There was something captured in the early 1980’s New York Hip-Hop culture that we may never have back: A carefree attitude, and the music to match it. In a year that eulogizes Run-DMC as the pioneers of taking Hip-Hop to the suburbs, I recall another pioneer who helped bring hip-hop to the dance floor.
Steve “Steinski” Stein and his partner Double Dee owned New York radio waves in the early eighties with the “Pay Off Mix”, and the following three ‘lessons.’ Despite a contract with Tommy Boy Records, Steinski may be an unfamiliar name because his cut-and-paste mixes were too sample-heavy to ever clear. Still, Steinski’s musical visions echo in the work of DJ Shadow, Jurassic 5, Gang Starr, Beastie Boys, and nearly every other artist who ever used others’ records tell a story, or pass a message.
From his New York office, the self-proclaimed “elderly” Steinski recalls the early days of Manhattan Hip-Hop. Just as his colorful anecdotes in the film Scratch, Steinski brings life to a closed book of culture, style, and some of the greatest records ever made. Age ain’t nothing but a number.
AHH: In Scratch, I loved your account of the first time you experienced Hip-Hop. It really wasn’t long enough. I was hoping you could elaborate and recreate that experience.
S: I had been collecting music for a while, and playing music as a DJ, although not as DJ’s are sort of commonly thought as now in clubs, or parties. It was just: play a record, the record fades down, start a new record. It was the first time in my life I ever had money to spend on records. I had a real job. And I could start going into record stores and actually purchasing records. Back then, vinyl was cheap man! I was spending a lot of money. I was spending five, six, seven thousand dollars a year on vinyl. And I was going into stores with lists of every record that I had remembered that I ever liked, I mean ever. And it was a wonderful thing. New York at that time had some really good radio stations, and one in particular was WPIX. It was a real discovery for me. They had Debora Harry and Chris Stein [ from Blondie] as guest DJ’s on this one show. They said, “Oh yeah, we were at a party in the Bronx last night and we got a bunch of records from there and brought them down.” And I was taping this thing, with half an ear. The next morning, I came back and listened to the tape, and was like, “Holy s**t! This is it man!” And I listened to the tape over and over again until I figured out what the title to one of the records was. And went down to one of the stores where I was shopping and I picked up this twelve inch like, “Holy s**t, I got it.” I brought it up the counter. And the woman who was sitting behind the counter looked at me, looked at the record, and said, “That’s a Rap record. If you don’t like it, you can’t bring it back.” I said, “It’s alright, I know what’s on it.” And I just stayed right with it. This was something that was really really important to me.
AHH: You submitted “The Pay Off Mix” to Tommy Boy and won. How soon until the hip-hop community recognized you, and how did they accept you?
AHH: I’d say that day. The day we won the contest. What happened was that we had submitted it, they said that the winners will be announced in five weeks. So of course, we thought two and a half months goes by, and they announce the winner. My secretary at the advertising agency, I’m coming back from a meeting, and she’s like, “Oh wow, Tommy from Tommy Boy called, you won the contest!” I called up [Tom Silverman], and [he congratulates me], and says, “Who are you, man? What kind of a master mixer has a secretary?” We went to the office which at that time was three employees in a tiny little office below street-level on the Upper East Side, and he told us, “When we were listening to the mixes just to screen them, we knew this one was gonna win. So this was the one we played last to all the judges the evening they came in.” They just loved it. We each got a complete catalog of Tommy Boy Records, which was like twenty records, [laughs] a cheap polo shirt, fifty bucks, and we needed some reel-to-reel tapes to send this out to radio stations so they can play it as part of the prize.
AHH: The easiest way to associate your work to somebody is to simply say “The Lessons.” As far those lessons, when did you realize you were creating a series, and why did they stop?
S: We never really thought of them as ‘the lessons’ so much as, we just thought of them as Double Dee and Steinski records. I just happened to have all these instruction records with that guy going, “Lesson one, Lesson two, Lesson three…” We’d stick that in, as make it easy for people. Don’t be too arty, just because they can’t understand it, doesn’t make it good. This was just a way we had of giving it a little bit of a hook. The reason it stopped because [Double Dee] lost his taste for making records in a big way. And he decided that it wasn’t like we’d ever lost touch, he was just like, “I’m moving in with my girlfriend out in Queens, and get a job again.” At the time, we were both free-lancing. That was when I did the Kennedy record ["The Motorcade Sped On"], because now it was time to figure out if I could make a record on my own.
