Oct 22, 2021

Mixtape: Dakou

Through the 1980s, the vast majority of people in China had never heard western music, save for John Denver, the Carpenters, and a few other artists included on the hand-picked list of songs sanctioned by the Communist Party. But in the late 90s, a mysterious man named Professor Ye made a discovery at a plastic recycling center in Heping.

In episode 1 of Mixtape, we talk to Chinese historians, music critics, and the musicians who took the damaged plastic scraps of western music, changed the musical landscape of China, and reimagined rock and roll in ways we never could’ve imagined.

 

Mixtape is reported, produced, scored and sound designed by Simon Adler with original music throughout by Simon. Invaluable reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen. Additional reporting by Noriko Ishigaki, Rebecca Kanthor and our amazing anonymous Chinese reporter. 

 

Special thanks to: Paul de Gay, Juliette Kristensen, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Nick Lyons, Michael Bull, Jiro Ishikawa, Hayley Zhao, Megan Smalley and Deanne Totto.

This episode would not have happened without each and every one of them.

Support Radiolab by becoming a member today at Radiolab.org/donate  

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[RADIOLAB INTRO]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Akio Morita: Hello, I’m Akio Morita and I have been Sony’s chairman and chief executive officer for the last 10 years. Before handing you over to our narrator, I would like to offer human beings use or amuse acknowledges and it is in our mind and hearts that the future will be decided. And now here is our narrator, telling my story and that of tapes like this one.]

SIMON ADLER: I’m Simon Adler.

JAD ABUMRAD: And I’m Jad Abumrad. This is Radiolab.

SIMON: Truth be told, I don’t know if this is the way to start, but let’s just jump in, I guess.

JAD: Yeah, take her for a spin.

SIMON: Alright. So, I’ve got a short story for you about a piece of technology that we don’t think about much today, and how one morning it tore a small hole in the space time continuum.

JAD: Mmm.

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: According to the memoir... [speaking Japanese]

SIMON: This is Noriko Ishigaki.

SIMON: And who’s —memoir are you reading from there?

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: Yasuo Kuroki.

SIMON: Okay.

SIMON: She is an Japanese-English translator as well as a long time friend. And she says that on the morning of June 22, 1979 in Yoyogi Park…

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: One of the biggest parks in Tokyo, magazine reporters and editors are gathered.

SIMON: Maybe a dozen or so, alongside some—press people from the Sony Corporation.

JAD: Okay.

SIMON: And Sony has gathered this gaggle of journalists there to sort of unveil this new product for them.

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: Our product called Walkman.

SIMON: The Sony Walkman.

JAD: Oh, yes.

SIMON: Now these reporters had very little idea what exactly to expect or even what this Walkman was.

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: And the product leader carefully hands each reporter a Walkman.

SIMON: With a cassette in—inside it already.

JAD: Okay.

SIMON: Did you have a Walkman, Jad?

JAD: Oh my god, yes! It was blue, steel. None of this plastic shit.

SIMON: [laugh]

JAD: Yes, I remember the way you would put the cassette in and then click it shut and there was something about that tactile sound—yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah.

SIMON: Anyhow, so these reporters put on these orange headphones…

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: And then the event organizer says, “Please press the play button. One, two, three, go!”

SIMON: And…

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: Ooh.

SIMON: The sound blasting into their ears and…

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 1: [speaking Japanese]]

SIMON: This voice welcoming them...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 1: [speaking Japanese]]

SIMON: And the voice says to them…

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 1: [speaking Japanese]]

SIMON: Look out into the park.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 1: [speaking Japanese]]

SIMON: And they see that they are not the only ones listening to a Walkman. There are dozens of other folks with orange headphones on moving through the park. Kids are roller skates...

NORIKO ISHIGAKI: College students jogging, a woman exercising.

SIMON: People skateboarding, even a buddhist monk. Like the scene that you and I see everyday walking down the streets, you know, people in their own little world listening to whatever they want to…

JAD: Yeah.

SIMON: This is the first time anyone had ever seen that. 

JAD: Amazing. Amazing.

SIMON: And of course, if they took their headphones off, they rejoin our shared world hearing the din of the park and the city around them. But then when they put them back on, they’d be back in their own little world. Headphones off, collective reality. Headphones on, whatever personal reality, whatever mood they’ve chosen for themselves.

JAD: Oh my god.

SIMON: Totally, yeah. And maybe you can communicate this better than me because you’ve lived it, but like this was all so new. Like most of these people had probably never worn headphones before. They’ve never had stuff pumped directly into their ears. They’ve never listened to something outside before, short of transistor radio or maybe a boombox. And they’re now doing it altogether, but by themselves.

JAD: People don’t really understand what—a big deal the Walkman was. Like, remember when Steve Jobs did the iPhone and everybody’s like, “Oh my god, oh my god.”

