The electronic music mixtape has changed dramatically over the years. Writer Michaelangelo Matos charts its winding road in America from illicit recordings in clubs and studio sets sold as CDs to flickering RealAudio streams and freely available mp3s.
The Devil and Tom Moulton met at the crossroads and spent the next 80 hours cutting tape. The crossroads were on Fire Island, where Moulton had gone dancing and experienced an epiphany: He could, by hand, eliminate the awkward bumps he’d watched the dance floor go through every few minutes. Slip-cueing (putting a felt mat under a spinning record so you could hold it steady and let go on beat) was at that point a very niche concern, and Moulton wasn’t a DJ. But he was a former King Records A&R man, and he knew about cutting tape. Still, he underestimated the labor involved, spending two workweeks to produce 45 minutes of continuously flowing music.
The first club he offered the tape to rejected it outright, but within an hour Moulton had another taker, the Sandpiper. That Friday, the club played it and the crowd hated it. The following night the Sandpiper tried it again, and this time the crowd loved it. Moulton found out both times by telephone, at 2 AM. The club’s owner wanted a new tape every week; Moulton gave him three per year (Fourth of July, Halloween and New Year’s Eve) at $500 apiece. Thus, Moulton established not only the continuously-mixed-on-beat tape as a form, he named its price; it is safe to say that no one has paid $500 for a mixtape since.
Moulton stopped making the tapes in 1974, after he’d taken his tape-splicing aptitude to the studio, expanding B.T. Express’s “Do It (‘Til You’re Satisfied)” and propelling it to commercial success. That same year, he made a test pressing of Al Downing’s “I’ll Be Holding On” on 12-inch acetate rather than 7-inch and was dumbstruck by the increased heft and breadth of the sound. The first commercially issued 12-inch, Double Exposure’s “Ten Percent” on Salsoul, was out in 1976.
In Chicago, Frankie Knuckles, the 24-year-old New Yorker who’d come out two years earlier to DJ at a private disco in the Loop called the Warehouse, began splicing tape with his friend Erasmo Rivera, a sound-engineering student, extending tracks to use on the dancefloor. That July 12th, across town at Comiskey Park, shock jock Steve Dahl had presided over the public dynamiting of thousands of disco records. A riot ensued; the Chicago Tribune described the torn infield as “a grassy moonscape.” The incident was a farce, but was also a bellwether. Within a year, the big record biz would drop disco like a coke spoon at a police bust.
Not Frankie. He adapted by expanding – making re-edited versions of old favorites and seeking ever-newer sounds from further-flung places. Knuckles’ DJ cassettes started to be traded around town, reaching listeners beyond the Warehouse’s membership, often through urban boutiques – hip clothiers had long worked to a soundtrack of taped disco sets by DJ friends. And however coincidentally, Knuckles began cutting tapes the same year people could more easily hear them without disturbing others, thanks to the debut of the Sony Walkman.
By this time Chicago house was more than just whatever Frankie played at the Warehouse or, after 1982, Power Plant. It was a full-fledged musical style, thanks to the 1984 release of Jesse Saunders’ “On and On.” Many times the records consisted of little more than a drum machine, as with the early tracks by mailman Marshall Jefferson. But by August 1985, Jefferson graduated from making basic beat tracks with a demo called “Move Your Body (The House Music Anthem),” paying $1,000 to Larry Sherman – the owner of Chicago’s only pressing plant, Precision Record Labs, Ltd., and its offshoot house label, Trax Records – to press 1,000 copies. Sherman didn’t like it and refused. So Jefferson took the demo to Ron Hardy of the Music Box, who asked him not to give it to anybody else. It hardly mattered, because as tapes of Hardy’s sets made their way around the city, Frankie Knuckles soon had a copy as well. When Sherman found out it was a hit, says Jefferson, he went out and pressed it, issuing it on Trax Records without Jefferson’s knowledge.
The same thing happened with Phuture’s “Acid Tracks,” which DJ Pierre, who’d twisted the knobs on the foundational acid house track, initially called “In Your Mind.” Once Ron Hardy started playing it at the Music Box, the track became an underground hit, circulating to true believers through mixtapes. One listener was so excited about what he called “Ron Hardy’s Acid Track” that he offered to play it for Pierre on the microcassette recorder he’d used to tape it one night at the Music Box. That’s how acid went international: British pirate-radio DJ Jazzy M got his taped copy from DJ Alfredo in Ibiza, who’d received it from Larry Levan in New York.
