This week on The Breakdown, we get nostalgic about the mixtape: part rave-era cultural artifact, part long-last artform, part format curiosity. Also: Georgia goes on a long rant about her favorite still-operational rave era label.

Remember the mixtape?

I don’t think it’d be accurate to say that younger dance music listeners don’t listen to mixes. They’re still out there checking out URL fests and SoundCloud sets, or diving into the output of more well-known mix outlets like NTS and Boiler Room or even the occasional high profile set from artists like Porter Robinson and Space Laces who have managed to turn dropping a set of originals into genuine event listening. Despite this, I can’t really remember the last honest-to-god high profile mixtape. Of course, the reasons that the format died are pretty reasonable and easy to understand. By the 2000s, listeners were accustomed to buying mixes on CD, which were easier to produce and distribute, allowed for longer single-segment runtimes, and simply felt cleaner and more professional to match an era where dance music had become more polished and commercially aware than ever before. Cassettes were a dinosaur format for people stuck in the 20th century or deeply immersed in underground scenes - people who by this point were more likely to be uploading to forums than going through the process of dubbing dozens of tapes.

I’m a severe weirdo and I love tapes much more than the average person, I know this. It’s a janky format! The technology required to listen to one is no longer widespread. The sound quality is immensely limited compared to the crisp digital formats people are used to nowadays. They lack the classiness and historical value of vinyl and the simplicity of CDs. These are all valid criticisms of the cassette format; they’re also reasons that I love it, which I’m fully aware makes me the odd one out and colors the way I view the mixtape as a format. 

But even beyond my bias, I think the mixtape format is worth remembering, one that is raw and DIY in a way I find refreshing in the increasingly sterile modern dance music landscape. Right now, I’m sitting here listening to Delta 9 vs Delta 9, one of a number of tapes I’ve picked up over the last few years from stalwart LA mixtape label Pure Acid over the last couple years. Best known for their mid-1990s output from legendary Midwest DJs like Dan Efex and DJ Tron, Pure Acid maintains an interesting position in the wider rave scene as not just the only real first party vendor of golden-age mixtapes still in operation, but probably the easiest way to get your hands on a physical copy of such artifacts in general just by virtue of being a first party seller with a functional website. If you’ll pardon me gushing for a minute, I think Pure Acid might just be coolest fucking thing ever. If I won the lottery, the first thing I would do is purchase a copy of every single tape they have in stock. Even if you’re not a tape junkie like me, the simple fact that a label like this is still around, still making these tapes fairly accessible, is such an unexpected boon, especially within a country whose dance scene is frequently poorly documented and preserved.

My first purchases came from a mix of Delta 9 fandom, desire to expand my fairly minimal EDM tape collection, and intellectual curiosity - this was right when I started really getting into US hard house so the chance to get my hand on actual of-the-time mixes in the style was invaluable - but I quickly developed a much deeper appreciation for a release format I hadn’t really given any thought to. These releases exist in a strange contradictory space, clearly DIY just by nature of what they are and yet existing in a whole range of production quality. My copy of Delta 9’s Unkind Mind Grind is as rudimentary as it gets, lacking a J-card and sounding fairly raw. On the other hand, Delta 9 vs Delta 9 not only sounds crisp and high quality but has a whole interior foldout with non-rudimentary graphic design and a full tracklist and is pressed on dark cherry-red cassette shells. Rhode Island hard house veteran DJ Venom’s tapes demonstrate a utilitarian approach - rudimentary photoshopped or handdrawn covers, templated j-card tracklists, and booking info emblazoned all over both the shell and card. 

These are, ostensibly, promo releases, intended less as releases for actual home listening and more as demos for event bookers. But if so, the sheer degree of variety and love put into these tapes is seemingly entirely unnecessary. Why does Dan Efex’s Freakout bother committing to the gimmick of a full tracklist drawn entirely from German hardcore legend The Speed Freak’s back catalog, something completely irrelevant to anyone except a true hobbyist listener? Why did Thee-O go out of his way to commission such complex packaging for his many, many tapes? Hell, why even make all these tapes available for purchase in the first place? You can make the argument that all of this made these promotional demo mixes stand out and thus get people booked more, but I think it’s pretty obvious that even beyond that these dudes really just loved what they did and understood that it was part of the culture and these tapes would probably outlive the era.

