This interview originally appeared in Ink19.
When it comes to the mixes of Steve Stein (aka Steinski), stealing certainly paid off. During a Sunday afternoon phone conversation from his New York home, he painted the scene circa 1983, when he and his partner Douglas DiFranco created one of hip hop’s most influential genre-defining and smash-hit remixes, “The Payoff Mix.” For the next 20 plus years, he produced a string of hip hop’s best cut and paste moments, splicing together old-school hip hop beats with catchy pop culture sound bites, creating entertaining political statements that both challenged and captivated everyone, from dedicated hip hop heads to the most casual listeners looking for a reason to dance. He also contributed to the creative formation of one of cable TV’s first networks.
We went back to the days in Mount Vernon just south of the Bronx, when Steinski started as an advertising student who was curious about learning the trade of selling and communicating ideas. When hip hop came along in the late ’70s, he merged his love for the then growing and so-called “musical fad” with his career in advertising. Well, since then, hip hop lost the fad label, and eventually became an art form — for the streets and the billboards. Twenty-three years later Illegart has released Stienski’s contribution, a definitive collection of his work titled What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective.
Our conversation felt like a Steinski mix as we covered much ground in little time, fusing the past with the present, and squeezing in all the highlights (and some surprising remixed revelations) in less than an hour. For the intro, Steinski recalled the moment he shook hands with hip hop DJ legend Afrika Bambaattaa, after he and his partner Douglas DiFranco (Double Dee) won Tommy Boy’s Hey Mr. DJ Play that Beat Down By Law Switch the Licks Mastermix contest, which required all contestants to remix the hit track of G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid. It was the “Payoff Mix” that won the contest, putting them on the map and officially kick-starting their success as hip hop mixmasters. Halfway through, we dissected the infectious rhythmic splicing behind the “Payoff Mix” and answered the question of whether or not his background in advertising and love for the sound of human speech patterns truly paid off. For the outro, Steinski explained how copyright law in 2008, the proliferation of the Internet, how digital technology impacts creative license and the use of music in advertising.
Can you explain how your early work in advertising influenced, and then merged with, your love for hip hop and popular music?
I first got interested in advertising because it seemed like an industry designed to convince people or get ideas across that are different from journalism. Advertising at its basis is selling, and I don’t know myself well enough to say why it was so interesting, but it certainly was, and when I moved back to New York in 1978, I started going to the school of visual arts to learn how to do it better. And it took years to learn, and it took a while to get good at it. It wasn’t like I picked up a pencil and was a genius. I studied with several very good and talented teachers sort of simultaneously and when I started to make money at advertising, I started spending my money on records and essentially did what a lot of people did when they got involved in music and became self-educated people, and then started saying “oh, if I like this kind of music then maybe I’ll like that kind of music.” And pretty soon you’re all over the lot. When I discovered hip hop, that was really a revelation for me, an epiphany, and I couldn’t believe how great this music was even though everyone I knew thought it wasn’t of any value. And I just thought it was the shit. When Douglas and I made our first record as a contest entry, it was at a time when we were both very involved in advertising, Douglas as a supplier and me as a writer and producer. And I wouldn’t say we were so conscious of what we were doing that we were saying “oh, let’s do it this way,” we just both had instincts from our advertising backgrounds as to what helped get something across. And it isn’t as if our records are so loaded with message that we had to work very hard and think how people were going to perceive this. Again, it was just an instinctive way of putting across things we thought were cool and would work. It wasn’t a science and we were kind of lucky, too.
Were there specific things that you saw in your first work with advertising that was difficult to meld with hip hop?
Not really, and at that point I had been listening to music for a lot of years. I knew we wanted to make something that was disco-based and dance floor oriented, and I was already DJing at Brooklyn at that point, so there wasn’t anything that was hard to reconcile. And when we made the record, or just that time in general, the advertising didn’t really enter into it. It was just like “wow, this is great music, I like it, it makes me dance, it’ll make other people dance too.”
Today it’s hard to remember a time when hip hop, and pop music in general, were separate from advertising. And hip hop wasn’t even in the mainstream (or any streams) like it is today. What was the view of using a music form like hip hop or popular music like you did back when you started and how has it changed today?
