either a purposeful or ironic statement on your personality and worth.

I wonder if I’m still trying to get over it. Instead of embracing the slow and gradual change of taste, I was trying to remove my roots — to pretend that I didn’t put 10,000 Maniacs’ cover of “Because the Night” on every mix, that I wasn’t completely enthralled by that second The Offspring record, that I didn’t actually purchase and totally love Bush’s Sixteen Stone for the first few months after it came out.

Those mixtapes were embarrassing. I think maybe that was the point in keeping them.

On Mixed Emotions

The more patient, generous style of listening is not so much self-abnegation as enlightened hedonism. Not only does it give you the opportunity to cultivate enjoyment of what is not immediately catchy. Even if you never learn to like a song — especially then — listening to it anyway heightens the pleasure of the songs you do love. Waiting through “Sun King” intensifies the joy when hearing “Mean Mr. Mustard” arrives.

— Rebecah Tuhus-Dubrow, Personal Stereo

I still make playlists. Lots of them.

When I was younger, I imagined myself as a great editor. I saw mixtapes as an extension of my personality. I loved making connections between the randomness of my own taste, trying to balance genres and create a flow.

But now, the playlists are different. Now, I appreciate the limits. (I’m the one who makes an 80s playlist, but instead of allowing every 80s song I instead force contrived limits: 200 songs, only 20 songs per year.) I love the idea that you can’t just put everything on a playlist, because while the idea of a 300+ song Christmas list is perfect for throwing a bit of sound into the background of a party, it’s nothing like the final word of a time-constrained mixtape. The purpose of the selections. The overall theme. Like editing, but for music.

When I made that Metallica mix back in the mid-90s, I was doing it because that was my only method of making something custom; of choosing a dream playlist and making my own “greatest hits.” Today, I see deeper: I wasn’t just blindly selecting my favorites, but making a case for maximum replay-ability. Even though I loved the live version of “Seek and Destroy,” I knew that using up 25 minutes of my 60-minute allotment would force me to leave off personal favorites like “Eye of the Beholder.”

I think fighting over taste is tiring, and I think reviewing art is boring. But I think mixtapes are neither — instead, they present a kind of modern manifest. They begin a discussion, saying “this is what I think is good” without saying “and you’re wrong if you think otherwise.” They force replay of under appreciated songs, and they embrace overplayed classics.

Most of all, they provide a way to talk about music without talking about music. The interesting discussions about music often have nothing to do with the music itself, but are instead in the stories around that music: in the spaces where we listen, in the process of creation, in the memories our minds insist on tagging.

Even if that space is an open field. Even if creation was simply creating a better greatest hits. Even if the stories around the music are embarrassing and we’re struggling with whether or not we should throw them away.

This was lovingly handwritten on February 5th, 2018