Interview: Steinski (a/k/a Steve Stein), Part I
Tomorrow, look for the world premiere of Steinski's brand-new, never-before-heard mix "What Was Raymond Doing With His Hands?" in this space.
Steve Stein (a/k/a Steinski) is 57 years old, white, Jewish and, improbably enough, an integral part of hip-hop's early days.
In 1983, Stein, at the time an unknown club DJ and ad writer, paired with Douglas DiFranco (a/k/a Double Dee), to win Tommy Boy Records' "G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid's 'Play That Beat Mr. D.J.' Mix Context!"--a much bigger deal than the heinous, horrendous, horrible title suggests. That winning entry, "The Payoff Mix," not only altered the course of Steinski's own life, but, in a certain sense, hip-hop itself. (History buffs and those prone to extracurricular research may look towards Robert Christgau's aptly titled 1986 Voice piece "Down By Law: Great Dance Records You Can't Buy.")
"The Payoff Mix," as well as the soon-to-follow and equally revered "Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)" and "Lesson 3 (History of Hip Hop)," immediately expanded contemporaneous perimeters by superimposing measured beats with often time mischievous pieces of pop culture (including Culture Club, Little Richard, Herbie Hancock, The Supremes in the case of "Payoff"). However, record company fears of possible sample royalties (see: "Great Dance Records You Can't Buy") kept Steinski's singular remixes on the down low for more than a generation.
But earlier this decade, the figurative head of Illegal Art raised from the record company foxhole without (so far) getting shot. And so as Steinski's work paved the path for more recent acts like Girl Talk, Gregg Gillis's ability to draw more positive reviews than lawyerly fire has more or less returned the favor in clearing the way for the 42-track Steinski compilation, What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective. And with more than half of 2008 already in the books--metacritic.com currently lists What Does It All Mean? as the best-reviewed disc of the year.
We spoke with Steinski on two separate days in late July. In the first interview--just about an hour after he had finished the final mix of a brand new track, "What Was Raymond Doing With His Hands?"--we discussed the evolution of his career. In the second interview, which will run tomorrow alongside the world premiere of that just-completed track, we narrowed our focus to Frank Sinatra and the cut itself.
Sorry I'm a couple minutes late. I was re-reading the Christgau piece and it was a lot longer than I remembered.
I think it surprised everybody even at the time.
First of all, does anyone call you Steinski? What do your friends call you?
Most of them just call me Steve.
So is this purely a professional appellation or do you ever like strut into a bar with your shirt half open . . .
And pronounce, 'Steinski has arrived'?
If you ever saw me you'd realize how ridiculous that statement is. Yeah, strutting is a little bit beyond me at this point, in any case, but nonetheless . . . Occasionally a friend will use it but it's mainly Steve.
Then, Steve, how about telling me something you've never ever done before in your life.
(laughs) That covers quite a bit of ground.
Yes, it should.
Well, I never had a sex with an animal.
Good for you. Tell me something you've done once and one time only.
Once and one time only. Wow. Let's come back to that.
Okay. The name of a book you've read at least twice.
Holy shit. Yeah, okay. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell.
A movie that you've seen at least three times.
That covers quite a bit. The Gig.
Who's in that?
The guy who used to be Alan Alda's co-star on M*A*S*H. I forget his name.
Well, Mike Farrell was one of the sidekicks. Wayne Rogers was one.
He's actually from my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.
Though that doesn't make me a huge Wayne Rogers fan. It's just that there's not a lot of, you know, big TV stars from Birmingham, Alabama. Wayne Rogers and Kate Jackson and Courteney Cox, I think, are probably the big three.
Well, if you've never seen him in that film, it's pretty cool. It's a charming little film.
That's what Netflix is for.
Yes, exactly. Although, you know, it may not even be on Netflix, but yeah, exactly. That's what Netflix is for.
Now let's go back to something I've done once and one time only. Heroin.
Wow. Speaking of Alabama, just in case you wondered who out there in the world you might have something in common with . . .
[laughs] Yes, and who else said that?
Rob Spragg, the leader of the Alabama 3, who goes by the pseudonym Larry Love.
