Review Summary: The visionary hip-hop pioneer finally gets an album worth his name.
Steinski might just be the most influential artist of the modern era that you've never heard of. I'll spare you the incidental back story (you can find that just fine in Robert Christgau's article "Down By Law: Great Dance Records You Can't Buy") - just know that when Steve Stein and his partner in crime Doug DeFranco made their first remix, they changed hip-hop as an art form. While remixes had previously been played reasonably straight, staying within the realm of black music, "The Payoff Mix" brought in a dizzying array of genres, along with obscure spoken-word samples, pieced together with more care and intellect than anything before them. Their subsequent releases, grouped with "The Payoff Mix" as "The Lessons", were flat-out underground classics. "Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)" reflected and advanced hip-hop's nascent obsession with Brown's music and no doubt inspired dozens of DJs to build their own songs from the breaks used by Steinski and Double Dee here, while "Lesson 3 (History of Hip-Hop)" was just that, and was the best of the bunch musically - if nothing else, it proved to be the blueprint for one of the greatest hip-hop singles of all time when its sped-up sample of Led Zeppelin's "The Crunge" and its 'what does it all mean?' vocal sample - and hell, its use of the number 3 too - became the basis for De La Soul's "The Magic Number". With just three tracks, Steinski and Double Dee influenced a silly number of DJs who followed in their path. Ironically, they did it without DJing at all in the traditional sense - all these tracks were created using the same mentality that had created avant-garde tape works like Pierre Schaeffer's Étude aux chemins de fer
and James Tenney's Collage #1 ("Blue Suede")
, and the circus sound effects on The Beatles' "For The Benefit of Mr. Kite". It's all splicing, all cutting and pasting, no turntables involved; and yet, the underlying suggestion that this kind of avant-hop patchwork could be achieved with a turntable was the imprint that Steinski and Double Dee left on the world. DJ Shadow, Girl Talk, Public Enemy, and countless others owe much to them.
So how come you've probably never heard of them? Copyright, that's why. None of these songs were ever commercially released, existing only in the hands of DJs at clubs and local radio stations. It remains to be seen how long they stay commercially available for now - I for one am not certain that Illegal Art will able to keep this on the market indefinitely, given the sheer amount of samples used - but regardless, it's great that this material is finally out there, ready to be heard by people other than record collectors and obsessive hip-hop heads.
What Does It All Mean?: 1983-2006 Retrospective
is two albums packaged as one, and it arguably functions as three. The first is, as the album's subtitle suggests, a greatest hits of sorts. The three Lessons queue up to kick off the album, and from there it completes his work with Double Dee (the Afrika Bambaataa remix "Jazz" and 1999's reunion special "Voice Mail (Sugar Hill Suite)") in a neat 5-track run that could well have been a great self-contained EP. The remaining 8 tracks look at his solo bootleg releases and remixes over the years. The most recent is the most divergent - the unreleased "Number Three on Flight Eleven" samples a recording of a phone call made from Flight 11 during the 9/11 attacks, putting it over a nightmarish, industrial dirge that sounds like nothing else here. There's samples of rain, more meditative spoken-word samples, and all in all it's a jarring, desolate end to an album that is essentially party music all the way until then. Notable tracks include the JFK-centric "The Motorcade Sped On", with its none-more-appropriate samples of tracks by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and its excellent, darkly funny snips of Prince yelping in ecstasy; the almost Prodigy-esque "Is We Going Under", which has an excellent guest appearance from Chuck D; and the politically charged "It's Up To You", which acts as a protest against the original Gulf War and samples both Jello Biafra and George Bush Snr. At any rate, it's all good stuff, keeping up a remarkable level of consistency for a collection of disparate songs that were created over a period of 23 years.
The second of the two albums is Nothing To Fear: A Rough Mix
, his 2003 album that was born from a single long mix for BBC radio, and takes its place comfortably next to Night Ripper
, Feed The Animals
, Since I Left You
, The Private Press
, The Grey Album
, The Audience's Listening
, and all the As Heard on Radio Soulwax
albums that wouldn't exist were it not for his influence. That in itself is an achievement worth toasting; the rock equivalent might be Howlin' Wolf releasing an album as good as Paranoid
and Led Zeppelin II
in 1969. And just like The Howlin' Wolf Album
, Nothing to Fear
was sadly overlooked and remains so; hopefully, this release will go some way to rectify that. It would obviously be hyperbolic to suggest that this album was 20 years in the making (counting forward from the 1983 quasi-release of "The Payoff Mix"), but the attention to detail and the intelligence suggests that a lot of time, care, and thought went in regardless. It's not the best album of its kind, but it's sure as hell right up there; its balance of straight rap cuts (check out Blackalicious on "Swan Lake (Beat Poets Mix)" or De La Soul on "The Art of Getting Jumped"), old-school mixing, and purposeful juxtaposition perfectly judged. It just flows, the way all great mixes should; it covers pretty much all the bases without losing anything as a pure piece of entertainment.
Historical importance aside, the music on What Does It All Mean?
hits so hard and deep because at heart, these songs are all about the love of music of all sorts, be it by way of tribute to a specific sound or era ("Voice Mail (Sugar Hill Suite)"), or by the inherent declaration in several of these megamixes that good music is good music regardless of background or sound (observe how he's unafraid to touch music as uncool as Nelly's "Country Grammar" and as famous as Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On"). It's playful with it, too - just observe all the self-parody that runs through it, from Steinski's willingness to piece together bits of music that sound like jokes, to his sampling of an obsessive record collector in "Jazz" (one suspects that a good portion of the people who hear this album will recognize a bit of themselves in this man, who chastises a un-named woman for not respecting the way he has categorized his records), to the girl who exclaims that 'he's old enough to be my father!' while reminding the listener of the artist and album they're listening to; simultaneously, of course, she's also reminding us that he's over 50, white, and Jewish, itself a piece of ironic postmodern comedy given his importance to an essentially black genre and his ability to keep making good music within it years after almost all of his original contemporaries have fallen by the wayside.
By listening to What Does It All Mean?
, you're giving yourself a vital history lesson, a blast of fun, and above all, some 130 minutes of fantastic music. It's been a long time since I've heard an album this long that's so easy to listen to in one sitting. What's not to appreciate about this near-vital collection?