SIMON: Yep, yep.

JAD: This was like that, times 1,000.

SIMON: You’d go that far?

JAD: No, really. To go from a world where you had to sit on your ass and listen to music in a specific place to suddenly you could walk, like literally walk and have the music playing just for you, thereby soundtracking your journey.

SIMON: [laugh]

JAD: You know? I was like, this is a movie and I am the protagonist. This is amazing. Like, it was—it was amazing.

SIMON: Well, as amazing and liberating as it was, it was also controversial. Almost immediately, folks were hollering that this personalized silo, intimate consumption of media was going to end communities, if not society as we knew it.

JAD: It’s like—the same conversations we’re having now about Twitter and Facebook.

SIMON: Oh yeah. And so, I don’t know, in more ways than one, I think what Sony unintentionally gave those reporters that morning was a glimpse into the future.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Akio Morita: I don’t know if it was good for the people or bad for the people, but at least we gave people some joy or enjoyment in music.]

SIMON: Now, I’ve spent the last year listening to, thinking about, and researching the object powering those Sony Walkmans—the cassette tape. And what I learned is that this object, this little piece of plastic changed the world. It brought down governments, collapsed space and time, and remade how we say those three simple words—I love you. So, for the next five weeks, I’ve got a mixtape of stories for you, a mixtape that will take us to China, Vietnam, South Sudan, Czechoslovakia, 1940s America, exploring this object’s impact and how, believe it or not—we’re still really living in a cassette world. I’m Simon Adler and this is Mixtape.

JAD: Okay, well Simon, why don’t you just take it from here? I’ll just excuse myself, go listen to my Walkman in the kitchen.

SIMON: Alright then, so—here we go.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 1: Hot licks!]   

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve: Hi, I’m Steve [Moo??]. And in this tape I’m going to pass on as much knowledge as possible about playing rock and roll.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 2: Blah blah blah ]      

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 3: As you see you feel more and more freedom, freedom…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 4: Let’s get started.]        

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve: Here it is.]                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

SIMON ADLER: We’re kicking it off in Hangzhou, China with this guy...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: This is Hao Fang. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Alongside our interpreter and, really, co-reporter in China, who for political reasons has asked to remain anonymous. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Anyhow these days, Hao Fang writes about music for a living. But he says, you know, back when he was a kid he had no idea that job even existed. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He was born in 1963 in this very small town called Qianjiang.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Very small...

CHINESE REPORTER: The kind of place where you walk for ten minutes and be on the outskirts already.

SIMON: Surrounded by mountains, lush countryside...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: And super isolated.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: I mean, the best source of reading material he had was at that time, people would use old newspaper as wallpaper.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Right, like you wanna make it look good.

SIMON: And so when Hao would go over to his neighbors’ houses...

CHINESE REPORTER: Dash to the wall and start reading [laugh] because there is so little...

SIMON: Wow.

CHINESE REPORTER: For him to read.

SIMON: But while Hao was hungry for any information about the outside world, his real love was—music.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Right. His mom worked in this art and dance troupe. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: An organization under China’s military, creating music and choreography. 

MABU: What we now refer to as red songs or yang ban xi, revolutionary operas.

SIMON: This is historian and scholar Mabu.

MABU: I’m a music fan, I also write about music.

SIMON: And he says these operas were really a tool of the government. 

MABU: I mean, of course, I didn’t live through that time, but they were propaganda.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Yang Ban Xi music]]

SIMON: I mean campy, over-the-top productions filled with dolled-up Chinese soldiers.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Really pretty girls, long legs...

SIMON: Determined peasants.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Corrupt businessmen. And in them, the peasants seem to always win and the capitalists got what they deserved. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: And I mean, Hao loved this stuff.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: I remember watching my mom sing, and I would join, it was simply something that made me happy. 

SIMON: But there was very little for him to listen to.

MABU: Because actually these revolutionary operas, they were the only officially sanctioned style of music. And nationwide therewere only eight that arethat people could listen to, so…

SIMON: There were only eight operas?! That was the off—

MABU: Yeah, yeah. Eight.

SIMON: Eight operas. Everything else was illegal. 

SIMON: Does that mean if I turned on the radio in China in, let’s say 1974, I would be hearing one of those operas being played?

MABU: The answer is yes, but then, back in those years, it’s not that common for a person to turn on the radio. It’s more about loudspeakers, which was, I guess, the most common way to listen to music.

SIMON: So you don’t even tune into them, they’re blasted to you through loudspeakers?

MABU: Mm-hmm.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER:  It might sound unbelievable to you, but that’s how it was back then.

SIMON: And for Hao, it pretty much stayed that way for years. And years, and years. But then—a decade or so later...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: So, the year is 1948...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Wait, wait. 1984?