Oh, I loved their first record, man. Shit. Well, I'll tell you, I love the idea of having something in common with him. Yeah, the album Exile on Coldharbour Lane is fucking awesome.
I agree, but let's talk about your record.
Retrospective comes complete with very specific dates, from 1983 to 2006. And the Tommy Boy contest is in '83, so I guess that's the beginning of the story.
That would be the first thing I did with Douglas certainly. "The Payoff Mix" was, you know, us hanging around a lot together and diving into this contest without really thinking about it too much. We were both involved in doing other things. Douglas had his life as a studio engineer and I had my life as an advertising copywriter and a little bit of a DJ in Brooklyn. And when we did that, which was just over the course of a weekend, and then found out whenever, two months later, or however long afterwards, that we had won, that was pretty enormous. I have to say, that really jolted me off of the rails there, you know, so I'd have to say that would probably be the start.
That's one of those moments that very, very few people have in their lives. There's a particular day where you can point and say, 'This is when everything changed.'
Yes, exactly. It wasn't gradual over time unless you count, you know, meeting Douglas and hanging out and getting into hip-hop and all of that. But yeah, that particular moment, you know, getting that phone call and finding out that we had won that contest, there's like the before that point and the after that point.
What's your reaction when you get the phone call? Do you call Douglas? Family? A girlfriend? Do you jump up and down like you've got an internal pogo stick? What's your immediate reaction?
Well, my secretary was jumping up and down and hollering. She was very impressed. And then I called Douglas and he was in the middle of a session but he was like, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. We won. Can you believe it? They called me. Good-bye.' Like that. And then I called the Tommy Boy offices where I got that kind of a, 'Yeah, you won. Who are you?' And, you know, very like, 'What kind of mixer has a secretary? And who's that other guy?' And they were even more surprised when they met us.
I would imagine. Do you at least get to take the rest of the day off? How do you sit in the office with that kind of metaphysical tingle of validation?
[laughs] Well, don't forget, all that happened was we'd gotten a phone call and we had won the contest. We had no idea what was going to happen. And we weren't that attached to the idea in the first place because it wasn't as if, you know, we were like two guys with guitars who had sent their demo into Warner Brothers and we'd been waiting for this all our lives. But it was actually, you know, a very nice thing.
I remember having to go out to lunch with a couple of other people and we were working on some flooring account or something. We were pitching some flooring account. And so basically that was what I was involved in until that evening when Douglas and I jumped in his car and drove up to the Tommy Boy offices.
And even though you didn't know things were going to change as they did, obviously that's a very important moment because that's 25 years ago and it sounds like you have as good an idea what happened on that day as maybe what you had for lunch two days ago.
[laughs] Probably better, actually.
Can we talk about sequencing? Because the retrospective begins with "Payoff Mix," "Lesson 2," then "Lesson 3" in that order. And that almost insinuates a chronological presentation, does it not?
I mean, not consciously in the work itself. I mean, yes, they happened sequentially, but the third one happened . . . Don't forget, you know, we didn't initiate that. We didn't initiate the first one. That was a contest entry. The second one we did because we liked the idea of having stuff on the radio and we did this James Brown thing and, what do you know, it got picked up and it worked. And then the third thing was we were approached about doing a soundtrack for a book. We didn't approach anybody about that. So it isn't as if we sat back and went, 'Okay, we're going to do this great, you know, tripartite piece of work here.'
Okay. It's just that those three, beginning with "Payoff Mix," occur in order, but then the 9/11 piece ("Number Three On Flight Eleven") is only like ten cuts later on a 42 track release.
Yeah, but don't forget, there was a lot of stuff I couldn't put on there, you know, so in terms of chronology there's stuff that's left off quite deliberately.
Then let me ask about the stuff you couldn't put on there. Because when I go back to earlier interviews, words like "unreleaseable" and "extra-legal" come up from both you and the interviewer. What's changed?
Nothing really. What's changed is that Illegal Art is putting them out. That's what's changed.
And they're willing to take the risk? They're willing to take the chance?
I think risk and chance, yeah. I mean, I think what happened is that they were so surprised that the Girl Talk record didn't bring the temple down around their ears that they were, you know, kind of encouraged and went, 'Oh. Okay. Who else in this vein can we find?' And then my name came up.
