The Magic of the Mixtape

Picture it: New York City, 1988. I was 13 years old, browsing Nobody Beats the Wiz for the best pack of four, 90-miniute TDK cassette tapes that I could afford. Because I had a big weekend ahead. A big weekend of mixtape making.

I had one to make for my best friend’s birthday, one for my “boyfriend’s” return from camp (who, I was soon to learn, found a new “girlfriend” at said camp — had I known this, my tape would have taken on an entirely different tone), and one for my sister, who I loved to impress with (and introduce her to) new, “in-the-know” tunes, since was she’s 11 years my senior.

A quick side note for those who are already feeling me: Cassette Store Day is on September 7th. Check out the events and locations and get ready for some serious nostalgia (and swapping, if you still have some of your old mixes). But make sure to ask yourself first, are you truly willing to part with that piece of personal history?

The magic if making mixtapes
MixTape Stash. (Photo Credit: Margit Detweiler/

The mixtape was such an intimate, powerful piece of art: a collection of songs, as recorded by you, for a particular purpose and person — an inexpensive way to send a loving (or no-so-loving) message and share music with a friend. It was like being a DJ, in your own home, at a station with no particular format. What could be more wonderful?

Plus, as TueNight project manager, Adrianna, points out, “listening to the songs in order, created a (nearly) one-hour narrative. Also, the handwriting of the song names was crucial. It wasn’t a font, it wasn’t consistent, but rather, it was an expression of love, friendship and intimacy expressed with funny doodles, drawings and curlicues.”

The magic of making a maixtape
(Photo Credit: Stacy McCauslin)

It’s so true: Making a mixtape, as time consuming as it could be, was such a wonderfully creative mode of expression. Pulling tracks onto an iTunes folder just isn’t. At all.

Personally, I was obsessed with getting the songs to blend into each other as seamlessly as possible (I had a record/pause button technique that was right on the money). I also loved adding fun tidbits from TV (what we would now call “Easter Eggs”) in between tunes at unexpected places. Most often, they came from Late Night with David Letterman (the groundbreaking, 12:30am NBC broadcast, mind you — old school Dave, with his Monkey Cams and full-body Velcro suits), which I recorded directly from my TV speaker, and then placed strategically in between songs when I felt the flow needed a quick, unexpected jolt of levity.

And the naming of the mix? That was quite the endeavor. If it was uninspired — oh, the shame! My worst ever was “Phat Jamz ’91,” (I was really pressed for time!) and I could see my best friend’s disappointment when she saw the label, expecting something much more clever from me. I blamed the PSATs and we moved on (thankfully).

While some tapes make you feel love, or melancholy, this one absolutely makes me feel like I’m sitting in his living room again, petting a cat and eating spaghetti.”[/pullquote]

TueNight founder, Margit, recalled some more mixtape naming memories

“My favorite tape names were, ‘Lou Reed Doesn’t Suck,’ ‘Let Me Ride on the Wall of Death 32 Times: A Tape in Honor of my Birthday’ and ‘Thanks for Lunch.’ Mixtapes were the love letters of my 20s. I couldn’t date a boy if he didn’t make me a mixtape or listen to the ones I gave him. They took patience, love and truly meant something.”

Margit also makes another key point in her piece about mixtapes from the ’90s:  “Sometimes the best, most meaningful titles, were the simplest ones, like when someone just says, ‘These are a few of my favorite songs.’ A friend, recently transplanted to Texas, created one of my favorite mixes after he moved: ‘Stuff I Was Listening To While Making Dinner.’ While some tapes make you feel love, or melancholy, this one absolutely makes me feel like I’m sitting in his living room again, petting a cat and eating spaghetti.”

I think all of us at TueNight could write pages about how much we loved the mixtape and what they meant to us. I even found a fun, virtual mixtape cassette generator, which simply allows you pick a tape model, choose a font, and give it a name with the handwriting style of your choice. Here’s my Masterpiece. Click on the cassette for a little fun.