True. Good question. And certainly it has changed a lot and that’s a cultural process. Co-optation of anything just happens and most anything that becomes big becomes co-opted. And hip hop, which started out as a way to have a part in the South Bronx if you didn’t have a lot of money, slowly became an art form and from there grew from something for a dance floor into something that carried a message — and once that happens, it may seem like a big leap, but it’s really not a big leap for an advertiser to look at a popular song and to say “oh, some of that will rub off on us,” which in advertising is called “borrowing an intro.”
For example, I saw a liquor ad the other day (and liquor is a very hard thing to advertise) with a bottle of rum and next to it was a girl’s ass in a bikini. And obviously the one has nothing to do with the other unless you’re trying to get laid. But that’s the association that they want to build in the ad. They’re thinking “Our rum has really nothing to do with a girl’s ass but if you look at a girl’s ass you get a little ‘hey!’ and by the way here’s a bottle of rum, whatdya think?” And what else are you going to do, you can’t compare your rum to someone else’s; there’s no real difference except that we have a better looking girl’s ass in our ad.
Since you were competing against other contestants, did you bring a lot of that type of thinking of bringing unlike objects and combining them into the making of the “Pay Off Mix?”
Not at all; I’m so much not a conscious person and neither is Douglas. All that stuff would just bubble up from our unconscious. And if you look at our mixes, they’re very different in that they’re not really thematic; their logic is mainly the logic of rhythm. Every time you put your foot down there’s something there to catch you, it might not be what you expected but it works in time. So that’s its own sort of logic but it’s not the sort of logic you think up necessarily. It just so happens that we decided to throw in Supremes, Culture Club and a little bit of this and that and all of a sudden, it works. But it was not something we were really thinking about at all.
That’s interesting to hear, because there are a lot of similarities between the way advertising works with emotions and the way you feel when you travel through the mix.
Oh, yeah, the mixes are dance music for people with ADD.
In the liner notes you list the best thing after winning the contest as “having had the chance to shake Bambaattaa’s hand…” What was that like for you at that moment? And can you take us back to what it was like working in the studio on the “Payoff Mix?”
Working in the studio was something we were doing already. Douglas’ studio and my work were fairly close and we had already been hanging at his studio working on freelance jobs and just plain hanging around. So, after hours, because it wasn’t getting used for work, we just used it for messing around with different music ideas and then just hung out afterwards at the Roxy or other bars. To roll into the studio on Saturday morning and make the “Payoff Mix” was just the most natural thing in the world. It was different because we didn’t have a client, per se, and it was just something we were going to do. I only had a sense of what I wanted to do in the first couple of seconds — of how I wanted to start it. And then after that we just winged it. It was very exciting to think that whatever we created was going to go in front of this all-star panel of judges, and when we finished it and sent it in we were really interested and wanted to know what was going to happen. But at the same time I felt what we had done, and kept listening to it, and just liked it regardless of whether we won the contest or not. I just liked it as a piece.
And of course, winning was nice. And so we went down to the Tommy Boy offices because they were curious to see who these old white dudes were who won this contest. We got all the shirts, records, and then Monica, who was one of the two or three employees before Tommy Boy got huge, asked us if we wanted to go to the Roxy and meet Bambaattaa. We said sure, since we were going anyway that night. So we got zipped in on the VIP list and went back to the DJ booth, and it wasn’t even really a booth; it was just a raised table at the edge of the dance floor; Bambaattaa bent down and said hello to Monica, she pointed at us and said something like “those guys, that mix.” And he smiled and leaned over and shook our hands and that was really great because while we were making the mix we were joking that if we win this we’ll be able to shake Bambaattaa’s hand. And even that was a pretty low-level goal; there are not that many things that I can point to and say oh yeah, I wanted to do that and it happened just like that, that was pretty cool.
How did that moment influence you?
