StrictlyCassette is best known as a tape label, but its elusiveness is strongly tied to the mystery shrouding the man behind it. I got to sit down with Mark Bijasa, whose transdisciplinary background and authentic approach allowed StrictlyCassette to develop the following and pursue the creative avenues it has now. StrictlyCassette was an organic development, sprouting from a raw passion for the cassette tape. A crew, rather than a company, and a creative agency, rather than a label, StrictlyCassette has exciting projects in the works that will take the brand even further by expanding its current catalog of limited-edition collectibles, taking on more collaborations, and branching into doing more art installations.
The cassette stuff is just the medium. I would say our chief export is creativity and the cassette is the canvas.
What is StrictlyCassette?
Strictly isn’t a label, it’s more like an art project, if you wanna call it that. And it started around 2010. I’m 42, so I grew up during the tape era. There was a point where I was just finding them and digging for them…then it became an obsession. But, I wanna say early on, like 2005ish, is when I really started getting serious about collecting. People were giving me collections because they were like, “Hey Mark, you’re into tapes, right? Here’s my collection.” So I was just accumulating all these tapes. Then, I wanna say 2010 is when blogs were really popular. So, I started the StrictlyCassette blogs. I was scanning cassette tapes, taking photos of them, and uploading them to the blog. It was just artwork you haven’t seen before, everyone was nostalgic about it, and it was exciting for younger folks who have never seen them before. So that’s just kind of how it started – it was just a blog in the beginning. We were doing interviews about the cassette era and what was different about it, or what they missed about it. So, we started to see this tape culture thing. It made me realize like, “Oh shit, there’s still a lot of people that still collect and are pretty serious about it.”
I mean early on, people were like, “Man you guys are blowing up the game!” Because in the beginning cassette prices were skyrocketing on eBay and there was just a fever pitch around that time to get your hands on all of these tapes. So, that was my beginning of, “This is a really cool art project I wanna get into more.” And then Lily Rockman from TIME Magazine actually reached out in, I think 2012, about an article she was doing on the 50th anniversary of the cassette tape. So, that helped push it even further outside of the rap tape collectors – it started to involve real tape people. I remember a lot of people were sour about that too. But I was like, we were actually bringing flavor to this shit. We were showing the dope tapes that were rare and also classic stuff. If you look at the early StrictlyCassette blog, you’ll see we were doing something different. It wasn’t on some nerdy shit, it was really the sound of Hip Hop. That early 90s, golden era sound that we were really into and obsessive about. We were finding the gems, posting them, and getting people excited.
At what inflection point did SC go from a blog to functioning more like a label?
Are you familiar with the show Breaking Bad? So, there’s this guy named Michael McKinney in Pasadena and he makes tapes. He has a company called M2 and actually has a cassette plant in his house and he’s been making tapes since the 80s, like bible tapes and shit.
And then we made our first tape maybe around 2013. There’s a group called Timeless Truth and my boy knew them and said, “Yo these guys are dope. They’re really into the tape life and wanna make a tape of their album.” So, I ended up helping them design, manufacture, and put it out. And that was our first jump into making tapes. It wasn’t like we were trying to be a label. We realized we can make these and people will actually buy them. That was the start of it. That was the first tape we made.
We realized we can make these and people will actually buy them. That was the start of it. That was the first tape we made.
Rewind, a cassette plant?
Yeah, like he has a cassette factory and shit in his home. This guy has all the old recorder machines and he makes tapes for Burger Records, which is probably the biggest tape label ever. And then he was making tapes for other labels like Stones Throw and all these other independent labels. But, I was one of the first to find this guy and start using him. I would google “cassette manufacturing” because there wasn’t a lot at the time. So, that’s how I found him. I bring up Breaking Bad because he was like Heisenberg, you know, he was the guy that was making the ill product, but he’s lowkey. And, at the time, no one wanted to expose where these tapes were getting made; it was just magical when tapes got made. So, around that time I started manufacturing for people. Then Fat Beats started a whole tape section and it started to grow from there. Then, I met my partner, Dominique Purdy, who is Koreatown Oddity. He reached out to me and we were just taking it to the next level by reaching into our network and bringing in people we knew. So, I would say StrictlyCassette is more like a creative agency in a way because we manufacture, design, shoot, and do music videos. But, the cassette stuff is just the medium. I would say our chief export is creativity and the cassette is the canvas. I was putting out albums that were dope, but never had a cassette before. Maybe they came out years ago, but never had a tape. So, that created a nice little lane for us to just make these tapes of classic albums that just never had a tape. So, I started making those. Sorry if I’m all over the place [laughs].
