Making mix tapes used to be an all-consuming passion. Spending hours, days, and nights wading through records, compiling, adding, subtracting, erasing, I’d make thematic cassettes—all women, all hard rock, all r&b. Or else, I’d just make ’em eclectic and nonsensical—pitting L7’s “Pretend You’re Dead” against Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable,” Debbie Gibson’s “Electric Youth” against Guns ‘N Roses’ “Paradise City,” Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” against (gasp) Kenny G’s “Songbird.”
When I was 10, and scratching was just reaching mass culture (Run-D.M.C.’s version of “Walk This Way” was on MTV, and Michael Jackson was still moonwalking), I ruined a few records (I think one was Quiet Riot’s “Cum On Feel the Noize,” but don’t tell anyone) attempting some wickety wickety whack with a cheap, rusted needle. I also tried, with zero success, to remix songs by overlaying sound from the radio with a record on the platter, and dubbing it onto the tape recorder.
This, I imagine, is how a lot of DJs and producers made the leap from wrecking their Sony all-in-one home stereo systems to becoming geeky lords of the gadgetry domain. But DJ culture has long since co-opted the mix tape and turned it into one giant bore. In the early ’90s—when rave culture wasn’t quite so mainstream and mass-marketed, before 20/20 ran episodes warning parents about the hedonistic, drug-fueled all-night parties—DJ mix tapes were sometimes the only way (especially in small towns) for kids to get a taste of techno long after the E had worn off.
Now, it’s a different story. In my desk drawer there are a few dozen mix CDs, most of them by so-called “superstar DJs”—a title as meaningless and overbequeathed as “supermodel.” Most of the CDs are trance mixes (or, in preferred faux-sophisticated terminology, “progressive”), and nearly all of them are total crap. What unites these discs is their utter banality: All offer an unwavering stream of digitized perfection, with one innocuous record seeping seamlessly into the next. This is supposed to approximate a “live” club set, but producers edit out all mistakes, including the hiss on the records, the bumps in the groove, and thereby, the emotion and soul. So indistinguishable are mixes by John Digweed, Paul Van Dyk, Charles Feelgood, Kimball Collins, and Dave Ralph, I’ve begun to wonder if there’s some giant Superstar DJ Factory in Trancelvania.
Second-wave Detroit techno producer Richie Hawtin last threw his hat in the DJ mix ring with ’99’s Decks, EFX & 909. Aside from a few personal touches (adding, as the title suggests, sound effects and an extra punch with his trusty, overused 909 drum machine) and a couple of unexpected, welcome cuts (most notably, Nitzer Ebb’s raucous “Let Your Body Learn”), Hawtin’s disc is hardly hair-raising.
But his newest release, DE9: Closer to the Edit (its title a nod to a 1984 Art of Noise collage), is another story: a weird fusion of original material and pre-existing tracks that Hawtin has re-edited and remastered into fluid, graceful music that feels more like a complete composition than ill-fitting Lego pieces. Using a new software technology called Acid, Hawtin downloaded 150 records, grabbed five seconds of each track, reconfigured and looped them, and brought them to the same pitch. But at the same time, he did things the old-fashioned way, creating his own beats from scratch, then smooshing it all together. The result is a dizzying display of control—change in sound comes gradually, but noticeably, and sometimes Hawtin leaves lipstick traces (maybe a recognizable melody or a distinctive kick drum) for you to rediscover 15 minutes down the line. If the process sounds technical and dry, it is, sorta. If the result sounds boring or unlistenable—or worse, undanceable—it’s definitely not.
Closer to the Edit gurgles like a hiccuping baby, with robust, luminous bass providing a constant companion to microcosms of rhythm patterns evolving and shifting in a billowing, beautiful flow. Though Hawtin adds tracks culled from artists like Basic Channel, Carl Craig, and Stewart Walker to some of his own, he has said he doesn’t consider this any less of an original work than his earlier discs.
Early on DE9, he slits the wrists of the dubby, sultry washes of Blue Train and Dean DeCosta’s “Diminishing Returns”, then mixes its blood with five other bits—only serious trainspotters and Hawtin himself know which clip is responsible for which sound bite. “Diminishing” doesn’t really diminish so much as it wraps its folded waves of hushed sound around the company it keeps, morphing into the next, more angular shape. I have a few of the records Hawtin cribs, but under Hawtin’s watch they’re barely recognizable ghosts in the machine, mere glimpses of their former selves. And then, with a whisper and a kick, they are gone.
If Hawtin is a chameleon with shape-shifting powers, hyped Aussie collective the Avalanches are more like magicians, playing a turntable version of Now You See It, Now You Don’t. Their Since I Left You, the most acclaimed electronic record of the past year, is not a mix disc, but it feels like one. Where on Closer to the Edit everything’s from the recent past, the Avalanches pull from more distant history to redefine the signs of their times. The Isley Brothers and unattributed movie clips rub shoulders with De La Soul and Madonna. The unknown and the popular share equal billing—and the Avalanches don’t play favorites with genres, either. Old soul, rap, rock—all of it is pushed together like mismatched New Yorkers crammed onto a subway train. Reading the liner notes is excruciating, but educational—I blew up the credits 200 times the size so I could glean just where that vocal tic on “Flight Tonight” comes from (answer: “Wicked She Wicked” by Billy Boyo).
As record-cataloging, garage-sale-shopping High Fidelity types, the Aussies are in good company. Their cut-and-paste methodology has clear predecessors—DJ Shadow’s Entroducing . . . , the Beasties’ Paul’s Boutique, M/A/R/R/S’s “Pump Up the Volume,” Coldcut’s entire discography. But Since I Left You‘s layers are so dense, it has a sophistication those pioneering records lacked. Gone, for instance, is “Pump Up the Volume” ‘s crude slapdash pastiche. And while most earlier so-called sample records were strictly party pieces, the Avalanches are fun, but dreamy; there’s something melancholy and introspective about Since I Left You. Even the title is wistful.
Like on DE9, every sound is a building block, but the Avalanches aren’t exactly subtle. They prefer melodrama—setting up for the break, then going in for the kill. “Flight Tonight” begins with a short intro called “Avalanche Rock”—all murky, with voices muttering in the background, but after a brief lull, there’s an earth-shattering break; the vocal snippet of “Wicked She Wicked” soon takes a back seat to a rolling bassline. And that’s just the first 30 seconds. If the Avalanches were movie directors, they’d be Cameron Crowe: They want you to notice the tension, the buildup, the jump from sad to bombastic. They are unapologetic tearjerkers.
Listening to Since I Left You and DE9: Closer to the Edit reminds me of when I used to watch my friend DJ Nasir audition his new records for 15 seconds at a time before he’d get bored and switch to the next one. Except really, it’s more like hearing six DJ friends play 15-second snippets of six different records at the same time, and having it make sense. You know that old cliché people always say about their favorite records—”Every time I listen to it, I hear something new”? Well, this time it’s actually true.