I miss Mix CDs.
Don’t get me wrong. The current ubiquity of DJ podcasts is in many ways a boon to those of us who need our addiction soothed. For many of us podcasts are the best way to hear new music and untangle those threads that eventually lead to new musical discoveries. But for every podcast that provides that special something there are a dozen others that are simply lacking in many of the areas we look to for inspiration.
Podcasts are the direct descendant of those scabby mix tapes that record shops used to sell. It was, I guess, very much a grey market legally speaking, but they provided us with a means to get an idea what sort of thing the DJs and producers we liked were doing. They opened the door to new music and new ideas. Modern podcasts often do the same job and from that point of view they are an important part of the scene.
But Mix CDs were altogether different. Many were built from the ground up to fulfil a different function than to simply replicate the sound of being in a club on a Friday night. They were often more about home listening than anything else. And over time DJs gradually learned to use the format to do something new.
The limitations of the CD format paradoxically worked in their favour. If you only have 74 minutes to play with there can be no hanging around, no spending an hour finding a groove or building too slowly to a distant point. The result was that mix CDs were all about track selection and programming – the need to get permission from the publishers and rights holders further increased the importance of selection – and it often meant that the choices tended to fit the mix like a glove.
Some of my favourite Mix CDs went a stage further and utilised studio technology to create mixes that you would never have heard in a club. In a time before Traktor, Ableton or Seratto they were full of edits, of little frills and tricks – reverse plays, delays, reverbs – that further pushed the concept onto new ground. At their heart they were always about a guy playing records on a pair of decks, but it gave them the freedom to do things that turned a mix into a document of possibility. One only has to listen to Kevin Saunderson’s X-Mix release, or the mixes by Claude Young or Stacey Pullen on DJ Kicks to hear the DJ’s art released from the need to get a room full of people dancing.
Perhaps my favourite of these types of Mix CDs was Derrick May’s famous Mayday mix CD from 1997 (known as The Mix Up Vol5 elsewhere in the world). It was a hyperreal collision of tones and textures. Records thrown backwards and forwards, dropped in and out of the proceedings and brought back in dripping with effects. Nowadays, when technology and software is supposed to have ‘freed’ us from simple A-B mixing it remains a testament to what a musical imagination can achieve with a boxful of records and ideas.
But what stood out, and the lesson that DJs today can still take from it, was the programming. It ran from the funkiest of house to hard, hard techno, to salsa and back. It was then and is still today an almost exhausting selection of music played by a man who refuses to be pigeon-holed.
It also introduced me to Lonely Disco Dancer by House Proud People – a guise of house guru Chris Simmonds. Mixed out of the crazed storm of French Kiss it suddenly deepens the mood. It’s a piece of prime deep house and floats by on some of the most aquatic, most gorgeous chords ever committed to vinyl. It builds subtly in a gloriously old-fashioned way, adding new elements at exactly the right time until it reaches its crescendo. In the mix it never quite gets there. Instead May brings in a new track so perfectly judged and balanced the two sound as if they should be married. It’s exquisite.
I really miss Mix CDs.