It validated what we had done and at the same time, while both of us in the year or two after that left our regular jobs and became freelancers and did a couple more records, I guess we were so attached to our middle-class roots and incomes (laughs) that we never stopped doing the advertising to switch over completely to music. Because at that point we were guys who were already working and it wasn’t like we were 19 and this great new path was open and we had nothing else to go after, it was more like “I’m not sure I’m going to give up everything to go see if this works out and not fully pursuing the music wasn’t the end of the world and it was great being famous for that moment and it was quite a kick.” And like I said, it’s nice to have your work judged and validated in a large sense, and even though people couldn’t buy our mix, they were reacting it to it hugely. It was enormous and certainly changed the course of our lives, but it didn’t change the course of our careers, necessarily.
Can you explain how the success with the remix influenced your work in advertising?
It had a huge impact! I even got work from that “The Motorcade Sped On,” that Kennedy mix I did, even though it was as negative and down as a piece of popular entertainment can possibly be. And in the advertising world there were people saying “oh, yeah, that was interesting, but we want you to do something like this.” And then my freelance work began to encompass a lot of consulting with cable TV companies. And they liked what I was doing because I had an advertising background and a validity in the world of music so I had two things going. They could pay attention to me because I knew what I was talking about it in a couple of different ways.
So they look at you as a tastemaker, helping them to decide where they want to take their message and how to deliver it?
Yeah, I would say that’s the case for a lot of the meetings I was in. And at that point, cable TV was still in the same position in terms of finding itself and they were looking to figure out how to design everything from promotion on the channel to everything related to creating the brand of the channel. And there weren’t any experts in cable TV and there weren’t any experts in rap music either because they were both so new; so they were like “okay, this guy seems like he has a couple of things that could recommend him so let’s have him in the meeting.” And it was a very interesting time; I helped work on the launch of VH1, and few of the pre-Comedy Central shows. And in many cases it was an insular world, someone you met at this channel would turn up as a supervisor at another channel and as things began to consolidate under Viacom, you started to see the same people in various places and it wasn’t a hard stretch to have people remember working on past projects.
Having done “The Motorcade Sped On,” and “It’s Up To You,” have you ever had any inspiration to create new mixes for other current events?
Well, with “It’s Up To You” and “Nothing to Fear,” I was doing something that spoke to the feeling about the Iraq war and tried to manipulate it in a way that I did with the Kennedy piece. And the 9/11 piece (“Number Three on Flight Eleven”), which is a lot less musical when comparing it to the Kennedy piece, which I did when it was already 20 years past the event. There was still some feeling of drama associated with the Kennedy piece but not a huge amount of sensitivity, and obviously I couldn’t do that with 9/11 now; it’s a very different thing and I wouldn’t even attempt it. The 9/11 piece I made was very dirge-like and it doesn’t have the dissonance like “oh, looky, a dance tune about death,” which is essentially what I did with the Kennedy assassination.
Both pieces are certainly emotionally timeless in their own way, which in both cases is a testament to how you guys put them together.
What started the involvement and the discussion you have about copyright law on your Web site?
For a long, long time, for almost twenty years, I just sort of bought the idea that “okay we’re stealing, it’s terribly illegal and isn’t it romantic,” and as I mentioned in the liner notes, I don’t often find myself cast in the role of romantic primal. What I do is novelty and fun. But at the same time there’s a certain limited appeal to turning out a bunch of songs that are… how can I put this… they show people the possibilities but they’re not legal. After I sort of stumbled across one of Lawrence Lessig’s books called Free Culture, it really turned me around. I mean here’s this really smart guy who knew about a lot of legal issues, and music-related issues in particular, and was writing about it and saying “well, there has to be a limit to how much copyright is allowed to stifle expression.” Because copyright is a bargain between society and the person who originally had the idea and the bargain is that we’ll let you have exclusive right to it for a certain amount of time and then after that everybody has a crack at the ideas because in a large consensual culture everybody deserves a crack at it. Yeah, know we’ll ban together and give you exclusive rights and in payment we get to use it ourselves after a little while.
And what’s happened is that copyright has been extended for a long period. It went from a 14-year period to now close to what becomes hundreds of years. And it shifted from authors and artists to corporations. And then the issues of patent law play into the larger issue as well, for example, pharmaceutical companies flood the government with money when a patent for a particular drug is about to expire and become a generic drug and not become a money maker for a pharmaceutical company.
