Friday, July 23, 2010

Side B

I don't think I can begin to explain how important hip-hop cassettes were to me (and the entire art form, as well). It's not a matter of nostalgia, even though the modern world has seemed to embrace them again for no other reason than some elite attempt to relive the past. Anyone born after about 1986 really has no reason to like was basically a dead format before they were able to embrace them. But, for those of us born in the 70's, it was an amazing gift from the music gods. Yes, there were 8-tracks preceding them, but the comparison between the two is nothing. Welcome to the world of walkmans, of car stereos....of the infinite beauty of MIXTAPES.
Cassettes were giving us the ability to listen to music constantly, wherever we were, which I took full advantage of. There were quite a few times I was kicked out of class in high school because a teacher caught me with my hood up, headphones in place, rocking Redman's Whut? Thee Album, Keith Murray's The Most Beautifullest Thing in This World, or, mostly, Nas' Illmatic. I didn't necessarily want to get kicked out of class, it was more a state of not being able to leave the music alone. Every summer consisted of epic walks everywhere around town, killing batteries every day. I started to equate length of walk to which album to listen to. Headed downtown to a movie? Pharcyde's Bizarre Ride to...., side A, would last the walk down. Side B on the way home, etc., etc.
The walkman became a way of life, a chance to soak in as many beats and rhymes as I could in an amounted time. I'm pretty sure my first walkman somewhere around fifth or sixth grade, and once I had it, it was all over. Around the time of the first walkman, I got myself a paper route. I lucked out and got the route circling my own street and a few connected ones. It was one giant loop that, if I was in a hurry, would last around forty minutes. If I took my time, it'd last over an hour. Most of the time I milked it for all it was worth, considering the job details were walking around listening to music, which I already did, and shoving a paper in a door or mailbox. At the end of the week, I would have anywhere from $25 to $50, depending on how generous my neighbors were with tips. That was $25 to $50 towards new music or baseball cards. I waited all year for Christmas deliveries, where everyone on my route would give me a nice, big fat tip. Sometimes I'd end up with close to $200 in my pocket. The trips to the music store the week after that were a field day.
The routes were where I fell in love with Cypress Hill's debut, with DAS-EFX's Straight Up Sewaside, with House of Pain's debut, with Brand Nubian's In God We Trust (specifically, Punks Jump Up to Get Beat Down), with 3rd Bass' Derelicts of Dialect, with the goddamn, motherfuckin' Beatnuts. The list goes on and on.
The routes were where I fell in love with the mixtape. Not the mixtapes you'd find on the streets of NYC, mind you....I had no access to those. I'd read about them in The Source, but I had no way of finding them. The mixtapes I had were of my own personal creation. All the college radio shows I recorded, all the best tracks from every album I had. I went as far as to bring my little stereo into the living room during YO! MTV Raps, set up a table for it to sit on and put the little speaker next to the television to record the entire program. When 80 minute blank tapes came out, I was stoked beyond explanation. Eighty minutes to work with.
Once CDs hit, it took a turn for the better in my eyes. My friends would jump all over them, buying things they already had. I gladly took the hand-me-downs, the "old news". The other thing that happened was that CDs were more expensive, costing in the $13 to $17 range. "CD only" tracks began to show up, thrown into an album as an added bonus for the extra cost. My simple solution to hearing these songs was the obvious: the beautiful, beautiful mixtape. I'd borrow the CDs from any friends that would lend them out, making massive compilations of the "CD only" tracks onto one tape. All in all, I probably had ten of these self-made comps, spanning from the years of 1990-1996. That's eight hundred minutes of music. Granted, when time went on and I had a bit more money from trading up from newspaper routes to grocery store jobs, I upgraded to CDs, but I still converted them to cassette for those long walks. I don't think I bought a portable CD player until around 2001 or so (I've always been late to the game....I just got an iPod in 2009.).
I played basketball in high school. On the bus for those away games, I had the headphones ready, rocking anything that got my blood pumping, like Onyx's Bacdafucup or The Roots' Do You Want More?!!!??!. Like clockwork, every bus ride, someone would ask what I was listening to. I'd tell them and they'd look confused, having no idea who the artist I was referring to was. They'd turn back to another teammate and to a real conversation. I didn't ever say much because I didn't have to. I played basketball because I wanted to. I didn't talk much because I didn't have to. I had music and I had my playing time on the court, with no real need for friends to accompany the two.