AHH: Sample clearances have held your career and stardom bac. How do you accept that?
S: I’ve made legal records. Well the thing about the lessons is that there was a company in England who was really working very hard to clear the three lessons up until about three months ago. All of a sudden these bootleggers came out with the Ultimate Lessons record. They’re making a killing. They’re beautifully packaged and they’re selling a s**tload of them. That was it. No more anybody try to clear [them], ‘cause anybody who was going to buy it, has bought it already.
AHH: You’re in advertising. A couple years ago Heineken did a commercial that mocked the creation of the scratch. In terms of ad ethics, was that wrong or right?
S: Well, I didn’t see the commercial. You have to understand that for somebody who makes, or made his living in the mass media, I haven’t broadcast television in twenty years. I don’t watch any of it, I don’t watch the good shows on PBS, I don’t watch the news. I’ve never seen Seinfeld. I read. I like film.
AHH: Your music is really feel-good. What feels so great to a Steinski and Double Dee piece?
S: Probably what I think is good about it is also the failing. The stuff I do now and new records have a discontinuous feel there will be a change every eight of sixteen bars that’s a really [excitement]. As opposed to song constructions that [last.] My stuff every sixteen bars, you get the feeling, it’s gonna change radically. The tempo isn’t gonna change. It’s really gonna feel different. It comes to taste. If you like changes, that’s gonna be the kind of the thing that you do like. If it’s too distracting, it ain’t your kinda record.
AHH: “The Motorcade Sped On” may very well be the most controversial DJ-minded composition ever. What was the message about Kennedy’s death that you were trying to send? Was it emotional at any point during creating the piece?
S: The second part of the question pretty much determines the first part. Since this was the first record, I had done without [Double Dee], I had to find another engineer in another studio that’s set up the way I needed to be set-up, who can work with me. So, in the process, I thought about what I was going to do. Am I just gonna slap a bunch of s**t together and call it a record? I really wanted to make an emotional record. I was thinking in terms of sampling, what do I have that’s emotional? In listening to [my records], I realized that the Kennedy records. I wanted to use this material. Then it became a question of, I wanted to use the “Honky Tonk Woman” beat. It took me months dropping it out. I guess I just wanted to show that I can mess with this material, take something that’s already emotion, put in it [another] context, and amplify it.
AHH: Your name faded away when… some folks say good Hip-Hop died. As I ask most pioneers and veterans, how can fix the problems that hold Hip-Hop today from being as great as it once was?
S: I wish I had solutions to problems. More reasonable types of heads have pointed this out to me: most types of music have upsurges and downswings. You just gotta live through it. Dumb, stupid s**t happened in Rock music and it still came back with many nice, new pieces in it. So yeah, there’s problems now, but there’s an awful lot of great people making Hip-Hop. J-Live, for goodness sakes, he’s f**king terrific! Madlib on Stones Throw, the guys on Solesides. There’s a lot of great stuff being made. The fact that it doesn’t get on the radio, is a whole other story. Even that, there’s good stuff on the radio. Man, there’s Missy Eliot, there’s Neptunes, there’s Timbaland, there’s some Jay-Z stuff. You can’t knock it just because it’s popular. Back in the early 90’s, that’s when I faded out from listening to stuff a lot. I was listening to De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, Jungle Brothers and shit like that. But you know I completely lost touch with the rest of the underground stuff. As far as the mainstream stuff, I just threw my hands up. I don’t fuckin’ understand this, what else is going on?
AHH: Through your website and the bootlegs, and Scratch…there’s been a resurrection to your work and legacy. Where would you like to go now?
S: Well, I’m lucky in that I seem to be moving in that direction. I’m doing a bunch of remixes and projects for the UK right now which is very gratifying and exciting. Some of the stuff is f**king… the projects are just wonderful. I had a company in the UK that owns the license to all the Sugar Hill records. [They’re] going to pay me money to do a mix CD of all the Sugar Hill records. Not bad. I’d like to get paid three times as much as they’re paying me. But they’re paying me. I can still eek out a living. Remixes are fun, they’re easy. I definitely have projects going of my own, ’cause I’d like to do my own record. It’s not like Jay-Z’s management’s calling me to do that next fabulous track, that will never be in the cards. And the Spice Girls lost my phone number.