Long Reads

Committed to tape: cassette culture and the fringes of dance music



In the world of the hipster cognoscenti, cassette tapes are big apparently. Not quinoa big, or adult colouring-in book big, but big enough to warrant Reddit threads and a new annual subcultural circle jerk in the form of Cassette Store Day. You may have seen a famous cartoon that states “the two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.” Well for the nay-sayers, the appeal of cassettes would seem even more bewildering for those into their dance music. For one thing, tape is an impractical method for DJing – you can’t beatmatch, one can’t consider the concept of forwarding and rewinding without the word ‘clunky’ coming to brain and tongue. Releasing a functional 4/4 banger on tape would seem to bury any dancefloor potential merely by the awkwardness of its format. Tracks like this little banger released on the Where to Now cassette label seem a little wasted on a tape:

Tapes, despite increasing coverage and sales, are still niche and small-run units, even compared to vinyl. Runs of 50-200 even from the more celebrated tape labels are the norm, are quickly snapped up by the fastest-finger first enthusiasts. For dance music lovers who buy vinyl, a concern is often if the tunes are mixable – this differs them from the Led Zeppelin-reissue buyer who tends to view the record as a boutique item, to be savoured and treated with the same care as an exotic delicacy. The awkwardness of forwarding and rewinding a tape compared with being able to flip the stylus over any passage instantly focuses attention on album-length formats that people who normally get their dance music on vinyl would not otherwise be able to expend.

The presentation, technology and functionality of dance music would seem to not be suited to the tape medium. No one can deny the cassette’s place in history, though their use in the present and the future may be considered an anachronistic throwback. The use of obsolete technologies is unique in music compared to other activities – vinyl and tapes retain their appeal and usage despite infinitely more portable, cheaper and convenient technologies such as mp3s, yet none but the most Luddite or most Amish of individuals would use a mangle rather than a washing machine. Tapes are not entirely dysfunctional though, and their cheap, portable and relatively democratic format provided exposure to emerging music in previous times in ways that the more luxurious vessels of vinyl and CD would not have been able to do so.

“The awkwardness of forwarding and rewinding a tape compared with being able to flip the stylus over any passage instantly focuses attention on album-length formats”

Tapes were the biggest selling music format for at least a little of the lifetime of all but near-millenials (being the biggest selling music format of any kind from the mid 1980’s to the early 1990’s). In smaller DIY scenes they became cheap and effective methods of communication, in the punk, noise and industrial scenes (with industrial progenitors Throbbing Gristle releasing roughly 24 horrible hours of music on various tape albums), while in rave and dance culture tapes shoplifted from the fronts of magazines would have provided many a British suburban teenager outside the broadcast range of pirate radio with exposure to hardcore, jungle and the like. Tapes were central to the growth and near-hegemony of hip-hop in America. Tapes, along with the invention of the boombox in 1975, made it possible to share music in public, and then to study it in private. The tape, smaller than an iPod, was portable. And with portability, comes the capacity to share in public. And with the capacity to share, comes dissemination to that wider public. Nas states in this interview how the ability to make your own cassette solidified identity, as well as being able to study the music, all hunkered down and attentive in your downtime: “What I did was have a tape for me and my crew…and if you wanted it, you had to come to my house to dub it… you’d have your friends picking it apart, and that’s how you start to study the whole art of writing, producing and DJing.”

The ubiquity of tapes has long ceased. Tapes are now a very private media in a few niche scenes, the equivalent of sweet nothings in the forms of limited tape runs swapped between simpaticos in long-distant suburban towns and cities, connecting noise freaks from commuter towns in Surrey to lonely synth-botherers in US mining towns. In this, they have gone full circle from their status as a very public medium. The portability and cheapness of tapes ensured its spread amongst the pivotal communities at the birth of hip-hop. Tapes are now very much a solitary product, not just gestated or consumed in solitude, but sold over the anonymity of the internet. At least in major cities, there remain a few physical outlets for vinyl, this is not the case with tapes. It is an almost entirely online-based culture, which at least would remove the Luddite tag analogue skeptics may wish to impart on tapers.