The moment I had a driver's license, all I could think about was taking a drive alone and turning up the stereo as loud as it could handle. A few days later, I was granted that wish and went for a little drive. The first tape I ever drove a car to was Public Enemy's Apocalypse '91....the Enemy Strikes Black, followed by Cypress Hill's self titled, followed by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth's Mecca and the Soul Brother. I milked that ride for all I could. It was one of the most liberating feelings I've ever had in my life. It was an October fall in New England, trees in full foliage. I drove with the windows down, letting the crisp air blow around within the car. I could have had that moment last for days, going through every record I had.
Driving around with new releases (to me or to the world) became an event for me. Within weeks of getting my license, I was able to convince my parents to let me take the car to a Strawberries in Newington on Tuesdays whenever possible. Besides the flea market Sundays, this was the most important music day of the week for me. (just so you all realize the time frame I'm talking's 1993. Gas was EIGHTY FIVE CENTS A GALLON.) I'd head over by myself to Strawberries and would usually be in and out within ten minutes. I had become a seasoned vet and knew exactly what I wanted, thanks in part to my trusty checklist of releases. I'd get back in the car and open the cellophane, taking time to look over the liner notes, seeing who produced what tracks, predicting my favorite songs, searching for guest spots....all of it. Once that was done, the tape went in and I was on my way home.
Two months later, during Thanksgiving break, I took the car on Black Friday for a special trip over to Newington. I had a little extra money and knew exactly what was about to come into my possession. First, I went to the mall. I don't know how I remember this, but I do. I bought a new winter skully, a pair of gloves and a new heather grey thermal shirt. As soon as I was done with this, I walked around the mall, people-watching as insanity took over. I love being in the general public during Christmas shopping season.....people become nutty, which means they become very, very entertaining. I took a drive to the movie theater and watched Judgement Night. My last stop before heading home was Strawberries. I was ready to make a one-two punch of a purchase and I'd be out of the store within five minutes.
Two debut albums were released within weeks of each other by groups that would, in my opinion, proceed to own hip-hop for years. Gritty, violent, abrasive and intense. That day I was able to buy both of those records, those records being Black Moon's Enta Da Stage and Wu-Tang Clan's Enter the 36 Chambers. Shit....I don't even know where to start with these two records, so I'll wait until a later time to ramble on and on and on about them. Anyways, I blasted 36 Chambers... so loud on that drive home, I was worried I'd blow the speakers. But I couldn't stop. Instead of going straight home, I drove to the sports card shop in Dover where one friend was working, and at least one more was hanging out. I parked right next to the door and as I walked in there, I looked around for customers. Of course, there were none, so I looked at my friend behind the counter and simply said, "Come outside for a have to hear this.". We stomped through the snowy sidewalk back to the car and got in. That was when I played him Bring da Ruckus and watched his eyes bulge, just as mine had. For the next three days, I think I played those two records about twenty times each. It's still such a vivid memory. Another life change had happened for both hip-hop and I. My license changed my ability to be a little more free, just as nine MCs from Shaolin were about to change the guidelines of modern hip-hop.
For the next few years, until I graduated and moved out, I took the car whenever my parents offered it for the night. I'd fill the gas tank, pick up a friend or two and just drive, well, anywhere. I'd always have a stack of cassettes with me and I'd always get excited to turn my passengers onto something new. There was a time where I skipped class and brought a couple of people out to the parking lot and played them the first few songs off of Gravediggaz' 6 Feet Deep, another was when I rocked Hard to Earn or Smif-N-Wessun's Dah Shinin' outside the YMCA before they'd let all us boys in to play some pick-up. Each release after October 1993, when I was finally allowed to drive, has a story I can associate with a car and a tape deck.

There was just something about hitting the end of a side, having to press eject and flip the tape over. To work for it. Yes, I understand CDs sound better, that the digital format reinvented the sound quality, but to me it didn't matter. No matter how shitty the speakers were, no matter how close the tape was to being worn out and snapping, the music was always there. Quality of sound didn't was always quality of song to me.

Colored vinyl had been around for years. It had taken over punk and hardcore. Hip-hop never really had colors in mind (though I do remember a few releases I had that, I think, were very pretty to look at. I seem to remember a green House of Pain 7" on Sub-Pop, Redman's first record on red vinyl, and a few other odds and ends. I could be wrong.). There were, however, colored cassettes. I recall having my mind blown numerous times after ripping off the plastic wrapper and opening the jewel case.

The one most referenced is, in my eyes, of course, the purple tape.

Raekwon's solo debut/masterpiece, Only Built for Cuban Linx....The jewel case itself was purple tinted, but to then open it up and have that eye-grabbing transparent purple......shiiiiiiit. The discussion in the halls of high school the next morning revolved around how cool it looked. I had, naturally, brought my walkman with me and made my rounds of showing everyone the new gem. The Wu was smart, alright. Not only did they make bonafide classics, but they were able to make them stand out even more with little things like this. Jay-Z even referenced it on Blueprint 3, which, no doubt, made a lot of younger fans scratch their heads.
Redman's Dare iz a Darkside was another piece of proof that cassettes ruled.

Red case, glowing red tape....the works. The cover art alone was amazing, paying homage to Parliament's Maggot Brain. There was one specific moment that proved cassettes still ruled the universe at that point. Reggie Noble's alter ego, Dr. Trevis chimed in a few seconds after the last song on side A, proclaiming "End of side one, you punk motherfuckers.....turn the tape over.". The first time I heard that quote, my jaw dropped. I'd get super hyped over the little things. It was a simple moment, but it spoke volumes to my ears, Dr. Trevis was commanding me.
There was the green Beastie Boys' tape for Ill Communication, a lot of singles were straight black with white print. Am I getting nerdy yet? Hell yeah I am. While punks and hardcore kids were clamoring for pressing info for the two or three colors that 7"s were released on (before it turned into ten colors per pressing....), I was marveling at those cassettes. I know there are a ton more that I'm forgetting. Any time I stumble upon or remember another one, I'll probably be posting them in an update. Anyone who remembers any others from this era, please let me know. And, if you have pictures, that would be even better.

Just face it. Cassettes are awesome. Period.

Someday I'll get my collection back up to the hundreds. Maybe once that happens, I'll live my teenage dream and finally get one of these:

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