“The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans” proclaims John F. Kennedy near the start of Double Dee and Steinski’s third “Lesson”. This unlikely guest star was ostensibly speaking to the dawn of hip-hop (“Lesson 3” is subtitled “History of Hip-Hop”), which at that point was still being maligned in the mainstream as a novelty genre. Though history has since corrected its erroneous thinking on the subject, the dynamic duo of Double Dee and Steinski, with their Tweety Bird samples, wacky spoken word puns, and medley as methodology aesthetic, produced an output that would not likely have dissuaded this dismissive diagnosis on the part of naysayers.
But Double Dee and Steinski, 27 and 32 respectively when they dropped their revolutionary first single “The Payoff Mix”, recognized within hip-hop something greater, an artform capable of being both experimental and commercial, both utterly liberated and inescapably insular. Over 20 years of those possibilities are collected on Illegal Art’s What Does It All Mean?, which collects the sporadic and highly illegal work Steve Stein a.k.a Steinski.
What Does It All Mean?
US: 27 May 2008
UK: 27 May 2008
“The Payoff Mix” was actually just a remix of G.L.O.B.E and Whiz Kid’s “Play That Beat Mr. DJ” which had been sculpted for a Tommy Boy Records contest. On a technical level though, the reason the track didn’t idle out as a B-Side footnote was because it did more than reimagine a track. It reimagined several tracks at once, each within the context of one another. More than that, it was a record made completely out of other records.
Some, such as Davy DMX’s “One for the Treble”, Culture Club’s “I’ll Tumble 4 U”, Grandmaster Flash’s “Birthday Party”, and James Brown’s “Soul Power” were reduced to mere snippets, recognizable club hits to form elemental musical hits against the main melody. That most wouldn’t recognize Double Dee and Steinski’s interstition of Little Richard’s “A Wop bop-a-lu-bop a wop bam boom” as an homage to 1956’s The Flying Saucer, perhaps the first record to incorporate unauthorized samples from popular songs, was besides the point. When “Tutti Frutti” merged with dance instructions which merged with Casablanca samples which merged with Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” which merged back to G.L.O.B.E & Whiz Kid demanding someone to “mastermix those number one tunes”, the stage was set for a postmodern party mixer in which all stages of sound’s history were invited.
It wasn’t nearly the first record with no original source material. Across town, NYC art school mavericks like Christian Marclay had been using nothing but degraded and beaten vinyl to make sublimated sound collages as deconstructive detournment for years. And just a few rotations prior, Grandmaster Flash had DJed a more pop-viable primordial mash-up set in the form of “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel”, a mix which invited his own records to dance with the hottest tracks at the time.
“Wheels of Steel” was the Pong to Double Dee and Steinski’s Nintendo on “The Payoff Mix”, though. “Payoff” was a shorter track, but it was epic in scale. Intricate, dense, and seamless, it plucked from every margin of recorded sound, not just hip new records. Television, film, commercials, and radio were all fair game. Collage on this grand a scale redefined hip-hop as a wired generation’s populist act of self-renewal after years of rust by the machinery of mainstream music’s homogenization. It was not only a new urban folk form, but it was folk music for the Guttenberg Galaxy, an avenue to reinterpret or recontextualize existing sound media. As Robert Christgau stated in a panegyric about the Lessons, Double Dee and Steinski staked that “the sounds and images rippling through the American consciousness are, forget copyright, every American’s birthright”. Rap music was no longer just music that was dangerous to suburban white folks, as it had once been accused (and would be again). It was music that was dangerous to corporate hegemony and the ownership class of music’s feudal state.
“Let’s go back to back to doin’ something we really like doin’”, one sampled character poses to another at one point. The character replies in a grim noir baritone “You mean like robbin’ and stealin’?”, bluntly acknowledging the transgressive nature of Double Dee and Steinski’s act.
Byproducts of Madison Avenue both, Steinski and his partner, Douglas Di Franco, seemed the least likely pair to become countercultural icons and critics of mass media. The irony of their advertising backgrounds does not root as deeply as you’d think though (and indeed, many Dadaists and Situationists got their start in adverts). Steinski, in his work with Double Dee and beyond, always created music as a kind of sales pitch for the ground he was breaking or the cultures he was informing. “It’s about making a message that will resonate with people: you can do it for buying toilet paper, or you can do it as an artist, and unleash an idea into the world”, he says in What Does It All Mean‘s liner notes.
Whether it was selling the concept of the funky break as an authoritative force or the power of editorial as a source of empowerment (“The Payoff Mix” quotes Indeep: “There’s not a problem that I can’t fix/ ‘Cause I can do it in the mix”), the idea of hip-hop itself (“Lesson 3”) or the importance of the old school (“Jazz”), The JFK assassination as spectacle (“The Motorcade Sped On”) or the Gulf War as spectacle (“It’s Up To You (Television Mix)”), Steinski’s mixscapes were always worthy of creating a dialogue from other people’s voices.
The “Lessons” are the main draw for musicologists, as they’ve never been “officially” available to the public before. Their black market dissemination through bootleg vinyl and pirate mixtapes has lead directly or indirectly to a whole host of progeny though.
Most noticably, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist both cut their own “Lessons”. Beyond those two specific examples though, it’s hard to imagine most sampledelic music thriving or even daring to exist without Steinski and Double Dee’s influence. De La Soul openly referenced the “Lessons” on their Three Feet High and Rising. The Beastie Boys expanded Steinski’s method of sonic muraling for the Long Player on Paul’s Boutique. Even Public enemy’s Terminator X stockpiled record atop each other like they were weapons of mass destruction aimed at the plutocracy (Steinski later remixed Chuck D on the propulsive big beat of The Boom Boom Satellite’s “Your Reality’s a Fantasy But Your Fantasy Is Killing Me”, available on What Does It All Mean? as “Is We Going Under?”). Coldcut so blatantly ripped the Steinski remix format for their seminal “Seven Minutes of Madness Mix” of Erik B. and Rakim’s “Paid in Full” that they had to repay him by asking him to write the funky sexaholic joyride “I’m Wild About That Thang” (under Coldcut’s name, making him a kind of unofficial member). Kid Koala’s “Stand-up” approach to turtablism, particularly on his widely bootlegged Scratchcratchratchatch Tape, at least owes Steinski a Father’s Day present or two. This is not even to mention Negativland, Meat Beat Manifesto, Jon Olson, The Avalanches, Wobbly, Girl Talk, DJ Rupture, Big Beat music, Piracy Funds Terrorism, Jason Forrest, or radio station identification tags.
Steinski’s appearances in more recent years have been spotty. He has remained an incredibly competent producer when he does pop up, particulary for someone with an AARP card, but his voice has become less discernible amidst the gestalt of noises he gave mic to. Perhaps he has simply felt confined all these years, being trapped in remixes and singles. Luckily for us, Illegal Art has included with this set 2006’s Nothing to Fear a riveting journey by DJ that shows Steinski to be entering his second golden age. It finds the man to be at his most prolific through the course of a single album. 26 mixes in one place at once. It takes a creative, not to mention a sensitive soul, to think of merging John Martyn’s “Solid Air” with Nelly’s “Country Grammar” and Steinski is just that man. Unable at this late stage to lay down tomorrow’s turf, Steinski settles for being an obsessively ornate beat maestro who makes loose, free jam out of today’s tools and yesterday’s news.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. We need your help to keep PopMatters strong and growing. Thank you.