In 2004, Geoffrey O’Brien called compiling a mixtape “perhaps the most widely practised American art form”. The prominent essayist, poet and critic was wildly behind the curve – by the turn of the millennium, the rise of internet file-sharing platforms like Napster was fast-obliterating the need for music fans to pass around lovably-compiled mix CD-Rs.
Indeed, most would claim the mixtape’s humble heyday was decades earlier, in the age of the cassette. As the first compact, portable, high-fidelity home-recording format, the cassette tape allowed even the most casual music fans to make unlicensed audio copies from vinyl, radio and later, CD. The 60 or 90-minute runtime laid the foundation for the mixtape movement to blossom, and from the 1970s onwards, the idea of crafting a considered set of songs as an existential expression of a mood, feeling or idea carried considerable cultural currency.
An era famously fetishised in Nick Hornby's 1995 novel High Fidelity, songs were traditionally grouped by a shared sound or lyrical theme – or deliberately juxtaposed for the opposite effect. By the age of 10, this writer had authored a series of rock compilations punctuated with primitive volume fades and abrupt song segues. Late into my teens, friends shared carefully-compiled cassettes, or later mini-discs, designed to subtly showcase our worldliness and taste.
The arrival in the late-1990s of writable CD-Rom drives on home computers announced an early death knell to the mixtape as we knew it – by simply burning selected songs without the need to patiently record tunes in real time, much of the magic was lost. Moreover, offering the listener the ability to skip through tracks at will could kill an author’s intended narrative arc.
The internet – first with file-sharing, later with iTunes and streaming services – might have spelled the end of Hornby’s beloved art-form. Instead, it is the world wide web which is today spurring an artistic renaissance of the now-virtual “mixtape” among a growing niche of music fans.
The differences are numerous. For a start, a good mixtape is no longer passed between a small circle of friends, but can reach a limitless audience of strangers online, thanks to websites such as Mixcloud and SoundCloud.
Moreover, one of the biggest reasons fans “taped” music in the pre-internet age was because it was an expensive and precious commodity.
Today, the wealth and world of sounds that lie just a click away is unimaginable to anyone who grew up saving pocket money to buy an album for around Dh70 a pop. But precisely because there is so much music out there, we have more need than ever for curated content – and today’s mixtapes help us to cut through the noise.
For both of these reasons – the increased audience and need for enlightened instruction – the most prominent mixtape authors today are professionals or hardened enthusiasts – DJs and crate-diggers with both the talent to beat-match, and the patience to hunt out the most obscure and novel sounds.
In the Middle East, as across the world, there has been a recent surge of mixtapes focusing on the most obscure and exotic musical trends, genres and scenes which would otherwise go largely undocumented.
Last year Luaka Bop – the world music imprint founded by Talking Heads frontman David Byrne – used SoundCloud to highlight a forgotten “golden era” of Middle Eastern and Maghreb disco funk, recorded between 1975 and 1985.
John Fitzgerald, known as DJ Fitz, mixed together numbers by the likes of Libya’s Ahmed Fakroun and the legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz – alongside some “very rare seven-inch [vinyls] found under a fish bowl” during the DJ’s first visit to Turkey in 2006 – to electrifying effect.
More recently a kooky flow of forgotten disco and pop in Persian, Turkish, Armenian, Kurdish and Arabic was collected last month with Reorient magazine's Kick-Ass Homemade Holiday Brew, on Mixcloud.
Among the most pioneering – and prolific – profilers of regional flavours is Berlin-based Jakarta Records, whose ongoing Habibi Funk series offers a thrilling exploration of groove-centric music from 1960s and 1970s Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Often focused on Middle Eastern acts putting their own spin on imported soul, R&B and jazz styles, the material was diligently sourced direct from vintage vinyl dug up by DJ Jannis during trips to North Africa.
Also worthy of attention on Jakarta Records' SoundCloud channel is Middle Eastern Heavens II, a fascinating mix exposing where traditional Arabic belly dance music meets funk and disco. The result of five years of digging by Lebanon's Ernesto Chahoud – also known as Beirut Groove Collective founder DJ Spindle – the 39-minute mix was drawn exclusively from surviving 45 rpm singles.
In method and scope, these mixes most closely resemble the kind of uber-eclectic, retro world music compilations put together by specialist brands such as Soundway, Strut, Honest Jon’s, Analog Africa, Sublime Frequencies and World Circuit – notably, Habibi Funk has spawned its own imprint reissuing lost gems on CD and vinyl.
Such official releases require not just financial support, but the legal permission to reproduce recordings, which often belong to obscure or defunct regional labels. While in most territories, repurposing existing material is illegal, the online mix marketplace is traditionally unregulated, and largely ignored, perhaps because no direct financial gain can be established.
Dubai DJs and vinyl collectors Iain Akerman and Adriano Konialidis compiled their own album-length collection of vintage Arabic tunes, drawn from Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria and Syria, between the 1940s to 1970s. The eight-track compilation was prepped for a limited-edition vinyl run on the latter’s Desmo Records, but was shelved due to the impossibility and expense of tracking down and licensing the existing copyright owners.
“Determining who held the rights to any given song was problematic,” says Konialidis, a 35-year-old Greek-Uruguayan expat.
“Was it the composer, the lyricist, the artist themselves, or the record label? Many of the old labels have disappeared or been swallowed up by major labels, such as EMI or Sony.”
As well as opening the door to forgotten gems, mixtapes also offer a vital window into the region's emerging contemporary scenes. France-based DJ No Breakfast created a fascinating portrait of alternative hip-hop producers, DJs and MCs from Lebanon, Syria, Egypt and Palestine in Beats from the Middle East, posted on Mixcloud last year. Compelling contemporary electronic sounds are found in the ongoing Arabs Do it Better series, also on Mixcloud, from Tel Aviv-based David Pearl.
Closer to home, in November promoters The 264 Cru unveiled a 30-minute mix showcasing a broad swathe of electronic and experimental beatmakers and producers based in or related to the UAE. Entitled Future Rising Dubai, and featuring tunes from Muhaisnah Four, Aeli, Animous, Eomac and CEE, it can claim to capture the emerging sound of a city few know even exists.
Such a collection would have been unimaginable to Hornby, O’Brien, or any of the introverted masses who once devoted hours to compiling intricate and insular mixes for would-be friends and lovers.
In the 21st century, the humble mixtape has evolved unrecognisably from its restrictive, romanticised roots, so physically intertwined with the confines of a magnetic cassette tape. But as these and dozens more virtual efforts attest, in 2017 the “mixtape” is anything but dead and buried – today not just documenting, but actively fuelling thriving creative scenes bubbling under the mainstream.
Rob Garratt is a music writer at The National.