Hanif Abdurraqib talks mixtapes at On Air Fest 2020

This content accompanies the KCRW music documentary podcast Lost Notes. This season, the poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib explores a single year: 1980 - the brilliant, awkward and sometimes heartbreaking opening to a monumental decade in popular music. You can find all the episodes from Lost Notes: 1980 here

A conversation between Lost Notes: 1980 writer/host Hanif Abdurraqib and Regan Sommer McCoy, the founder of the Mixtape Museum, at On Air Fest in Brooklyn on March 8, 2020. Sommer and Hanif talked before a live audience about the importance of archiving mixtapes and advancing public understanding of the art, history, and technique of the mixtape.


Hanif: Hi, I'm Hanif Abdurraqib. So, the season of “Lost Notes” that I'm hosting is about 1980, which is probably interesting only in that I was not born [yet] in 1980. But I grew up with older siblings, significantly older, and I think to grow up with older siblings, [one can] have a prebuilt gateway to your musical tastes.

But you were also talking about how a cassette is how someone first learns to be a curator and an archivist at the same time. Of course, when I was making cassette mixtapes at 11 years old, I wasn't like “I’m archiving, you know, I'm building a mythology for my people.” I was just like, “cool.”

But I do think there's a way that cassettes taught me curation, and understanding boundaryless and borderless music enjoyment. You were talking about the first time you learned that you could make a mixtape with different genres of music on it. It just blew my mind. ‘Cause I think if you also grew up with cassettes or maybe even vinyl, I know for a lot of folks I grew up around, it felt like you were beholden to what you were presented. Like, if you're going to make a mixtape, it has to be a rap mixtape, because all the rap tapes have only rap on them. You can't put a Slick Rick song next to a Counting Crows song, or whatever … but I did. It was great, it worked out well.

Sommer:  Yeah,  when you think about how we listened to albums in the ‘80s, or albums in general, right? Before you could skip through, you were listening [to tracks] one through twelve, right. And that's it. Unless you fast-forwarded the tape, but why would you do that? So you had to listen to music the way that the label or the artist dictated it. But the cassette, coupled with the boombox, to Hanif's point, you could mix genres. And I wasn't like, “I’m an archivist, I'm a curator,” but I really did think about, depending on why I was making the tape, that could change how this started. I might've wanted to start with a Tribe song, or maybe I wanted to start with Jody Watley. I dunno. Do you know what I mean? And you can mix it up. I think when it comes to DJs and hip hop, there are people that are purists. And if [they] don't line up songs in the right order, a lot of DJs have gotten one mic for just throwing songs on a tape. 

Hip-hop DJs were actually using tapes en masse — I mean, like, thousands of tapes to promote records for labels and for artists. And that's how the labels were: they were depending on the DJs to push these records. So, it wasn't like a DJ just taking vinyl in a club. You had people that were like, “Hey, let me make sure I get these songs to this DJ to put on this cassette so that they can put it on this mix tape, because I know this mix tape is going to get copied and spread all over the place.”

Hanif: Do you want to play one of the things?

Sommer: Oh yeah. So clip #1 is the Cold Crush Brothers from 1981. And the collector who has this tape is now in North Carolina. He's got a room full of tapes. And this is live. I mean, they were playing in a club and it was recorded onto cassette.

So, you can hear, when it was digitized, the collector just digitized it using a plug-and-play thing that you can get from Sam Ash. But that actual tape, we are now like, “Wait, we need to get this to an actual archivist, because it's old and we need to preserve it for long-term preservation.”

So that's an example of a tape that, you know … have you heard shout-outs? If someone recorded these tapes, it's giving you a look into what's happening in that room, right? Like, who was hot? Kinda like social media. What other artists might've been in the room as they walked into the club? So, another reason why, when it comes to archiving hip hop, there's a lot of people who are, like, “I started hip hop.” “No, I started hip hop.” There's that talk, but when it comes to archives, it's like the archives are giving us actually who's in the room. And if you have pictures, that's even better.

Hanif:  I think when we talk about preserving tapes, part of that [is] we're just preserving that corner of history. And part of that is because hip hop is so mythology-based, I think. And because so many people lay claim to hip hop, or lay claim to the discovery of hip hop. But what is your dream for not just the Mixtape Museum, but the actual preservation of cassettes?

Sommer: So, I suddenly realized a couple years ago that I could not rescue every mixtape in every Nike shoebox around the world. Cool. It's fine. But what I started doing was connecting to the collectors. So, the people that have collections, why do they have them? They have them because these collections are important to them. Right? So, I started … focusing on collectors that had early tapes. So, like mid-‘70s to ’90, or like mid-‘80s. Because also these tapes are around the time that hip hop first started. Hip hop started in ’73.

These tapes captured a lot of moments that were probably not on radio. They were nowhere else. And of course, I have no place to say, “Hey, a hundred collectors, send me your tapes. Let's put them in the Wythe Hotel.” There's nowhere for me to put them. So what I’m doing is trying to connect with people. People that are archivists, like Jocelyn [Arem] who’s in the audience, to teach these collectors and DJs how to protect their collections, wherever the collections are, with the hope that we can share them eventually with the world. Legally, right? A lot of these tapes are recorded off the radio. And if we just throw them on SoundCloud or Spotify, they're going to get taken down because of copyright infringement. So how do we do it in a way where a tape like this can be heard by thousands of people?