CHINESE REPORTER: Sorry. What did I say? ‘48. Oh god. [laugh]

SIMON: [laugh] It’s fine.

CHINESE REPORTER: This is what happens when you work a 10 hour day. 

SIMON: Totally. Absolutely fine. 

CHINESE REPORTER: Sorry, let me rewind. So, yeah, the year was 1984...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Hao just graduated from college, and he went to Wuhan. Wuhan, thewhere the virus started. 

SIMON: During the day, Hao would venture out into Wuhan to explore his new home.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: So, he was just like wandering the city looking for stuff to do with his roommates.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: And they just happen to stumble across this theater-like place.

SIMON: A little hole-in-the-wall showing bootleg movies with a curtain for a door. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He opened the curtain and walked in and…

SIMON: There were a dozen or so people there, small illuminated screen up at the front. He had to sort of squint through all of the cigarette smoke—to really make out the screen. 

CHINESE REPORTER: But the first thing he noticed was the smell.

SIMON: And not just from the cigarettes.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: People’s…

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Oily hair. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Feet. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Ooh.

CHINESE REPORTER: [laugh] Sorry. [laugh] You told me to describe as vividly as I could. [laugh]

SIMON: [laugh] Ah, yeah, you did it. Yep.

SIMON: Anyhow, the movie they were showing was….

HAO FANG: Bah bah bah bah bah bah...

SIMON: An illegal bootleg copy of Apocalypse Now. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: And he’d never seen anything like it. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Apocalypse Now Speaker 5: I think I see a vehicle down in the courtyard…]
SIMON: The realism. The violence. The explosive budget. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Apocalypse Now Speaker 6: Well done, Hawks. Well done.]

SIMON: But what hit him hardest was not those smells or those images on the screen. But what was coming out of the speakers. 

HAO FANG: The Doors.

CHINESE REPORTER: Classic scene in the movie where…

HAO FANG: The End [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: The Doors’ “The End” was played.

[The Doors’ The End song playing]

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] Jim Morrison.

CHINESE REPORTER: Morrison started to sing…

HAO FANG: This is the end, beautiful friend. [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He remembers being frozen. He had goosebumps all over him. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: It was like magic. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: And so yeah, Hao was just totally—touched by the—music.

SIMON: He’d never heard such a simple and powerful arrangement. Basically, never heard a song about death. Never imagined music could be so emotionally complicated and layered.  

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: I think it’s just...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Love at the first sight, really. 

SIMON: And he needed more of it. But...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: There was nothing. Nothing at all.

SIMON: I mean, China was opening up a bit at the time, letting some western music in. But there was an actual committee that would hand pick which songs and what they were letting in, like John Denver, the Carpenters...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Yeah. Very limited songs. Only really, really popular stuff.

SIMON: It was pretty harmless. And as for more complicated, subversive music coming out of the west at the time—like no one had legal access to it. But there was a group of people in China who, like Hao, had gotten, at least, a little taste of that larger musical world.

SIMON: University Students.

KAISER KUO: Right, right, right. Students at the university. They were some of the few people who had connections to the foreign community. 

SIMON: This is Kaiser Kuo.

KAISER KUO: I am a podcaster. I run the Sinica Podcast on SupChina.

SIMON: He’s also a musician, was born to Chinese immigrant parents and came of age in Tucson, Arizona. 

KAISER KUO: Which is why I talk the way I do. Everyone thinks I sound like I’m from Southern California or something, but it’sthe Tuscan in me.

SIMON: And he was living and studying in China in the late 80s, and he says exchange students like him, English teachers were giving some of this music to these students and they were beginning to express themselves through it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: The question of the day, are events in China out of control? For the second day in a row, a million demonstrators have filled the streets of Beijing and there have been demonstrations for democracy...]

KAISER KUO: You know, the ‘89 protests started happening.

SIMON: The Tiananmen Square protests.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [protest chanting]]

SIMON: Kaiser actually attended these protests.

KAISER KUO: And so, you know, students had taken over the entire center of the city. 

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Protester: It’s very important to let the people in the world know the situation in china.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [protest chanting]]

SIMON: These students in Beijing were demanding democracy, freedom of expression, freedom of access to the outside world. But also Kaiser told me they were doing this thing that didn’t get talked about much. He said that right there in the heart of the demonstrations...

KAISER KUO: People would just sort of set up stacks of PA and then they’d have, you know, all the bands at the time, just playing, you know, long into the night.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [music performed at the Tiananmen Square protest]]

KAISER KUO: And, you know, people were in the mood to party.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [music performed at the Tiananmen Square protest]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: In the history of communist China, there has never been anything like this.]

SIMON: This is a version of the protest that I haven’t heard. We only ever hear about or talk about sort of the end of them, I suppose.

