These days people hark back to the mixtapes and describe the creation of them as a labour of love. In doing so they emphasise the wrong part of this practice. There has been a large body of writing about the romantic aspects of creating these tapes; compiling them as love letters to the person you wanted to date. In my own experience romance was only a small part of mix-taping practice. Sadly, perhaps, I was more likely to make mixtapes for my mates (what does this say about my sexuality?). Most often I made them for myself (admittedly, I did have a fairly isolated upbringing).
And I made a lot of mixtapes. In fact, just about every vinyl record I bought, as well as any pre-recorded cassettes or CDs, was reconfigured and re-contextualised as part of a tape compilation. This didn’t represent a labour of love, but rather a love of labour.
There is a type of listening practice that is idealised above all others: dedicated, motionless listening, preferably through headphones and better still in the dark. This is the pop equivalent of the classical music concert: listening that supresses bodily activity. As with so many aspects of classical ideology this needs to be countered. Simon Frith has made a strong argument for dancing as an ideal way of listening. This is a political move. He wants to overturn the idea that rhythmically-focused black music should be reduced to ‘feeling’ while harmonically-sophisticated white music is the bastion of ‘thought’. He argues instead that ‘dance matters not just as a way of expressing music but as a way of listening to it, a way into the music in its unfolding – which is why dancing to music is both a way of losing oneself in it, physically, and a way of thinking about it, hearing it with a degree of concentration that is clearly not “brainless”’.
In black culture there is a dynamic cluster of meanings around the word ‘work’. When you are ‘working’ you might be doing your job. The term is also applied to dancing and to dancing’s great correlate, sex. This metaphorical usage stretches from Hank Ballard’s ‘Work with Me, Annie’ through to Michael Jackson’s ‘Working Day and Night’ and beyond.Returning to the subject of mixtapes, I want to raise a less titillating equation between working and absorbing yourself in sound. Another great way of listening to music is to turn it into a job. For me, the making of mixtapes wasn’t romantic; it was an industrial process. In my own vainglorious way I was imagining myself as a producer or engineer. I was selecting, sequencing and editing. Like dancing, this changed listening from a passive process into an active one. It was also a way of getting closer to the music. I have written before about the reciprocal relationship between recording personnel and the public: producers mix recordings with an imagined ‘ear’ of the public; one of the ways that the public listens to music is by imagining the scenario in the recording studio. There are all sorts of ways of miming along to the records we play and there various locations that we can picture ourselves in – the air guitar and the live concert are not the only games in town. In fact, one of the best ways of locating ourselves in recorded sound is to configure ourselves as engineers. And this, as much as courtship, is where the mixtape came in handy.