“Did you get the tape I sent you?
I thought it was better in a song…”
– Prince, “One of Your Tears”
Almost four months later, and Prince’s passing still doesn’t feel real. We all know he’s gone, and how suddenly it all happened. The star that is coated in gold at First Avenue still beams brightly, and people who still pass by it will sit and stare for several minutes, photograph the star as a memory, and be on their way. Just as with any musician’s passing, the fact that his releases are still selling at an insane rate has made a lot of physical product hard to come by.
That said, tangibility in music doesn’t hold as much value as it once did. Prior to Prince’s untimely passing, I would see multiple used copies of Purple Rain at record stores I frequented — and you can be assured that I would purchase them and hand them to friends. The cover art alone stands as iconic and timeless. Not to mention, at a lean nine songs, someone is discovering the album’s genius every day — often making their purchases on Amazon, iTunes, or Tidal. For me, though, since I’m still riding in a car that is old enough to still have a tape deck and a CD player in tandem, I’ve been rediscovering Prince on cassette.
I know what you’re thinking. “What a hipster! Who still has a tape deck? Really? Why not just buy the CD?”
Listening to Prince on cassette teaches you a lot of important things. How many of us used to save up to buy a $40 Sony Walkman so we could ride our bikes around the neighborhood jamming to Sign O the Times? How many would save up allowance money to go straight to one of many music retailers to buy a cassette, and then beg mom and dad to play that tape in the car? That was me through and through: a kid who just appreciated knowing the minutiae of my favorite albums, reading every credit on the fold-out inserts, reading the thank-you notes over and over again, knowing every role from songwriter to executive producer.
Listening to Prince on cassette, or vinyl for that matter, teaches you about the importance of how the ending song on the A side transitioned over to the starting song on the B side. Cassettes are more compact and portable than LP, but the musical experience is comparable. Given vinyl’s limited capacity, cassettes also allow for the addition of bonus tracks from time to time. Prince treated the experience for both vinyl and cassette equally, putting the same rare b-sides on cassingles as on 45s.
Listening to Prince on tape — where skipping around is more complicated than clicking a track or lifting a needle — encourages you to appreciate Prince’s visions for his albums as split but cohesive experiences. Consider Purple Rain: the lust-laden, dramatic powerhouse ballad stylings of “Darling Nikki,” with its whimsical and haunting conclusion, lead to the primal and cold groove of one of Prince’s most iconic jams, “When Doves Cry.” Listening to Purple Rain as a unit is a lesson in the makings of a classic: how “Let’s Go Crazy” and “Take Me With You” went tit-for-tat in matching the energy and intensity of the one-two combo of “When Doves Cry” and “I Would Die 4 U.”
The A side of 1999, to consider another example, may fare better against the B side as a whole. The powerhouse trio that set off the A side with songs like “1999,” “Little Red Corvette,” and “Delirious,” almost would make that discussion no contest. Still, Prince created 1999 as an entire album, not just an A-side, and when you listen to the album on tape, you appreciate the importance of the transition from the end of side A to the opening of side B: the way the hypnotic and infectious synth line of “D.M.S.R” gives way to the B side’s nine-minute jam on “Automatic” is marvelous. Listening to it on cassette makes you appreciate that lengthy wait, in hopes of a great payoff.
There are plenty of other examples: how the A side of Parade: Under the Cherry Moon closed with the two-minute instrumental coda of “Venus De Milo,” and how that gave way to the B side’s introductory “Mountains.” Then there’s the way Around the World In a Day messes with your mind by closing out with “Tamborine” (almost sounding like “Trampoline”), making way for the many false vinyl starts of “America” — or how on Sign O The Times, the mid-tempo jam of “Forever In My Life” helped usher in the infectious “U Got the Look.”
The experience of listening to Prince on cassette taught a lot of people patience and the importance of tangibility in music, before digital listening took over. Many Prince cassettes are still readily available used — though Chaos & Disorder, The Gold Experience, and the massive three-cassette Emancipation all remain very pricey, if you’re a completist. The good news is that Prince, 1999, Purple Rain, and Dirty Mind have all been recently reissued on cassette, so have at it if you can’t find used versions.
Ali Elabbady, a.k.a. Egypto Knuckles, is a freelance music critic, physical media collector, and self-proclaimed taco aficionado. You can follow him on Twitter, or follow his physical media obsession on Instagram.