Mix CDs -- or, if you're old-school, mix tapes -- have never been more plentiful or more mainstream. Hardcore geeks have been making them for decades, of course, ever since cassette decks became widely available. Lovelorn rockdudes send them to chicks they want to impress; lumpen record-store clerks swap them back and forth; misunderstood teens shed them like dandruff and suicide notes. With CD burners standard on most new computers, almost anyone can put together a mix, and almost everyone does.
The importance of these DIY compilations in the evolution of hip-hop is incalculable. Since the days of DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, mix tapes, or "party tapes," have served as the main outlet for subterranean sounds that aren't quite radio-ready. They're a channel for grimy beats to seep from the streets into the mainstream, a showcase for wannabe MCs (50 Cent, who's done rather well for himself, caught Eminem's ear on a mix) and an all-purpose steez-enhancer for radio and club DJs.
Radar Station seems to get a new local mix in the mail every twenty minutes or so, but rare is the offering that demands a second listen. Bangin' though they may be, most mixes are freeze-dried ephemera: a club set distilled in transparent polycarbonate, isolated from the smoke and the hooch and the sad-ass skanks; a radio-show broadcast from nowhere, absent the commercials and station IDs; a jumble of outtakes and failed experiments and cannabis-fueled forays into ego gratification. Given the plethora of pleasant but pointless mix CDs, it's a nice surprise to find one that challenges as well as entertains. This week brings not one but two such standouts, a pair of local mixes that suggest the myriad ambitions of the noncommercial hip-hop DJ. Although all serious heads are advised to check out these releases immediately, it's mandatory for those whose tastes skew to the underground -- which, in these crunkcentric climes, is deeper underground than ever.
The Subway (No. 2/Summer '03) is the latest mix from DJ Needles, the readers' choice for best rap/hip-hop DJ in the 2003 RFT Music Awards. Ridiculously prolific, Needles has released sixteen compilations since he got started in 1998. On his popular "Phat Laces" specialty show on Q95.5 (Sundays from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.), Needles has the enviable luxury of getting to play whatever he likes -- but it's still not enough to fulfill his evangelical mission. "If I was just a fan and not a DJ, I would want somebody to make this kind of mix," he says. "I never got any mix tapes from the older DJs that are real prominent now, and I know they had access to a lot of exclusive joints. I get a whole bunch of promotional stuff, and as soon as I get it, if I like it I'll put it on a mix tape."
Needles has nothing against the crunksters, but he's sick of the lack of diversity on the airwaves: "True music lovers have to be frustrated with what's shoved out there. I really don't want to hear about Trina, you know what I'm saying? Pay attention to Jaylib; pay attention to MF Doom." That's easy enough to do if you pick up a copy of The Subway; in addition to the aforementioned cerebrorhymers, Needles cuts and juggles the Weathermen (remixed by RJD2), Spectac, First Infantry and Black Moon. Nor does he neglect old-school pioneers -- Gang Starr, KRS-One and Prince Paul also get their propers.
Inanimate Damage, the first mix CD from Doug Surreal and Ryan B. of Litterthugz fame, is less a mix than a blur, a trippy montage of classic rap, hissy dub, downtempo electronica and assorted freak fodder, most of it tricked out beyond recognition. Surreal, who composes original beats on his sampler and layers them over studio-tweaked tracks from other artists, isn't content to simulate the experience of a live DJ set. "A lot of DJs just try to make something that's party-happenin' hot," he says. "For me and Ryan, we're trying to jazz up the mix-tape thing, push the envelope a bit with the concepts, go crazy with the samples." Ranging from Wu-Tang Clan to Bob Marley, from Freddie Hubbard to Keita Fodeba, from Bitch Ass Darius to Ice T to Portishead, Damage careers wildly from one sonic vibe to the next, resulting in a schizophrenic but fascinating tour de force. Because of copyright issues, Surreal wasn't able to get the CDs professionally pressed, which was something of a disappointment. Still, he realizes, it's not as if he could sell that many copies anyway: Once you hit the 5,000 mark, it's difficult to elude the authorities. "The more you sell, the more potential for trouble," Surreal says. "A mix CD like this is like a dangerous love thing."