And these copyright and patent laws are often closely related and devised by the same people, law firms and sort of “philosophers for hire” who are hired by these large corporations; and in short when Mickey Mouse’s copyright is about to come up, copyright is extended. And even when Mickey Mouse’s copyright was up, back then the term was so short that it would not be in the public domain. The three black circles would now be in the public domain but now they have managed to flood the government with so much money — you know our fabulous elected representatives — that the copyright will go on forever and no one will ever be able to make a comment about this without having to look over their shoulders and worry about being sued.
If there was one thing you could change about copyright law what would it be?
The term, change it back to the shorter term.
What are your thoughts about the future of using popular music in advertising?
Advertising will always be there and the main purpose of advertising is to make things look cool and slick, so using popular music is just a normal part of that process. Actually, advertising used to be imitative and try to come up with something original but now the thought is “hey, we can license this incredibly popular song by whomever and let’s just do that… we’ll edit it down for our car commercial or whatever and that’ll be great.” I certainly don’t begrudge it to the artist because some of the stuff I’ve done has been licensed or closely copied by ad agencies, mostly in the UK, that I’ve got a fair amount of money from by just working with them to do something very similar to my original work and in some cases even rewriting it. And that’s okay; I don’t have a problem with that. I think, as Lessig points out, one of the big problems is cultural stagnation with having ideas locked up, basically anybody with an idea now will have it until whatever generation now is dead, which didn’t used to be the case. The whole thing is really a perversion of what copyright is and doing so for a long time for profit; it’s not the locking up part that I disagree with, it’s the “forever” part I have a problem with.
Do you think it could flip the other way as the digital age progresses, where it appears that the internet and technology have put more control and power back in the hands of the fans and consumers who are also the artists in some cases, too?
There are several issues that are congruent in that question. There’s the idea of what’s legal and what’s possible, and those are two totally different ideas. Now with so much digital technology and the web you can do lots of stuff (laughs) and fuck copyright in the neck and who cares, and as far as I’m concerned it’s okay. I’m enough of a basic anarchist to say that this is a fantastic democratizing effect and if the large companies don’t like it, then they can spend a million billion dollars trying to mess with it. And they are. You see Copy Protect that monitors what goes over the web. And it’s hard for them and I’m glad. That’s a good thing.
It’s not necessarily a waste for companies to try to go after them. For example, there are a few house magazines for journalists like the Columbia Journalism Review that runs ads saying “don’t forget a Kleenex is not a tissue; it is a Kleenex tissue with a circle C because we’ve trademarked it.” And they do this because they don’t want the Kleenex brand to become generic and if they object to the use of Kleenex they will have a legal basis, because if they don’t run these ads and decide to sue someone for the wrongful use of the work Kleenex in a context they don’t like, then the courts can say “sorry, but you’ve abandoned your right to the name.” Placing these types of ads is very important to the companies. And corporations since the 1960s have been funding industry groups which have been going around the world dealing with copyright and patent law to make it exactly how corporations would like it to be, and even working with places like the World Bank to withhold aid from countries like Taiwan where bootleg software and videos is endemic. This is been going on since the ’60s when a bunch of smart guys looked at the digital possibilities and decided, “hey, we’re going to be fucked if we don’t do something about it.” You have to remember that this copyright law is not a natural law; it’s the result of lawyers getting together to make it look like a logical thing, but it isn’t necessarily.
Some similarities have been drawn between you and Greg Gillis of Girl Talk. What are your thoughts on copyright, sampling and what he does in general?
Well, we’re similar, sort of vaguely, in terms of technique and materials. He has a very unique and hard-hitting, exciting style in terms of how he presents himself live and it’s great. And sure, everyone’s sampling popular culture and there are similarities in terms of technology and where we look for our samples and how they’re used. But there’s a huge difference in terms of personal style as with many artists. Man, I think his shit is great!
Your style relies heavily on the use of speech and sound bites as opposed to Girl Talk sticking to mostly music.
Yeah, and that’s because Douglas and I like that. For me rhythm and beat of personal speech is a very personal thing which is why it shows up so much in my work.
Why do you like to work with speech so much?
Beats the hell out of me, man! That’s another one where it’s a mystery. I really like working with speech and I have no idea why. I just love listening to people talk and listening to the dynamics of what they’re saying. It’s all great.