Lou Ottens has gone to another place, leaving the world to wonder whether or not he ever truly understood the exquisite misery and unbridled joy he was once responsible for.
The Dutch-born inventor, who died on March 6 at age 94, created the cassette tape. Employed by the Netherlands-based Philips tech company, he helped develop analog magnetic tape that could be used for recording and playback.
Determined to design a format that was thinner and more portable than reel-to-reel, Ottens eventually came up with the two-spool cassette. First presented to the world in September of 1963 at the Berlin Radio Show, the format became a runaway smash, racking up the adjusted-for-inflation equivalent of $1.2 billion in sales by the end of the decade.
While the invention certainly made Philips shareholders happy, what's really important about the cassette tape is the way it revolutionized the music industry. Overnight, you didn’t need a portable record player with the world’s longest extension cord to take your favourite album to the beach. Instead, you were ready to roll with a cassette player and a cassette, which came in both prerecorded and DIY versions.
It was the blank cassette which became Ottens’s true gift to the world. For generations of audiophiles, C-90s were the place to make painstaking, at times frustrating but ultimately rewarding, statements on the power of music.
Before there were Spotify, Apple, and Tidal playlists, there were mixtapes. Thank you, Lou Ottens.
To create the perfect mixtape back in the day meant blocking off an entire afternoon, knowing that things might bleed into the evening. Then the real work began.
Step one was the opener—a number with enough nitro to get everything off the ground with an incendiary bang. The doubly challenging thing was that song had to be brand new.
There was no filling a mixtape with songs you’d heard a million times before—that was an express pass to instant burnout. And the last thing you wanted to get sick of after three plays was a 90-minute creation you'd spent 10 laboured hours on.
So you took each discovery of a world-beating banger as a sign that you were meant to get busy with the cassette deck. Slow’s “Have Not Been the Same”. Rollins Band's “Low Self Opinion”. Geto Boys’ “Fuck ’Em”. The Runaways' "I Love Playing With Fire". Or Sonic Youth’s “Teenage Riot”. The more bombastic, epic, angry, or loud the song was, the more it was a no-brainer for the lead-off.
And then the real work began. A 90-minute cassette meant you were in for roughly 14 songs per side, meaning 28 in total. Because we’re talking pre-Internet here, that meant you had to stockpile vinyl, and later stupidly overpriced CDs, for the job at hand. Think 14 or so full-lengths, where the goal was to find at least a couple of cuts from each album to love.
No single act belonged on a mixtape more than twice—that was just plain laziness. Two tracks per artist was acceptable—but only for one appearance on Side A and one on Side B.
Having to find two songs on an album meant you sometimes accidentally struck gold. Railroad Jerk’s “Bang the Drum” off One Track Mind was totally gold star, but after a few spins it became obvious that “Forty Minutes”—thrown on side B of the tape, mostly because you just wanted to get the fucking thing finished after nine hours—was the album’s real diamond.
Mixtapes made you think long and hard about sequencing. There was no overstating the importance of coming hard out of the gate, especially when getting ready for a road trip.
What worked were ragers like Black Flag’s “Rise Above”, Public Enemy’s “Night of the Living Baseheads”, D.O.A.’s “World War 3”, N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton”, and Blur’s “Song 2”. What didn’t was the Cranberries “Linger”, Iris DeMent’s version of “Big City”, R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts”, and Crash Vegas’s cover of “Pocahontas”.
Except all those latter songs slotted in brilliantly on a mixtape after that first all-important rush of adrenalin. When, understanding that no one needs to hear 90 minutes of bands that sound like NOFX or Toxic Holocaust, you began mixing things up. So I, Braineater’s “Johnny” was followed by Hank Williams’s “Move It on Over”, 100 Flowers' “Reject Yourself”, Secret V’s “Waiting for the Drugs to Take Hold”, and the Breeders’ “Drivin’ on 9”.
And then, for the stretch run of Side One, it was time for anything goes. So, even though the Smiths and Pantera don’t belong anywhere near each other in real life, it made sense for “Fucking Hostile” to be followed by the sensitive saddo-anthem “Please, Please, Please Let Me Get What I Want”.
The only thing left to take care of after that? Finding a song that could fill the final 39 seconds of Side One, which is where the likes of the Dirty Rotten Imbeciles' “I’d Rather Be Sleeping” and the Descendents' “Weinerschnitzel” proved gifts from God above. A God who’s currently making mixtapes with Lou Ottens.
Then it was time to do it all over again for Side B—nothing wrong with getting funky instead of full-bore to start with. Think Fishbone’s “Freddie’s Dead”, Soup Dragons’ “Free”, or Missy Elliott’s “Work It”. As with Side A, it was all about making sure to change things up stylistically on the journey. As great as Metallica’s “One” is, you didn’t sandwich it between Slayer’s “Raining Blood” and Crowbar’s “Lasting Dose”. Bookending it with Wu-Tang Clan’s “Protect Ya Neck” and SNFU’s “Cannibal Cafe”, however, was perfectly acceptable.
The tricky thing about mixtapes was getting things right the first time. Because there was no fixing things if you blew the sequencing by going too heavy on the squeegee punk, Scandinavian death metal, or chopped-and-screwed Houston hip-hop.
Unlike a Spotify or Apple playlist, there was no moving songs around with the click and drag of a mouse. When you got a mixed tape wrong, the magic was gone after a couple of plays.
But when you nailed it, right down to the absolutely mandatory naming of your creation (Hello My Awesome Mix Tape #6!), it was pure goddamn magic.
As Philips Museum director Olga Coolen told NPR early this week, the Dutch inventor never totally predicted the impact that his invention would have.
“[He] knew it could become big,” she said, “but could have never imagined it would be a revolution.” Indeed it was that. Mixtapes changed the way we consume music—the idea of a killer playlist being every bit as important as a great album holding true to this day.
Some things in life are worth the exquisite misery when the payoff is unbridled joy. A perfectly executed mixtape was one of them. Dig that old box of TDKs or Maxells out of the attic—even if it means heading to your parents' or grandparents’ storage locker—and thank Lou Ottens.
Especially if you’re lucky enough to find a C-90 called My Awesome Mix Tape #6 that starts with “Have Not Been the Same”.