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FLASHBACK: The Walkman Days AKA I Let The Tape Rock Until The Tape Popped [RE-UP FROM 2006]*

by Staff on May 16, 2011

I’ve touched on one of the many differences in how us 70′s and early 80′s babies grew up with Hip Hop music and the overall culture versus how the next generation of hip hop/rap listeners grew up/interacted with it. Rather than write some essay on some journalist type steez, I’ve decided that I can only write a piece to help the younger cats gain some understanding of an older cats “Hip Hop Is Dead/30 Is The New 20″type mindset based on our experiences growing up with Hip Hp. I’m gonna get semi autobiographical on this one:

Nowadays, cats can just get on their computers and go to iTunes, swap out whatever songs they want to hear onto their iPods, throw in their earbuds and be out. We old heads WISH we had it so easy, son! We had walkmans. That played cassette tapes. There were many different types of walkmans and they all had different types of specific problems or hazards depending on which brand you had. Depending on which brand you were copping you had to know about it’s pros and cons going in.

The best ones to get were the high end Sony, Panasonic, or even Pioneer. Sanyo, Aiwa and Sharp walkmans were also readily available at Circuit City, Tweeter and other electronics specialty stores. The better walkmans required the least maintenance like head cleaning, dust removal or having to cop a precision screwdriver set just to keep your joint working. No working walkman, no hip hop. I didn’t want to be trudging through the snow in the cold ass winter (pre global warming) with no music blaring through my Nova 25 titanium headphones to distract me. That shit was dead!

There were some real generic shitboxes available for between $10 or $20 dollars made by companies like Sylvania (who had no business making them), Coby, GPX, Craig and Radio Shack’s Realistic line of portable cassette players. The walkmans they made were wack, but they more than made up for it with their selection of headphones. Radio Shack made the hip hop heads official affordable headphones of choice, the Realistic Nova 25′s with titanium. Not only did they sound ill, but if (or more to the point, when) they shorted out you could return them as long as you kept the box and receipt. (They changed their return policy later). The Koss Pro series were a good choice as well but more costly.

Tapes were another matter altogether. You had to hold out and cop the best tapes possible because if you didn’t, it was like throwing money away. If you bought cheap tapes they’d pop or get ate quick, wasting the hours I spent at the radio/stereo tape deck trying to record new jams off of the hip hop radio shows. The two biggest shows when I was in high school (1991-1995) were WMBR’s Dope Jams Show and WERS’s Rap Explosion Show. I used to sit there in front of my radio at night just waiting for them to play that brand new hot shit. We had multiple radio shows with different formats in most major markets so we had diversity and selection…All of that shit’s completely out the window now. Everyone’s stations all sound the exact same because they all have the same owners and share the same damn playlists.

I’d have my radio on at night, sitting there in front of it with the buttons on Pause, Play and Record down for the full two or three hours trying to catch some exclusive joints off of the new EPMD, Spice 1, Scarface, GangStarr, Das Efx, Ice Cube, 2Pac, Tha Pharcyde, Geto Boys, Kool G Rap, OutKast, Beatnuts, Onyx, Del, Masta Ace, DJ Quik or Souls Of Mischief albums.

I’d even switch back and forth between multiple stations during the same night in the hopes of trying to catch a few extra joints as well. Using random Hip Hop blogs, AllHipHop.com, HipHopGame.com, NobodySmiling.com, SOHH.com, XXLmag.com, UndergroundHipHop.com, Spinemagazine.com and the Google bar is so much easier to do than doing all of the shit I had to go through back in the days through in order to get new joints.

Pause tape recording required serious editing skills and meticulous detail. Rewinding and pausing at a place that didn’t cut off the end of other songs was important. The levels on the radio has to be just right, too. Walkmans with XBass or Bass Boost and equalizers on the side were the new in thing and nobody was gonna pay for a sloppy ass/wack sounding tape.

