Steinski: What Does It All Mean?

Photo: Kiretsu/R. Gardiner

Steal This Record!


What Does It All Mean?

Subtitle: 1983-2006 Retrospective
Label: Illegal Art
US Release Date: 2008-05-27
UK Release Date: 2008-05-27

"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.

"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.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

Keep reading... Show less

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

Keep reading... Show less

Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.