While in the world of dance music purists it seems like a guy from Detroit playing vinyl on a rotary mixer may represent the ultimate embodiment of soul and authenticity, tapes represent another format for those whose who wish to prove their differences by harnessing superseded technologies to revisited an imagined golden age and fabled place at which they were generally not present. Tapes released by stalwarts such as Ben UFO sell out quickly (a Trilogy Tapes release in 2011 has gone for as much as £40, while a recent tape run for a small German label ran out in one day), whilst tempestuous techno Brummie Regis released a tape run through Blackest Ever Black under his Family Sex alias. Labels such as Opal Tapes and Seagrave whose more clubbier excursions could find earspace on the more adventurous of dancefloors, sell out their limited tape runs with the same speed as a single-sided limited edition Moodymann record. Even in the production stage, recording to tape is seen as one way to achieve the warmth and saturation so many struggle to find in their Ableton plug ins: Dutch synth-hoarder Legowelt attests to recording to tape for that little extra hint of pleasing fuzz and hiss.

“The tape, smaller than an iPod, was portable. And with portability, comes the capacity to share in public”

The burgeoning of nascent tape culture in the fringes in dance music is likely attributable to the cross over of noise into the ‘outsider house’ through labels such as L.I.E.S. A tape label effectively in all but physical format, it releases rough-hewn analogue jams to a speedfreak schedule. The format of tapes encourages a more spontaneous approach to recording and releasing music in this bracket. Tapes are comparatively throwaway compared to vinyl, and not everything on tape has to have the same feeling of hallowed perfection as it does on vinyl. One can simply release a tape in a run as limited as possible, and without the glacial turnaround of the few remaining pressing plants (trust me, if you want to vex an independent record label owner, mention Record Store Day, don a spit guard and stand well back).

Recent Bonafide interviewee Helena Hauff quietly released her first album with a 200-run edition on a small Texas-based cassette label. The album’s casual nature (but nevertheless bold execution) is belied by the fact that it was simply called A Tape. Her more official album Discreet Desires, while no less fiery, felt more organised and definitively sequenced. In other words, the format was an influence on the content. The cassette itself is not merely only a format; the fact that something is released on tape these days is now often a clear signifier of music that is more experimental, DIY and often analogue-based (one cannot imagine say, David Guetta being released on tape, though that might carry a certain ironic cachet). Stephen Bishop, founder of one of the more interesting tape labels on the fringes of dance music explicitly set out his modus operandi of loosening dance music conventions in setting up his label Opal Tapes in a Resident Advisor interview back in 2013:

“It was supposed to be about people coming from house and techno who were more interested in making textural music or non-rhythm based music… and people coming from ‘outsider’ music and making more rhythmic music.”

Even if you consider tapes to be the musical equivalent of counting on an abacus, the fact that there are certain artists operating primarily in the tape medium opens one up to music you would not be exposed to otherwise, wherever it is under-the-radar dancefloor experimentalism on Seagrave, or woozy Detroit-indebted romanticism on Not Not Fun. And while in a world of million podcasts and a million blogs, the need for more exposure to music may not be critical or even desirable, tapes serve as a filter and signifier of tastes and temperaments which may align with the listener and an alternative way of presenting dance music outside the citadels of Beatport and Boomkat.

Different formats allow for different approaches. Tapes are limited in frequency range, cultural appeal and a 90-minute capacity. But with these limitations come a framework for expression and consumption, compared to which the digital model of, say, SoundCloud can seem rudderless. Tapes are physical in a world where a million and one things are lost in the digital ether of the internet, yet are portable and not having that hallowed sanctity that can rear its all too precious head amongst the more anal of vinyl collectors. Tapes represent a charming throwback which can at least lead to differences in the way some travellers on the fringes on the dance music can present themselves, and so their use can be worthy of attention outside of the normal analogue fetishists.

Words: Alex Caldwell

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