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10 Mixtape Tips

2009-06-15 13:28
10 Mixtape Tips
Compilations save record companies a lot of money. Without spending a cent, they can repackage a whole bunch of existing tracks in plastic, and resell them to people who haven't worked out how to choose or download music themselves yet.

In the last few months Now 51 (a compilation of radio hits), Mother Africa (a smooth-jazzy compilation of jazz tracks with the word "Africa" in the title), and a classic rock compilation called While My Guitar Gently Weeps (right - retch!) have hit the shelves - a short stop in most cases on the way to the bargain bin or the recycling depot.

So, are any of them more than just a shameful cash-in? Well weirdly, considering my musical tastes tend towards jazz and classic rock way before radio fodder, Now 51 is the best and the bravest of the three. It at least has the courage to mix genres - skooting from Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" to Killers "Human" through to Xtina, with only gayness to connect the three. Impressive! Well, kind of. I reckon, with a bit of imagination, a crayon or two, my music collection, and something to say to the recipient of my CD compilation, I can do better.

So here's my easy guide to how to make the best birthday, Christmas, anniversary or completely arbitrary compilation CD.

Collecting songs is your first step. This takes time, so don't rush the process. Start early, and just keep a folder somewhere, into which you drop tracks that you think might be useful one day. Don't worry too much about why they appeal - if they make you laugh, cry or want to party, they'll come in handy. If you're planning a compilation of 10 songs, have at least three times that many, by at least 15 different artists. 

Then choose a reasonably clear theme for your CD. Think of it as a concept album made up of songs you've stolen from the rich to give to the poor (or at least the stingy.) The theme or concept could simply be the person. Or it could be sex, or heartbreak, or true love, or it could be the struggle of unemployed west coast basketweavers to get their businesses online... whatever really matters to you. Keep it subtle to leave room for interpretation though. I'm proud of where I'm from, but being hammered over the head with the "Africa" theme by everyone from Jonathan Butler to Zim Ngqawana turned Mother Africa into a bit of a yawn.

So Challenge yourself by including a variety of different stuff on the CD. While My Guitar Gently Weeps, despite its loathsome title, is packed with true rock classics. Unfortunately, the songs are all so similar that it ends up being musical mud. Rather take a few risks. Kwaito , for instance, follows rock really well. Hip hop tracks with a melodic chorus sound fine next to electro-pop. So you can work your way from genre to genre, trusting your instincts. Here's an example of a challenge: Get from Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" to Michael Franks' "Popsicle Toes" in 10 tracks via Mapaputsi's "Izinja". I've done it!

Nobody wants to get a CD full of songs so overplayed they may as well just tune into KFM. Rarity counts for a lot. Want to include Whitney Houston's "I wanna dance with somebody?" Great. Go download the David Byrne (of talking heads) cover instead. And wouldn't using Dani Siciliano's cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" be more interesting hearing than that guy who's been played to death? Well not always. Sometimes the classic version is the one to go for.

Beat matching is the perfect way to avoid jarring genre or other transitions. Basically, you're looking for something that's about the same pace. But don't take this too far or you'll put everyone to sleep. Every now and then, you'll need to bring up the pace. In this case, look for something that opens with a drum beat or three, or a nice clean guitar lick. Anything that sounds deliberate and confident should do the trick.

If you're taking this process seriously, then making your compilation is a creative process, like sewing a patchwork quilt (and almost as awesomely naff). Sure, you didn't actually write or perform the songs, but you're saying something, when you match the final note, the key, or just the mood of one track with another, as part of the story or message of your mixtape.

If you're particularly cool, you may want to really remix some tracks (by adding your own stuff over it) but that's pretty higher-grade. Instead, you can use just part of a track and then cut to another. If you pull it off, it's impressive. 

Language and musical styles make a big impact on a listener, so while it's easy enough to go from male to female vocals, switching from maskandi-flavoured afro-pop to Death Metal is never easy. You'll need to transit gradually, and perhaps consider using an instrumental bridge between very contrasting tracks. The less familiar the genre is to your listener, the harder it is to achieve a smooth flow and to not sound like you're trying way too hard.

There are ways to cheat difficult transitions. For instance, using crowd sounds (a live version) makes it easier to place a track of genre vastly different to the song that proceeded it, because crowd sounds are ambient, so they go with anything. Of course, you can only do this once per compilation, unless the whole compilation is of live versions - and it's best done right at the end of the CD.

Decorating your compilation makes it something worth keeping - something that can sit in someone's CD shelves along with their originals. It's also easy. First remove all the cardboard that the blank CD came with, and use it as a guide to cut your own pictures or cardboard exactly the same size. Label the spine. If the CD is a compilation for a particular person, a picture of them or something significant to them is a good choice of decoration. But don't overdo it. Photocopies of your genitals is probably going too far.

Choosing a title and including text about the songs or your favourite lyric from each track makes the whole thing more meaningful. It can come accross as a tad self-important. But then again, presuming to force someone to listen to your playlist is kind of self centred to start with - so just go with it. Including info about the songs also lets the recipient find out more about the artists they enjoy. Some would say it's the very least you owe the musicians whose work you're appropriating.

Right! You're done, you're a rock star. Now just lie back, order a pizza, and wait for the groupies to start arriving.

It may not be legal, but making your own Mixtape CD is better than buying most of what's out there. Here's what's out there, and here's how you can do better for yourself, in your own bedroom.
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