For decades, pioneering sonic collagist Steve "Steinski" Stein has led a curious double life: mild-mannered adman by day, hip-hop legend by night. Along with longtime former partner Doug "Double Dee" DiFranco, Steinski recorded a series of wildly influential sonic pastiches collectively known as "Lessons," beginning with a remix of "Play That Beat, Mr. DJ" that won a remix contest sponsored by legendary hip-hop label Tommy Boy.
Steinski and Double Dee's revolutionary mixes combined hip-hop grooves with a mind-bendingly eclectic array of sound bites and left-field samples from across the pop-culture spectrum, from old commercials to Groucho Marx one-liners. Though the sheer number of recognizable samples made legal releases prohibitively expensive, the mixes quickly developed a devoted underground following, especially among DJs and instrumentalists. Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow paid Steinski the ultimate homage by recording "Lessons" of their own, and Madlib gave Steinski a vocal cameo on Shades Of Blue, his Blue Note tribute/remix album. Steinski appeared in the seminal 2001 DJ documentary Scratch and is increasingly acknowledged as an important influence on multiple generations of beat junkies, collagists, and crate-diggers. This year witnessed another milestone in Steinski's career: the release of Illegal Arts' achingly essential two-disc compilation What Does It All Mean?1983-2006 Retrospective. The A.V. Club recently spoke with the unlikely hip-hop godfather about selling drugs, advertising, being a sonic outlaw, and finding the humor in the Kennedy assassination.
The A.V. Club: The liner notes for What Does It All Mean? discuss how you used innovative marketing techniques to sell drugs in college. Could you talk a little about that?
Steinski: What happened was that the school I went to, Franconia College, was a tiny little college in New Hampshire. I'm not sure whether the enrollment was ever more than 400 people, and it was located in an old vacation hotel up in the mountains in northern New Hampshire. Fantastic place. In the early '70s, it existed as an almost fully accredited school where you could go and not be in the army. So it got a lot of interesting people who were more interested in not being in the army than in getting a traditional education. It was one of those schools where you could choose your own electives, set your own curriculum, and then cut all the classes.
AVC: Did they offer classes in draft-dodging?
S: No, you didn't need that, man, because if you were there, it was de facto you were out. It was a pretty great place—it was very, very hipster-oriented. I remember when I got there, I was told that there was a union of dope dealers called the Space Patrol. I think in its 10 years of existence, the school had graduated perhaps 70 people. It had enormous turnover, because people would come through, drop out, move on, go do something else, leave the country. It was as much a way station as it was anything else. When I got there, the Space Patrol was no longer in existence. Although there were still things like "welcome to the school" parties with punch bowls full of murky liquid that could kill an elephant. People would drink this stuff, not knowing what was going on, and then spend three days lying in their beds, raving and seeing things. After a while, some friends of mine and I got together and decided, just sort of as a lark—not because we were such great business people—to sell some weed. Everybody and their brother sold weed. It was that sort of time in the world and the United States, and very much at this school. You'd come back from vacation with half a pound of something you had bought from somebody back home.
What we'd do is call ourselves Junior Achievement, thereby pre-dating Tom Cruise in Risky Business by quite a while. We gave out premiums to people, we had parties in my room where you could come and try it for nothing, and just the idea that there was—like in any branding experiment—when there's something, if you're up against nothing, people tend to gravitate toward something, for the most part. So there we were, Junior Achievement, as the successors to the Space Patrol. We did pretty well, actually. Didn't handle anything that hurt anybody, and sold to just about everybody, which was kind of a problem there. At one point, one of the people in the school management took me aside and went "You know, Steve, perhaps you ought to tone it down just a little." That was good advice. So we basically dissolved the business after a year or so, but it was great fun while it lasted, and we made some money.
AVC: It mentions in the liner notes that you put an ad in the student paper.
S: Well, the student paper, you have to imagine what the student paper was like. The personals column had hate mail toward the people who owned cars that drove too close to the side of the road. It was a pretty lunatic paper to begin with. But, yes, we had ads touting Junior Achievement. And we never had to say what it was, because everybody knew.
AVC: A "wink, wink, nudge, nudge" sort of situation?
S: More or less. In a school that small, you didn't even need "wink, wink, nudge, nudge." It was just sort of like "Okay, yeah, oh sure, cool, excellent."
