The lost art of creating mixtapes.

Pictures by Red Bull Elektropedia archives


When is the last time you were impressed by a mixtape? Not just by a particular track, but by the selection, story and transitions as a whole. If you don’t know the answer to that, then the reasoning in this paper proves its point already. In a world where the DJ has conquered the rock star’s throne, it’s striking that proper mixtapes have become quite hard to come by. Sure, open Soundcloud (or watch any of the dozen livestreams that pass by on your Facebook timeline every day) and there’s no shortage of DJ-mixes. The thing is, the vast majority of these will be a cleanly mixed selection of the DJ’s latest finds at best, or a sloppy collage of hastily copy-pasted and loose ideas at worst. What follows is a well-intended plea for the kind of diverse, yet harmonious mixtapes through which the creator tells a beautiful, sad, inventive or sometimes even an absurd story. Music just becomes a little more compelling when it’s part of a certain narrative, doesn’t it?

‘Mixes’ vs ‘mixtapes’

Now before we continue, it’s important to set down the nomenclature here. For purposes of convenience, we will continue to use the word ‘mixtape’ over ‘mix’, as the latter could be confused for a particular version of a song before the mastering process. ‘Mixtape’ on the other hand, as most of you might know, technically comes from the cassette era. Back then, almost everyone who considered him or herself a music fan would compile music from a wide range of different sources and meticulously (often obsessively) put them on a blank cassette tape. It was a painstakingly time consuming process, as you would contemplate about the track order, the transitions and most of all: try to write the whole damn tracklist on that tiny piece of paper that comes with the case. For a few decades, a personally crafted mixtape was about the most romantic Valentine’s Day gift.

By this reasoning, we feel that the word ‘mixtape’ feels more appropriate, even though these can obviously be made in many different ways other than cassette recorders. The word ‘mix’, if used in this context, also includes DJ-sets and thus becomes too vague. A ‘DJ-set’ (in case it’s recorded) doesn’t fall in this category, as the intent of the DJ is to service a dancefloor, a bar or a radio channel where he or she is physically DJ-ing. ‘Studio mixes’ and ‘promo mixes’ can technically be included in our mixtape category, although they often lack a real narrative throughout its playtime. Mixtapes have that certain narrative or context, which makes them just a little more special – perfect to relisten over and over again. See where we’re going with this?

By definition, a mixtape implies that the creator puts in some effort, which is probably the most crucial ingredient. If you can hear that the track selection or the transitions are anything but straightforward, the listener subsequently becomes more engaged. Small errors can even give the whole tape a more ‘human’ feel (although one trainwreck should be more than enough). You might even argue that playlists have taken over this market, but that’s not really relevant here. Our point is that we shouldn’t mix up well-crafted mixtapes with pretty commonplace playlists which cost almost no effort to compose.

Creating a narrative is key

There are many ways in which a DJ can differentiate his or her work, making a true gem in the process. One of those is to select music by theme – not genre. Blending together tracks that are all within the same key or BPM isn’t that hard, especially in this age of Serato, Ableton and Rekordbox. Finding ingenious ways to blend two (or more) songs that don’t share the same tempo or rhythm but a ‘mood’, can result in a much more satisfying outcome. Beatmatching helps, but it’s not essential per se. Listen to any of Nosedrip’s beautifully crafted NTS radio shows and you see what the power of mood/theme selection can do. Sidenote: as we said just a bit earlier, radio shows usually lack the storytelling needed for our mixtape classification, but Ostend’s master selector is a welcome exception to the rule. Each of his emissions can be classified as a unique mixtape, really.

A great example of making a captivating mixtape based of a simple idea is Faisal’s holiday mixtape from about 3 years ago, in which the Studio Brussel DJ glued together classic hip hop tracks that mention Christmas. The outcome is a fun and easy to digest piece of music that poses some serious competition for those cringy compilation CDs that have been playing at your family Christmas dinners.

Selecting by theme or mood is a good way to create a narrative in your mixtape, but it’s not the only one. The story can come from external sources too. For example: adding field recordings or fragments from popular culture. Say you want to recreate particular travel you have done recently by ways of a mixtape: adding sound recordings from videos you made along the way and selecting tracks that make you remember this trip makes for a far more personal narrative than just a collection of mixed tracks within one genre. Say you want to celebrate/remember someone by means of a mixtape: making a selection of music that’s intrinsically linked to that person (maybe even sprinkled over with some voice recordings) makes for a far better personal tribute over a standard mix. In this sense, mixtapes share many of the same features with compilations (another music format in today’s era that seems to slowly subside into oblivion) – although the possibilities that a mixtape allow its composer are far greater.

Another way to create an interesting narrative is to do something completely out of the ordinary. There’s no common denominator here, but it’s fun to see how some artists have gone about making something truly unique with an extraordinary simple idea. Instead of having 3 promo mixes for their event, the Amsterdam-based record label Klear asked 3 of its performing DJs to select about a dozen tracks for this mixtape, yet they had to mix the other DJs selection instead. The result was a three-part mixtape that’s just a little more fun to listen to than the standard promo mix.

Speeding up or slowing down your selection of music to create an entirely new and unexpected flow is a great (and sometimes hilarious) approach to make your mixtape stand out. We don’t have to look very far for one of the most famous examples. As a part of their Radio Soulwax project, 2manydjs once slowed down Belgian rave classics on their ‘Cherry Moon On Valium’ mixtape. The result is a little odd at first, but it soon becomes a mesmerizing trip down our local heritage, seen from a completely different perspective. It’s this playful, yet incredibly difficult approach to DJ-ing that we’re vouching for.

Staying relevant in a fast-moving music market

Now, why have these forms of mixtapes become increasingly scarce? One theory of ours is that people simple just rarely listen to them anymore. Spotify is steadily taking over the the available time spent listening to music of most music fans. With a sudden, almost absolute availability of all music that ever existed at the touch of a button, it has become harder and harder for many to make a leap of faith and press play on a mixtape you have to find elsewhere. Of course, this is surely not the only reason – but it would be hard to deny that streaming services have not played a role in this. Additionally, DJs are now far more reliant on their productions to be able to score good gigs, especially if they have international ambition. Make one track that does well in the charts and this becomes your ticket to the next level. Making well-crafted mixtape will probably only get you some fistbumps from a select group of hardcore fans. Thus, paradoxically, even though the available pool of music has become larger, the number of original mixtapes seem to decrease today.

Maybe we’re just making a big deal out of nothing. But in our opinion, it has just become a lot harder to find mixtapes that are able to spark our interest in the backstory. As you’re reading this, we hope you share our sincere enthusiasm for a form of art that is slowly dying. So, DJs: get creative again. The next time a blog, radio or event ask you for a mix, don’t just download the latest charts. Trust on your own music knowledge to realize an extraordinary idea. 

At the very least, we just gave you an excellent tip for your next Valentine’s Day gift. (wink-wink)