Does talking about such things invite trouble? Is there a superstition that we shouldn't talk about this because if we ignore it then any and all lawyers will stay away?
Well, one of the conversations that I've had with the guys at Illegal Art, and I think they made a very good point because we were talking about something that I just finished today actually, was that all the stuff on the Retrospective, if taken from the long shot point of view, involves many, many, many artists. Whereas, if it was a single artist being used over the course of a period of time, you know, ten minutes or so, that changes the focus.
Also the fact is, as delighted as I am to be speaking to you and to have the attention of villagevoice.com turned upon my work and all the rest of that, it is a fairly limited popularity, you know. I mean, when I put stuff out, there are ten or fifteen people who may be very happy, and then maybe a couple of hundred others who are moderately intrigued, but we're not talking about big numbers here, man. This isn't as if, you know, I was like selling out on iTunes or some nonsense.
Yeah, but selling out on iTunes obviously isn't the issue. It's that whole kind of copyright law, which is, if not a black hole, then certainly a gray one. I mean, nobody really knows what's going on there.
And I don't think they will for a long time, unfortunately, because this is too . . . You know, obviously on the one side you have every heavyweight corporate bank of cultural material, up to and including Prince and, you know, his nonsense about that video of the kid learning to walk with his song in the background. Did you hear about that?
There's a video on You Tube that's about thirty or forty seconds long of some kid holding onto a stroller who is apparently like walking for the first time, and his mother, you know, was filming him. And in the background, on the radio or on the stereo, is a Prince song. YouTube got a cease and desist order from Warners saying, 'Take it down.'
But obviously there's no commercial gain on the mother's part. And obviously the sound quality can't be that good . . .
None of that matters. Commercial gain doesn't matter because the DMCA, you know, the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, specifically says that you don't have to be doing it for monetary gain. Basically they've turned every piece of corporate property into a cultural sacred cow.
That seems like it might put a little dent into Illegal Arts' 'under the radar' theory.
Well, I'd have to say that even the baby learning to walk on YouTube is probably still a little bit higher profile than my stuff.
Well, okay. But I'm certain you have a better publicist than the baby.
[laughs] I'd say the baby probably has more natural appeal than I have.
So how exactly how under the radar are you? Your publicist is out of promo copies. Amazon.com will usually say, 'Order this and we will send it to you in three to six months' if they are out of stock just so they can sell you something, but in the case of the Retrospective it literally says, 'Not in stock.'
Well, I think it's apparently getting re-pressed. You know, the first pressing wasn't that big, so the idea of it being sold out is, you know . . . The truth there is it's easy to sell something out if you don't have that many.
So are we talking about less than 5000 copies on the first run?
Oh, hell yeah. I think there's been a re-press ordered, and the American distributor has ordered a fair amount again. Physically, of course. So I don't know exactly what's going to happen. I'm like deep into my own shit here, so I'm not exactly sure what's going on with Illegal Art at this moment but, you know, it's probably just going to cook along at this rate. There may be some plans to release it in Europe, which would be pretty great because that's where I do most of my touring so I like the idea of being able to tour behind a product there. That would be great.
That sounds like the perfect segue, and thank you for that. [laughs]
Whether you're releasing a thousand or ten thousand, and whether it's in Europe or not, the evil genius up in Minneapolis and everyone else in the music business says that they're not making money on record sales anymore. Everybody has to tour. But I think I've only seen one tour date for you and that's at the grand re-opening of the Guitar Center in North Hempstead.
Oh, I was going to. At Carle Place, actually. And I was going to go there. A friend of mine works for Guitar Center and he hooked that up. Unfortunately I've had to cancel out of that because I was touring up until . . . Jesus, I mean, again, I was touring in Europe up until March, I guess, or the middle of April, and then at the end of May I had some rather drastic surgery that I am recovering from now. And the surgeon, a delightful person and quite skilled, led me on ever so slightly about how long it would take to recover. You know, three weeks turned into six weeks turned into, 'Well, you know, it's probably going to be three months.' So I just picked up the phone and said, 'Guys, I ain't going to be making that date.' So I think I'm probably going to be back on the road, or at least available to be back on the road, probably the beginning of September.
