Mixed Emotions: When CD Compilations Create "Feelings"

I recently received an e-mail from my nephew, Orlando, inviting me to join something called the "Mix of the Month" club. The correspondence detailed how 12 members of this group would each have an assigned month to create a mix CD to send to the others. Original, creative cover art was encouraged. I was assigned January 2014.

Before I finished reading the instructions, a memory rush sat me flat-assed in my recliner. I saw my young, nappy-headed self walking home from Dick Dowling Junior High, directly to the mailbox to see if the latest records from Columbia House had arrived.

Before the digital age, music lovers sometimes joined this mail-order club. Club members could choose albums and new releases were automatically shipped to their homes. Those automatic releases were the problem. Whether you wanted the new Allman Brothers record or not, there it was, in your mail, along with the Gemco credit bill and Weingarten's sales ad.

If you didn't care for the album, you had only to mail it back to avoid a charge. Simple, right? Except no one ever did and we collected a huge stack of records and a large debt to Columbia House. I don't know if my dad ever paid those folks, but we kept the albums. That's how I learned about George Benson, Steely Dan, and the late Lou Reed.

So, getting new music in 2013 via the real, go-to-the-mailbox-and-get-it mail, and all for free? Yes, sign me up, please, I told Orlando.

I'm enjoying my membership. So far, I've received two CDs. About half the music is entirely new to me, which is a pretty good percentage if your goal is to find new music. But, getting new music this way isn't the same as receiving it from a faceless mail-order distro. This isn't just about hearing new music, and that has caused some introspection I didn't anticipate.

The first CD mix was from Monica, one of Orlando's best friends and the club's founder. She recently moved from upper east Manhattan to Harlem. I only know her a little, but she's from Houston and has been there long enough to become a diehard New Yorker.

I expected songs like Beastie Boys' "An Open Letter to NYC" on her mix. I received a compilation titled The French Quarter, 20 songs celebrating her love for New Orleans. I'd preconceived what I might be getting and then wondered why I'd done that. It actually bothered me. After all, I only know her a little. But I was really distraught and disappointed in myself when I realized I was projecting my expectations on to her when it was her CD to mix and share.

I got past this self-shortcoming and settled into the mix's groove, which started the only way it could, with Fats Domino's "Walking to New Orleans." It simmered with Nevilles and Marsalises. Best finds were Los Hombres Calientes's "El Barrio" (think early-'70s War) and the perfect closer, "Didn't He Ramble," by Kermit Ruffins.

Why did a New Yorker by way of Houston mix a CD about N'awlins? I don't know and I'm not asking. I've realized it adds to the experience, so let it remain mysterious and enchanting as Marie Laveau.

Another thing -- I never "reviewed" the CD. I wasn't certain whether commentary was required or even welcomed. I felt bad for not doing so, but have since found a nice blog by NPR's All Songs Considered's Stephen Thompson suggesting a CD mix is a work of art. Saying what I especially liked or didn't care for might be like telling Picasso these angles are perfect but to maybe reconsider those. And, when it's my turn, he writes, better to "remember that you're giving a gift and not a homework assignment."

I'm also stressing over the cover art. I understand why it's important. That Lou Reed album we got from Columbia House was Rock N Roll Animal. Mom took one look at it and hid it away. Once I found it, I couldn't wait to get it on the turntable.

Later, as a high-schooler, I literally spent hours at Cactus just looking at album covers. From the covers alone, I picked some winners (Divinyls, The Cars' Candy-O) and some losers (Samantha Fox, Vanity 6 -- catching a theme there? Sorry, I was a young, hot-blooded boy.)

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Orlando sent his mix, Original Gangsta, in September. He grew up listening to lots of Snoop and 2Pac.

"I wanted to use my month to remind everyone that there was 'gangsta' music that was also good for the soul," he explained. Original Gangsta had two criteria -- the music had to be 'hard' and it had to be one of the best songs of its time, not just a gangsta-rap song that only people of that genre respected or liked, but a song that nearly every music lover recognized and respected on one level or another."

The CD art features the nebbish television character Steve Urkel in various states of gangsta mode. Perfect, because he's from my nephew's era. Orlando was a hardscrabble kid, but underneath it all he had an Urkel-like sensitivity. He never got in any terrible trouble, but it always felt like he might. Once, we paid for him and some neighborhood knuckleheads to play in the Hoop It Up 3-on-3 basketball tournament. He and his teammates were disqualified for fighting. They were all ten or 11-years old.

O.G., indeed.

Now, he's as far from that kid as can be. He lives a relatively peaceful existence in Vermont. He has a good job and does volunteer work with at-risk kids. But, two of the four kids who played that basketball tournament with him wound up in prisons. His CD mix reminded me of who he was, might have been, is now.

I'm proud of him and the choices he's made in life. So, even though "everybody's got to hear the shit on W-BALLZ," by the time Snoop started rapping on "Tha Shiznit," I was feeling a little melancholy. I know, not very gangsta.

The songs he chose created a perfect self-expression, like oils and clays create the intimacy of a painting or sculpture. I guess that's what a good CD mix is supposed to do. I'm trying to figure out how to do that by January.

Jesse's short fiction piece, "You, At the Beach," is featured in the 2013 issue of Huizache. If you've ever wondered whether your life is as interesting as an average 50-year-old's, follow him on Twitter.


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