AVC: What sort of music were you into back then?
S: Oh, goodness. I guess rock, folk, some funk. I didn't categorize it too much in my head; I listened to a lot of Grateful Dead. It was a hippie school—we listened to hippie music. I don't really listen to Grateful Dead that much any more, but I listen to it occasionally. I'm trying to think what else. I remember the two Stones records at that time. The one with "Brown Sugar" on it and Exile On Main St. were huge up there. Huge. Also, in my dorm, we were seriously into Miles Davis. We used to play Jack Johnson on a stereo that we took out into the common area. The dorm really loved that. I was getting into jazz a lot at that time, too.
AVC: How did you segue from being a college drug dealer to working in advertising?
S: [Laughs.] Not that far a leap. Let's see. There was a lot in between. I dropped out of school and moved to West Virginia, where I was a public park supervisor and me and my girlfriend and a couple of friends lived in a shack that did not have running water, didn't have an indoor toilet. For heat, we dug coal out of the hillside and burnt it in our pot-bellied stove. For a city boy, I have to say I gave country living about as much of a run as I could. It was a very rural part of West Virginia that we were living in, so being Jewish was a wild novelty. I eventually moved back to Philadelphia, where my wife is from and where I had lived previously in college. Before I went up to this nutty place up in New Hampshire, I went to Temple University, which didn't last long at all. I ended up working at Gimbels in Philadelphia, in their advertising department. And then when my girlfriend and I got married and we moved to New York, I wound up working in advertising in New York. Back then, I was very enthusiastic about it. It was really interesting to me, it was something I wanted to learn more about and be involved in. It seemed like a great industry. After six or seven years of being involved in it, my initial rapture had pretty much worn away. Most of the people I worked with were pretty shallow, unpleasant people. The skill itself, while it was very interesting and has wound up being valuable to me all my life, once I learned it, exercising it in a large agency context was pretty boring.
AVC: Was there any advertising that you created that particularly stands out in your mind?
S: I still work in advertising, but it's not like there's any one thing in terms of advertising that I would point to and go "Oh yeah, I'm real proud of that." Fuck no, that's why I got out of it as a staff job.
AVC: Have you watched the show Mad Men?
S: You know, I don't have television. I haven't watched television for 25 years.
S: Well, it's a little like being an alcoholic and joining AA. I'm so susceptible to having my attention being hooked by it that it's better if I don't fuck with it. I think the last time I watched TV was for two or three hours on Sept. 11. It's not like I walk around in a sheet with a sign saying "Don't watch television," because that would be pretty stupid. It's just for me, it's better not to watch television. I have more time to read.
AVC: That's surprising, since your work is so saturated in pop culture.
S: I guess I'm really lucky in some ways. I'm a quick study when it comes to popular culture, so I can use things and not appear to be too out of it. This was a problem with the advertising industry, because I stopped watching television before I stopped working at the advertising agency. I remember at one point, back when Atari was really hot shit, I was working on Atari as one of the writers. A guy walked into my office and said "Listen, I got this really great idea for a campaign—we'll use Mr. T." I said "Who?" He went "I knew it," pulled out a copy of Time that had Mr. T on the cover, and said "Here, read this shit and then we'll do the campaign." It was like he knew I wasn't going to know who Mr. T was. I was really lucky that people accommodated to my little eccentricity.
AVC: Did you end up using Mr. T?
S: I think it was probably proposed, and they certainly had the money to do it, but for some reason or other, that didn't happen.
AVC: Throughout the '70s, hip-hop was an underground thing. Did you have any experience with it then, in the pre-"Rapper's Delight" age?
S: Gosh, I wish. In the pre-record age, I was not aware of it. I became aware of hip-hop when Deborah Harry and Chris Stein played some on the radio on a station in New York where they were guest DJs. I happened, by mistake, to tape the show, and when I went back and listened to it, I was absolutely galvanized. That's when I started getting into hip-hop. There were a couple of records out at that time, and I bought almost every one I could get hold of. At that point, everyone I played it for was absolutely repulsed. "Oh, this is awful, don't you know that?" Gosh, no. It didn't make me not love hip-hop; it just made me stop playing it for other people.
AVC: In the early days, there was a sense that it was a novelty, a fad.