No, you’re good! This is actually great because one of the big drivers for why I wanted to do this interview is because I felt like, yeah, I wanted to get a good grasp of what StrictlyCassette really is. I was actually able to come across the blog with the different series, like the Collector’s Spotlight, the Tape Releases, Rewinding with _. It was cool for me to see that because the blog does a good job of hosting a space for there to be real camaraderie between the commenters, yourself, and the other writers. It was also through your blog I was also able to learn about the community, #TapeKingz.
Yeah, well #TapeKingz was early on. There’s also a #TapeKingzofNewYork and, I think it was in the early 90s, they had Tape Kingz mixtape guys. They were putting out mixtapes of all these famous DJs, like DJ Duwop, Tony Touch, and even DJ Premier. And Tape Kingz was this label that was just putting out stuff. They kind of went defunct, so we were just using it as a hashtag to resurrect it. But, later on this rapper named Apathy, who was a part of the original Tape Kingz, was like, “Hey I talked to, I don’t know, one of the original tape kingz, and y’all need to dead that hashtag.” They were getting aggressive so we were like, forget that then. We’re not even gonna rep that. So, then I start another hashtag called #Inthetapedeck. We were just trying to bring this tape culture back out and get people excited about it. I don’t really use the hashtag anymore; we just kind of evolved from it because we saw that when we started doing it that we influenced a lot of people. So, everytime we saw that like, oh this label is doing this, or whatever, we switched it and started going another direction.
What about tapes as a medium attracts you? I noticed in your blog posts that you tend to drift back to the word “magnetic.”
Yeah, the magnetic stuff is more about the texture. At the time, music was very clean and sterile. But, I like stuff a little bit distressed, crude, rough around the edges. So, that magnetic feel is about a sound that is more organic. You almost feel like you can reach in and touch the sound. And it’s kind of a head nod to the Ultramagnetic MCs, the NY group back in the day. So there’s all these references to that. The cassette thing, man. Growing up, people were like, “Yo I have that tape” or “I stole that tape.” Growing up, I didn’t have all those tapes. I would save my money and buy cassingles because I couldn’t have all the albums that everybody did. I always wanted to have a huge collection like this. I had a collection, but it wasn’t super impressive. For me to see later on like, “Oh shit I didn’t have that album, I had a dub of it.” Or, my homies let me borrow tapes and I recorded them – I didn’t have the actual insert and artwork and all that. So, that was one thing that attracted me to it. The other thing is, the way you consume music on a cassette tape is different. It’s a linear format, meaning you can’t skip around. For example, listening to a CD, you can go straight to track 7. With a tape, you just gotta hit play and let it rock. I remember we used to get to a point where you knew the tape so well, you knew exactly where to flip on the side to get to whatever song. So, it’s like you’re more connected to the music in a way because you know exactly where every song is and you ride out the album more. Nowadays, your album gets picked apart, it becomes part of a playlist, and it’s no longer about enjoying the album in its entirety whereas the tape forces you to do that.
The other thing is, the way you consume music on a cassette tape is different. It’s a linear format, meaning you can’t skip around.
I was gonna say, the tape experience is almost like a forced intimacy. In regards to digital, it’s hard not to just flit through different works. We’ve definitely lost the concept and beauty of a spiritual boredom, which I feel like my generation is a little envious of. Hence, the revival of camcorders, film, Y2k and 90s fashion…
It’s like having a meal and you’re only taking bites and then trying something else. Going from one dish to the next. But, the analog world forces you to eat that meal and digest it and just experience it the way it’s supposed to be experienced. And, the thing with SC is, we think about Side A and Side B. You don’t have that with digital. Thinking about things like, how is it gonna flow? How is it gonna transition? And the fact that it has gotta be divided equally. There are all these things to consider when making tapes. Public Enemy was creative in the way they named the sides of the tapes like, The Black Side vs. The Steel Side. When we did Jazzsoon’s tape, it was baseball themed, so there was the Home Side and then the Away Side. So, it’s cool, the limitation forces you to be creative.
Back then, how did you go about collecting your tapes? Was it the artwork that drew you to it? I’m wondering how you were able to discern what tapes you were gonna buy, especially since you’re saying you barely had the money for a tape you knew you were gonna like.
Well, the way it was, I knew all the music because I’ve been collecting records since the mid 90s. So, when it came to finding tapes, I was just trying to find these albums on tape. And it’d be like, “I didn’t even know that came out on tape!” There was the surprise element too like, “Oh shit did you know this album was on tape?”
So, the tape was a way to satisfy the collector’s bug in you. Did you ever use tapes to explore music rather than the other way around (using records)?
