There’s no accounting for the habits of the collector. Some spend their lives focused on a single niche, others hop around specialties and formats, playing hopscotch with the cultural artifacts that define their obsessions and fill their apartments. As a lifelong collector of recorded music I find myself broadening my focus with each passing decade. The defining objects from the past I once took for granted start to disappear from the landscape and I get the compulsion to start accumulating with a more specific purpose. In the mid-’90s I chased down the vinyl LPs that had been ubiquitous in my early youth but were actively being phased out by record labels; in the ’00s I moved on to cassette tapes at a time when everyone but truck drivers and inmates had given up on them.
Lately (and predictably), my interests have shifted once again, this time to a particularly volatile format: the CD-R mixtape. (The name is a confusing holdover from the cassette era — by the turn of the century mixtapes were rarely tapes and only occasionally mixed.) For in-the-know rap listeners these releases were the essential medium at the turn of the century — low-budget products on the grey market these underground albums were sold at flea markets, gas stations, or on street corners, and were comprised of non-album tracks and loose freestyles to other artist’s hits. Many formative works by the most important rappers of this era — Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Gucci Mane, Cam’ron, Young Jeezy — only ever saw release via mixtapes. And while these projects were usually uploaded simultaneously to online archives like Dat Piff and, later, Live Mixtapes, many of those uploads were shoddily compressed mp3s with awkward gaps between tracks. Today loose tracks or even entire tapes have been lost to copyright claims from a confused record industry that was never quite sure of how to handle the format. (This is to say nothing of the thousands of possibly-great-but-probably-not CD-Rs produced by lesser known artists that never hit these sites at all, many of which are now likely completely lost to time.)