S: There was definitely a feeling of that. "This is music for impoverished people and whatnot, and this ain't gonna fly."
AVC: What was your first hip-hop show? What was your first engagement with the culture?
S: First time, I went to Negril, which was this tiny little bar on 2nd Avenue that Cool Lady Blue had a once-a-week party at. I went down there and probably the first show was the Cold Crush Brothers. That's what I talked about in the Scratch movie. It was just fabulous, man. I had the greatest time. After that, I went back there a couple of times, and when the party moved to The Roxy, I was there probably three Fridays out of four, because it was a Friday-night party.
AVC: What was the audience like in shows like that? Was it integrated? Was it an African-American crowd?
S: No, no, I would say probably more than 50 percent were African-American, but past that, very integrated and extremely… How would I put it? Everybody was friendly, because at that point, hip-hop was completely so, so tiny that anybody who was in it was welcome. It was that sort of a thing. It was just like "Yup, you're here—you belong here." There was no question. It didn't start to get segmented until a while later. Years later, actually.
AVC: At that point, there was a lot of crossover. Grandmaster Flash was opening for The Clash, though it apparently didn't go over well.
S: They got bottles thrown at them.
AVC: It seems so backward that people who love The Clash would be so hostile to black music.
S: Well, I don't think they saw it that way. They saw it as some sort of ghetto crap. Like, "What are these guys? I came here to see The Clash and see guitar-based stuff, not a bunch of these chanting guys with records." Shit got thrown at them, man. That's pretty normal. You're always gonna find some people who think that this thing is not as good as the last thing. I'm sure that there's a lot of rock people going "Well, fuck, man, what is it, just talking over records? Well, fuck that!" You know, some guitar guy who's really disappointed that this other type of music seems to have taken over the world. Before that, there's probably some jazz musician, figuratively, with a goatee and a beret, sitting around with a saxophone going "What the fuck? A bunch of guys with guitars that can't fucking play!" You know, there's always going to be that. When something else comes in and takes over hip-hop, a bunch of people are going to be sitting around going "Holy shit, at least I could rap over records. These motherfuckers…" You know, whatever.
AVC: How did you go from soaking in the culture to actually making mixes yourself?
S: A friend of [Double Dee] Douglas'—who produced radio commercials for CBS, back when there was a CBS, and there were commercials for record companies—had seen an ad in Billboard for a remix contest that Tommy Boy was running. Sort of a "remix it yourself" thing for amateurs who at least were in touch with Billboard. And he said, "You guys should enter this contest." It seemed like a reasonable idea, and we had a weekend coming up where we weren't doing anything, so we did.
AVC: Did remixing come naturally to you?
S: I think that because it was me and Douglas—already, we had spent quite a bit of time together hanging out, listening to records together, working in the studio as co-producers on freelance advertising jobs and other things, and also going to The Roxy a lot. We already had a knowledge of hip-hop and a shared vocabulary of what we thought worked and was interesting. And we were both also from New York, both relatively close in age, so we remembered various cultural things together, and were enthusiastic about them together. It was instinctive, yes, but there was a lot of underlying factors that made the instinct work.
AVC: When you were working on your earliest mixes, did the concept of copyrights ever enter your mind?
S: It still doesn't enter my mind.
AVC: There were red lights everywhere, but you didn't pay attention to them?
S: Well, to be honest, no it didn't. We didn't even think about it. Certainly not the first one, not the James Brown mix. By the time we got to "Lesson 3: History Of Hip-Hop," that was supposed to be a record that was gonna accompany a book about hip-hop. We were told to keep it around "Dance To The Drummer's Beat," because that's what we're going to use. Although apparently no one had bothered to consult with Herman Kelly, who still owned the rights to "Dance To The Drummer's Beat." When he heard about this, he was like, "Well, sure, pay me some outrageous amount of money, and I'll let you do it." And they were like, "We don't have an outrageous amount of money." "Well then, tough shit." So that made it a bootleg again.
AVC: Did you feel like an outlaw, making albums that could never really be released?
S: Yeah, I suppose. Look, if you're a white, Jewish, middle-class kid who grew up in the '50s and '60s, the idea of being some sort of a hip-hop outlaw is very romantic, and very attractive. So, yeah, I kept that idea for a while until I read one of Lawrence Lessig's books about culture and copyrights. And then I thought, "Okay, this really changed the concept. I can put away my bandanna, and put away the gun, and sort of be… This is a legitimate thing I'm doing in the world of culture, and the fault here is the legal system." Not that I have come up with some revolutionary idea regarding culture—people have been doing this for a long time, fucking with existing culture.
