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Music Review: Steinski – What Does It All Mean?

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It's odd to have a retrospective for a first album and it's several times more odd to have a retrospective for an artist that most people probably haven't heard of.T hey might have heard a track and didn't know who made it but ut more likely, and perhaps more importantly, they probably have heard of and listen to artists who have been influenced by the work of that unknown artist putting out a retrospective.

When Steinski and his partner Double Dee teamed up to create their first cut-and-paste hip hop masterpiece, "The Payoff Mix", they weren't aware that it would be circulated and bootlegged the world over, or that it would become one of the godfather tracks for much of the mashup culture around today. No, they just wanted an excuse to work on music, use their extensive record collection, and maybe win this Tommy Boy remix contest thing. Fortunately, they did win, or the face of hip hop might have been markedly different.

It's true that DJ culture was already alive and thriving by the early '80s but while most DJs at the time were using their talents to augment live performances, the collage artists were buried in the studios making brand new music. Matching up and collaging vast stores of vinyl, they ushered in the era of A.D.D. hyper mixtapes: new creations compiled from history. Double Dee and Steinski – and later just Steinski on his own – were a shade different in the fact that they weren't really DJs. They were just music lovers with vast record collections, encyclopedic knowledge of musical and non-musical source material, access to a studio and a desire to see what they could do with all of that.

What Does It All Mean: 1983-2006 Retrospective is the long overdue collection of those experiments. It starts with the collaborations between Double Dee and Steinski. The first three are the official Lesson mixes – "The Payoff Mix", "Lesson 2 (James Brown Mix)", and "Lesson 3 (History of Hip Hop)" – and should be required listening for anyone even remotely interested in hip hop culture. The tracks "Jazz" and "Voice Mail (Sugar Hill Suite)" are basically lesser heard mixes in the same Lesson style, the latter using the Sugar Hill Records archive as its source material.

From there, the retrospective shifts to Steinski's solo efforts and collaborations with other artists. Although in a similar vein to the tracks made with Double Dee, many of the solo tracks tend to have a more singular and less frantically sampled ethos to them. "The Motorcade Sped On" is about the Kennedy assassination. "Number Three On Flight Eleven" is about 9/11. And "I'm Wild About That Thing" is about… well, sex. The quote-heavy tracks which also tend to be politically bent, including "It's Up To You (Television Mix)", are the least successful, as they sacrifice style and music for a forced message. But most of the other tracks are exquisitely built, and frequently showcase some expert turntablism.

Highlights from the latter section of the retrospective disc include "Ain't No Thing" which is just pure jazz funk, and the turntablism clinics "The Big Man Laughs" and "Vox Apostolica."

The second disc, Nothing To Fear, is just a straightforward album-length DJ set in the style established by his earlier ventures. All the signature elements are here – extensive movie and television quotes; hip hop, funk, jazz and soul music galore; a multitude of interweaved tracks to create a dizzyingly funky montage – just in a longer breathed form. It's comparable to a Rob Swift mix odyssey. There are sections where the constant spoken word quotes slow the jam that is building underneath, but with the exception of a few spots in the mix, it moves along fairly expertly. In fact, most of the mix basically requires you to shake something. Even if you're out of practice, or have never shaken it before, you will at some point become completely helpless, because this is instant party music.  It's foreground, background, all around music. At times it's the history of music, and at others it's the latest hit. It's all things to all people because it almost literally contains all things. So much so that you really have to wonder how it's even legal. Ever since the Beastie's Paul's Boutique album, there have been continuous legal eagle eyes watching over sampled music. But given that this particular compilation is released through Illegal Arts, it's probably best to get it while the getting is good (Have I said too much already?).

In fact, even today the main way to stay abreast of the scene is through illegal compilations floating around the 'net. Our current copyright climate simply doesn't allow for this means of expression (at least in a feasible way). To them it's not art; it's not new expression with an eye towards the past. And they'll do whatever they must in order to shut it down. So you're forgiven for perhaps not having heard of Steinski, or any of the other current mashup/collage artists out there. But you might want to keep a watchful eye just a couple layers under the radar.

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About David R Perry