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Steinski - What Does It All Mean?: 1983-2006

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Artist: Steinski

Album: What Does It All Mean?: 1983-2006

Label: Illegal Art

Review date: May. 23, 2008

It's an irony of musical history that one of the greatest hip-hop singles ever released was produced by a pair of entirely un-hip white advertising men. In 1983, in response to a Tommy Boy Records remix contest, Steve Stein and audio engineering partner Doug DiFranco assembled a masterpiece of editing entitled "The Payoff Mix." Taking the new "Play That Beat Mr. D.J." and drawing on both DiFranco's tape-editing skills and Steinski's encyclopedic knowledge of not just hip-hop but popular music in general, they threw in everything from "Rockit" and "I'll Tumble For You" to audio snippets borrowed from films. The judges (including Afrika Bambaataa and Jellybean Benitez among others), not surprisingly, unanimously selected the mix as the contest winner and distributed copies to radio stations.

One of the impressive things, viewed from today's perhaps more divisive reality, is how the NYC hip-hop scene of that time brought a Jewish advertising guy into its circle, bemused but accepting. As Stein recalled, "I think everyone was still getting a kick out of it, like, Oh, they're old and they're white!" Following "The Payoff Mix," also known as "Lesson 1," Steinski and Double Dee (as they dubbed themselves) assembled their second piece, "Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)" – the second in their highly influential trio of hip-hop history lessons. A modern listener will recognize most of the samples in this one, with everyone from Pop Will Eat Itself to Missy Elliot copping them in the years since. "Lesson 3 (History of Hip Hop)," from 1986, rolls up jazz, funk, films and sound effects into a rowdy, insane collection of beats and chopped-up songs.

These three mixes came to be known as the Lessons, and have been inspirational to countless bands since then, though the songs themselves have remained somewhat shadowy in great part due to the legal concerns. With literally a hundred samples or more each, getting clearance is probably impossible. These works of genius are living examples of the problems with existing copyright laws, and, since their release, have been more or less impossible to purchase. But that hasn't stopped them from spreading and inspiring artists like Coldcut, DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist.

Following their three initial tracks, the duo recorded two more collages together, though it took years. "Jazz" and "Voice Mail (Sugar Hill Suite)" use the base material alluded to in their titles. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and more rub shoulders on the former, while the entire Sugar Hill catalog makes an appearance during the latter.

The remainder of this release's first CD collects various other Steinski tracks, solo and in collaboration with others, beginning with the memorable Kennedy assassination remix "The Motorcade Sped On." Oddly, that was the first Steinski piece I ever heard, due to its appearance on an old "industrial" compilation (Death of Vinyl, 1991). Sure to offend most baby boomers, its newscast refrain will stick with you. "It's Up To You" is, as the liner notes point out, apparently the only hip-hop record protesting Desert Storm, utilizing (among other sources) H.W. Bush's speeches. "The Big Man Laughs" is a catchy-as-hell Bollywood movie remix, "Is We Going Under?" includes Chuck D. mixed with Boom Boom Satellite, and "Number Three On Flight Eleven" is a late-blooming 9/11 song. The only track that doesn't quite work is "I'm Wild About That Thing," comprised of a seemingly boundless collection of records about sex. It's entertaining once, but doesn't stand up to repeat listens quite as well as you might expect.

The second disc included here is a reissue of the phenomenal Nothing to Fear mixtape, originally released (illegally) by Soul Ting. I hadn't realized it was out of print and hard to find, so it's wonderful to see it available again, as it's certainly one of the finest mixes yet produced.

Given that this release is from Illegal Art and the hundreds of samples within have likely not been fully cleared, anyone interested should make haste to locate a copy while you still can. It's rare that historically important recordings are also essential listening, but this is such a case.

By Mason Jones

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