Frankie Bones of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, had seen rave culture up close and personal the year before, having traveled to England to play a party called Energy 2. Bones’s records on the Northcott family of labels – Atmosphere and Fourth Floor Records among them – had been UK dance hits, and taking ecstasy and spinning for 25,000 at dawn made the already voluble DJ downright evangelistic. To spread the love, Bones ran off 500 apiece of three mixtapes – Groove Promo 1, 2 and 3 – and gave them away at south Brooklyn’s premier cruising spot, beneath the elevated train on 86th Street. The Avenue U shop Bones owned was listed on the cassette: “Anybody that came in my store, we gave them the tape,” says Bones. “Once they heard it they would come back for the [records].”
That music was rawer and more DIY than the ever-smoother, more sophisticated house being played in Manhattan clubs. Frankie Knuckles had moved back to New York in 1988, teaming with David Morales as Def Mix Productions and recording in bigger studios than Chicago had while remixing major label acts. Most New York DJs sold mixes – though, says writer Bruce Tantum, “Not the big guys. You would never see a David Morales tape on the street.”
The gap in Chicago was filled by William Renkosik AKA Bad Boy Bill, who started his career as a high schooler in the mid-’80s; his senior year, he began a label, International House Records, releasing the acid classic “Mystery Girl” by Pierre’s Pfantasy Club. By 1990, Bill had been part of WBMX’s locally beloved DJ troupe, the Hot Mix 5, as well as hosting his own shows on WGCI and B96. Bad Boy Bill was also the first DJ to make mixtapes into a lucrative side business. Though he utilized plenty of recognizable copyrighted material, a Bad Boy Bill tape wasn’t merely a substitute for listening to the original, unmixed recordings; his voiceover slogans rubber-stamped the material, and his mixing generated momentum. In the late ’80s and early ’90s in particular – just before rave went inland in the States – he was the standard bearer. Eventually he began making legitimately licensed mix CDs. But before then, over a decade, it’s reasonable to assume that Bad Boy Bill sold over a million tapes.
Moonshine Music, an LA indie label run by the Steve and Jon Levy, licensed the first volume of a British series called Journeys by DJ, 78 minutes continuously mixed by Londoner Billy Nasty. British label executive Tim Fielding started the series. “He had this idea to do the first legal DJ mix album,” says Steve Levy. “The first one didn’t really connect.” For one thing, Nasty was unknown in the States; for another, Levy admits, “The artwork sucked.” Nevertheless, it was a breakthrough – the first attempt to legitimize a form that, for nearly 20 years, had been discreetly accepted while remaining, in strict terms, outside the law.
A year after its debut, things broke wide for the licensed mix CD. In April came Keoki’s edition of Journeys by DJ – the title altered to Journeys by Superstar DJ for the occasion. Such Club Kid fabulosity wasn’t especially PLUR (though Keoki’s leopard-print dye job was envied by more than a few ravers), but it became Moonshine’s fastest-selling title on the back of his established name. “Keoki was getting booked a little earlier around the country than any other US DJ,” says Levy, following the notorious Geraldo and Donahue appearances of the Club Kids he’d come up with.
In June came History of Our World Part 1, 25 tracks and five years’ worth of UK hardcore’s mutation into jungle and drum & bass, mixed by DJ DB, A&R man for its label, Profile. August brought Danny Tenaglia’s Mix This Pussy, and then in October the big one: Sasha & John Digweed’s Renaissance, not one, not two, but three CDs meant to evoke a full night’s set from the English duo.
Renaissance was a big hit, and helped popularize progressive house – basically a pumped-up version of the Balearic style of DJing that Alfredo had made popular in Ibiza – dub-inflected grooves with lots of space and plenty of high drama, much of it arena-rock tiresome. Alfredo was playing U2 and Simple Minds and Tears for Fears, and plenty of progressive house had the stadium swell of those bands, updated and ready for the floor. Often those floors were at the “superclubs” dominating the English dance landscape in the wake of Ministry of Sound’s opening late in 1991. The action had moved indoors thanks to the shutdown of the outdoor rave scene in the wake of the weeklong bender at Castlemorton Common in May 1992.
I’d go to buy vinyl and there would be all my cassette tapes on the wall. I’d be like, ‘Who’s making these, and where are they coming from?’
