Some 25 years after he first made hip-hop history, Steve Stein, aka Steinski, still sounds like a kid in a candy store. “It was fun, man,” he says, looking back on the sample-crazy run that he and production partner Douglas “Double Dee” DiFranco enjoyed as the Tommy Boy label's go-to megamix team. “I mean, who doesn't like the insaneness of hearing their shit on the radio? This was the greatest thing since sliced bread. Not that we were such geniuses, but it was very gratifying.”
Strangely enough, it all started with an ad in Billboard magazine. The higher-ups at Tommy Boy — specifically, label founder and impresario Tom Silverman and his A&R right-hand woman Monica Lynch — had put the word out about an open contest to remix G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid's single “Play That Beat Mr. D.J.,” which needed some legs after its initial rollout. At the time, Stein was working at an ad agency and spending all his money on records (and girlfriends), while DiFranco was engineering at a small music studio that specialized in radio spots for record labels. The two met while on the job, but after-hours they soon realized it was a lot more fun to smoke weed, listen to music and hit the hot New York nightclubs — most notably the Roxy and Negril, where Stein first saw the Cold Crush Brothers live, as he recounts with vivid detail in the Doug Pray documentary Scratch (Palm Pictures, 2001).
“It was just a simple, easy partnership with Douglas,” Stein says, recalling the rapport the two shared when they decided to answer Tommy Boy's call by creating “The Payoff Mix,” a cut-and-paste collage of crucial breakbeat ephemera that wowed the contest judges (including Afrika Bambaataa, Arthur Baker and KISS-FM “Mastermix” originator Shep Pettibone). “That was all Douglas, cutting it up with tape and a razor blade and an Editall block. We did the whole thing in a weekend, just cutting four or eight bars from all these records and splicing them together.”
The mix quickly became a nationwide radio hit before it even made it to vinyl, with air-checked bootleg cassettes selling on the street for 20 bucks a pop. Composed of some two-dozen cuts from an eclectic crate selection that included pieces of the Incredible Bongo Band's “Apache,” Culture Club's “I'll Tumble 4 Ya,” Herbie Hancock's “Rockit” and even “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,” the record sparked a whole new career for Double Dee and Steinski, and led to two more crucial remix projects for Tommy Boy: the “James Brown Mix” and the “History of Hip-Hop Mix,” which, along with their predecessor, became known as Lessons 1 through 3, or simply “The Lessons” after the spoken-word snippet that Steinski used to lead them off.
Naturally, because each mix was so sample-heavy, a commercial release was out of the question. “For ‘Lesson 3,’ Tommy Boy had hooked up with Steven Hager to do a companion CD to his book on hip-hop,” Stein recalls, “and it turned out that no one had cleared this with Herman Kelly [whose classic “Dance to the Drummer's Beat” provided the basis of the mix]. So when Herman hooked up, and said, ‘Okay, I want $1 million dollars,’ that wasn't gonna fly, so the record came out as a promo again, and again we were very lucky that it got such a great reaction.”
Among the faithful in the early '90s were two up-and-coming DJs named Shadow and Cut Chemist, who within several years of each other released their own “Lesson 4” in tribute. By then, Steinski was flying below the radar but had continued to freelance and DJ (often under his solo aegis Steinski & Mass Media, which yielded a number of key 12-inches for Tommy Boy and, later, Ninja Tune). He also continued to stay in touch with DiFranco, and the two collaborated again on the 1997 “The Jazz Mix” — a treatment of Bambaataa's classic “Jazzy Sensation,” done for Tommy Boy's 15th anniversary — and their first all-samples-cleared release (“The Sugar Hill Suite: Voice Mail,” included on the 1999 Sequel comp Still/The Joint: Sugar Hill Remixed) with Cut Chemist.
“We were both pretty well schooled on Pro Tools when we started that,” Stein explains. “I think I had access to version 3.0 back in the day, and it was totally liberating for me. A friend of mine had a studio where I was working all the time, and he became one of the leading beta testers of the software for years. Eventually, Digi offered him a job.”
From decks to DAWs, Steinski has certainly seen it all. He and DiFranco have recently dusted off the cobwebs for several high-profile live appearances — they opened for Shadow and Chemist's “The Hard Sell” show in New York earlier this year, and updated to Ableton Live for the occasion. “I use a [Wave Idea] Bitstream 3X MIDI box [with a PreSonus FireBox for audio output] to control Ableton when I play, and that's a really great thing,” Stein raves. “I'm also doing a lot of commercial work now, so I'm always working on tracks and trying out new software. It's just so much easier to realize your ideas if you're like me — that's probably one of the best things about the technology. Douglas has always embraced it in a way that makes me embarrassed for myself because he's so good and so much more technically adept, but between the two of us we get stuff done and we still have a good time doing it.”
Grab Steinski's new two-CD retrospective, What Does It All Mean? (Illegal Art, 2008), before the lawyers swoop in, and hitwww.steinski.comfor the latest updates and musings from the Technicolor mind of Steve Stein.