KAISER KUO: Right, right. We don’t talk about the seven weeks of just love and anarchy. It was wonderful. [laugh]. Some of the happiest days I could remember.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [music performed at the Tiananmen Square protest]]

SIMON: Peace, love, rock and roll, and yes, John Denver’s “Country Road.”

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Protest Performer: Country road, take me home to the place I belong...]

SIMON: But then, on the morning of June 7th...

KAISER KUO: I turned the television on 

SIMON: Kaiser had left Beijing and was several days behind the news...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]]

KAISER KUO: The very first image I see is of a—the charred body of a cop or soldier hanging from a bridge.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]]

SIMON: The protests turned violent.

KAISER KUO: Because they only showed, you know, the violence—that had been perpetrated on, you know, on the military or law enforcement. And there was some, of course, but…

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [shooting and shouting]]

KAISER KUO: They didn’t show all the students or the workers who had been shot.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: Killings in and around Tiananmen Square...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: As the army units approached, they were firing into side streets, killing and injuring scores of unarmed men, women, and children.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: “The bicycle rickshaw scooped up the engine. The air was filled with shouts of “stop killing”. Their own army was firing wildly at them. “Tell the world”, they said to us.”]

SIMON: The number of killed is not well known, but estimates put it at—least, a 100.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: The Chinese Red Cross says at least 2,600 people were killed.]

SIMON: Some going up to as many as 3,000.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, News Anchor: “The students claimed thousands of others were wounded.”]

SIMON: Wow.

KAISER KUO: Yeah, yeah. It was really remarkable. Crazy. 

SIMON: Now the chilling effect Tiananmen had on China really can’t be overstated. And music got caught up in this too.

WENHUA SHI: Of course, after the crackdown, just immediately you really cannot listen to popular music from United States or England.

SIMON: This is Wenhua Shi.

WENHUA SHI: I'm from—originally from China.

SIMON: He was willing to talk to us about this because today he lives in Boston, where he teaches at the University of Massachusetts.

WENHUA SHI: During the crackdown—I was quite young, how do you say, then ninth grade? But I remember so vividly listening to shortwave radio.

SIMON: Mostly Voice of America.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [VOA theme song]]

WENHUA SHI: VOA, learning English and then...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, VOA Host: Hi, this is VOA music mix. Strap in our seat belts ...]

WENHUA SHI: Listen to some, like, popular songs. But...

SIMON: After Tiananmen...

WENHUA SHI: Suddenly, those are being removed. They produce noise to jam that signal. So, we cannot hear anymore. It’s impossible. So, you feel the air is really exhausted because—no outside possibilities.

SIMON: But just a few short years later, the outside came flooding in. In pretty much the most unexpected way I can think of.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Somewhere in the early 90s—it was Spring.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

CHINESE REPORTER: Somewhere in Wuhan or Xi’an.

SIMON: Again, music critic Hao Fang.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He was on a business trip and he was meeting a friend. But the friend wasn’t there and he was early and he heard some rock music being played.

SIMON: He’s like, where is that coming from? 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: So, he just followed the music...

SIMON: Down the street and around the corner…

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: And he saw this store and pretty much a hole in the wall.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He stepped in and he was just caught off guard completely.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: It was a store filled with tapes.

SIMON: More than he’d ever seen in his life.

CHINESE REPORTER: Yeah, wall to wall cassettes, hundreds.

SIMON: [laugh]

CHINESE REPORTER: Hundreds and hundreds of tapes.

SIMON: And he’s like “What the hell is this place?”

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He would be like turning around and there’s Jefferson Airplane.

HAO FANG: And Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley...

CHINESE REPORTER: Turns around and there’s, like Bob Dylan.

HAO FANG: Simon and Garfunkel. [Speaking in Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: And then he turns around and there’s Yes band and really niche ones.

SIMON: Like is this for real?

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: It was everything you ever dreamed of…

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: In that tiny store.

SIMON: And it was cheap.

CHINESE REPORTER: So, he thought this is his only chance to own these tapes and so yeah, he grabbed all these albums. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: As many as he could carry.

CHINESE REPORTER: This big plastic bag with like 20 something tapes.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: He checked out and he began inspecting his treasures.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: One by one, he started, like, examining them.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER:  Analyzing and comparing. 

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: And he saw that each of them had been cut through the jewel case and into the bottom of the cassette.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: The cut was about the width of a quarter and an inch or so deep. CHINESE REPORTER: And he was wondering, you know like, why is there some marks on these tapes? Or, you know, what happened to them? And I mean, he didn’t know but he was encountering dakou. 

MABU: Dakou

HAO FANG: Dakou

KAISER KUO: Dakou cassettes. 

WENHUA SHI: Dakou.

CHINESE REPORTER: Dakou tapes. 

HAO FANG: Dakou [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: He didn’t know where they came from, he didn’t know there’s gonna be more access to dakou…

HAO FANG: Dakou [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: And he didn't know it was going to be a national scene. 