In the US there was little visibility for these titles – mainstream record stores barely cared, while mom-and-pop dance stores simply made more money consigning local DJs’ tapes. (One West Coast retailer claimed that DJ tapes comprised between thirty and forty percent of his revenue for 1994.) “We are moving our product mostly through larger chains, but how prominently do you think we get displayed on that level?” Stephanie Smiley, Moonshine’s publicist, asked Billboard in November 1994. Hence, a DIY mixtape king like Chicago’s Terry Mullan could sell as many copies of his 1995 New School Fusion Vol. II as a label could of a legitimate release such as Keoki’s Journeys by Superstar DJ – around 10,000 in just a few months.
That kind of success definitely had the RIAA worried. In New York and Washington, D.C. during the summer and fall of 1994, Billboard reported that the RIAA set up “surprise sweeps of stores, street fairs, flea markets, and street corners, seizing the illegal tapes and lodging criminal and civil lawsuits against the DJs and store owners.” On October 17, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani ordered a police sweep of hip-hop mixtape vendors on Harlem’s 125th Street, across from the Apollo Theater. But hip-hop and dance mixtapes diverge greatly in style and social role. Hip-hop execs welcomed DJ mixtapes, even sending promos to the most influential tape-makers. “As long as they’re not playing too many of his songs on the tape, I look at it as a way of promoting the album,” the Notorious B.I.G.’s manager told Billboard.
Dance bizzers, on the other hand, were up in arms. “My company loses thousands of dollars a week because of mixtapes,” claimed Rob DiStefano of Tribal America. Equally aghast was Epic Records’ director of crossover promotion and marketing (a job title that, 20 years on, rings as quaintly as “horse-and-buggy driver”): “How can I convince the president of my company that one of my artists is having an impact on the street when his or her single isn’t selling at street level? That same artist, whom these people claim to be helping, is then in danger of being dropped for exactly that reason.”
Outside of the major label subsidiaries that still fostered much of house music’s club mainstream, dance music was a swarm of ardently DIY activity – uncountable numbers of labels issuing 500 to 1,000 copies of 12-inches never to be seen or heard from again. For underground DJs, spreading the music was imperative. Tommie Sunshine recalls going to Chicago’s Gramaphone in the early ’90s, before he began to DJ, and getting dirty looks for buying dance records he wasn’t going to spin out, rather than leaving them for DJs who would. That was the records’ express purpose.
Over and above the RIAA, plenty of mixes were illegitimate by lights of the credited DJs. One of the most frequently bootlegged was Manchester progressive house DJ Sasha. “My sets would get recorded by the promoters,” he says, “then they would get passed around and dubbed. Somebody would get hold of a copy and then package them up, put a nice label on it, and put them on sale in record stores. I’d go to buy vinyl and there would be all my cassette tapes on the wall. I’d be like, ‘Who’s making these, and where are they coming from?’”
Up and down the East Coast, everybody knew where the Sasha tapes came from: Raymond Frances. “His tapes were at pretty much every party you can imagine,” says Damian Higgins AKA Dieselboy. He and another Pittsburgher, Frank Glazer use the word “notorious” to describe Frances. “He was this crazy old man from the UK – gruff, haggard-looking, longish, draggly hair,” says Glazer, who began hitting parties in 1994. “He would come back and forth between D.C. and Latrobe, [Pennsylvania]. He would always have a table set up with mixtapes. It wasn’t like he would strike up a conversation. He’d skulk in the shadows and hope that you would check out his tapes.”
I still get people that ask me questions about DJ-Kicks 20 years after
Frances had been a Northern Soul DJ before the rave scene kicked off in England. He first came to the US in 1993 to visit a friend in Tampa, and essentially never left. The music at US raves differed greatly from England, but Frances saw the market for tapes of big English DJs and soon, he says, “English and American DJs were giving me stuff, because I was promoting everything.” In 1995, he moved to the Baltimore area and began throwing a series of parties called Bassrush.
“Everyone would want to play for this guy,” says Dieselboy. “You wanted your name on the flyers. He was trying to throw the biggest, most promoted shows ever. So everyone would play for cheap. Not only was he paying me less than half of my fee, he would record every DJ set – he wouldn’t ask or anything – and sell the tapes for ten dollars a pop, and take all the profits. They probably cost less than a dollar to make. He was selling two thousand of them – probably making 18 to 20,000 dollars profit a tape. He did this to everyone. Eventually, he got chased out of the scene: No one would play for him because he ripped off everybody.”
Frances responds tartly: “Hey, when you’ve got somebody running a party that makes his living selling DJ mixtapes, what do you think’s going to happen?” He also maintains that the DJs he recorded “got their fee and also a little bit of extra money – if they asked for it.” According to Frances, the only two people who objected to being recorded were DJ Garth, from San Francisco, and Dieselboy, who now says: “Looking back, even if I made zero dollars off of it, it fueled my career even more.”
