About a year ago, I put together a “Best of Pete Rock” iTunes playlist.
He has a 28-year catalog of consistent (and consistently dope) music, so I knew it would be quite the undertaking. I knew it would be especially tricky considering the Chocolate Boy Wonder has never been a mainstream name, and much of his oeuvre contains hard-to-find tracks for underground 1990s rappers whom I truly hope invested in a robust stock portfolio at some point in their career.
Further compounding the difficulty is the fact that he blessed so many remixes of tracks that didn’t make actual albums. In the ‘90s, many of those songs were only pressed up on 45s and cassette tapes as B-sides on maxi-singles. (I realize the last sentence probably reads like Swahili to anyone under 25.)
Those challenges made it quite difficult to find digital versions of Pete’s music; I had to visit download sites in seedy corners of the internet that required me to sprinkle a cocktail of penicillin and Plan-B pills across my keyboard. Even with that, I got a bunch of songs that sound like they were recorded underwater in the 1960s. Meanwhile, cats like my man Ed – who DJed when we were in college and has kept all the crates of records I used to help him carry to gigs – can still put his hands on the physical versions of many of these obscure tracks and listen to them in proper quality.
Pete Rock certainly isn’t the only artist with lots of music that will likely never wind up on streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music (and Pandora, for the seven of y’all who still fuck with it). I think about that every time someone talks trash to me about the fact that I still store the nearly 1,000 CDs I’ve collected over the last 22 years strategically throughout my crib like heroin money. Whenever I hear about people throwing away their CD collections to make “space,” I wonder what on God’s luscious Earth is more important for space than a well-built and still-playable music collection. If it were between a pet and my CDs, Kilo’s gotta go…and I love dogs.
Despite folks ringing their death knell for well over a decade now, CD sales are still hanging in there. Even though Best Buy and Target recently announced their plans to scale back or eliminate the medium, you’ve likely not seen the last of them. But there’s no denying that the tide has shifted away from physical – and even downloadable – media and toward streaming for years. Broadband internet is constantly improving, cable/satellite/wireless providers are bending us over a little more gently with data prices, and you can buy external hard drives that cost half a rack in Obama’s first term for under $100.
Many point to the aforementioned as reasons why physical discs are generally unnecessary these days, but I object for several reasons. First, a lot of the older music you bought from Sam Goody and Blockbuster Music back in the day will never make it to streaming services, thanks to licensing and ownership issues regarding masters. I own out-of-print CDs like Words from the Genius (GZA’s pre-Wu-Tang debut album) and Faces of Death (B.O.N.E. Enterpri$e’s only album before Eazy-E rechristened them Bone Thugs-n-Harmony) that are both highly unlikely to ever wind up on the streaming giants.
Even beloved mainstream acts that you expect to be on streaming services aren’t always there. Music from Prince just made it to Apple Music last year, and the masters of the Aaliyah’s albums that we actually care about are being held hostage by her stubborn, dusty-ass old uncle. (Aaliyah’s music is out of print, so a brand-new CD copy of One in a Million will hit you for at least $50 online). “Pain,” my all-time favorite 2Pac song, is not available on any of the streaming services, but I can put my hands on the 15 Years on Death Row: The Definitive Collection double CD with the cut on it.
Also, streaming is a generally compromised way to listen to music – something most people under the age of 30 don’t care much about but that grinds the gears of audiophiles like me. Your headphone jack-free iPhone 7 and Bluetooth Beats headphones will get the low-end-heavy point of “Bodak Yellow” across just fine, but if you care about the nuances of music with instrumentation, listening to uncompressed music on CDs and vinyl with quality, wired cans are the way to go.
That CD-quality sound is achieved via uncompressed audio files (FLAC, WMA Lossless) that are much larger than your average mp3, which is why most streaming services don’t bother; Tidal is the highest-profile service that offers FLAC streaming, for which it charges a premium. For what it’s worth, though, I’m not entirely sure that streaming music will continue its ascendancy: Too much money is being lost and I think it might be a bubble waiting to burst.
Finally, there’s something to be said for collecting music. The case, the cover art, the factory smell when you unwrap the package – it’s all part of the experience. It matters to me to have the liner notes to all of The Roots’ albums, which are full of Questlove’s hilarious writing. It’s cool to have well-crafted CD box sets like The Smashing Pumpkins’ The Aeroplane Flies High double as pieces of art in your crib. My most expensive “hobby” is having vinyl covers professionally framed, so I still regret selling my mama’s original vinyl pressings of Purple Rain and Songs in the Key of Life because my broke college ass probably just wanted a sandwich with cheese at the time. If music is art, reducing it to a few bytes on a hard drive somewhat diminishes that art. No one is hanging up iPads with images of Rembrandt paintings in their homes.
(By the way, I’m still pissed off at you for “losing” the original print CD of Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt when I loaned it to you, Olumba. I know you kept it for yourself, nigga. I’ll never forgive you).
I realize that I could digitize my whole CD collection and sell them off for what might cover my car note for a month. But while one corrupt Brazilian MILF fisting porn file could be the drop of oil in the water that inadvertently destroys a hard drive full of tens of thousands of songs, I’ll never lose or misplace that many discs for any reason short of a tragic fire. So, I think I’ll hang onto all those discs and keep finding interesting places to stash them, and you should as well. Next time you think about pitching it all, think about how my man Ed can break out several out-of-print vinyl records to play for his sons and daughter, and how much sexier that sounds than hitting the “play” button on a computer. If nothing else, you’ll give them more ammo to tease you for being out of touch.