Good write-up on the history of pause tapes. Here’s an excerpt…
A good pause button and a vivid imagination were all young hip-hop enthusiasts needed to create something out of their sense of wonder. Using a boombox or stereo with dual cassette decks, aspiring DJs and producers would play and record a sample from another tape or record, pausing the tape once the sample had finished its rotation. They would then rewind to the beginning of the sample and un-pause the tape, starting the process again and extending the sampled loop for several minutes.
Although pause tapes used a different form of music media than early hip-hop DJs who relied on turntables and vinyl records, Miles Davis and Alicia Keys collaborator Easy Mo Bee believes 1970s block parties were instrumental in the genesis of early pause tapes. “The two turntables got us thinking and made us wonder,” he says. And this pioneering production technique came about well before early samplers like the Akai S-900 or E-mu SP-12 existed, something 32-year production veteran 45 King can attest to. Known for enduring classics like Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” “The 900 Number” and Eminem’s “Stan,” he remembers recording pause tapes as early as 1975 – four years prior to the first “official” rap record, “King Tim III (Personality Jock)” by Fatback Band. This foray into pause tapes started with a thoughtful gift from his dad, long before a vocation in music was even a thought in his mind. “It wasn’t a career,” he says. “It was my father bought me a radio that has a pause button on it. A Marantz Superscope, and it was one of those pause buttons when you clicked it – it made a click sound so it was on beat. It was a nice box with a good pause button.”
The pause button also helped artists create megamixes and DJ-style mixtapes, while those with more advanced set-ups used a 4-track recorder or an overdubbing feature on their cassette deck to layer loops. Layering wasn’t for the faint of heart, as it was extremely difficult to get samples to match in terms of tempo and tune, while repeated dubbing lead to tape hiss. But this didn’t deter Marley Marl collaborator and Redef Records artist K-Def, who made early pause tapes with a Lasonic boombox and graduated to loop compositions with a Tascam 4-track. “I was so good with the pauses that I would actually record three of the tracks and then bounce ’em over to one track,” he says. “And then I would start pause mixing again.”
K-Def believes pause-tapes helped inform much-needed skills like editing, time stretching and pitch shifting once he had access to proper samplers. “Most people now, they just want to make a beat, they don’t understand audio editing,” he says. “And that’s a very intricate part of hip-hop. If you don’t truncate your samples right and tight, the beat will sound sloppy. That came from pause buttons. You had to be on time with it.”
The endless examples of innovation and lessons taught by pause tapes seem to know no bounds. The late J Dilla is said to have taken apart and altered his tape deck so he could further extend samples. Meanwhile, Soul Council member and Grammy-nominated producer Khrysis taught himself how to filter basslines inspired by Pete Rock, Q-Tip and Wu-Tang by adjusting the tone knob on his boombox as a teenager in the mid-’90s. “Just keep going back and forth until I got a good little frequency,” he says. “I started getting fancy where it was like songs in the ’90s, you would have your high pass and low pass.”
In addition to serving as a training ground for many storied DJs and beatmakers, pause tape production played an important role in the first 15 years of recorded rap music. One of the earliest successful examples of a pause tape on record is the 1980 Bozo Meko Records release “Flash It To The Beat / Fusion Beats (Vol .2).” A bootleg party single that has seen many re-releases over the years, “Fusion Beats (Vol .2)” quickly became the in-demand song on the record at block parties and clubs due to the way it extended breaks from James Brown’s “Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved,” the Mohawks’ “The Champ” and Dyke and the Blazers “Let A Woman Be A Woman And A Man Be A Man.” According to the song’s creator, Afrika Islam, the entire track was composed on his cassette deck in his bedroom.
As pause looping thrived in and around New York City, it also took off all over the United States. Orlando DJ and bass music icon Magic Mike started making entire mixtapes of pause edits and mixes on his boombox in 1981. He worked his way into a radio DJ slot at age 13 on the strength of his demos, later earning a New York City club residency before his 18th birthday. Even Houston legend Pimp C of UGK, whose skills as a producer are often overlooked, mentioned making pause tapes in a 2007 interview with Red Bull Music Academy contributor Andrew Noz.
To think that people in New York City, Orlando, Port Arthur, Texas, and cities all over the United States were making pause tapes in the early ’80s unbeknownst to one another points to a form of collective consciousness taking place during the very early years of rap music and beyond. 2010 Red Bull Big Tune champion 14KT described the phenomenon beautifully in a 2015 Facebook post: “I thought I was a weirdo because I didn’t know anyone in Ypsilanti around me who made pause tapes like me when I was young. It was like I got chosen and summoned from aliens. Little did I know, it was an unspoken language across the world.”