It has been 25 years since cassette tapes topped the charts as the most preferred medium and they will never be that popular again. However, despite what you may have heard, the cassette tape isn’t dead. Much like vinyl 10 years ago, cassettes are suddenly having a comeback moment. Only time will tell if it winds up growing into a movement, the way records are experiencing a renaissance today. However, there has been a wave of nostalgia because of movies which celebrate the mix tape (Guardians of the Galaxy), as well as the enduring popularity of devices like the Sony Walkman (have you seen the resale value of those things on Ebay)?
The first cassette single (that was totally a thing guys – we called it “the cassingle”) released in the U.S. was by the Go-Gos in 1982. (It was “Vacation,” if you must know).
Twisted Sister, Stay Hungry
Start in the wayback machine and drive back to 1984: The Reagan administration had just won a second term. Conservatism, served up with huge deficits and just-say-no moralism, would soon prove unsustainable. The AIDS epidemic had become front-page news. The excesses of the era are perfectly encapsulated by a genre which has since perished from the earth as suddenly as the Soviet Union: hair bands.
Heavy metal has always featured some pretty fly hair, but the hair band era was all heavy eyeliner, shiny outfits and gloriously Aqua-Net-landscaped hair. Twisted Sister had the good luck to arrive a fortuitous time, at the birth of the video era as well as the dominance of the cassette. Their album has party rock classics like “I Wanna Rock” and “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” In 1984, that was pretty much all you needed. Even now, against your better judgment, you may find yourself banging your head against the dashboard like Dee Snyder.
Grandmaster Flash, “The Message”
Grandmaster Flash was one of the first artists to capitalize on the flexibility of the cassette tape to create custom mixes. The pioneering rapper started making special order mixt-apes for rich fans in the late 1970s. He would shout out to the payor during the songs and even used to make custom tapes for cab drivers who did “hold calls,” where they were paid to drive rich folks around Manhattan just to listen to music. Flash estimates that he used to make a few thousand dollars a month selling the tapes. His early albums were all released on cassette. No song was bigger than 1982’s “The Message,” which explored the problems of drugs and violence in the inner city. In 2002, the Library of Congress chose the recording as one of 50 to be added to the National Recording Registry.
If you get your hands on any early Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s albums, you must buy them. And if you ever come across one of those early custom mixes, as one lucky person did in 2016 when he discovered a mixtape made for someone named Money Mike in 1982, you probably have quite a collector’s album.
Bel Biv Devoe, Poison
The music of Bel Biv Devoe (BBD), is a perfect match for the era. It’s also the model for an entire generation of parody music videos, like “Dick in a Box” or most-recently “Come Back Barak”). It features the new jack swing practitioners introducing the world to the joys of R&B served with a tinge of hip hop and unironic attempts to be sexy. BBD was an offshoot of New Edition, and it’s first album shot out of the gate and went straight to number 1. Poison was a killer album featuring classics like “Poison” (never trust a big butt and a smile), and “Do Me”, which both reached number 3 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Ata Kak, Obaa Sima
When Brian Shimkovitz moved to Ghana to study music, he was stunned by the variety and originality of the African cassette scene. Tapes solved a major distribution problem for Africa’s musicians, and the formal proliferated from the 1980s to the early 2000s. Shimkovitz returned to the U.S. with a collection of thousands of cassettes. He started a record label, Awesome Tapes From Africa, which introduced rare music. He picked up first find, Ata Kak’s Obaa Sima, at a roadside stall in Ghana in 2002. The artist mixes rap, electro and house and sounds like nothing else you’ve heard on the radio. The album has not achieved 40 million downloads. Ata Kak was never a household name, nor did he appear on MTV, but a cassette collection would be incomplete without acknowledgment of the way cassettes changed the world.
Prince, Purple Rain
No one dominated music during the high-cassette era like Prince. You’d be hard pressed to find a person alive at the time who did not own Purple Rain on cassette. Prince even knew how popular he would be. “Did you get the tape I sent you? / I thought it was better in a song…” he wrote in the song “One of Your Tears.” The cassette experience was split into two sides, A and B, and Prince characteristically made the most of this division. Prince’s goal was to create two listening experiences that were different yet made from the same cloth. Thus side A begins with the manic energy of “Let’s Go Crazy”, while side B starts out with the energetic but introspective “When Doves Cry.” Cassettes were difficult to fast-forward or rewind to skip songs, and artists conceptualized albums differently because of it.
Prince is also emblematic of another joy of the cassette: you could take you favorite music with you! Today that’s obvious but back in the day only the DJs could carry around vinyl. With cassettes, we were free, for the first time, to ignore the radio and listen to our favorites everywhere. Driving around in the car was great, but the Sony Walkman was groundbreaking. Suddenly music could be listened to while taking a walk or riding a bike. It was game-changing stuff that presaged the direction music would go in with CDs and much later, MP3s – total portability.