The package also contained a copy of the new Steinski retrospective, What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006, released on the same label, Illegal Art. This would be an essential release even if it were just for seeing the first official airing of ‘The Lesson’ mixes made by Steinski and Double Dee made in the early-to-mid 80s. Y’all probably know the story already: Tommy Boy run a remix contest for ‘Play That Beat Mr. DJ’; DD & Steinski drop an almost 5-minute marathon of cut-and-paste, promptly win; two more lessons follow, providing a basis for all sampledelic hip-hop (Public Enemy, De La Soul, etc.) and cut-and-paste turntablism (Coldcut, DJ Shadow, The KLF) to follow. ‘The Payoff’, alternately known as ‘Lesson No. 1’, begins the first disk, and immediately circumvents the paradox of ‘historic’ music that sounds awful when you actually hear it for the first time. It has a lightness of touch, a masterly deftness, a feel for the content, the timbres and rhythms, and their proper contrast and juxtaposition, that Gillis would kill for; and whilst he (Gillis) insists on making every musician the butt of one enormous joke, Steinski and Double Dee’s love for the music oozes through every second, their humour gentle and referential (the obvious example being the repeated sampling of Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Adventures Of Flash On The Wheels Of Steel’, the first commercially-available record of the cut-and-paste aesthetic that had emerged at the hands of DJs like Afrika Bambaataa and Grand Wizard Theodore). From the opening stutters of scratched vocal and 808 pops, the fragments of ‘Play That Beat Mr. DJ’ that surface every so often, gently bigging up its creators (“The one with the gifted fingertips/Music is his bag of tricks”), the way they sometimes entirely replace the rhythm line in addition to the melody, or stop the entire record with a depth charge of guitar feedback, or a few seconds of a capella Little Richard, a dance-instructional record or Casablanca, a scrap of Motown I can’t identify but which always has me singing inanely along, to the gong bash and the catchphrase that would become Steinski’s own (“Say children, what does it all mean?”), it’s an odyssey of joy to listen to. The other two ‘Lessons’ – ‘The James Brown Mix’ and ‘The History Of Hip Hop’ (a premature title if ever I saw one) – differ only in their ambition and source materials: ‘Lesson No. 2’ seems to draw a line between the mechanical tightness and Ecstatic ritual of Brown’s late 60s recordings and the itchy electro and hip-hop drum loops that populate the song (and, indeed, it prefigures by a few years, the Golden Age obsession with looped samples, of which Brown’s was the most popular among producers) along with a thousand other fragments (Warner Bros. cartoons, a few seconds of the ubiquitous ‘Planet Rock’, the rolling congas that cropped up in so many hip-hop recordings over the years, Sly Stone and some late 70s disco-soul); ‘Lesson No. 3’ integrates and splices an array of samples wider than the Vendee (from obscure Northern Soul records to the theme of Hernando’s Hideaway) so deftly it makes ‘The Payoff Mix’ sound almost clumsy by comparison. Amazingly, Steinski and Double Dee were, at this point, still using just two turntables (they had previously used only one, plus a mixing desk, when recording ‘The Payoff Mix’; indeed, one wonders whether it was precisely this primitive set-up that resulted in the extraordinary sense of fun and energy that runs through the mixes. There’s a roughness to the edits that lends the mixes a real immediacy, that suggests someone compiling an album with a razor; it was precisely this that made hip-hop modernist art: the edit didn’t exist before cinema and recording technology, and no art-form could ignore its implications; the principle of juxtaposition, of severing signs from their original contexts and introducing them to a new one, unleashed an alien energy in the objects concerned – an aesthetic alchemy. The way in which these mixes switch from source to source was a kind of semiotic and timbral violence analogous to the practice of scratching proliferating on hip-hop records at the time – one which, governed by its own logic – one of disjunction, ruptures – creates a new kind of propulsion. Nearly five years later, when the Bomb Squad produced Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions…, the same split-second segues between differing sources – live recordings, looped samples, field recordings, scratched and processed vocals – would grow from this logic into a Burroughs/Gysin cut-up of ass-shaking information.