Yeah, well, it was a little bit of both. Because at the time, when we started StrictlyCassette, no one gave a shit about tapes. People were getting rid of them. So, when we were looking for stuff, we were buying whole collections from people and in this collection you’d know, hey this guy has a lot of flavor in this style of music, so whatever he has in there is gonna be dope. Then you’d have tapes in there where you’ve never heard of this group, but then you pop it in and you’re like, “Oh shit this is dope!”
I remember going to Adrian Younge’s store – the Art Form Studio used to be in Little Tokyo here in LA. My homie told me he had a bunch of tapes over there, so I remember going there and being like, oh shit there’s a lot of stuff here I’ve never seen before. But, there was a lot of classics, so let me grab the classics. And there’d be something next to it that I didn’t know what it was, so let me grab those too. So, I grabbed a bunch of tapes. And Adrian is so cool, I definitely want to salute him because when I went up to the desk to pay for it, he tells his wife they should knock half the price off just because he knew how passionate I was about tape culture.
So, I got all these tapes and I remember there was a bunch of artists that I’ve never heard of, one of them being Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard [laughs]. I’ve never heard of this guy, like, Pudgee Tha Phat Bastard? I put on a song and it’s a song called, “Checking Out the Avenue.” I was like, yo this shit is dope. It became one of my favorite songs and it was just because it was in this dude’s collection. It was like, yo if Adrian has it, then its gotta be dope. So, I popped it in and I was like, yo this shit is sick. I remember positing it on the gram and a bunch of people knew what it was. So, it’s like half discovery and half satisfying the collector’s bug. I think satisfying the collector’s itch became obsessive later on because it became like, oh shit I gotta have every Gangstarr album. Or, it became about finding the holy grail because there were some that were so hard to find, which is why I became cool on collecting because they take up a lot of space.
If you have the collector’s bug, you most likely don’t just collect one thing. Like if you’re into records, I’ve noticed those same people are also probably into figurines, sneakers, etc. So obviously you collect tapes and records-
I collect tapes, records, books, I just started getting into collecting film cameras…
Are the film cameras for actual shooting? Or are they more like just collectibles.
Yeah it’s for shooting. Other than StrictlyCassette, I’m a full-time designer – I’ve been designing for like 15 years. That was my main thing and what actually gave me the ability to do this StrictlyCassette thing because half of the things we’re doing involves graphic design. Then, eventually, photography became a necessity because we’re taking these images and I was like, man we gotta step it up. So, I got into photography and I’ve been shooting pretty seriously for the past four years now. But, it started with design, I got into photography, then I just directed a video for Stones Throw for Koreatown Oddity. It’s a song called “Aggro Crag.” I’ve done a few music videos for Stones Throw, I wanna say three now, so I’m all over the place. I’ll even send you my portfolio. You’ll be like oh shit you did the STIIIZY logo and yeah I just did all these things [laughs].
Then, there’s a brand called Fat Sal’s Deli in LA where I do all the branding for the restaurant. So, that’s why I say SC is my passionate art project that I do on the side. It wasn’t really like the main thing I did, it was more of a creative outlet.
So, that’s why I say SC is my passionate art project that I do on the side. It wasn’t really like the main thing I did, it was more of a creative outlet.
It’s still a project I’m still very passionate about and we’re doing a lot more stuff. We just did our first collab with Stones Throw, actually. That was a big accomplishment for me because I grew up buying records from that label. So, to have a tape with my logo on it is pretty cool, you know. I always count the little wins like oh we did this, and we did a tape with Taz Arnold.
A cool story about Taz Arnold. We did his tape because he’s good friends with Dominique and he was like, “Man I rock with you guys, I wanna put out my Rad America album.” So, we end up shooting him and his polo collection and then we put together the package. We tried to make it look like a fashion item with the hang tag and all that, just trying to get creative with it. And when we did the rollout campaign, Virgil Abloh commented on the thing, he put like stars or whatever. Then Taz hit me and was like, “Yo Virgil hit me and he wants a copy.” So I gave it to Taz and he was like, “You know what, you should mail it because it needs some care. I wouldn’t know how to handle it, I’d just put it in an envelope.” So, I got to send Virgil the tape! I have the screenshot of him commenting and everything because he was a big influence for me, in terms of design and all that. To know that he knew about this piece of art I made was like fucking cool.
Speaking of Virgil, he had this one interview where he spoke on being a transdisciplinary artist. You know, he’s primarily known for being a designer, but he’s also a DJ and architect. And what he was just saying is like, when you’re creative, all the different avenues of creativity just feed into each other. What’s next for SC?
