It seems only fitting that Illegal Art, distributor of mash-up indie darling Girl Talk, is releasing What Does It All Mean?, a compendium of sampling pioneer Steinski’s best work. After all, without the work of Steinski and his partner Double Dee, it’s entirely possible that Illegal Art might not exist. The Avalanches, DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist—all of them owe massive debts to Steinski’s cut-up masterpieces. And Illegal Art, by compiling Steinski’s finest tunes, will only influence more potential DJs and entertain fans of great music.
The story sounds almost too amazing to be true – a middle-aged white New York ad executive sees an ad for a Tommy Boy remix contest, gets his sound engineer friend to help him put together a remix, wins the contest in a walk, and launches a second career as a sampling pioneer. “The Payoff Mix,” Double Dee & Steinski’s winning mix, takes the (frankly) mediocre “Play That Beat, Mr. DJ” by G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid and turns it into a dizzying whirlwind of samples, noises, and dance beats. Culture Club, Casablanca, the “Apache” break, Little Richard, an exercise instructional record; a ton of samples you know and a ton you don’t are blended into the original song so expertly it’s hard to imagine the song without them. But there is a measure of respect in the irreverent fun – there’s also a sample of the grandfather of mix records, “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” showing that they knew who the real pioneers were. The duo followed up their breakout mix with two new “Lessons” – a James Brown megamix and a marvelous remix of “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat,” both stuffed to the gills with offbeat samples and as danceable as they are fun to listen to. All three tracks are prime examples of how sampling can be used to make great music; building off the past to create something new and exciting.
Steinski’s solo work is no less remarkable, extraordinary both in their keen sense of musical timing, their skewed sense of humor, and faithfulness to the source material. “The Motorcade Sped On” is probably Steinski’s most infamous track, turning newscasts of JFK’s assassination into a track of stunning bad taste and equally stunning brilliance. The Beatles, Ed McMahon, the Rolling Stones, and Prince are all mixed into the fray making musical art out of a national tragedy and reminding us that sacred cows only exist in our own imaginations. “Jazz,” starting with a well-chosen Diner soundbite, moves with lightning speed from beat to beat organically and gracefully, so that Duke Ellington segues into Kool & The Gang into the Tom Tom Club with staggering ease. “The Big Man Laughs” chops up Bollywood dialogue, swelling strings, and blaring trumpets and creates a bouncing, hilarious club banger. And “Number Three on Flight Eleven,” Steinski’s 9/11 tribute, is gut-wrenchingly painful, with a desolate soundscape backing eerie spoken word poetry and phone calls from the day itself; almost impossible to listen to, it stays with you long after it’s finished playing.
But the real masterpiece of the whole CD is “It’s Up To You (Television Mix)”, as powerful a protest song as has ever been recorded. Using a propulsive Jackson 5 beat as the backbone, Steinski layers in a George H.W. Bush State of the Union Address, Jello Biafra, Mario Savio’s legendary 1964 Berkeley speech, and Peter Finch’s wild-eyed ranting from Network, turning these disparate dialogues into lyrics (the chorus, in particular, must be heard to be believed). The result is a marvelous protest against the first Gulf War, a shot across the bow against mass media, and a genuine exhortation for people to make a difference. And, of course, it remains utterly timely; swap out Bush the Elder for his son, and this song could be recorded tomorrow. “It’s Up To You” is a thundering reminder of how powerful, moving and intelligent great music can be.
What Does It All Mean? would be essential listening with only one disc, but Illegal Art threw in an entire second disc as a bonus, and it’s almost as strong as the first. Nothing To Fear, a mix commissioned for BBC London and Solid Steel, is essentially one of the “Lessons” drawn out for a full hour, with all the freewheeling cultural references and so-fast-you-can-miss-it musical puns that entails. Alec Baldwin’s famous speech from Glengarry Glen Ross rubs shoulders with Nelly and De La Soul; “Let’s Get It On” morphs into the Marx Brothers; and in truly classic mix form, if you don’t like the beat, no problem – a new one is just around the corner. It’s an absolute blast to listen to, and a sign that Steinski, even at an age most rappers haven’t even reached yet, is still at the forefront of hip-hop.
The debate about sampling in music has raged for over two decades, and it seems like a truce between the warring sides will never be reached. Somehow, all that arguing seems petty and small compared to the work that Steinski has created. It may not be legal, but it’s definitely essential.