Play It Forward

Andrew Johnson listens to the longest mixtape ever

IN JANUARY, THE UK-based Canadian musician and DJ Dan Snaith, aka Caribou, gifted to the world, courtesy of the reach of YouTube, “The Longest Mixtape — 1000 Songs for You”. It’s a vast trove open to anyone with an Internet connection, who is also up to the challenge of listening to even a portion of the music. It spans groovy ‘60s psyche-folk, dub, minimalism, hip hop, seemingly every style of electronic dance music, many, many songs with the word funky in the title, and much more. It’s playlist-as-gratitude.

“As you can imagine, music has been a central love of my life since I was a teenager and over the years I've been introduced to a lot that has stayed with me,” says Snaith, introducing the mixtape. “I've collected the majority of that music here – and I thought sharing it with you seemed like one way I could say thanks. I'm sure some things are under-represented or over-represented, but roughly speaking this is a musical history of my life.”

This “musical history” follows one of the cardinal rules of mixtapes, set out memorably in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity: “You've got to kick off with a corker, to hold the attention…”. Snaith’s “corker” is Minnie Riperton’s “Les Fleurs”, a song that draws you in with its supple, perfectly funky descending bass line, setting off Riperton’s stunning soprano. Riperton is best known for “Lovin You”, a monster hit from 1975 that I likely would have heard on the 50,000 watt top 40 giant CKLW while growing up in Chatham, Ontario, a place otherwise defined by the CBC and local AM station farm reports. “Les Fleurs” was the first single from Come to My Garden, her first (and, of course, underappreciated) solo record from 1970. Back then she was still performing with Rotary Connection, a novel-for-the-time racially integrated band from Chicago that, sonically, summed up the peace-and-love epoch. By kicking off with “Les Fleurs,” Snaith is repeating Riperton’s invitation: “Will somebody wear me to the fair?/ Will a lady pin me in her hair?/ Will a child find me by a stream?/ Kiss my petals and weave me through a dream.” Snaith’s selections are also lovely things, waiting to be discovered and appreciated. 

And his approach, like Riperton’s, is child-like—without guile or agenda. No hype machine pushes these selections. A beat up copy of the Riperton record will set you back $100, with a mint copy going for $400. But the commercial viability of most of this music for the artists is long gone, if it was ever there in the first place. Riperton herself has been dead since 1979.

In other words, Snaith’s thank you is essentially an act of generosity, an act of sharing: he pays homage and plays it forward. After all, no one amasses a selection of 1000 top-drawer songs, most of which are gems pulled from obscurity, without having been the recipient of many, many previous tip-offs, acts of sharing, and late nights with friends, all shaped by good luck and excellent taste. The project begins and ends with openness and reciprocity: the desire to hear and share music. 

In turn, to fully receive this particular thank you, Snaith’s audience must listen with a good measure of that same openness. Short of popping round the corner for snacks and wine, Snaith has come as close as he can to inviting you over to his place so he can spin you some records.

What really makes me want to listen, though, is the sense that we share a sensibility, that we more-or-less like the same music. When I scroll through the selections I see a number of Arthur Russell tracks (“In the Light of the Miracle”, “Tone Bone Kone”, “That’s Us/Wild Combination”), less than obvious sections from The Byrds (“Moog Raga”, “Draft Morning”), some of Alan Wilson’s Canned Heat numbers, Sonny Sharrock, at least two performances by the great avant-gardist Joe McPhee, a load of Kraftwerk, and tracks by Caribou’s fellow travelers Four Tet and Junior Boys: all disparate but important signposts in my listening. To find them together in one mix, no matter how sprawling, says here is someone I evidently have something in common with. 