So the booking agent would like to beat the shit out of the surgeon no matter how skilled and polite he is.
[laughs] Well, to the extent that my booking agent has strong feelings about this sort of thing, yes.
I don't want to come across as any more ignorant than absolutely necessary, but what's the copyright situation in Europe? Can the retrospective be released overseas without the same worries we have here?
No, not at all. In the UK, which would be the main audience for me, I'd say, laws are pretty much the same. The US and the UK are pretty much synchronized on that. I think the only place where that's not the case, and it really wouldn't apply to this, is Italy where all those great older jazz and country and western things are coming from, because I believe there's some sort of loophole in the law there.
I mentioned that no one was making money off of record sales anymore.
Well, not too many people, that's for sure.
Lyle Lovett gave a big interview a couple of weeks ago and he sold, I think, something like four million records in the past dozen years and he swears that he's never made a dime off record sales. But he's probably got some publishing checks that he's not counting in there.
I would think. And airplay stuff. Especially if he's down there as a writer.
Yeah, I think he's probably bemoaning literal record sales. But you don't have a lot of publishing coming back to you. There haven't been the big commercial releases to keep you in the cocaine and the limousines.
[laughs] You will write down that I laughed when you said that.
Yes, I will. I will absolutely note that. There's obviously a love for what you're doing.
Oh, hell yeah.
But at some point you've got to pay the mortgage or the rent or the car payment or whatever. Your surgery bill.
All of that.
Considering that you're doing this for little or no financial gain, is the touring over in Europe a continuation of 'I do this because I love it and I'm going to take one for the team' or does the overseas touring enough to help pay the surgeon with the faulty calendar?
Well, I'd say marginally. It helps to pay the surgeon, but this isn't really taking one for the team. I mean, I have a business where I write and produce radio commercials. I do scores for TV commercials. I, very occasionally, will do a piece of music for a film. This is something I do because it's pretty much what I do. The other stuff is the taking one for the team. I mean, I'm good at that stuff. I'm real good at that stuff. I've won all kinds of awards and shit, but this is what I love to do.
Does your music career help bring in business that does pay the bills?
Oh, hell yeah. Oh, that definitely does. Sure. I wouldn't say definitely from the beginning, but at various points it definitely has.
It gives you all kinds of artistic stink that people want to pay for.
Well, that they want to pay for up to a certain extent, yeah. It's a real difference between me and other people. I mean, when it comes down to it, I think people make decisions about suppliers for all manner of different reasons. And it doesn't hurt to be, . . . You know, like, 'Here's a link to some press that I have. Here's some crazy records that I put out.' And I've actually had people, some people . . . You know, some of my stuff has been converted quite directly into TV commercials in Britain.
That's great when you can get paid twice for something.
Yeah, that's awesome.
The word 'reprint' is actually one of my favorites in the English language now.
[laughs] Exactly. 'We'd like you to become part of an anthology.'
'Retrospective' is a pretty big word. Does this 42-track offering, this anthology in a sense, of your own work, does it feel as much of an accomplishment as the word 'retrospective' would make it seem? If it's not the original giddiness of your secretary when Tommy Boy calls, when the first box of records finally hits your house, does your heart beat a little faster?
Well, my heart always beats a little faster when I see some sort of tangible evidence of something I've done. Even when they're legal, like the stuff I did for 4th and Broadway. I mean, that was great. You know, I picked that up and I would hold it and I would kiss it. That's fabulous.
I mean, the difference between a retrospective and an anthology is probably the way I felt that morning when I wrote it. You know, when I wrote the copy. But that's pretty much it. I mean, I wouldn't put that much weight on the choice of words.
Then let me hit it one more time and I'll leave it alone.
Retrospective absolutely has the denotation and connotation of looking back. Given the long, strange trip, what advice do you think you would've given Steinski of 1983 if you could talk to him today?
What would I have said? I would've said, 'Well, ditch the advertising. Get involved in the music completely.' Probably. I mean, I was too middle class to do it, but I probably would've said that at the time.
We talked briefly about the Carle Place gig that you're not going to be able to do. And I'm sure that you probably got involved with it because of your buddy working there, but you've got the best-reviewed album of the year thus far at metacritic.com.