1996: The Mix CD Takes The Next Step
The Berlin imprint Studio !K7 issued the first, unnumbered volume of its DJ-Kicks CD mix series in September 1995 with a set by C.J. Bolland, but the series really got on the map six months later, with the release of the Carl Craig-mixed second volume. Though many officially released mixes in this period were blended on Pro Tools, Craig was an exception: “That was tape,” he says. “I did it in a similar way as Derrick [May] would do his mix shows: I would put records on and edit to make the whole thing together. Basically I did it like a studio record. If it was wrong, you could go back and fix it. It wasn’t mixed all the way through.”
!K7’s series stands, at this writing, as the longest-running DJ mix series ever. “I still get people that ask me questions about DJ-Kicks 20 years after,” says Craig. “The great thing about music is that it can be discovered at any time. It never dies, unless it is just really bad. And you never know: The person who finds it in a dollar bin might be the next Seth Troxler, might be the next Ricardo Villalobos, or the next Just Blaze. So it’s important for the legacy to do this stuff.”
1997: The Internet Arrives
On March 1, Derrick May guest-starred on Beta Lounge, a new website that streamed music live from a San Francisco warehouse every Thursday. The seed was planted two years earlier, when Jonathan Golub began working for HotWired, the first web magazine, a separate editorial entity than its ink-and-paper sister. “They said Wired magazine covers the digital revolution, but HotWired is the digital revolution,” says Golub. “HotWired did make a bunch of money, but it didn’t make money like the magazine did at its peak.”
Beta Lounge was an independent entity that Golub started with Ian Raikow, David Goldberg and Zane Vella, using HotWired equipment with their employers’ approval. It helped that Beta Lounge considered itself a commercial entity. “We were throwing a salon for our friends,” says Golub. It remained a going concern for years – and ostensibly still does. But the site’s ’90s archives have disappeared from the Beta Lounge site, a pity considering it was one of DJ culture’s richest hoards. Most of those older sets are now largely hearable via digitizations of cassette recordings made from a RealAudio feed.
Tim Sweeney enrolled at NYU, joined the campus radio station, and, inspired in part by the London pirate radio tapes his brother brought home from a trip, started Beats in Space on WNYU, a weekly late-night DJ show he still hosts. As soon as he could manage, he brought in guest DJs, many affiliated with DFA Records, where he interned. “WNYU is split into FM and AM: FM Monday through Friday 4 PM to 1 AM. It’s still running 24 hours a day, but all the other times you’re on the AM side,” he says. “Basically, no one would listen to your show on AM. But even if no one was listening, I could get guests on the show because there wouldn’t be any other chance for these people to play on the radio in New York. So I knew I had a good chance to get good people on as long as they didn’t research too much.”
Sweeney also began archiving the show in RealAudio and putting the links on a website. Five years ago, he brought as much of that trove as possible over to a new site, converting the RealAudio files to mp3. In its first decade, Sweeney archived the show on six different mediums: RealAudio, cassette, DAT, MiniDisc, CD-R, and finally direct to mp3. All but the first couple of years are available from the Beats in Space website – a crucial early step in turning the DJ mix from a boutique item to a freebie commonplace.
“Everything has become very genre specific but people forget that classifications are only there to help us locate things,” Belgian duo 2manydjs – the Dewaele brothers, David and Steven, who also record as Soulwax – told Spindle in 2014. “Genres are like the borders of countries – they don’t actually exist.” This is cant as old as the North Sea, but as the millennium turned the Dewaeles, among many others, began to make something mischievous and rewarding of it. The file-sharing-fueled rise of mash-ups, combining vocal A with music B, had deep roots; plenty of DJ-engineered blends, particularly in hip-hop, had achieved the same effect.
The Dewaeles not only crafted many of the best mash-ups (from “Magnificent Romeo“ to “Dreadlock Women“), they put together a series of CDs, As Heard on Radio Soulwax, that kept the surprises, the beats and the laughs coming, history and/or posterity be damned. As Heard on Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 was the one everyone heard because it was the one the Dewaeles and their label, PIAS, went all the way and licensed. It likely took a lot of work – there are 46 tracks, and even the ones that weren’t doubled up gain joyous heft from audacious juxtaposition, most notably a drop from Dolly Parton into Röyksopp. And while it was a boon that you could buy Radio Soulwax, Pt. 2 in stores, it was so clearly a product of the internet that it operated as a kind of last stand for the form: Anyone who wanted to put something like this out would be better off just releasing it online.