The other two Steinski and Double Dee mixes on this first disk were made some years later, when they reformed temporarily for special projects – ‘Jazz’, a remix of Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Five’s ‘Jazzy Sensation’ (Tommy Boy’s first rap release), which doesn’t contain much of the original (Steinski remembers, in the sleevenotes, Double Dee ruefully remarking “You know we’re never going to make a legal record, you know that, don’t you?”), but does have kazoo orchestras, ultra old skool hip-hop, scraps of aged be-bop and swing, what sounds like Arabic funeral music, and a succession of increasingly hilarious and clipped soundbites (“Let’s go back to something we really like doing.” “Yeah, like robbing and stealing?”) The following ‘Voice Mail (Sugar Hill Suite)’ is a work of astonishing prowess and overwhelming fun – a collage of the entire catalogue of Sugar Hill Records, the label responsible for the record that began it all, the 10+ minutes of ‘Rapper’s Delight’. Since you ask, I’m not familiar with even the majority of the laminated fragments caught in its stream (I recognised Grandmaster Flash, The Funky 4+1, The Fatback Band and what I thought might be Washington DC’s Trouble Funk), an entire era’s energy compressed into just over 5 minutes (it seems fitting that Double Dee and Steinski went to the trouble of getting another DJ to provide the persistent and almost irritable scratching that shifts and re-shifts its layers and incandescent scraps. It’s obvious that the pair were, at the same time as claiming their heritage, laying claim to a legacy – the sheer density, hyperactivity and timbral warping suggest jungle, acid and post-Warp techno, all music essentially descended from the trauma of their own seismic data-bombs.
Much of the rest of the disk, conducted by Steinski solo and with several collaborators, pale somewhat in comparison – ‘The Motorcade Sped On’ and ‘It’s Up To You (Television Mix)’ graft soundbites onto more unvarying percussion tracks, which, whilst they line up very well (the Mario Savio clip on the latter, taken from the Berkeley Free Speech Movement demonstrations, is especially powerful). As the CD, and the Nineties, wears on, and Steinski got more to grips with contemporary mixing technology – laptops, Ableton, Pro-Tools – the pieces become considerably better, enough so to make you think he were going through a renaissance – more streamlined and seamless, as digital technology is wont to make music, but more compelling – they seem to be more ‘his own work’ than piratical excursions through musical history. ‘Is We Going Under?’, a “ghost remix” of a Boom Boom Satellite track with vocals by Chuck D, recalls the sheer headlong propulsion of Fear Of A Black Planet-era PE, while the other highlight, ‘Number Three On Flight Eleven’ is a haunting meditation on 9/11, its crackle-wreathed voices (captured from emergency services calls conducted from the eponymous doomed aircraft), moving through clouds of dark-ambient drone, recalling the work of Scanner more than Coldcut.
The second disk, ‘Nothing To Fear’, consists of an hour-long mix Steinski made for Coldcut’s Capital FM radio show, Solid Steel – the lengthy format allows Steinski to stretch out, subtly generating atmosphere, creating more considered cross-cuts and layering of fragments; the cuts still come thick and fast, but the sections are so much longer than his earlier mixes, the play of information – the timing of jokes, the proper placement and switching of samples (not needing, in this format, to cram all of his ideas into 3-4 minutes); he has the chance to drag out and tweak particular combinations of textures (although each of the 28 sections here are shorter than most of ‘The Lessons’). It would be neither useful nor possible to describe it all here, but it’s nothing less than an absolute, brilliant joy to listen to, even without recognition of nearly any of the samples (there is a nice moment in section 20, ‘I Like It Like That (Scratch One Mix)’, where he scratches Chuck D’s cry of “bass!” from ‘Night Of The Living Baseheads’ into a fractured shower of half-syllables.) Where Girl Talk’s much-trumpeted 300 samples seem to exist purely as always-already reified products to be rearranged, Steinski cracks these sounds open, to bring us to understand why they were loved in the first place.