The Stories Behind Homemade Mixtapes People Have Been Given
“If he knew me at all, he'd know I hate these bands.”
Lead illustration by Phébe Lou Morson
In the 90s, my mum dated this guy who was big into mathematics. Around this time, I can remember her crouched over a tape recorder in her bedroom, with a microphone in one hand, in absolute hysterics. She’d put Abba’s “I Have A Dream” on cassette, and was re-recording her voice saying “angles” every time they sang “angels” over the top. Afterwards she put it in an envelope addressed “to Mark” and posted it to him for his birthday. Sometimes I think about this series of events, and wish somebody would do something like that for me.
That said, I’ve received a few homemade mixes over the years. Most of these arrived between the ages of 12 and 15, and involved emo songs with very long names that had been discovered on MySpace, ripped from Limewire and burned onto disc by a miscellaneous boy with a thick fringe and multiple belts. These days, though, things like that aren’t so regular. We make playlists on Spotify or Soundcloud, but not really for each other? The only time a person might make a cassette or mix CD for someone would be as a nostalgic gesture – more for romance or novelty than for genuinely sharing tracks.
But they’re nice, aren’t they? There’s a certain intimacy in making a mixtape. They say, ‘I care about you enough to carefully select some songs that speak to the specifics of our relationship’. They say, ‘I'm happy to buy some blank tapes and spend an evening methodically recording songs onto them via a two-slot cassette player’ or ‘You are worth the effort involved in illegally downloading MP3s, risking viruses, and burning them to disc.’ They take time and consideration. Which, in this economy, means something.
And so, because mixtapes are intimate things, it makes sense that behind each of them lies an individual, intimate story. With that in mind, I decided to ask a bunch of people about the homemade mixtapes they’ve been given and why.
I got the best mixtape ever when I was 13, off this cool older grungy girl in my school, who was maybe 16 or 17 at the time. She had a reputation for being really weird, but I thought she was a goddess – she wore those giant chunky Y2K platforms with her school uniform and her hair was bleached blonde, in that emo razored bob with little-girl barrettes.
I told her I wanted to get into more "girl rock" (lol), so she made a mixtape of bands she liked, which is how I found out riot grrrl was a thing. I lost it somewhere in my house years ago, which sucks so much because it absolutely SLAPPED. It had songs such as Bikini Kill's “Rebel Girl”, Babes in Toyland's "Bruise Violet”, Jack Off Jill's “When I Am Queen, Strawberry Gashes”, The Distillers' “City of Angels”, Bitch Alert's “Monday, Sunsets You Know”.
The mixtape was covered in Pucca stickers and it also came with this Hole badge she made me, which I do still have (above). It was just so formative for me because it opened me up to great artists like Queen Adreena that I would have never known otherwise. I still listened to emo softboi bullshit like Fall Out Boy, but it was great to have this mix to keep me in check.
Every week, this house at the end of my road leaves interesting shit outside their door for people to take. I've picked up a book from the 1980s about the history of dolls, a bag full of unopened nail varnish, half used sketch books, a battered copy of The Age of Reason by Jean-Paul Sartre and much more. My favourite find, however, is this mixtape dated February 1997, which is full of Tom Petty tracks. I love to imagine who this was made for initially, what their relationship was, and how they'd feel knowing it had somehow ended up in my room in Hackney, east London, being played on full blast. I've never really been into Tom Petty, but for some reason listening to this on cassette player makes you absorb the tracks more fully, so now I am.
The summer before I turned 16, I spent three weeks in New Orleans with my American family. As is the fate of most summer holidays in your teens, I ended up having a summer fling with a boy which crescendoed with a romantic fumble at a “pool party” one evening in the humid Louisiana heat. Before I left, he made me two mixtape CDs, one entitled “Pizart 1” and the “Pizart 2”. Each contained a variety of important, 90s/00s hip-hop, including “Overnight Celebrity” by Twista, and of course, tracks from NOLA-born Lil Wayne. I still have one of the CDs at home, and even made both CDs into Spotify playlists a few years ago to preserve the memory (lol).
I had a long-running cassette mixtape exchange with Ian, one of my best friends since our schooldays in the 90s. He was an understated sort, so his personality, his obsessions and his quirks really came through in the messy, idiosyncratic mixture of songs he’d patch together. I remember the likes of Grandaddy’s “For the Dishwasher”, Palace Music's “New Partner”, album tracks from Tricky’s darker albums and “Das Junior” by Scott 4.
I moved to Australia in the early 2000s. One of my greatest mornings out there – homesick and alone, six months after I'd moved – was when a battered cassette covered in spidery writing appeared in the mail. No note, just a tape. I still have it, safe next to a beaten up Walkman to listen on, filed away for emergencies.
Lol I wish I could tell you a cute story about an ex-boyfriend or something, but it's slightly more one-sided than that. A guy had a crush on me for years at school – I mean years – and would ask me out regularly, to which I would always say no because he wasn't my type. Then on the last day of school when every one was signing each other's uniforms he gave me a mixtape full of love songs. They were mainly quite cheesy songs by people like Jason Mraz, OneRepublic and The Fray (?!), I seem to remember. He probably thought it was going to be the thing that finally won me over, but I just awkwardly said thank you and thought to myself that if he knew me at all he'd know I hate these bands.
My best friend Kate made me a compilation CD called 'Car Bangerz' as a celebratory gift for passing my driving test when we were 17. We used to ride around south London in my mum's car en route to parties and other social functions with the volume and the bass both maxed out, thinking we were really cool. The tracklisting was a real mixed bag – an amalgamation of all the genres we were into at the time, but generally revolving around rap, grime, garage and dubstep – stuff like Katy B, Tinchy Stryder, Skepta…
To this day Kate is still my best friend. Our music taste has evolved over the years, however I think if I rooted around in my mum's car I'd still be able to find the original, scratched up version of Car Bangerz. I could never bare to part with it because I'm too sentimental and have attached some kind of nostalgic significance to it.
Me and my friends love the Real Housewives franchise, so they made me this mix CD full of songs from it. Whenever I listen to it (which I do, quite often) I always text the friends who made it for me and kind of narrate my experience. It's always different! Different things make me laugh on every listen. Also some of the songs are actually decent, like Real Housewives of Atlanta's Kandi's song “Fly Above” (she did write “No Scrubs” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” after all) and Porsha's song “Flatline”.
The inclusion of a Real Housewives of New Jersey daughter singing a disturbingly upsetting song about her family's feud at her sister's birthday party is really the icing on the cake for me. What thought went into this mixtape! The hours of converting and downloading YouTube videos into MP3 files! I find it very touching and hilarious, which I think makes for the best mixtape.
This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.