AVC: You have a lot of creative heirs, like Prince Paul and Madlib. Was there anybody who you felt was doing something similar to what you and Double Dee were doing? Was there any kind of precedent?
S: The Buchanan & Goodman Flying Saucer records, I'd say, were records Douglas and I were both acquainted with, which were called break-in records. They were these two music-industry guys who came up with this wild, wacky idea of making singles. What they had done was, they had come up with a sort of loose, lunatic scenario of a flying saucer landing in the middle of New York. And the reporter who was describing the scene is interviewing various people and the spacemen, and describing things. Except every sentence that he uses ends in the clip of a song.
It becomes either a piece of a verse or a piece of a chorus of a popular song. These records were enormously popular. I remember hearing one when I was 5 or 6, and they were all over the radio, and they were complete collage records. Not in the way that Douglas and I had done them, but certainly we're in a direct line from these guys, from [Bill] Buchanan and [Dickie] Goodman. That would be probably the most obviously direct thing. I was listening to lots and lots of arty-type stuff. You know, like Laurie Anderson and a bunch of other stuff that other people were listening to also. But I would have to say that the Buchanan and Goodman stuff is the most directly influential.
AVC: It seems like one of the reasons they could get away with that kind of borrowing is because they were doing satire.
S: Well, they were called parodies. However, the actual story is that Buchanan and Goodman were both music-industry guys, and after the records came out, there were some legal rumblings that they were going to get sued by various people. What they did is, they went around and made peace individually with all the music publishers so they could use this stuff in a legal way. But it wasn't an arrangement that would apply to everyone. It was a uniquely Buchanan and Goodman arrangement. They kept on making records into the '70s. They made like 30 or 40 records. They made a record on Jaws. I think they made records based on Star Wars. They just went around doing all kinds of shit.
AVC: 2 Live Crew were famously sued by Roy Orbison's people for using "Pretty Woman" and got away with it because the Supreme Court ruled that parody was protected by the First Amendment. Did you feel like that ruling maybe gave you some wiggle room, some artistic license?
S: No, to be honest. Because the records I was making after I made records with Douglas and the records I made with Douglas were not like that. That was a record where they took pieces of the song, but there was plenty of rapping and stuff like that. In my mind, we were kind of like… This sounds a little overblown, but if you look at visual artists like Joseph Cornell or Louise Nevelson, I felt like our stuff was more like that. People who were complete appropriation artists who then made another piece out of appropriated stuff, and maybe, in Louise Nevelson's case, painted everything white. But you still knew what it was and where it came from. Whereas 2 Live Crew were adding a bunch of their own stuff. I was not, and still am not. I'm not a lawyer. I didn't go "Oh, this is the major difference, this is a legal point, this is why my stuff applies to that." I didn't even think about it much. Hooray for 2 Live Crew, I'm really glad they did it, and they did a good thing for the culture, I think. But no, I wasn't sitting around thinking that I should be rich.
AVC: Do you see yourself as part of the tradition of culture-jamming?
S: To a certain extent. I think it's a little disappointing how non-analytical I am about what I do. I just sort of do it. I do whatever feels right at the time, whatever feels natural. The classification and categorization and a lot of the "I was trying to express thus and so," that all comes later. When I do it, I just do it. It's kind of a caveman approach: "Me want that! Ungh!" That's pretty much it. It's very non-intellectual.
AVC: When you started out, did you feel more like an outsider being white, or being over 30?
S: [Laughs.] At the time, even though both of those were obvious differences—no, neither. I could walk into studios and there would be Chuck Chillout and [DJ] Red Alert, and everybody would be like "Oh, hey man, how you doing?" It wasn't like "Here's that old white guy." That happened after a while, certainly—things evolve, things change. But in the beginning, like I said, hip-hop was very inclusive. The idea wasn't so much who was out, it was more like "Wow, they're in, that's great." This was a big deal.
AVC: When you first started making a name for yourself as Steinski, did people who worked with you in advertising know about your hip-hop sideline? Did they know you were creating art in your spare time?