Looking back on these mixes as a listener and historian rather than as a promoter, they serve as incredible documents of what the performance practice of this music actually sounded like. They present a portrait of the era like no other; actual documents that reflect what DJs actually were playing at the time, yet also made unique by the limits of tape. Mixtapes exist in a perfect realm where they can't afford to not be paced well, given time to develop but barred from being too long-winded - you have to really plan out the set as to maximize what you can do in a couple 30 minute blocks. It’s not the purest format possible, but there’s a distinct character to these mixtapes that you don’t get elsewhere. And more than anything, these tapes distill my favorite parts of the rave era into one-of-a-kind packages. I love how uncorporate they are; the tunes are rough and the sets uncompromising, and they’re just too damn fundamental and limited by the medium to be turned into grey formless mass-market mix disks or radio shows - in fact, the amount of work that goes into the creation of just a single one of these tapes pretty much guarantees that they were made with intent and passion. It’s a low tech style that is perfectly suited to the music of the 90s, heavy and groove-focused and not yet sanded down the way the production would get later on. I think you can argue that this is the best way to experience 90s hardcore, and by extension jungle, trance, techno, etc. 

I’m not sure there’s really a point to be had here beyond “mixtapes were awesome and I wish they were still around.” There’s probably a belabored argument to be made that by embracing digital formats we’ve “lost” something but I’m not quite obnoxious enough to make it. I do still think the format has legs and in an era where tapes are fashionable again and there’s plenty of rave revivalism happening it’s a shame we haven’t really seen the return of the mixtape. At the very least, I recommend you check out Pure Acid, cuz they really are a one-of-a-kind entity.

I guess I’ll end this off with a quick catalog of my current collection:

Delta 9 - Delta 9 vs Delta 9 (1998)
Split halfway between harder-end gabber (traversing into terrorcore in the back third) and acid techno. Both parts are good in isolation but I definitely prefer -

Delta 9 - Unkind Mind Grind (1996)
A full hardcore mix, this time split between classic gabber sounds (even traversing into artcore territory) and headsplitting early speedcore. Goes kinda crazy all the way through.

DJ Urban - Ghetto Steelo (2000)
Ghetto/Chicago hard house. Haven’t actually gotten around to this one yet but the chemistry vibes of the artwork are hilariously unfitting for a ghetto house mix.

DJ Venom - Hard House vs. Progressive Round 2
No idea when this came out beyond the vague late 90s/early 00s period. An interesting conceptual mix that moves between “hard house” (i.e. LA hard house) and “progressive” (i.e. UK hard house). Goes to show that US producers weren’t oblivious to the sounds going on in the UK at the same time. I wanted the original entry in this series, which is of some fame, but this sequel is excellent and well worth a listen.

DJ Venom - Headrush
More of a pure US hard house mix compared to the last. I like the cover illustration.

Gaby “Getdown” - Live @ Samsara 2 (2000)
I ended up going shopping during the production of this essay and this was the first of three tapes I grabbed. Part classic hard house, part bangin’ rave stab-y techno. This appears to be literally the only thing this person ever released.

DJ R.Shock - Live @ Scrutinizer City (2004)
Mid-2000s heavy gabber, notable for being part of the minority of non-American artists who released on Pure Acid. Though, the actual notable thing here is this piece of cover art from one of the artist’s other aliases that was genuinely used 15 years into this veteran producer’s career:

Stompy - Hypercore (1999)
A mix I’ve heard about few times before but never heard, loaded with late 90s happy hardcore and trancey goodness. This period of British happy hardcore is fascinating and will probably be the subject of an article eventually.

You can check out Pure Acid’s collection at - of particular note is their repository of mixtape and set recording archives, itself representing thousands of hours of archival audio.

The Breakdown is a biweekly column about hardcore, breakcore, and jungle written by Georgia Ginsburg. Encompassing reviews, essays, retrospectives, and more, it seeks to chronicle the harder end of the rave era and the lasting cultural impact it had on dance music.

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