I find it very hard to fit the music to the mood…

And there’s nothing worse than to make the wrong choice…. 
But then I find just the right thing… 

Record shop owner and list-obsessed misanthrope Rob Fleming, the protagonist of Nick Hornby’s novel High Fidelity, claims that “a good compiliation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do.”

Making a tape is like writing a letter” he muses. And, just like writing a letter, there are subtle but important rules to the format; important ways to structure and organise the material within to make sure it hits the right notes. “You’ve got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention… and then you’ve got to up it a notch, or cool it a notch… and you can’t have two tracks by the same artist side by side, unless you’ve done the whole thing in pairs, and … oh, there are loads of rules.”

Perhaps you’re more familiar with this mixtape manifesto coming from the film version’s American Rob Gordon (played by John Cusack.)

Transatlantic Rob’s take is that “you’re using someone else’s poetry to express how you feel – this is a delicate thing.”

So the rules are there to guide the mixtape compiler through this delicate process.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kF5EPoB3KaU

But are there really rules

Is this just another example of Rob and his friends’/employees’ snobbish hipster attitude to what is and is not cool?

Surely the thing that dictates what you put on a tape is your idea of what the intended recipient might like?

Not to mention that making a tape is an act of curation: a type of collage, mosaic, bricolage. Sure, you’re (usually, anyway) not making the music yourself. But you’re making the links between the distinct pieces. It’s a creative act.

And since when has creativity had rules?

As the graphic designer Anthony Burrill writes in his (really rather lovely) book Work Hard & Be Nice to People:

“Why are we constrained by rules that other people invented? I’m not talking about rules like, ‘don’t walk on railway lines’. I’m thinking about boring rules that prevent you from trying new ideas.” 

And the thing is, I don’t think Rob’s rules are even that good. He has a point when it comes to paying attention to the flow and momentum of a tape. But one of book Rob’s rules is:

“you can’t have black music and white music together, unless the white music sounds like black music”

Yikes. 

For the avoidance of any doubt whatsoever, I do not endorse apartheid, Jim-Crow segregationist mixtapes. 

Don’t even start me on the concept of “black music” and “white music.” Every folk, country, & rock’n’roll record ever made – all genres that it’s fair to assume that Rob is referring to under the category of “white music” – either owe a huge amount of inspiration and heritage to, or were ripped off wholesale from, talented Black originators. Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock’n’roll, not Elvis Presley.

 

An extended view of the cover of Dj Shadow’s record Entroducing

A good mixtape, in my opinion, should feel like a guided tour through someone else’s record collection. Like someone has passed you a set of headphones, beaming “you need to hear this.”

There’s very little point in making someone a tape of music they already know. So a good mixtape should also introduce the listener to new artists and styles. Maybe even broaden their horizons a little. It shouldn’t be constrained by genre or autobiographical details of the musicians.

Really interesting things can happen when you combine two things that may at first seem disparate.

Truly groundbreaking djs and producers like DJ Shadow create records full of incredible soundscapes, composed from samples and ‘found’ snippets from sources that no one else would ever think to connect. They are bricoleurs – creating something original from stray scraps.

Of course, there are very few amongst us who have the skill, patience, and encyclopaedic, crate-digging musical vocabulary to create a mixtape that sounds like Entroducing or The Private Press. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take inspiration from them.

Whenever I make a mix or a playlist (which is pretty much constantly) I have a certain framework I follow.

Particularly when I’m making the playlists that accompany these 52 Records pieces here on Typo Negative.

They’re not rules. More like guidelines.

And here they are:

 

An amateur bricoleur’s guide to compiling a mixtape

Of course, not every mixtape is made for romantic reasons. But plenty of them are.

So, if you’re attempting to woo someone with tunes, a final piece of advice from me. And, incidentally, the more mature version of Rob we know by the end of High Fidelity:

Don’t get hung up on trying to demonstrate how cool and obscure your taste is. Just try and fill the tape with things you think the person will like. Think about their favourite song or artist, and then start working through the songs and artists that you associate with them.

If you don’t know their favourite songs, find out.

If they don’t like music… then why are you making them a tape? (And, to be honest, why would you want to be with them anyway?)

Making a mixtape is just like a good piece of copywriting:

You need to remember your audience.

LIST-ENING

There are a lot of rules.

  1. World of Vibrations – Blackalicious
  2. High Fidelity – Daft Punk
  3. 93 ’til Infinity – Souls of Mischief
  4. Glory Box – Portishead
  5. Hell is Round the Corner – Tricky
  6. Dry the Rain – The Beta Band
  7. Bathtub – Waxahatchee
  8. Mixer – Nap Eyes
  9. Who Knows – Marion Black
  10. Smoke & Mirrors – RJD2
  11. Stem/Long Stem Medley – DJ Shadow
  12. Holy Calamity [Bear Witness II] – Handsome Boy Modelling School
  13. Flu Season – Kid Koala
  14. High Fidelity – Jurassic 5
  15. Mixtape – Chance the Rapper ft. Young Thug & Lil Yachty
  16. Frontier Psychiatrist – The Avalanches
  17. Insistor – Tapes ‘n Tapes
  18. You’re Gonna Miss Me – The 13th Floor Elevators
  19. What’s Yo Phone Number/Telephone/Ghost of Screw Mix – Erykah Badu
  20. Headphones – Björk
  21. Ur Mixtape – Metronomy

You can find themed mixtapes/playlists under every post in my 52 records series. Happy listening.