SIMON: He didn’t know these dakou tapes were about to change how he and millions of others in China thought about music. All he Hao knew at the time was that he wanted more. We’ll get to that right after a quick break.

[RONIA: This is Ronia from Sylvania, Michigan. Mixtape, a special series from Radiolab is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simon Science Foundation initiative, the Shanahan Family Charitable Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 7 : This concludes side one. Turn your cassette over to begin side two…]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve: Another way you can improve playing rock and roll—is absorb as much outside knowledge and information as you can, even if it's a simple kind of thing like...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Pop music playing.]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve: Or ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP: [Metal music playing]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Steve: Very undesirable noises or something more easy to listen to or whatever. You know, because we're going to cut them all up and combine them. Just make up a little thing.]

SIMON: I’m Simon Adler, this is Mixtape. Before we went to break, after decades of communist party operas, sprinkled only with the occasional John Denver song, Hao Fang had stumbled upon a trove of cassettes filled with music that neither he nor, pretty much, anyone else in China had ever had a chance to hear before. And the thing is, he wasn’t alone.

WENHUA SHI: I mean rows and rows and rows of tapes.

SIMON: This again is Wenhua Shi, who’d also encountered one of these stores.

WENHUA SHI: You see Bob Dylan and then you see, no, this is not just one Bob Dylan, that’s ten Bob Dylans. Woah. This is crazy.

SIMON: And where—were they coming from?

WENHUA SHI: At that time, nobody knows.

MABU: Well I mean, I’ve been trying to confirm that—very origin of that very first person who discovered dakou.

SIMON: Again, historian Mabu.

MABU: And people have been, you know, telling me about this person who they call Professor Ye.

SIMON: Professor Ye?

MABU: Yeah. So, Ye Lao Shi. Ye.

SIMON: Ye Lao Shi? Yes, okay. Yes.

MABU: [laughs] Ye Lao. Oh my God. Even you—you heard of this guy, Ye Lao Shi.

SIMON: And while we couldn't 100 percent confirm that he was the first guy, he was certainly one of the first.

MABU: So, this is, I guess, the most common version of the story, so Ye Lao Shi, he used to be a professor or at least a lecturer at the Shantou  University located in Southeast China and in the early 1990s...

SIMON: Professor Ye took a trip to this nearby town of Heping.

MABU: Tiny, tiny sort of village in a way, you know?

SIMON: Maybe to do some research, maybe on vacation.

MABU: I don’t know why exactly, but somehow he was there.

SIMON: And he got a tip that he should go check out this giant warehouse. It was actually a recycling center.

MABU: What we call liu cheng.

SIMON: At that time, China was buying up and importing much of the world's recycling. And this town and warehouse was processing all of the plastics. And looking around at all this plastic waiting to be ground up into little, tiny pellets, he realized...

MABU: He was standing in a mountain of cassette tapes.

SIMON: I mean, to the left of him, a pile 5 feet high. To the right, a mound of them 10 feet high. There were thousands and thousands of cassettes, each with a cut into it.

MABU: I mean, of course he would be astonished. Imagining what kind of sounds are in there, thinking, "Who is this band? Who is this singer?" And he would be dying to hear the music in it. Yeah. The point is that those cassettes came in as plastic scrap and they came in tons.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: That warehouse made my jaw drop for the sheer number of cassettes in there.

SIMON: This again is Hao Fang, who years later took his own trip to Heping to see it.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: You couldn't possibly count how many cassettes there were.

MABU: Millions and millions of tapes, yeah.

SIMON: Ballpark estimates Mabu gave me, put it somewhere between 45 and 150 million of them each year.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: I’m ready

SPEAKER 8: So, Simon will give you a ring here in a minute

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: So, I’ll hear him coming through the phone, but I’m talking into the microphone, right?

SPEAKER 8: That’s exactly right

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: Alright.

SIMON: Now, to figure out the origin of these millions and millions of garbage cassettes.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: Hello

SIMON: I gave this guy a call.

SIMON: Hello, is this Bill?

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: Yes, it is.

SIMON: Hey, Bill. Simon here from Radiolab, how are you?

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: I’m good Simon, how are you?

SIMON: This is Bill Knoedelseder.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: I covered the recording industry from 1982-1989.

SIMON: And he says, back here in the US, the late 80s and early 90s, were just a period of decadence in the music industry.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: Oh yeah, oh my god. The record companies were the cash cows. If you were Warner Brothers, your record company was making more money and was more profitable than your—movie division.

SIMON: They were flush with bands selling millions and millions of records like REM.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 9: Went out to sell more than 3 million copies...]

SIMON: U2.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 10: The Joshua Tree selling well over 4 million copies.]

SIMON: Nirvana, Bon Jovi...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Speaker 11: Slippery When Wet sold over 12 million copies world wide.]