S: A teeny, weeny, weeny bit. But not really, you know. That was one of the interesting things about it. It was a very distinct, other existence. And as things went on, later down the road when the DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist records happened, the tribute records, I started going way down that road, and I started going to shows, deejaying in England, and started going to shows in the United States. It really was like stepping through the looking glass; it was a completely other world. In this world here, I was in advertising, and some freelance supplier. Then I'd walk through the wall—all of a sudden, it was like, "Wow! You're the guy who made those records!" It's very rare that there's a combination. In England, where some of my work got licensed or I got asked to do commercials based on my records, that was different. In England, I would say those two things came together, but not here.
AVC: You had a sort of secret identity. You would take off your suit and transform into a hip-hop superhero.
S: [Laughs.] That's very generous of you. Thanks. It was a little bit like having a secret identity.
AVC: Was it frustrating knowing that you're making these things that people loved, but you couldn't legally put out?
S: Never really occurred to me, to tell you the truth. I had taken it for granted, because after the first mix Douglas and I did, everything was so obviously illegal that I was like, "Yeah, you can't sell them. So what?" I'm not making them to get rich. I got a job. It's nice to get paid for it. I don't knock that. When they were much more widely bootlegged, somebody was getting paid. Not us. It never really occurred to me, to tell you the truth. It was like, "We make them, and if they get people's attention, that's nice."
AVC: You mentioned DJ Shadow and the Chemist tribute records. How did you feel when you first heard them?
S: Amazed. For any number of reasons. Douglas and I, our mutual reaction was, "Those guys know who we are?" No one knew who we were. As far as we were concerned, we were in the dustbins of history. This was before the period I was talking about, where I could walk through the looking glass and I was slightly famous. This was before I even knew I had a looking glass to walk through. When rap became very commercial and gangsta-oriented, I dropped out of it for the most part, and didn't pay a lot of attention to it. Yeah, I stayed in touch with music, because I still really loved music, but it was different kinds of music. Old jazz, a lot of other kinds of music. And while there was still even some gangsta stuff that I liked, there was just so much of it going on that it was boring to me. I didn't like it. So when I came back and discovered that there was indie hip-hop and backpacker hip-hop and Native Tongues hip-hop—I mean huge movements—I'm like, "Gee, look at all this. This is a real surprise." Someone walked into my studio one day with a copy of Endtroducing… and went, "Have you heard of this guy, DJ Shadow? He namechecks you on this record." I'm like, "No. Who's DJ Shadow?" Then I call up Douglas and am like, "You ever heard of this guy? He put our names on his record." And he's like, "No. Who is he?" This is like complete news to us, that they would even remember who we were.
AVC: When you listen to De La Soul, '88-'89, did you think there was a commonality to what you were doing and what Prince Paul was doing?
S: To a certain extent. I felt like he was taking a little bit of cut-and-paste and adding it to these lovely rap tracks, which we had never done. I guess I saw the difference more than I saw the commonality.
AVC: It's like in your early records, you were planting these seeds in the culture that would take 10, 15 years to really bloom.
S: I never felt like that stuff was so proprietarily ours. For whatever reason, we were the right guys in the right place at the right time. I didn't feel like it wasn't going to happen if we hadn't done it. Someone would probably do this. We were just lucky that we were the most high-profile guys who did it mostly first.
AVC: You were building on the music and the legacies of other people.
S: Oh, absolutely. That's very much the case. There were songs that used samples to do stuff before we came along. There was some dance record, I forget what the name of the group was, but they used a sample of a piece of glass breaking that was packaged with the sampler at the time. They used that, and of course everyone was like, "Wow! Did you hear the sample of the glass breaking? That was so cool." And that was before us, and we were aware of that. It was gratifying that everyone else thought it was so great. But I never really thought that if somebody else did it, that we were entitled to sit around and say, "Oh, yeah. We are definitely the progenitors here."
AVC: Another landmark hip-hop legal sampling situation was the Biz Markie lawsuit.
S: Right, with Gilbert O'Sullivan.
AVC: When that verdict came in, did you feel like it was the end of innocence for hip-hop, in that now all the samples had to be cleared and paid for?
S: It was the kind of thing that since all the stuff I had done was so illegal anyway, I felt like it didn't really apply to me. I'm not making anything that anybody's selling.