Yeah. Ain't that a motherfucker? [laughs]
Their sole function is to throw a number on reviews and assign scores like it's math class, and you're up there at the top. Does it strike you as incongruous at all that the guy responsible for the best-reviewed album of 2008 was booked to perform in a parking lot in North Hempstead or is that just me?
Well, you know, I take them where I can get them, you know. It helps one's mental stability a lot not to have too many expectations about what should be happening.
Okay. I think we've come to some kind of agreement about the 'under the radar' standing of your career. But you've got at least two tracks, "The Motorcade Sped On" and "Number Three On Flight Eleven," that touch on some relatively controversial subjects (the Kennedy assassination and 9/11) even with copyright issues set to the side. Now I assume that given the lower visibility of your work the bows and arrows shot in your direction are going to be smaller, but have you taken any kind of hits for such emotionally raw subject matter?
Well, I mean, when the Kennedy thing came out there were a lot of people who were offended, you know, but it was a different world then. You know, there were people who were in a position to hear that who were around when the Kennedy thing happened and who had a point of view on it. I mean, I'd have to say now that probably, you know, better half of the people who are listening to this, that would be like me making a record about World War I, you know. They're completely removed from it.
So what about "Number Three On Flight Eleven," especially in the part of the country where you and I live? I mean, we're coming up on the seven-year anniversary and there's still a significant part of at least the tri-state population that believes this is sacred turf and should always be treated as such. Has "Number Three" given you any problem?
No. I mean, for any number of reasons. There aren't that many people who've heard it, A. And B, I didn't turn it into a dance record. I mean, it's about as dirge-like as it could possibly be, so I don't think anybody's going to . . . I mean, you'd have to look pretty hard to find the levity in there. And, you know, I think it's coming at the tail end of a whole lot of stuff that got done about it, so it was, you know . . . I had to wait because I was waiting for the right thing, but there's a lot of stuff that's happened since then.
There's a spoken word part to "Number Three" that almost functions as a sort of chorus: "Even in New York/How I long for New York/When the telephone rings."
And the Silos have a song called "When The Telephone Rings" that came out two years ago. And the chorus is "Even in New York/How I long for New York/When the telephone rings."
Good for you for finding that.
Well, I don't know that it's so much found as being familiar with the Silos' material.
Oh, cool. Well, one of the guys who writes songs for the Silos is my friend Paul. And Paul adapted that from a series of haikus done by Bashö in the 12th century. And he adapted that and showed it to me, and I immediately went, 'Wow, man. Hey, I want to use this.' And he said, 'Yeah, well, I don't see why you can't. (Silos leade Walter Salas-Humara) Walter's going to use it as a song, too.' And I think Walter pretty much changed it around quite a bit. I used it as it was written. And the relationship is with my friend Paul, who actually introduced me to Walter also. He hooked Walter and me up on a project once. He's a very cool guy. So it's the same song interpreted by two different people in two dramatically ways.
Let me go back to "Motorcade." I read that you spent a couple of months putting that track together.
And that was one of the earlier works. That's mid-'80s, right?
Yeah, that was very early on.
Assuming that your brain still works the same way and the ideas still come at the same pace, just technologically, if that takes you two months 20 odd years ago, how long does it take to knock out today?
Well, if I had my head on straight doing that would probably take me, I would say, you have to include sort of my own unique working process, probably two weeks.
So 25% of the time, give or take.
More or less, yes, I would say.
Is there anything about what now appears to be antiquated technology, the old cut and paste days, that you miss other than the innocence of kind of looking at it through rose-colored glasses?
Well, that's interesting. I look at it more as, you know, that was what was available at the time. When I work with Douglas now, it's kind of the same feeling except we have computers instead of tape and all the rest of that stuff. I mean, technically I don't really pine for it, other than, you know, the way anybody in their middle age pines for being younger. And that may not be a universal feeling either.