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: So, the money was enormous.

SIMON: And so record execs were making big bets, producing millions and millions of copies of just about everything they were releasing. Everything from Madonna to, I don’t know, probably even the animated rapping character MC Skat Kat.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, MC SKAT KAT: Coming out strong, whenever there’s action, that’s where you’ll find me, Skat Kat’s the name in the 1990s!]

SIMON: I mean, they were producing so many that even a hit record often left hundreds of thousands of unsold copies, let alone a flop like MC Skat Kat. And so, what did they do with this surplus?

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: They wanted to get rid of it. Okay? And so what they would do is they would sell them in bulk for pennies apiece to a network of buyers and resellers.

SIMON: First, they’d end up in record stores, labelled as cut outs...

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: You know a discontinued record is called a cut out, because they’ve cut it out of their active sales category.

SIMON: If they didn't sell there, someone would buy them in bulk for pennies on the dollar again, try to sell them somewhere else.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: Truck stops, car washes, drugstores and whatever else.

SIMON: And finally if nobody wanted these cassettes...

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: They’d send it out to be destroyed.

SIMON: The standard way they did this was to run a saw blade through them, cutting about an inch deep into the cassette itself, leaving a gash in the plastic and a break in the magnetic tape. And from there, unbeknownst even to Bill...

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: It’s getting there in garbage? In like big—fucking barges of trash, is that what you’re saying?

SIMON: Exac—barge, yes, scrap barges.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: Wow.

SIMON: These cut up cut outs were thrown into shipping containers and sent to China, where Professor Ye found them as these mountains of scrap.

BILL KNOEDELSEDER: I—take heart from this, the music will get to the people no matter what! [laugh] You know?

SIMON: However, for this music to get to the people of China, these cassettes needed to be repaired. Which is what Professor Ye tried to do.

SIMON: Here's what we're gonna do. Bring the tools out here.

ELI COHEN: Okay.

SIMON: His theory was, essentially…

KAISER KUO: Even if the mechanism was damaged, you can take the tape out.

SIMON: Again, Kaiser Kuo.

KAISER KUO: Splice it and rewind it onto a new cassette body.

SIMON: It wasn’t going to be easy. In fact it was going to be a royal pain in the ass. 

ELI COHEN: Okay. Here we go.

SIMON: But after sawing a John Denver cassette in half…

SIMON: [laugh] Oh yeah, you went right through. You can see we got the tape itself is split.

ELI COHEN: Oh yeah.

SIMON: My AP and really co-pilot on this series, Eli Cohen and I also set out to see if we could do this. So, first thing's first... 

SIMON: We're going to have to destroy it further in order to bring it back to life. 

SIMON: We had to get the John Denver tape outside of its broken cassette shell. Smashing it with a hammer...

[smashing sounds]

SIMON: Now we've got some breakage and now it's quite like the experience of cracking open a crab leg or something. There we go.

ELI COHEN: [laughs]

SIMON: [laughs]

SIMON: With the John Denver tape out of its cassette...

ELI COHEN: We've got screws.

SIMON: Eli opened up the cassette we'd be transplanting John Denver into.

SIMON: And we taped the John Denver tape onto the new reel of tape.

ELI COHEN: Yeah.

SIMON: Snipped off the excess.

SIMON: Looks beautiful.

ELI COHEN: Oh, fuck!

SIMON: Struggled a bit.

ELI COHEN: Dammit!

SIMON: Okay.

SIMON: Eventually succeeded.

SIMON: Okay. It's time to sew the patient back up.

SIMON: And screwed the new cassette back together.

SIMON: It looks functional!

ELI COHEN: Yeah. I don't see why it shouldn't play at this point.

SIMON: And so we popped it into my tape player.

SIMON: Big money, no whammies.

[buzzing sound]

ELI COHEN: It doesn't want to move.

SIMON: Didn't work.

SIMON: Doesn't

ELI COHEN: No!

SIMON: Wait, hold on. Hold on.

SIMON: We took the tape out and tried to wind it forward manually a bit. Put it back in. 

ELI COHEN: No…

SIMON: Still nothing.

ELI COHEN: Doctor, can you diagnose the patient here?

SIMON: It—the host seems to be rejecting its new organ. I think the problem is the Scotch tape.

SIMON: And so, giving it one more shot, we manually wound a bunch of tape from the left reel onto the right reel.

SIMON: So, we're losing the first song, basically. It might be okay.

ELI COHEN: All right. Let's try again.

SIMON: And...

[John Denver’s Sunshine on my Shoulders song playing]

ELI COHEN: Whoo! 

SIMON: We did it!

SIMON: Now, this tedious, painstaking repairing process, Professor Ye and others began doing it on a massive scale. Hiring folks to do the labor and distribute these tapes across the entire country. And he or someone like him eventually gave these things a name...

