Why I Love 90’s Hip Hop Mixtapes by Gary Anderson

Back in 1995 I first discovered hip hop mixtapes.  I was 20 years old and had taken a trip to the Potomic Mills mall near DC and there was a kiosk inside that had these tapes.  Now I didn’t know anything about this.  I was looking through the tapes and seeing all these names of rappers that I had kind of heard about, but not much.  And I was overcome with this wonder and amazement.  I know that probably sounds strange to kids growing up with the internet where everything you could possibly want is right at your fingertips, but it was different back then.

Back then if you lived in certain areas of the country, shit was just not available to you.  Unless you had a store in your town that had connections to New York you just were out of luck.   So unlike today where within minutes of a song leaking out it’s on 50 different blogs all thinking they’re the one who’s going to get all the internet traffic looking for it, then it was something different.

It’s hard to explain really, but looking at those cassettes was like looking at the Holy Grail or something.   You’re seeing these rapper’s names and you’re thinking “oh man, they have a new song out??  Oh wow those rappers got together on a track???”  and it’s a type of pleasure that is hard to achieve these days.

MORE AFTER THE BREAK

These days, as I said, everything is available immediately. There’s no buildup anymore, there’s no surprises. Everything’s instant. There’s no joy of thumbing through the tapes or cds in the store and deciding what you’re going to spend your fifteen bucks on. There’s no back and forth procrastinating. There’s no spending hours and hours just looking through all the stacks of vinyl or all the racks of cds marveling at the artwork and imagining some weird scenario of you walking in with a thousand bucks and buying up whatever you wanted.

Now everything’s just there for the taking. If you want it, it’s there you can download it (legally or otherwise).

I loved how the tapes were TAPES. I love how the artwork was not as elaborate as today. Back then it didn’t matter what your artwork was, it was about what was on the tape, not what was wrapping the tape. You could pick up a tape, regardless of the packaging, and say “Ron G? Sold.” or “DJ Clue? Sold.” “DJ Lazy K? Sold.” Now it’s “well, this cover is wack I’m not even going to look at that one”. And that’s sad.

I love when I listen to some of the old cassette tapes there’s that hiss in the background of the music. I love that it’s not digital. I love that it’s not pristine and cleaned up. I love that when I listen to it the voices are slightly higher pitched for some damn reason. I figure it’s from all the play it’s gotten over the years. Even MP3 rips of the tapes you hear that higher pitch to the voices where they aren’t quite at chipmunk levels but close, although the speed of the song is the same, the voices are different. I love that. I don’t know why I just do.

I love listening to an old mixtape and hearing something that sounds clichéd as hell now, but was BRAND NEW then. Things like Puffy yelling “AS WE PROCEED….TO GIVE YOU WHAT YOU NEED….” or “9-5 MOTHERF*CKER! GET LIVE MOTHERF*CKER!”. Hearing songs that are close to 20 years old and hearing them introduced as “this brand new joint”. How do you NOT love that? It’s like a time machine back to when hip hop was cool.

I love Hip Hop Blends which just aren’t the same anymore. I love hearing an R&B song flipped over the beat to Busta Rhymes Woo Ha! I love hearing another R&B track flipped over Fugee’s Ready or Not. I love that back then hip hop mixtapes were a thing of beauty, when in reality it was a simple cassette tape. Not nearly as pristine and digital as CD’s, not as long lasting as CD’s, and yet so much better.

I love thinking back to when I was homeless and all I had in the world to my name was a backpack filled with some clothes and books, and my beloved yellow Sony walkman that had autoreverse, and about ten tapes that I had bought off a local merchant in Charlottesville Virginia. How I’d sit up at night and put those headphones on and close my eyes and just get lost in these tapes. How every fucked up thing in my life was just gone. And I would sometimes forget to turn off the autoreverse, and I’d wake up with my batteries dead because the tape kept playing all night long.

For years I had those tapes with various DJ’s, including the legendary DJ Lazy K who was my favorite of all the mixtape DJ’s I had listened to back then. I had more tapes of hers than I did anyone else’s, and I loved her voice and her music selection and her screaming, “LAZY K!” It was all great.

And while it may seem strange to say, DJ Lazy K unknowingly helped me get through those early homeless years in which it was very hard on me. I was in a situation that was a shock to the system, so to speak, and I felt incredibly helpless and powerless. The way people look at you when you are homeless is just disheartening and unfortunate. You’re already at your lowest point, and then to have people just dismiss you out of hand without even knowing you is hard.

And these tapes allowed me to, at least temporarily, put that shit out of my mind. At the end of the day I would find somewhere away from everyone, hole up somewhere and just slip my headphones on and listen to her playing her music. I can’t really express it but that shit was a lifesaver for me. Without those tapes, something that I had only recently discovered in my life, I don’t know what I would have done if I had been left to my own depressed thoughts.

It allowed me to go on and get my shit together. And I did get my shit together, and got off the streets. And now it’s been ten years and God willing, I’ll never be back in that situation. And some reading this may find it difficult to believe that a simple set of mixtapes could in essence “save” me, but I firmly believe that they did.

Later my backpack got stolen and all my mixtapes and walkman were gone. I never got them back, and to this day I don’t have any of those old Lazy K tapes that helped me so much. I’ve been able to build up a small collection of cassette mixtapes from that golden era of hip hop, but not those Lazy K tapes. One day I’ll find someone who has them and see if I can work a deal or something. Until then….

But those tapes, man. They were so much more than today’s mixtapes which are on CD. I loved how I’d read the tracklisting and imagine these mythical rappers in New York, which seemed to me to be a magical place far away from me, as I’d never been out of Virginia at that point. And how every tape I’d come across was something new. I had no access to music magazines or anything like that, so when I’d find out “oh wow Nas and Foxy Brown did a new song!” that was NEW to me, despite it maybe being months old.

When was the last time you came across a collabo that you didn’t even know about months after it was out? Today everything is out there on the blogs and the magic and mystery of it is gone. And so is the enjoyment. I only listen to music that I own at this point. Every now and then there’ll be a new album I’ll pick up, but 9 times out of 10 it’s by an artist I already know I like.

I listen to the old stuff from back when I loved music a lot more. It’s amazing what being out of the loop will do for your appreciation of music. So you can have your new hip hop music. I’m not one of those cats who buy into the “Hip Hop is Dead” mantra. I have too much respect for Hip Hop to believe it could be killed off by some passing fads or wack rappers. Hip Hop has survived all that in the past and is still here.

That said, I’ll stick with the old school. You can have the new. As long as I’ve got a walkman and some cassettes (backed up on my Ipod, of course), then I’ll be just fine.

Shout out to all the hip hop DJ’s that are still doing their thing all these years later. You know who you are. And shout out to all the DJ’s that are continuing that tradition on with respect to those that came before you.

Visit Gary’s blog Searching for Chet Baker.