An ode to the high school mixtape

Thursday, October 22, 2020 - 4:50pm

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It is 2013 and I am a seventh grader. My history teacher is lecturing us on Medieval Europe, but I'm not listening. As my classmates furiously take notes on the feudal system, my friend Ian and I are focused on something much more important. Fourteen-year-old Seventh Woods high school basketball mixtape had just dropped on HoopMixtape’s Youtube channel, and it was nothing short of incredible. At one point Woods jumps so high that his head reaches the rim, then he blocks the ball off the backboard with one of his hands, only to block it again with the other. Ian and I simultaneously gasp and grab at each other’s arms, promptly being sent to the principal’s office.

Much of my childhood was spent watching these high school mixtapes. I would scroll the channels Ballislife, HoopMixtape and YayAreasFinest for hours, watching kids not much older or taller than me doing things that seemed impossible for a 5’8” skinny kid whose best attribute on the court was a ball fake followed by a crisp bounce pass. These kids became pseudo-heroes for my friends and I. To this day, I will still periodically google “Kiwi Gardner” to see what he is up to. 

However, over the past couple of years, I’ve almost completely stopped watching high school mixtapes due to a very troubling trend that has plagued the genre. With accounts like HouseOfHighlights basically monopolizing the sports highlight video market on Instagram, accounts like Ballislife and Hoopmixtape have had to follow suit or risk irrelevance. And in a post-TikTok world, this usually means short, 30-second videos meant to stimulate the fleeting attention of their viewers and garner as many views as possible in the process.

These accounts now favor posting the singular highlight with the best chance of going viral and being sent around in group DMs prompting comments arguing that the kid traveled or that he’s not actually that good or that he couldn’t make that move in the NBA. It is an ingenious and seemingly indestructible system. The views increase and the followers follow suit and the money rolls in and what is lost is the beauty that was the high school mixtape. 

High school mixtapes in the golden age of the early 2010s were made with care and purpose. Contrasted with the 30-second dunk videos that now saturate the timeline, these were three to four minute complete projects that felt more about the craft than the highlights themselves. Take Brandon Jennings’ mixtape, for example, which is one of my favorites of all time. The video opens to a violin loop matched with grainy footage of Jennings warming up in his comically large yellow shorts, with “a BALLISLIFE.COM production” superimposed over the images. It feels more like the opening to a Quentin Tarantino movie than a high school basketball highlight video. Suddenly, we hear a woman singing in what I take to be Italian as Jennings is captured doing a through-the-legs dunk from an impressively wide-angle shot for a high school basketball gym, the violin loop breaks down into a hip hop beat, and we are off.

The video consists mainly of clips of Jennings dribbling the ball up the court in slow motion, throwing no-look passes to his teammates who weren’t even all that open and hitting semi-contested pull-up threes. Most of these highlights nowadays would not even grace the very account that produced this video 11 years ago. And that is terrible. Because as I rewatch this mixtape, an inexplicable calm falls over me. Rather than trying to blow me away with a quick highlight of something I’ve never seen before, this mixtape asks me to sit and stay awhile. To appreciate the beauty that is a midrange jumpshot, kind of effective hesi-crossover or reverse layup.

The accounts still produce these longer mixtapes, but they seem to have been beaten down to a formula that lacks any originality. A rap beat accompanied by dunks on every beat drop and the occasional pan to a rowdy student section is enough to garner views for these channels. The flair and novelty of the high school mixtape is dead. So all I’m left to do is reminisce. 

I miss the days of Trae Jefferson making a double-clutch layup and completely stopping playing to announce to the camera, “Hey this is what I do! Ball is life baby,” as his teammates run back on defense. I miss Marcus Lovett making a kid who looks like he has no business being on a basketball court fall on a crossover, and then stopping to point at him and shake his head in disapproval. I miss Acquille Carr, nicknamed “the Crimestopper” for the dip in crimes in the neighborhood during his games as everyone would be there to watch, spinning around in circles at halfcourt as two people run by trying to steal the ball. I miss these idiosyncratic moments that we no longer get from these algorithm-obsessed channels.

So I hope that the high school mixtape isn’t dead. I hope that there is a mid-century renaissance and we go away from the instant dopamine hit of an Instagram highlight and return to the quirkiness and care that made these mixtapes so special. But that seems unlikely. So if we don’t, at least we have a bank of these videos to look back on. 

Daily Arts Contributor Leo Krinsky can be reached at lkrinsky@umich.edu.


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