Our kinship established, I can turn my attention to artists I’ve known are out there, but on whom I've never focused attention, such as the lo-fi Afro funk synth and drum machine master William Onyeabor (“Good Name”, “When the Going is Smooth & Good” and “Let’s Fall in Love”), Detroit techno musician Theo Parish (“Feel Free to Be Who You Need to Be”, “Falling Up,” CARL CRAIG remix”), and various krautrock bands like Can (a remix of “Vitamin C”) and Neu! (“Hallogallo”). And I can then happily follow Snaith’s request to put the whole thing on shuffle and have faith that what I hear will interest, whether or not I fall in love. For example, as I write this, I’m listening to something called, “From Tunis to India in Fullmoon (on Testosterone)” a 20-minute piece of Swedish drone rock recorded by Pärson Sound in 1967 or ’68. Will I put it on again first thing tomorrow morning? Unlikely. Will I point them out to friends who are into Godspeed You! Black Emperor or Terry Riley or Tortoise? Absolutely. 

What of this mix will stick with me is impossible to predict—in part because it’s so vast it’s hard to actually listen to much of it, as opposed to simply having it on, say, amidst the din of making dinner or wrapping up emails. But so far, I’ve returned to Moondog’s “Enough About Human Rights” (“Enough about human rights, what about whale rights? what about snail rights?”), a hypnotic piece of minimalist songwriting that’s silly and totally compelling; “Burundi Black”, a fascinating layering of Burundian field recordings and looped drums and guitars made in 1971 by French musician Mike Steiphenson, and sampled by both the Beastie Boys and Def Leppard; and an entire record of delicate, ethereal bluesy solo Ethio-Jazz piano by Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou. Each one is exactly my kind of thing: half-door, half-hyperlink. Each will point me to other doors, other links. 

That sureness that there’s always more music to discover obviously motivates Snaith—but it’s more ethos than competition, or collecting frenzy. Snaith asks people who listen to “please share music with me that you think I would like but is not included here, in the hope this becomes a dialogue rather than a monologue”. In that spirit I would point him to Lizzy Mercier Descloux’s “Hard-Boiled Babe”, an amazing late 1970s New York dance track from Ze Records, Suba’s Sao Paulo Confessions record, especially “Sereia”, groovy Brazilian electronica from a great Serbian producer, Born Jamerican’s “Boom Shack-a-tak,” Arthur Blythe’s “Lenox Avenue Breakdown”, a masterpiece of Latin jazz funk, Boards of Canada’s remix of cLOUDDEAD’s “Dead Dogs Two”, a favourite piece of left-field hip hop, the Unkle remix of Tortoise’s “Djed”, the deep well of Haitian popular music, etc., etc.

This mix is more than a meal for voracious listeners, people who move between genres and across histories, seeking out new and interesting sounds, great performances, novelties, things that have been forgotten or marginalized. And while voracious listeners might profess a love of vinyl, or occasionally succumb to audiophilia, what feeds them these days is the endless digital cornucopia of the Internet where we can find song after concert after soundcloud mix. What Snaith’s project does is give that deep river of songs focus—a focus informed by vast amounts of listening, sifting, repeating, rejecting, accepting, and passing along. 

Perhaps that’s too generous, but it’s a generosity that comes out of allowing a fellow traveler to be a guide. Over the years I’ve had excellent guides: on radio it was Clyde Gilmore whose Gilmore’s Albums show “rescued songs from cutout bin heaven”, the Electrifying Mojo, of whose Midnight Funk Association I was a card-carrying member, and Brave New Waves circa Brent Bambury and Patti Schmidt. Gilmore was the person who first played me the Pearl Fishers duet as sung by Robert Merrill and Jussi Björling. It was then I realized that I could love Bob Marley’s “Buffalo Soldier” and that duet, and the world would still make sense, and might actually be better, bigger. Gilmore primed me to be open to music regardless of genre or period. Then when I heard Mojo playing Kraftwerk and Prince and B52s and the Zapp Band in the same freaky set, I knew I was in the hands of a teacher who was unafraid of challenging listeners. And from there, when I heard Laibach and Schooly D and NoMeansNo and Laurie Anderson on Brave New Waves, I knew that I was home, that my generation’s music could help me cope in the world. Since then many friends continue to point me to music, while Internet shows like the great Doug Schulkind’s Give the Drummer Some continue to shock me with how much more there is to hear. It is to this mix that I now happily add The Longest Mixtape.  


ANDREW JOHNSON's criticism has appeared in Arc Poetry Magazine, Canadian Art, Border Crossings, Lola, and popmatters.