Steinski: Still Playing 'That Beat'

Steve Stein makes music under the name Steinski.

Steve Stein makes music under the name Steinski. Kiretsu/R. Gardiner hide caption

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In 1983, a 32-year-old Madison Avenue ad man named Steve Stein and his sound engineer buddy Doug DeFranco ran across an ad in Billboard magazine. It announced a mixing contest to promote a less-than-brilliant 12-inch called "Play That Beat Mr. DJ."

By the standards of early hip-hop, the ad man and the engineer were unusually old and unusually white. But they took up the challenge. Stein and DeFranco spent 14 hours mixing their tape, crediting it to Double Dee & Steinski. It was the ninth of 10 finalists, and when it finished playing, an all-star jury broke into applause.

One way that mixes work is by interspersing hot or classic hooks from other songs into the record you're tricking up. But Humphrey Bogart and even Rufus Thomas doing Little Richard schtick were less conventional selections — and, in Bogart's case, an especially valued copyright.

Steinski's winning mix got more airplay than sponsoring label Tommy Boy had dreamed. But although sample clearance wasn't the rule of law in the mid-'80s, the label's lawyers wouldn't allow it to be released commercially. This problem has plagued Stein ever since. He continued to work in advertising, but he never stopped making records.

Whether a mix is fully released, barely released or totally unreleased, Steinski treats it like a collage in a museum. He's never sought permission to use a sample, be it from Barry Levinson's Tin Men or some R&B obscurity that couldn't be ID'd by the artist's mama.

But now, the well-named Illegal Art label in Illinois has collected 25 years of Steinski's mixes as a compilation titled What Does It All Mean? So far, no copyright owner has complained, and at this late date, maybe none will.

Steinski Gives A Sampling History Lesson

fromWNYC

Steinski's Sampler of Sampling

Steinski compiles a sampler of five songs which showcase a variety of sampling techniques. Read the list and listen to the songs here.

Hear Steinski's Music

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Steve Stein makes music under the name Steinski.

Steve Stein makes music under the name Steinski. Michele Taylor hide caption

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Humphrey Bogart may not have known much about it, but he was part of a musical revolution in the 1980s: the sampling revolution. These days, it's not just music: Much of our culture is sampled, and digital technology is making it easier than ever to borrow from music, speech and even a movie like Casablanca.

After three decades of sampling, the musical technique has become increasingly mainstream, thanks to artists such as DJ Shadow — whose practice of digging for obscure albums to sample on the 1996 album Endtroducing... landed him in the Guinness Book of World Records — and music producer Girl Talk (a.k.a. Gregg Gillis), who specializes in highly involved mash-up remixes that rely heavily on samples of well-known hits, but may potentially land him in court.

One of the art form's pioneers, Steven "Steinski" Stein, created "Lesson 1: The Payoff Mix" with his musical partner Doug DiFranco (known as Double Dee) in 1983. Along with two follow-ups — "Lesson 2: The James Brown Mix" and "Lesson 3: The History of Hip-Hop Mix" — the two forced music and the wider culture to confront issues of sampling technology, intellectual property, fair use and creativity. The producer spoke with Soundcheck host John Schaefer about the way the art of sampling has changed music, as well as his new collection, What Does It All Mean? 1983-2008 Retrospective.

Lesson 1: Music Has Always Been Referential

"Music, and especially jazz, has always been referential, saying, 'I'll take a piece of that or I'll take a little piece of this,' " Stein says.

But because of the nature of instrumentation and the technology, it was always done through the person, through Dizzy Gillespie's trumpet or Charlie Parker's saxophone.

"When digital technology happened, Douglas and I, and obviously a number of other people, stumbled into it," Stein says. "All of a sudden, you could be referential by taking the thing itself. Instead of re-contextualizing it on your instrument in music as part of your own composition, you could then re-contextualize the piece by taking the actual piece and putting it in a new setting. It's always had questionable legality from the beginning, but its utility and ease is not a question."

Stein says there was sampling well before their "Payoff Mix," although it existed in a different form — namely, the popular Flying Saucer records, which were collages created by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. Known as "break-in" records and generally considered to reside in the novelty genre, the Flying Saucer records were "built around a narrative with an actor who played a reporter, or TV person, who asked questions or delivered jokes, the punchlines of which were hooks of popular songs," Stein says.

"What we did," Stein says, "was construct a five-minute piece completely out of other pieces, without any sort of narrative other than what we were able to stitch out of the pieces. We used a whole lot of samples — we didn't use one; we used 60 or 70, I think, in the first record. And that was probably among the first approaches like that, even though, of course, now that I think about it, it was all tape. It wasn't digital technology; it was tape and razor blades."

Lesson 2: No Mechanism To Clear Rights

The Steinski and Double Dee pieces — Lessons 1, 2 and 3 — were never originally released in stores because they never cleared rights for songs. Still, the mixes became huge, unintended pop hits in clubs and on radio. In fact, "The Payoff Mix" was conceived over a weekend as a contest entry.

Stein says that when "Lesson 1" first came out, they had difficulties clearing rights for the songs they used from the larger record labels. At that time, some didn't even know how to charge for samples. It wasn't until releases by De La Soul and The Beastie Boys that a system was created — although, he says, they still ran into problems.

"It turned into, 'Now you can't clear it, because it's wildly and prohibitively expensive,'" Stein says. "So only rich people can play. There is now a mechanism: If you can afford it, then definitely you're online. But it's strictly for basically one major label talking to another major label."

Lesson 3: Finding Creativity In The Process

Stein says that he finds creativity in the process, because "first of all, it isn't the original thing. You can listen to [Girl Talk's] stuff, you can listen to our stuff, and you know that it's not the thing that you are hearing. That is a piece of something else; it's a building block. Now, whether or not that's legitimate — whether it's an art form, whether it's even creative — that's going to be left, unfortunately, to the courts."

"You look at [visual artist] Louise Nevelson, you look at Joseph Cornell, or at any number of people," he says. "The difference is that those are one-of-a-kind pieces. And if someone buys it for three-quarters of a million dollars and installs it in their house, that's the end of it; you can see a picture. But with our stuff, you can duplicate it on a cassette or send MP3s to your friends, and that's what's so threatening about it."

When jazz musicians reference a lick or melody from a well-known song within another composition, it's considered "quoting," but many interpret sampling to be "copying." Stein says that such narrow legal viewpoints resist and miss the context surrounding the references.

"The truth of the matter is, the legality of this doesn't really make any difference to me," he says. "I mean, I'm gonna make the records no matter what. It's like saying, 'If you use that color blue in your painting, that's not legal.' Well, what does that have to do with anything? It would be great if it was legal, it's too bad it's not, and so what?"


Steinski's Sampler Of Sampling

By Steinski

The songs on this list run the gamut of sampling techniques and stretch across the years the form has been used. The style isn't limited to hip-hop, and the ways it's used can be very different. Sometimes, just one loop forms the basis of the rhythm. A riot of different samples, artfully layered, creates mad energy and even serves up voices for the chorus. Or the only sample in the song might be a bit of a vocal that gives context and emotion. An old, unexpected sample provides exciting contrast, and many different versions of the same song fit together to create something new.

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