Mixtape cassette
Mixtape cassette TueNight’s Master Mix created by Susan Linney/ using and

Still, it’s not the same. I’d do anything to travel back in time, pop in a blank TDK or Maxell cassette, and a spend a day making a mix, creating a cover flap, and thinking about that best friend, boyfriend, or sibling whom I loved enough to put together a musical piece of art. Just for them.

What are your favorite mixtape memories? Most used songs, best creative cover flaps, anything at all? Please share!

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

11 Responses

  1. Joyce

    I SO relate to this post– mixed tapes were one of my favorites gifts to give to people and making them was so much fun. I held on to the bitter end — and I still make mixed CDs for people, but you’re right, pulling the music from iTunes into a folder on a computer is not the same, and I know the people I’m giving them to aren’t listening to it in order, anyway. Plus, half of them don’t even use CD players anymore! So I doubt they listen at all 🙁

    *Sigh* It IS a lost art. But thanks for the great post!

  2. Sara

    I had a recent mixtape memory. On Saturday afternoon, I was listening to WXPN and they played Open My Eyes by Nazz. A boy in college who was a friend of a friend had made me a mix tape and this was one of the songs on it. While I wasn’t that interested in the boy, I cherished that mix tape. It was so good. I always felt a little guilty about it. I still have it. And cherish it. Thanks (and sorry) Kevin!

  3. ks_ros

    Tues/Nite : My tuesday is almost tomorrow morning, but this focus and the completely random scanning to find the right place and blending of the music and the message just made me smile.
    The best mixed tapes I have were the ones that bring the time and nostalgia of the best moments of early years – of course those are the ones worn through, stuck in the deck and unravelled. but the digital mix, and some of the virtual mixed tape made this Tuesday night made this a perfect mixed tape night. There’s a few college station djs that can still do this with great artful finess.
    I gotta go find my big head phone’s and see if I have the tapes.

  4. Laurie

    Phat Jamz sounds pretty killer!

    I remember vividly taping Boyz II Men in 1994. On Bended Knee? I was in 7th grade and IN LOVE with a boy (so I thought) and I made the weepiest mixed tapes to help me express my love. Oh, and a little No Diggity and Keith Sweat for good measure. I went through a major R&B phase.

  5. J Dub

    I still call my playlists and mix CDs “mix tapes.”

    I forget how powerful it was, with the mix tape, to create something from scratch, for someone special, personalized, customized and for close to zero dollars, except the hours of careful thought that went into each precious creation: brainstorming, planning, order and time constraints, not to mention, the cover art and name of the mix tape. Before, all I could do was play one song and one artist… on a record player, 8 track or tape player. That’s it. The first mix tape I was given included three songs: “Pac Man Fever,” “Our Lips Our Sealed” and “Centerfold,” all “burned” off records and 45s. I must have played that tape a thousand times.

    Drag and drop, burning, sharing, tweeting… I often feel the gift no longer feels as special or thoughtful, since it’s so much easier. However, I just made a mix tape CD for my friend as time ticks down to her wedding day. I thought she and her fiancé might want to listen to quirky, feel-good songs about love. I felt so much happier giving that gift than lingerie, which I also got her, or any soaps, books or cards combined.

    Viva la mix tape!

  6. Rachel

    I remember my brother (who is 8 years older) making me a tape with stuff like Weird Al, Ice Cube and Weezer on it in the mid-90’s right before he left for the Navy. I was 10 and I thought I was the coolest kid around, because I had ‘grown up’ songs to listen to until he came back to visit. I got my first car my senior year of high school: a used Geo Tracker with a tape player in it. I still had the tape he made me and I played it all the time driving around town 🙂

  7. Susan Linney
    Susan Linney

    I love it! Nothing says “mixed” more than a tape that includes Weird Al, Ice Cube, and Weezer. Sounds like quite a diverse compilations of songs!

    • Rachel

      Laurie – I still haven’t left my R&B phase! I listen to online mixes of 80’s R&B boy bands like New Edition. Very nostalgic 🙂

      Susan – “Phat Jamz” is pretty awesome! I think I made several mixed CD’s (I’m 30) entitled, “Good Songs” along with the year lol Such imagination, no?

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