MABU: Dakou.

SIMON: Dakou, which just so happens to translate to...

MABU: Cut out. We somehow also invented this term.

SIMON: And they spread like wildfire.

KAISER KUO: I left China after ‘89. There weren’t dakou at that point and I came back in ‘91 and ‘92 and they were everywhere.

MABU: Even in cities that are not that big.

SIMON: Far-flung places like Ürümqi in Xinjiang, Dali in Yunnan.

WENHUA SHI: Outside of my home, there was a flower shop and the flower shop was selling dakou. That’s how crazy it is.

MABU: And they were affordable for Chinese consumers to buy.

SIMON: And there were so many of these things that the Chinese government really just had to throw up their hands. And so, folks all across China got to have their own little Apocalypse Now, This is the End moment. And for Hao Fang...

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Dakou was there when he needed it the most. The diversity dakou was able to provide him totally altered his life course.

SIMON: He says without them, he definitely would not have become a music critic.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: And—so what he felt about dakou, if you have to summarize in one word is—gratitude.

HAO FANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

CHINESE REPORTER: Without dakou, he would not be him today. And Hao Fang thinks all these artists, many of them would not be them either.

SIMON Because these unregulatable garbage cassettes sparked a musical explosion. And totally reimagined what rock and roll was.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: This is Li Yang.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Today, he's a musician with tattooed sleeves crawling up each arm. And these dakou tapes are what inspired him and countless others to form bands in the first place.

SIMON: Do we know the name of his first band?

REBECCA KANTHOR: I'm not sure he told me that.

SIMON: You know, everybody's embarrassed by the name of their first band, so he probably didn't want to tell you the name of it. [laughs]

REBECCA KANTHOR: Or he kept on saying...

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

REBECCA KANTHOR: I can't remember because of the life I've lived. That's all I can remember.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

REBECCA KANTHOR: So, you know, I can only imagine.

SIMON: And that's Rebecca Kanthor.

REBECCA KANTHOR: Journalist in Shanghai.

SIMON: Who helped facilitate and conduct our interview with him. Anyhow...

LI YANG: Come as you are as your friend as your… [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: One of the 1st bands Li Yang heard was Nirvana. And he loved it. He wanted to hear more stuff like it, but he didn’t even know what genre to be looking for. 

LI YANG: Mmm..

REBECCA KANTHOR: No. No idea.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: In fact, he wasn't even aware there were genres.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

REBECCA KANTHOR: There was western music...

SIMON: Uh-huh.

REBECCA KANTHOR: And there was the music that everyone was listening to in China. Those were the two genres. Because... 

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

REBECCA KANTHOR: Nobody was there to teach us this is metal, this is punk, this is grunge, this is garage, this is emo. 

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

REBECCA KANTHOR: We were just not clear on this in the beginning.

SIMON: I mean, all Li Yang had was the recording, nothing else. And so he was listening to all of this stuff…

KAISER KUO: With no context.

SIMON: Again, Kaiser Kuo.

KAISER KUO: No understanding of, you know, what this particular album is in the history of rock.

SIMON: No sense that The Beatles came before AC/DC. Or that AC/DC came before Nirvana. There certainly was no sense of what was quote-unquote, "good."

MABU: So, for example, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, a lot of people complained about their sound, they're just, you know, very common sounds.

SIMON: Wait, wait, wait. People thought Bob Dylan and The Beatles were underwhelming?

MABU: [laughs] Yeah.

SIMON: And in their place, what folks were drawn to was…

KAISER KUO: God, there were so many, so many obscure bands.

SIMON: For example ...

[Sonata Arctica song playing]

KAISER KUO: This really obscure Finnish symphonic metal band.

SIMON: Called Sonata Arctica.

[Sonata Arctica song playing]

KAISER KUO: There were a lot of them that were like that. 

[Stratovarius song playing]

KAISER KUO: Stratovarius, get it? 

[Stratovarius song playing]

KAISER KUO: I think, also from Finland. Finland was overrepresented here, but…

[Cannibal Corpse song playing]

KAISER KUO: Cannibal Corpse. 

[Cannibal Corpse song playing]

KAISER KUO: They’re a Flordian death metal band. They’re big. 

SIMON: Sort of. 

KAISER KUO: But I started seeing their cassettes all over in China.

SIMON: And for Kaiser, this is all sort of horrifying.

KAISER KUO: You know, I would say, for example, you got to start with The Beatles and The Stones and The Who, you can’t skip because Nirvana doesn't make sense unless you understand what it was in reaction to.

SIMON: Well, and I totally get that. Like, I studied jazz saxophone for 10 years.

KAISER KUO: Really?

SIMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And that is all about knowing exactly what came before what.

KAISER KUO: Right, right.