Hip hop is the most listened to genre of music in the world. That one tape has not been listened to by a lot of people. So y'all are really, really lucky. You might find copies of it online, right? Someone might have copied it. There could be ten copies of that tape, maybe even a hundred  that sound differently. The actual tape that it was copied on may look differently, the J-card, right? I might've been like, “yo, here's Cold Crush from ’85.” Gave it to you. You might've written “from Sommer, blah, blah, blah” on it. So that looks different. So my goal, it keeps changing, but it really is to protect these collections and to get them out into the world, and also get people writing about them and citing the information that's on these tapes.

So who was in the room with the Cold Crush Brothers? You know, why were they there, collecting metadata for the tapes. What was the approximate date? All of these things are important. And if we want to start archiving hip hop, we have the Universal Hip Hop Museum, which is opening up in the Bronx. If we're going to start talking about archiving hip hop, similarly to jazz and other genres of music, you want to collect as many stories as possible to get a more accurate history.

Hanif: Yeah, we were talking about how there are just a lot of barriers, I think, to even romanticizing the cassette. Last year I kind of foolishly purchased a 1950s jukebox record player, and it took nothing to get someone to restore it. You know what I mean? It was just like, I brought it home. I was like, “Oh shit, what am I gonna do with this thing? Can anyone restore it?” And people started popping up. Like “I can, I can, I can!” Similarly, I have an old boombox, but I can't restore it because the parts don't exist anymore. And I have an old Walkman that's broken, and I don't even know the first thing about where to take it to get it fixed because there's nowhere that will fix it efficiently.

And so, I think one thing that's interesting to me is that, there are actual, genuine, very real barriers in place when it comes to even romanticizing the cassette in the same way that we romanticize vinyl, that I predict we will one day romanticize a CD. I mean, I don't even know if you can get a car with a cassette player.

Sommer: You can’t. I mean, you probably can at a junkyard, but they're not making them anymore. Part of it [is that] if you want to listen to your cassettes when you go home, you have to have an actual cassette recorder or whatever. But over time, those things get dirty. So, if you're not cleaning that out and maintaining it, you might break your tape. And these are the conversations that I've been having recently about how to give people agency to [say], “I want to go and listen to the tapes that I found in my mom's house safely without them popping. Right? Because if they pop, I may not be able to fix them. Where can I go?” So, part of the work that I'm doing with the Mixtape Museum is not just for DJs, but giving people agency to archive their own history. To be able to tell their own stories. 

Syreeta Gates is a colleague of mine who has a whole collection of The Source magazines. But she's also thinking about that in the community that she came from, which is Jamaica, Queens, and thinking about, “How do I build a center in Jamaica, Queens, so that the community can come and archive their own stories and also build programming around that?” So, conversations are happening. I mean, it's important, right? Because if you have this history, how do I continue to protect it without it being damaged and potentially lost?

Hanif: Well, cause I think when folks talk about archival... It's often, it stops there and it's archival for archival’s sake and not archival for the sake of preserving a story that - particularly the Black folks and Black art - a story that, if it is not told about us, will be told by someone else in a less efficient fashion or a less useful fashion, and a story that perhaps the rest of the world would not believe if they do not hear evidence of it existing.

And so, I think, this is why I joke and talk about, when I was making tapes in my basement or whatever, I wasn't like “I’m an archivist,” but that work still exists. That labor still exists of the song that I recorded off the radio, the only time it played on the radio before it was remixed into something else and only released in that way. So, I can say, “I have a version of this Mariah Carey song you never heard before.” I mean, there are countless Mariah Carey remixes, you know what I mean? A million that only got played on the radio a couple of times. Not that Mariah Carey is a gold standard for archival, but for me, in some ways, probably. Can we hear one of the other tapes?

Sommer: Yeah. So the second one is DJ Red Alert. So, this is someone recording off the radio. ’85-ish. So there's probably a radio ad that comes after this where you can tell who is buying what, when and why? And Red Alert at this time was on WBLS. And Red Alert is still around. He lives in my neighborhood. I run into him all the time. And my conversation with him was like, “Yo Red, what do you have in your tape collection? Do you have all the times you were on the radio? Did you record that?” He's like, “No, Sommer, I was on the radio. Why would I be recording it?” To your point, we were not thinking that we need to archive as we go along. But the community was archiving. Right? ‘Cause we were recording off the radio.

So, very special moments happen when I'm like, “Hey Red, like when's the last time you heard this?” When he was doing it on the radio! So, to be able to take some of these tapes and present them to the DJs, is a special moment also.

Hanif: Thank you for talking to me about this. It means a lot to me. Pease give Sommer a hand. My name's Hanif, I'm hosting "Lost Notes: 1980," and I'm very excited. Thank you all for listening to us.

This conversation was recorded live at the Wythe Hotel on Sunday, March 8, 2020, at On Air Fest. Special thanks to Regan Sommer McCoy, Jemma Brown, Scott Newman, and Sam Bair for their help making it happen.