Friday, January 12, 2007

Payback for a hip-hop pioneer

Chicago Tribune

Payback for a hip-hop pioneer

By Patrick Sisson
Special to the Tribune

January 12, 2007

"The Payoff Mix," a Frankenstein according to one of its creators, was a song that raised questions that still haunt artists and record labels.

In 1983, New York producer Steve Stein and his friend Douglas DiFranco, a studio engineer, created the tune, a technically precise and occasionally humorous reworking of "Play that Beat Mr. D.J." by G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid, and entered it in a remix contest sponsored by the Tommy Boy label.

While it wasn't the first track to juxtapose samples, it was certainly memorable. Recording under the name Double Dee & Steinski, the pair blended the original track's early hip-hop beats with dozens of unauthorized musical samples including a snippet from a Boy George song and a Humphrey Bogart vocal clip from "Casablanca."

The duo went on to record two similar tracks, "The James Brown Mix" and "History of Hip-Hop," which together with "The Payoff Mix" are collectively known as The Lessons, before amicably splitting up in 1985. The pair received $100 and a few T-shirts for their contest victory at the time, but the tracks have since lived on as early examples of the potential and artistry of sampling.

"There was nothing that got in our way, certainly not copyright," said Steinski, who appears at the Smart Bar on Friday. "The vapor and fog of intellectual property was not so thick as it is now. We had completely molded this piece and made this Frankenstein monster."

While "The Payoff Mix" received limited radio play after it won the contest, the "monster" never saw official release, since clearing all the samples would have been a nightmarish task for the Tommy Boy legal staff. (While numerous bootleg versions of the tracks have been pressed, Steinski says the original prize from Tommy Boy is the only money he's ever made from The Lessons.)

But those issues didn't discourage the now 55-year-old producer from making more musical mixes that blend genres and freely plunder from pop culture. Performing a deejay set Thursday at Smart Bar along with Zulu Nation founder and hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa, Steinski is continuing to embrace the hip-hop notion of re-purposing and re-defining music.

"I play anything I get a hold of that works for me," he said. "That's my definition of what hip-hop is."

During recent deejay gigs in the United States and Europe, Steinski, who has a day job in advertising, blends everything from Brazilian and soul music to hip-hop and obscure vocal samples with a popular computer program named Ableton Live. He's also recorded, but never released, numerous cut-and-paste-style bootlegs since The Lessons, including "The Motorcade Sped On," a 1986 track about the Kennedy assassination that adds a funky beat to Walter Cronkite's somber announcements, and "It's Up to You," a satiric mosaic of music and quotations by former president George H. W. Bush mixed during the Gulf War.

"For a long time, up to the beginning of 2006, I accepted the idea of what I was doing was illegal," said Steinski. "It was very much off the edge. And then I started reading stuff by Lawrence Lessig, the legal scholar who invented the Creative Commons idea of copyright, and it really opened me up to the idea that certain things shouldn't be locked up the way they are, unavailable to artists. It's like this amazing digital technology is being completely crippled for the benefit of major corporations."

More than 20 years after The Lessons, digital technology has made similar musical re-combinations, sometimes called mash-ups, not just easier but commonplace. Acquiring, sampling and rearranging songs requires nothing more than an Internet-connected computer and some easy-to-use software--certainly not the studio expertise, time and crates of vinyl records that Double Dee & Steinski had to use in the '80s.

The popularity of these post-modern audio collages reflects Steinski's influence on current hip-hop artists. He appeared in the 2001 turntablism documentary "Scratch" and was asked to make a mix for the hip Stones Throw label. Both DJ Shadow and Cut Chemist performed with Steinski during a live re-enactment of The Lessons in San Francisco in 2000 and both made tracks called Lesson Four in honor of the original.

"At that time, I think The Lessons were the first of their kind," said Cut Chemist. "It was way more intricate than other mix records. And you could definitely tell they were coming from a more hip-hop angle. They were just utilizing all these obscure breaks. Steinski is the king of the dialogue record. He kind of flipped my wig when I played with him. He dropped this sample from a record about sewing that went, `I spend hours at my sampler.' In a million years, I couldn't find something that dope."

Digital technology has also kept alive, and in most cases inflamed, the legal issues that prevented The Lessons from ever receiving official release. Labels feel that unauthorized sampling of music violates copyright laws and allows the sampling artist to illegally profit from the original artist's work.

Artists feel that the absolute control over copyright and the hefty fees labels charge for sampling discourages artistic freedom and puts an unfair and often unrealistic price tag on material that should be in the public domain. It also discounts the amount of work that goes into making original, creative recordings.

And, more than 20 years after Steinski helped make The Lessons, an equitable solution that artists and labels agree upon still hasn't been discovered.

Gregg Gillis, who records for the Bloomington, Ill.-based Illegal Art label under the name Girl Talk, released "Night Ripper" last year, a critically acclaimed album meticulously constructed from hundreds of small, sometimes microscopic, samples of popular hip-hop, dance and indie rock songs that weren't cleared by the major labels.

Gillis has been a staple at nightclubs this year, but according to Illegal Art founder Philo T. Farnsworth, there's only so much profit Illegal Art can gain from the album before the music industry might begin to file lawsuits. He feels it's silly, since there's a market for this work and more flexible copyright laws could be enacted that would ensure everyone involved made a fair buck from the album.

"The Steinski stuff was a good example," said Farnsworth. "It was such a huge underground hit and if the industry could have made a way for it to have existed legally, they could have been profited from that material.

"They're shooting themselves in the foot by limiting certain types of expression."

- - -

Birth of a movement

Were it not for sampling pioneer Steve Stein (a.k.a. Steinski) and Afrika Bambaataa, the first rapper ever, so much might not exist--such as the work of:


Public Enemy

Biz Markie

Wu-Tang Clan

Beastie Boys

Chemical Brothers

Danger Mouse

Girl Talk

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