AVC: Did you think that maybe someday if things turned around, you might be able to put things out legally?
S: Never. I mean, it's amazing to me and gratifying that anyone gives a shit at all. No, it does not occur to me. I don't walk around feeling like I'm filled with great artistic expression that's yearning to get out. I just do stuff, for the most part, when I feel like it. I enjoy it. I have a really great time making these things. That second record in the compilation, the "Nothing To Fear" mix: That took a year and a half. And I was so happy the whole time I was doing that, it was ridiculous. It never occurred to me that the legality was completely up in the air. I was like, "Meh." I didn't even think about it. I just wanted to do this.
AVC: Speaking of legality, one of my favorite tracks on the retrospective is "The Motorcade Sped On." How did that one come about?
S: Well, after we had done three records, Douglas moved in with his girlfriend in Queens and got a regular job. He didn't like being a freelancer, so he went back to a job and moved in with his girlfriend. It wasn't like we weren't hanging out. We were still having dinner and being friends, but he didn't want to make records anymore. He didn't really have time. "Well," I thought, "I'd like to make a record on my own." At that point, making records was a very different thing than "I'll just learn a piece of software on my computer." There weren't any computers, there wasn't software. So what you did was, you hired a studio with an engineer and you told him what to do with the tape, the meter running every minute, and you started doing stuff. I thought, "Okay, I want to make a record with some sort of emotional content to it, that isn't just a straight-up party record." So I was listening to spoken-word… Once again, this is before the Internet. You couldn't just grab stuff off the Internet. Then I thought, "The Kennedy stuff just really stops me dead. Maybe that." And so I walked into the studio—it was the cheap hip-hop studio that everybody in the city used at the time. It was called INS; it was down by City Hall. And I walked in to an engineer who had never seen me before and I said "I want to base the beat around 'Honky Tonk Women,'" and asked him to work out a new beat on a drum machine, which he could do very quickly. He was great. I still know him. Craig Bevan. Then he said, "Then what are we going to do?"
I said, "Then we are going to sample the Kennedy assassination and put it down on top." He just looked at me like, "Okaaaay, buddy. It's your money and it's your time." So we started doing that. We did six or seven sessions, then I did a mix of what he had did at that point, and just laid back at home for a while. I figured out how else I wanted to do it. Sat down for a couple more sessions, put down the rest of the parts, and I had what I wanted. I had a record with a song structure that was very emotional. At the time more so than now, because at the time there were more people listening to music who remembered the Kennedy assassination. So I went to Tommy Boy, and they owed me money for other stuff, for other projects I was doing for them. You know, ad work and things. And I said, "Instead of paying me, put this out." And they were like, "Yeah, okay. No problem." They put it out. It got some play on college radio, almost no play on commercial radio, as you can imagine. Some people were offended. "This is in very bad taste. How dare you?" Okay, I guess I didn't feel that way, really. I thought it was more of an experiment than it was a vast statement.
AVC: Were there people that were like, "Too soon, bro. Too soon?"
S: It wasn't like putting out a record about 9/11 now. I guess the feeling was the older the person was, the more likely they were not to like it for that reason. But there were lots of people who liked it here. It still gets played on some college radio at the end of November everywhere. But in England, they didn't have that problem. It wasn't their president. And so they looked at it, and they went, "My God. How interesting." There, it got a very good reception. New Music Express pressed up a quarter-million plexidiscs of it and stapled them to the cover of that week's issue and gave it out, which instantaneously made it a gold record in England. There was a nice interview in there with me. Nice pictures. And that was really—goddamn, that was really something.
AVC: How does it feel to finally have a CD of yours that's commercially available, that's legal, that's above ground? Is it validating?
S: Well yeah, it is. It's nice. It's sort of comforting. It will help my mother become a little more adjusted to this side of me. Suddenly, I can put it in front of her and go, "Look! It looks real, doesn't it?" And that's pretty much it. Obviously, I am grateful to Illegal Art, because it isn't like I approached them. They came to me and said, "Would you be interested in doing this?" and we talked about it for a while, and I was like, "Okay, sure. Let's do it. That would be really great." I suppose it's my caveman approach again as usual. "Mmm, mmm, good." Once again, I don't really think about it that much, but it does make me feel pretty great, in a non-intellectualized, non-analytical sort of way.