It took hours to make: every free moment curled by the boombox, the local radio station's song-request line set to speed dial, the volume knob turned loud enough to hear, but quiet enough not to wake Mom and Dad. Then, finally, the master product: a flawless combination of Alanis Morissette, Nirvana and Boyz II Men—decorated, doodled on and packaged in that familiar square case—that would become the soundtrack to a fleeting eighth-grade romance.
Ah, the mix tape. Philips first unveiled its cassette in 1963, but the durable plastic has long since been replaced by the MP3. Still, what's old is always new again eventually, and the cassette tape has a burgeoning cult following that, like the vinyl obsession of generations before, has made it hip again among the audio underground. "Cassettes are the last refuge of the music nerd," says Jay Cook, a New York DJ and cultural marketing specialist.
Today, DJs covet old-school mix-tape sets by artists like Dr. Dre, and dozens of companies have sprung up to convert your yesteryear mixes to CD. There's a podcast, Mixtape Songs, devoted exclusively to other people's dusty old mix tapes, an "International Mixtape Project" where fans exchange tapes by mail—even cassette-themed art, clothing and computer accessories. Remember the Casio ghetto blaster you tossed out on the curb, or the clunky Sony Walkman you gave to your little brother? They're reselling for upwards of $100 on eBay. Brooklyn rockers MGMT recently sent out demos in cassette form (and a player with each package). And leave it to the usually gadget-snobby hipsters to carry their iPods inside the hollowed-out cases of vintage Walkmen—the retro look without the retro sound.
Cassettes may never rival the warm vibrations of vinyl or the crispness of an MP3. But to anyone reared in the 1980s or '90s, tapes remain a testament to youth, a reminder of the "love and ego involved in sharing music," as Sonic Youth frontman Thurston Moore put it in a 2005 tribute. And—assuming you've still got a tape deck—they'll probably last longer than any teenage romance.