I expanded my taste and my character between those little black foam headphones. For Christmas and my birthday all I wanted were cassettes, and in between I would tie up the landline phoning our local pirate radio station, requesting songs and hovering my fingers over the play and record buttons on the family stereo so I could listen again the next day on the walk to school. Mixtapes were swapped and shared in the playground, and friendships were won and lost over whose were best.
Cassettes were my first love.
CDs became the dominant technology as I approached my teens, and I always resented their fragility; how they skipped and scratched and had to be handled with such care. Making mix CDs and dragging MP3s into an iTunes window felt clinical and impersonal.
Then the iPod arrived and negated the mixtape format altogether, and music was no longer something to be touched at all.
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In many parts of West Africa and the Middle East the cassette’s popularity has endured. DJ Brian Shimkovitz encountered a thriving musical economy of DIY tapes during a trip to Ghana in the early Noughties.
He launched a blog, Awesome Tapes from Africa, along with a record label soon after to share his discoveries, from scratchy highlife to synth-led squelchy homemade afro-disco. Amsterdam-based DJ Moataz Rageb, AKA Disco Arabesquo, has been building a cassette collection of Egyptian funk and disco for many years and is set to release a selection of his favourites on a new compilation called Sharayat El Disco on the We Want Sounds label in June. Rageb credits the cassette format as a catalyst for youth culture across Egypt; tapes are cheap, accessible and easy to share and gave young people a new musical independence.
Cassettes may yet reclaim their cultural cachet in the UK too.
Ninja Tune’s Strictly Kev (aka DJ Food) believes the comeback has already begun, and that it’s no bad thing. “The cassette is cheap and easy to produce,” he says. “Bands are going to be looking to other formats for a fast turnaround now that vinyl waiting times and costs are through the roof.”
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He also rebuffs the notion that records are inherently superior. “When tapes first came out there were all sorts of claims made for their quality and clarity, then it was the CD, now it’s vinyl’s turn again.”
Giorgio Carbone, co-founder of Mars Tapes in Manchester, which claims to be the UK’s last cassette shop, agrees. “The revival is surely underway,” he tells me. “More and more artists are now releasing on tape, and even big record labels have reintroduced the format on their catalogues.”
The shop’s clientele ranges from newcomers looking for a selection of tapes, and a Walkman or boombox as a starter kit, to serious collectors who visit every week and browse the new stock. As with vinyl, the tangibility of cassettes seems to trump the lack of convenience. “Streaming is a great tool, but nothing beats the feeling of holding and owning music,” Carbone adds. “And they fit inside your pocket!”
Deb Grant is a radio host and writer
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