“Resurrect the Cassette: Revaluing Bay Area Underground Hip Hop Tapes” by Anthony Kwame Harrison

by Jessica Dilday on August 1, 2013

During the golden years of Bay Area underground hip hop – circa 1995-2000 – the quintessential subcultural artifact was indisputably the underground (audiocassette) tape. These distinct technologies, replete with harmonic distortion, tape hiss, the occasional cut-off song, and other profoundly human sonic markers encoded subcultural legitimacy while simultaneously defending underground hip hop’s borders from the threat of mainstream cooptation (Harrison 2006). Although by the mid-1990s tapes were already considered antiquated playback mediums, at a time when CD burners were mostly owned by well-to-do audio technophiles and other early adopters – and certainly not young, close-to-broke Bay Area hip hop heads – cassettes offered a more egalitarian route to music production.[1. By 1992 CD sales topped cassette tapes (Billboard 1992).] Reminiscent of the Do-it-Yourself movement in punk music during the 1970s, Bay Area youngsters embraced bedroom production and ad-hoc self-distribution networks as a means of re-envisioning and self-fashioning their conception of and relationship to authentic hip hop.  The defining qualities of real hip hop were no longer dictated by major record labels, corporate sponsors, and large media outlets like BET, VH1, Vibe magazine, and The Source.[2. Throughout the 1990s, The Source was regarded as the more-hardcore hip-hop alternative to Time-Warner owned Vibe magazine. Yet, for many Bay Area underground hip hop enthusiasts, The Source’s tremendous popularity – affirmed by its status as America’s top-selling music magazine in 1997 (George 1998) – undermined its underground credibility.] For this generation of music enthusiasts, the most genuine hip hop was local, home-made, and communally circulated. The use of four-track recorders and cassette dubbing, as well as hand-to-hand and early-online sales anticipated standard home-computer production software like GarageBand, Cubase, and Pro Tools, and music dissemination outlets such as Myspace, SoundCloud, Bandcamp, and YouTube. This recognition of four-track songs as finished musical products whose audible blemishes suggest deep meaning through limited means, announced hip hop’s return to folk music status.[3. That is, music created and circulated within the communities whose character it’s experienced as embodying (see Harrison 2006).] Looking back from our twenty-first century vantage point, at a time when the evaporating value of CDs threatens to cast their place in history as little more than temporary musical storage units that enable instantaneous computer-based retrieval (Straw 2009), the music stored on dead-end mediums like audiocassettes may be remembered as especially valuable.

Tape scatterTapehead2




On this mixtape I feature a selection of music from underground hip hop cassette tapes that were circulating in the Bay Area during the years surrounding my primary ethnographic fieldwork there.[4. With one previously unreleased exception.] In many (but not all) cases, I have chosen music that to my knowledge is not available on CD (several classic underground tapes were later re-released as CDs) or easily accessible online. Naturally, I have chosen songs I like or that were in some way significant to me during my initial years in the Bay. Several of the emcees mentioned in my scholarly work, most notably my book Hip Hop Underground (Temple University Press, 2009), are featured here. I hope this mix gives listeners some sense of the sonic textures and musical integrities that saturated Bay Area underground hip hop during a special moment in its history. Please appreciate the variety of production qualities. Embrace the hiss.

Anthony Kwame Harrison is an Associate Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech. He holds a Ph.D. in cultural anthropology from Syracuse University and is author of Hip Hop Underground: The Integrity and Ethics of Racial Identification (Temple University Press, 2009). Kwame has released three underground cassette tapes of music he’s recorded as a member of the Bay Area’s Forest Fires Collective, including the critically acclaimed Pinko (2002), Bear with Me (2004), and most recently Salty Brown is a Seasoned Vet (2012).


Billboard. 1992. “CD Unit Sales Pass Cassettes, Majors Say.” Billboard (March 14): 1.

George, Nelson. 1998. Hip Hop America. New York: Viking.

Harrison, Antony Kwame. 2006. “‘Cheaper than a CD, Plus we Really Mean It’: Bay Area Undergound Hip Hop Tapes as Subcultural Artefacts.” Popular Music 25 (2): 283-301.

Straw, Will. 2009. “In Memoriam: The Music CD and Its Ends.” Design and Culture 1 (1): 79-92.

Track List:

Gamma Ray & Fatgums – ‘Bay Tribute’ (from the OHHSSH!! mixtape, 2000)
BFAP – intro freestyle (from Cartoon World, n.d.)
Murs & Aesop – ‘Lose My Mind’ (from Area 51: Top Secret Tape . . ?, 1997)
Koncepts – ‘We & Dem’ (from Project: Ambershine, 1997)
Jihad! – ‘Cali Stare’ (from Soul Mate, 1998)
Jun dax – ‘2000AD/Two Zero’ (from Spills, 2000)
Conceit – ‘Fascinating’ (from Destination: Don’t Know, Don’t Care, 1998)
Skotrel – ‘Trainspotting’ (from Way Late, n.d.)
Gavin – ‘Verse One’ (from Comurshul, 1996)
Eligh & Scarub – ‘Everything Goes’ (from The Persuasion of Art, 1999)
Megabusive – ‘Anarhic Adjustment’ (from Searching for the Megalomistress, n.d.)
Ayentee & Koncepts – ‘Falling Down’ (from The PatternFall Wars, 1996)
IND-Ray & the “I” – ‘Song 13’ (from Narcoleptic Symposium, 2000)
Top Ramen – freestyle (from the Hardly Celebz freestyle-tape, 2000)
Prego w/ Zest (aka Just One) & Feller Quentin – ‘T-60 Slow’* (from the Unemployed Workaholic EP, n.d.)
Karma Chi & Kirby Dominant – ‘Jungle Repellents’ (from The PatternFall Wars, 1996)
Murs – untitled (from Yeah, n.d.)
Wonway – ‘Regrets’* freestyle (from Pinko, n.d.)
Destined & Mad Squirrel – ‘Recipe of We’* (unreleased)
Jun dax – ‘Watch Where You Walk’ (from Spills, 2000)

* – produced by Edison Victrola

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