Every time I filled up a 90 minute TDK with joints, I pulled out the tape cover and painstakingly wrote out the tracklisting in graf letters. I’d make about ten or twelve copies of it using the multiple tapes decks off of my radio and the big stereo in my living room with those TDK 6 and 10 packs we used to boost from Strawberries at the mall (they didn’t have up to date security yet. This was the early 90′s, son!).

I’d sell these mixtapes at school for $3 each to the fiends and dub my own bought tapes and sell them as well. The Da King & I, Cypress Hill, Black Sheep, Nas/Kurious two siders, Rumpletilskinz, Da Lench Mob, Boss and Leaders Of The New School dubs sold the best and …come to think of it, I was a damn bootlegger!

It was extremely important that every joint on a pause, blend or mixtape had to be dope. Every time you fast forwarded a track, you were killing your batteries. Depending on the brand or quality of the particular walkman you had, too much fast forwarding or rewinding loosened up the motor and the walkman became useless because it couldn’t play tapes any more.

The worst were those cheapass walkmans that repeatedly switched sides on you automatically. If you didn’t switch that option off on the Walkman, then it would jam up and keep switching sides until you just had to throw the goddamn thing out. Heads weren’t getting warranties on their walkmans, they cost as much as the walkman itself!

I can never get those telltale warning signs that my box or my walkman was about to eat my tape out of my head. First the tape started either playing slow or mad fast. Whenever that happened, you stopped your walkman immediately and took the tape out. If the tape had partially come out of cassette itself, all you had to do was tap the side a couple of times and the tape would go back into the cassette itself and play fine.

If the tape started getting chewed up, you had to get a pencil and wind the tape straight at each end until the tape would go through the reel with no problem. Then, you fast forward the tape and go past the scrunched up part. The tape should play fine and you just saved yourself some money.

There got to be a point when I became a “tape doctor”, the cat that people would take their tangled up, unraveled, cut/popped, or chewed up tapes to. I was an expert at it from fuckin’ up so many tapes from back in the days re-recording Rusty The Toe Jammer mixtapes and making pause tapes off of WILD, WMBR and WRBB in Boston when I was a kid (1980-1988). Another annoying issue with walkmans were of course, batteries. I got to be such a walkman veteran by the time I was in high school that I had it all down to a science.

The first thing I did when I got to school was to either put my walkman in my locker or my backpack. Before I did anything else, I either removed the batteries from my walkman or turned one battery upside down. Why would I do this? Because if any of the buttons got pressed by mistake during the time the walkman was in the locker or my backpack, the batteries would be dead by the end of the day and you’d be assed out with your “2Pacalypse Now” tape in your dead walkman on the iron horse ride home from school.

The size of your walkman was an issue as well. You had to either keep it in your pants or jacket/coat pocket on the outside or the inside. If your clip broke and it was summer then you had to carry it in your own sweaty ass hands all day. It was a step up from carrying a radio on your shoulder (No Radio Raheem), but it still wasn’t a good look.

The other part of being a walkman warrior that was wack were bullshit headphones. Some had cords that broke easily, some had the wires that would become loose going into the receiver and they’d short out. Sometimes you had to tie the wires in knots so it didn’t get tangled up. Headphones had a variety of issues, sometimes the plastic ends that were around the metal band that adjusted your headphones easily broke right off. My persoanl go to headphones of choice were the Nova 25 Pro heaphones with titanium which were readily available at Radio Shack.

The biggest issue with them was the shorting out of the wires that went into the headphones & the foam coming off the heaphones themselves due to constant usage. In order to avoid copping new headphones, you’d sometimes have to tape them together with black electrical tape. If the shit didn’t hang right, you’d look like a complete asshole walking down the street. You could cover it up in the winter by rocking a skullie over them, which could potentially make you look like an even bigger asshole.