SIMON: And knowing who played what lick when, and quoting those licks in your solos to demonstrate a knowledge or an understanding of the form.

KAISER KUO: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: So I don't know. Like, there is value in understanding something in its context.

KAISER KUO: Oh, for sure, yeah.

SIMON: However, Kaiser says...

KAISER KUO: I mean, I kick myself now for having ever done this, sort of, School of Rock teaching.

SIMON: Hmm.

SIMON: Because, he says, of what happened next. Mid-2000s, Kaiser's at a music festival in China and who does he run into but... 

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

SIMON: Li Yang and the band he’s fronting.

KAISER KUO: Called Demerit.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese]

KAISER KUO: I see these guys. They show up to sound check and they've got gigantic mohawks, denim jackets and the spikes on them, Chuck Taylors.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] Sex Pistols, Ramones [speaking Mandarin Chinese].

SIMON: They're dressed like a punk band. Which is what Li Yang was going for. He says in hindsight, the stuff he was listening to was...

LI YANG: Hardcore punk. [speaking Mandarin Chinese] Punk rock. 

SIMON: But Kaiser notices that under this punk exterior...

KAISER KUO: They're wearing Iron Maiden t-shirts. I think that's ironic, right? They're kind of making fun of Iron Maiden. Ha ha. That's very funny.

SIMON: Because Iron Maiden is one of the classic heavy metal bands that plays these crazily technical songs with intricate guitar solos. Like, punk and metal is just a total musical mismatch. But then, later that day when it was Demerit’s slot to perform. 

[Demerit song playing]

KAISER KUO: They get up and they start playing their songs. And they're like a, you know, punk, major chords.

SIMON: Exactly what Kaiser expected from a punk band.

KAISER KUO: Kind of brash, bratty vocals.

SIMON: But then part way through the song...

KAISER KUO: They bust into these dual guitar solos where they're—you know, they're shredding in tight harmony.

[Demerit song playing]

SIMON: It's this chimera of 70’s US punk and 80’s British metal.

KAISER KUO: And it's like, whoa! 

[Demerit song playing]

KAISER KUO: I thought in America, there's no punk band that would bother to, you know, apply that much technique and a metal band that would have been okay with that aesthetic, but it was great. It was like, this is a music I could really get into. And—and so I talked to them, I'm asking, “So aren't you guys punk?" 

SIMON: Like, how do you think about these genres that you’re blending together?

KAISER KUO: And so...

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

KAISER KUO: They said, "We don't really care about that."

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: There was something freeing that he didn't—he didn't know what it all was and so he...

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: He didn't have any rules. He could just make stuff.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: Make music, mixing everything together.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: The way that he wanted to.

SIMON: He was able to make music liberated from its own history, its own expectations. And all across China, other musicians were doing this same thing. Obliviously mixing rock with bebop with outlaw country with classical.

KAISER KUO: It was such an odd, completely disembodied borrowing. It was free of context. Free of obligation. It was like taking a plant away from its soil, dusting off any residue of the old soil and putting it in this totally different soil with a different pH level, different level of the amount of sunlight. It's going to grow differently and it did.

SIMON: It's sort of the mixtape—on the grandest of scales.

KAISER KUO: Exactly. Exactly. And the impact that it had on that generation was just utterly profound.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: For him, the biggest impact of dakou cassettes was not music, it was about him finding a new way to think about the world.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: Maybe he didn't know he was searching for it, but when he heard it, he was like, "Oh!"

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: "Yeah, that's me!"

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: So, dakou, it was just like a little window.

LI YANG: [speaking Mandarin Chinese] 

REBECCA KANTHOR: And then—pew! Everything came rushing in.

SIMON: Now, what strikes me about all this, more than anything, is that we’re all sort of living in this world now. From spotify playlists that span eras and genres to the scatter shot of news we consume and then weave into our own understanding of what’s happened. I mean our tastes, our beliefs, our realities are a collage. A mixtape of decontextualized and then recontextualized snippets. Next week, we’re leaving China and going back to the moment this remixed existence began. We’ve got the story of the first splice in our reality and the two men, one you definitely know, and one you most definitely don’t, who made it happen.

SIMON: Mixtape is reported, produced, scored and sounded by me, Simon Adler, with original music throughout by me. Invaluable reporting and production assistance was provided by Eli Cohen. This episode also included original reporting from Noriko Ishigaki, Rebecca Kanthor and our amazing anonymous Chinese reporter. I’d like to take a moment to give thanks to Paul de Gay, Juliette Kristensen, Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, Nick Lyons, Michael Bull, Jiro Ishikawa, Hayley Zhao, Megan Smalley and Deanne Totto. This episode would not have come together without each and every one of them. We’ve got another tape for you next week.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer, and Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Tanya Chawla, Shima Oliaee, and Sarah Sandbach. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger, and Adam Przybyl.]

 

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