It’s been six years since the digital release of Tom Misch’s Beat Tape 1, and a lot in music has changed since then. For one thing, SoundCloud—where Misch first posted his Dilla-inspired instrumentals—no longer represents an independent platform that grooves from the roots up. For another, maximalist EDM doesn’t dominate radio waves or festival circuits like it once did. Misch’s laidback, anti-synthetic vibes attracted audiences through subtle opposition to this high-energy mainstream: SoundCloud and chill, not BeatDrop and party.

Now, Beat Tape 1 gets a vinyl release in a historical moment that, ironically, prevents the circulation of physical media. Contradictions multiply. This is a mixtape on vinyl, a polished set of two-to-three minute rough takes and—most importantly—a collection of songs that promises distortion yet refuses to get dirty. This final contradiction most clearly reveals the schism between Misch’s work and Dilla’s and thus clarifies distinctions among competing postmodern tendencies, with Misch’s glassy efficiency on the one hand and Dilla’s music-historical chop and paste on the other.

“Cruisin’,” near the middle of the tape’s 19 tracks, is an instructive example. Here, some Rhodes-y keys circle hypnotically around a 4/4 snare drum pattern in an attractive, jazz-driven pose. The magnetic melody pulls us in, to the point where the keyboard loop starts to sound a little wonky, ready to glitch out. But it never does. Instead, the only disruption is a one-beat rest, and, after, it’s back to work as usual. Even “Dilla Love” (which directly precedes “Cruisin’”) sounds as glossy as a Dunkin’ Donuts photoshoot, pink and pleasant as strawberry-flavored frosting. In other words, this is modern-day Muzak, perfect for boutique hotel lobbies: sophisticated, hip and aggressively inoffensive.

The album privileges the potential buzz of conversation, and not just for patrons sipping on $15 cocktails while pondering a dip in the rooftop pool. Misch’s guitar holds a key position in discussion, not as an initiator but as a gentle collaborator with a knack for finding the perfect time to speak. On “Windmills of Your Mind,” its bluesy sounds playfully and precisely pirouette their way into the tune after a quarter of the song has come and gone. Then, as the track winds down, an additional layer of guitar squeals virtuosically, just for a moment, a jocular gesture towards its earlier restraint. Mental repose over extended showiness remains the name of the game.

Beat Tape 1 is a reminder that music doesn’t have to be an end in itself—it can, instead, be a means to relaxation, which frees the mind for other endeavors. Hence, “lo-fi beats for studying,” a genre in which Misch is undoubtedly a pioneer. That category’s chilled-out vibes lead to the peaceful pop and R&B of big-ticket artists like Justin Bieber and Jhené Aiko, whose 2020 LPs assert peace with self and others as a distinctly musical sensibility, one that emphasizes mellow timbres (usually Rhodes-like keys and acoustic guitar) and muted percussion.

Misch, who hails from South London, has also moved closer to pop music in the years since the initial release of Beat Tape 1 by incorporating his own singing voice and relying on verse-and-hook structures as a foundation for his extensive musical talents. Yet the blueprint for all of his work resides in the optimistic tenderness of these 19 tracks, whose warmth connote an understanding of jazz that’s been filtered through some of hip-hop’s greats, like Dilla, A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul. Something has been lost in that filtering process, but the album helps us better comprehend music’s diverse purposes in our contemporary moment. In an epoch of clickbait and universal aspirations to viral status, it can be nice to have some music that happily stays in the background. Just don’t expect it to shake up a single damn thing.

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