I don't reminisce about it technically because, for one thing, having now learned how to use computers and digital audio work stations and all the various other things that are available, I'm . . . The largest drawback, for me, of that time, was not being a tape cutter and an engineer, and therefore all I could do was sit and make suggestions. Which is, you know, pleasant in its own way and useful and a good thing to do, but now I have a lot of tools in my basement. I can walk downstairs, turn on the lights and I'm ready to go. And it doesn't cost me money. I don't have to make an investment in time and call up a studio and then worry that, you know, if I want to work another two hours some engineer isn't going to be able to go home and see his kid before he goes to bed. You know, and there's nothing wrong with that. You know, great. Fine. Kids. Engineers. Home. Wonderful. But it's not something I want to be involved with when I want to try out an idea.
With technology being what it is, you don't even have to be in the same room anymore. You can just e-mail each other and send files back and forth, right?
We do that.
Is there an artistic cost to the newer process?
Yeah, I think there are differences. I mean, I would do it with Douglas unhesitatingly because Douglas and I already have a shared vocabulary which we developed like, you know, like, what, 25, 26, 27 years ago, like doing a lot of hanging out. If I'm working on a remix or something, or a project with somebody who I've only met once or twice, and we're exchanging files, that's qualitatively very different, you know. And while it's absolutely, you know, convenient in terms of efficiency, it's not necessarily going to come up with something better artistically. I for one very much enjoy hanging out. When I was involved in advertising full-time at an advertising agency as a writer, you know, part of the challenge was walking into a room with someone who you've never met before and establishing some sort of a personal bond, and getting the job done and getting it done on time. Which may only be a couple of hours. And I'm pretty good at that. I'm decent at it. And that can be a missing piece of the puzzle when you're working at a huge remove. Which isn't to say I would turn down an offer of a remix or some sort of a collaboration with somebody, say, in New Zealand, because of this because you can use Skype now and you can do all kinds of amazing things with file-sharing and what not, it's just that there's going to be a little bit of difference. It isn't a case of calling up and say, 'Hey, what do you say we get together at 5 o'clock for a beer, you know, and hang out?'
Yes, we can do so many things with technology but you miss the spirit, the human interaction.
Well, it depends. I think the emphasis can be too much on efficiency and not enough on the soul, you know.
I doubt that I would've bought it anyway, but I remember being taken aback when Sinatra did his duets album and he would be in a studio in Los Angeles and Bono would be in a studio in Ireland. That just didn't seem right somehow.
Well, I think that's something that people rationalize 90 different ways from Sunday, you know. You know, if Natalie goes in and sings with her father, we'll sell a bazillion records. Plus think of the video. And Bono is probably thinking, 'If I go in and do this, you know, sort of marginally morally bankrupt project, or artistically bankrupt project, I make $500,000 that I can give to AIDS research in Africa.' Or something. You know, which is, I suppose, why some movie stars make movies. And they make terrible movies sometimes because they want that million or something. And they rationalize it by saying, 'Well, I can afford to take the hit artistically and look what this million will do.' Who knows? For all I know they're buying new tits for their girlfriend or something. But, you know, there's always a good rationalization for doing something that's going to get a lot of play and a lot of press.
Let me hit one more thing and I will let you go and thank you very, very much for your time and the conversation. I'm quite glad that we were able to do this.
Oh yeah, me too. Thanks a lot. I mean, you know, the Village Voice and I have been around since I was in junior high school so I'm all for it.
And at the end of the piece she quotes Michael Lobel, a professor of 20th Century Art at Purchase College. And he's talking about the availability of digital images on the Web. Lobel says, 'There's a broader consciousness among artists about owning their work and keeping tighter control over its distribution. The more available images have become, the more of a counter movement there is to clamp down on them.' But his last line is the one I want to talk about. 'Culture is about ongoing borrowing. It's about taking images, ideas and motifs and opening them up to new uses.' That doesn't seem like the worst description for what you're doing.
Yeah, right. And I think a lot of people gather under that banner. You know, as I think I mentioned in the liner notes of the retrospective, but also in general, I did not have that perspective on my own stuff until I started reading some of Lawrence Lessig's stuff. And that really woke me up to like, 'Well, wait a minute. How come it's illegal, you know? And why shouldn't this be a part of culture in general? This reworking and screwing with stuff.' I mean, that made me really think about this. And also, as I think you pointed out before, I think it's an unbelievably complicated area that's gray until the 22nd century.
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