One thing that we’re working on right now, we’re gonna do something kind of like a Frank mag! We want it to feel like one too and become that is very highly collectible. We have a lot of cool people in our network that we can just interview and do exclusive stuff with. And then we have our friends Chico-N-Esco, who are just big collectors of Hip Hop and cool ephemera type shit, like vintage gear and promotional stuff. We did a show with them recently, the Fat Beats Doobie Funk show. Fat Beats was closing so we dressed it up to look like Fat Beats in the 90s. And then we had Ralph M come in and do an in store. So, that’s the kind of stuff we want to lean into more, doing these pop up installations. We’re working with a gentleman called Shirt King Phade, who is an icon in Hip Hop culture. He airbrushed a lot of the shirts for like Jay-Z and Biz Markie and a bunch of other legends. So, we’re working with him to do an art installation soon. Then, we’ve got a few tapes coming out. Everything is always moving at once [laughs] then it’s like oh shit everything starts dropping. We’re quiet, but it’s because we’re working on shit. So there’s a lot coming in terms of stuff we wanna do and I have my own personal music things. I’ve been making beats since like ‘97 or something like that. That’s why Virgil inspires me so much because he’s the one that said, hey you don’t have to just be one thing. That’s why I don’t even call myself a designer anymore, I call myself a creative solutionist because I feel like it opens more doors vs if I say I’m a label guy or a graphic designer. It’s gonna limit my opportunities. Creative solutionist allows me to tell them the different things I do or can do or I want to do.
That’s why I don’t even call myself a designer anymore, I call myself a creative solutionist because I feel like it opens more doors vs if I say I’m a label guy or a graphic designer. It’s gonna limit my opportunities. Creative solutionist allows me to tell them the different things I do or can do or I want to do.
So I would say now we are more like a creative agency because now we’re working with different labels. I work full-time for Mass Appeal now and designed the Nas magic cassettes and the King’s Disease II, so I guess my work has got me further out there to just expand my own creative career. So, that’s where StrictlyCassette is now. We just recently did a collab with Grand Gallery. There’s a gentleman called Yasushi Ide who is a jazz musician. He loves what we do, so he hit me up and was like, “Hey man I want you to make my tape.” So, I ended up collaborating with him and a few of his designers and made his tape. But, he’s selling it exclusively in his store in Japan and he’s a huge tastemaker over there. So, right now we’re just raising our stock in terms of what we wanna do. Because we wanna work with some of the bigger names and eventually work with different artists that we are inspired by or people that are in line with what we’re doing. And just use our friends. Like if you look at our label and the stuff we’ve put out, those are our homies. People we run with. That’s kind of how we do stuff naturally and how we get our hands on more exclusive music. I remember some of the feedback we get is, “We love what you guys are doing because you put out a lot of original stuff.” And you don’t see a lot of art releases coming out or being available everywhere. We really wanted to keep it very limited and exclusive if you will. If you look at our tapes on Discogs, all of the prices of our tapes shoot up.
So, that’s what we do with the products we make. We want to keep it limited and special because if its available everywhere and you go to any record store and it’s there, it starts to appear more common. We wanted our stuff to feel special, you know, if you follow what we’re doing and you cop a product, you’re investing in yourself too. And it’s a piece of art. Some of these tapes are hand assembled by me and my girlfriend in our chinatown apartment. Thats why we have that Made in Chinatown thing and that’s the story behind it. So, we’re trying to be more creative as far as what we’re doing. You have to look at it as an art project and like we’re all contributing to this thing. So, we are mysterious in that way, where it’s like, what the fuck is going on. Are you guys a label? Or, what are you guys. A lot of times people can’t read us but that’s what we like.
So, we are mysterious in that way, where it’s like, what the fuck is going on. Are you guys a label? Or, what are you guys. A lot of times people can’t read us, but that’s what we like.
I like how you call it a crew rather than a company.
Yeah! Like the whole SC Tape Co. is kind of fictional, just a Willy Wonka type of thing. It’s not real. Even the 1 800 DUB TAPE. Like, we had a 800 hotline, but you can’t call it. It’s just a marketing Willa Wonka-type thing we were doing. We’re just a crew like we’ll invite the homies over and assemble tapes together. We all see it as this art project that we all have our hands in. I’m just kind of the guy that started it and then everybody was excited and stayed loving what I was doing so I was like join me, man, I could use some help over here or over there. So, I was getting people just to contribute to it and get involved. Then, fast forward to today and we’re still working on these cool projects that are still bubbling. Jazzsoon, who is from Brooklyn, is also my boy of 20-something years and he’s part of the crew. So, if you look at our thing, it says Los Angeles and New York because we got our fam in New York plus we’re highly inspired by the city.
All images courtesy of Mark Bijasa.