After a day of slingin’ mixtapes and dubs, I’d have enough money to cop all of the releases I wanted from the new edition of The Source. Back then, The Source was THE hip hop magazine, if you couldn’t get in The Source pages between 1991-1998, you pretty much didn’t exist. Let me give you an example from one of the old Sources I got lying around:

I picked up a copy of the November 1994 Source (#62) with Redman on the cover. The other cover stories are “Atlanta: Hip Hop’s Brave New World”, “South Africa’s Lost Youth”, Parrish Smith (PMD of EPMD) and Organized Konfusion (Pharoahe Monch & Prince Poetry). As I turn to the Source System page that has the Best Buys and Heavy Rotation all included for November 1994, the following tapes are listed:

The Roots “Do You Want More?!!!??!
O.C. “Word…Life”
The Coup “Genocide & Juice”
Notorious B.I.G. “Ready To Die”
OutKast “Southernplayalisticadillicmuzik”
Organized Konfuzion “Stress: The Extinction Agenda”
MC Eiht featuring CMW “We Come Strapped”
Gravediggaz “6 Feet Deep”
Artifacts “Between A Rock & A Hard Place”
Bone Thugs N Harmony “Creepin’ On Ah Come Up”
Boogie Monsters “Riders On The Storm”
Big Mike “Somethin’ Serious”

This is a mix of East Coast, West Coast, Midwest and Southern hip hop. Some of these joints could be considered backpack rap (The Roots, O.C., Organized Konfuzion, Artifacts), some could be considered conscious (The Coup, Gravediggaz, Boogie Monsters). However, back then it was just all just  considered HIP HOP. Period. I miss that there used to be variety and a mix of groups (where have the groups gone?). Nowadays, you’re instantly lumped into a category, stuck doing one thing and that’s just what you do. How corny is that?

Tapes used to cost between $6.99- $9.99 each depending on if they were on sale or not, being that it was the 2nd Golden Era (1992-1996) I used to cop at least two tapes a week. That got to be pretty damn expensive for a teenager with no job, so of course as I explained above I got my hustle on. It was enough to afford my younger brother and myself tapes, Nintendo, Genesis, and later TurboGrafx 16 games.

It was an ill time for Boston Hip Hop as well. Funkmaster Flex had just signed Joint Venture (R.I.P. Fly Ty) to Profile Records. Almighty R.S.O. had just signed a new deal with Tommy Boy then Flavor Unit Records. Top Choice Clique had a major deal (what up Jawn P!).  Ed O.G. was still making classics, Juice With Soul had a deal with a major and Scientifik (R.I.P.) had just dropped “Criminal”. Things were finally looking up for us, it seemed.

I still have cases and shoeboxes full of tapes from label that have been folded for MAD LONG like East West, Chrysalis/EMI, Jive/RCA, Uptown/MCA, Rowdy, LaFace/Arista, Pay Day/FFRR, Delicious Vinyl, Tommy Boy, Mad Sounds/Motown, Loud/RCA, Priority Records, Tuff Break/A&M, Pendulum, Wrap/Ichiban, Fang/Continuum, Select Street, Ruff House/Columbia, Immortal, Nervous/Wreck, Big Beat/Atlantic, Elektra, Mercury/PolyGram, Profile, Cold Chillin’/Warner Brothers, Sire/Warner Brothers, Relativity, Wild Pitch, Hollywood Basic, Correct Records, In A Minute Records, etc. Nowadays, there are only around 5 labels to sign to if you wanna get on.

The game was MAD different back then. Now maybe some of you can understand why some of us oldheads are so damn salty about Hip Hop half the time, look at all the shit we had to go through just to listen to it^!

*This is the edited version of a blog I originally posted on December 15th, 2006 for my State Of Hip Hop Blog Series on AllHipHop.com.

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{ 2 comments }

Hamza 21 May 16, 2011 at 4:39 pm

AARGH!!! When your cassette got ate up that was the worse. Half of the time your tape was ruined. It couldn’t be fixed. I hated that!!

A few months ago I dropped my mp3 player into some water and it got destroyed but that in no way compares to having your favorite tape get eaten up. I glad I don’t have to deal with that anymore.

Brandan E. May 16, 2011 at 7:30 pm

one of the best articles i read in a long time.
everything u said is right on.
im about to turn 30, so i know what u talkin about.
its was that real and ill.
i miss those days.
great, great read!

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