Steinski: “What Does it All Mean? [1983-2006 Retrospective]”

“Pastiche” is among the more common terms employed when discussing postmodern art, and for good reason. Postmodernism, as an intellectual framework, is most simply defined as a lack of belief in metanarrative, a rejection of any overarching story or sense of history that might lend meaning or sense to the reality in which we live. There’s no reference point, no linear flow, to make sense of anything, so, naturally, all cultures and traditions are seen as being equal. Thus, postmodern art draws from any and all sources for inspiration, grafting them together into a sort of mosaic where all artistic schools are on completely equal footing. In music, this translates to works like Beck’s seminal Odelay, which patches hip-hop and rap and blues and funk into a jumbled, jokey pop culture stew, or Beastie Boys’ classic Paul’s Botique, which samples classic films and B-movies, weird sound effects and disparate musical genres as its source material.

And in a way, the work of Steinski– former ad-man, underground rap legend, cult hero– is very much a pastiche, but postmodern… well, that’s a different matter. To be sure, Steinski’s work is stitched together from a wide array of source material: Old records, TV newsreels, movies popular and obscure, stand-up comedy acts, Saturday morning cartoons. But there’s a key difference between Steinski’s music and that of Beck– there’s very much a story here, a strong sense of narrative, with each of his tracks moving forward toward a logical conclusion. And not only that, but his tracks, culled entirely from samples and canned beats and turntable scratches, are unified, coherent, purposeful and pointed. In other words, this is postmodern art that tells a story, and thus it’s not really postmodern at all.

Steinski’s most famous tracks were created during the Golden Age of sampling, before the Beasties drew the attention of the intellectual property cops and the sampling art form became forever subdued by the forces of copyright protection law. And so while he’s continued making music even into the present day, his stuff tends to be a little too, um, illegal for official release, meaning that most of his old-school hip-hop masterpieces are the stuff of bootlegs and lore. That problem is remedied by the two-disc release of What Does it All Mean?, which rounds up all the great Steinski tracks that, for the most part, were never allowed to see the light on day on any official CD release. So while the material here runs the timeline from 1983 to 2006, it is, for all but the most dedicated hip-hop bootleggers, brand new material, and, because it’s packaged together like this, it stands as a monument to the creativity and imagination Steinski brings to hip-hop– and as arguably the greatest testament to sampling’s legitimacy as an artform ever put to tape.

And indeed, it can’t be stressed enough that Steinski’s sample-based tracks aren’t just fodder for the dancefloor, nor are they novelties; his work challenges our notions of sampling and of alternative hip-hop in general, elevating what is often seen as trash to the realm of real art. Because as much as Steinski may be a prankster in the vein of Beck or the Beasties, he’s also a sophisticated and visionary musician. He arranges these tracks with a blistering, devilish wit and a real comedic genius– the material here is funnier and cleverer than any other dozen hip-hop albums you care to name, or any other genre, for that matter– and there’s imagination and invention exploding from every little detail here, but, alive and unpredictable though these songs may be, they never feel slapdash or random, like prankery just for the hell of it. Steinski is, if anything, a composer– he just happens to use cartoon sound effects and James Brown samples instead of trombones and violas.

The narrative thread running through the first four tracks– including “The Payoff,” Steinski’s original breakout success– is the mixmaster’s own wickedly clever, deliriously fun history of hip-hop (albeit an incomplete one– remember, these tracks are 20 years old by now). The brilliance of “The Payoff” is already the stuff of legend, but “The James Brown Mix” is just as impressive, a tour de force through the Godfather of Soul’s catalog that simultaneously lampoons his persona while ultimately paying homage to his many achievements. “Jazz” is great, too, and illustrates one of the many strengths of this music– its ability to draw lines and reveal implicit connections between a good number of popular idioms, in this case closing the gap between acoustic jazz and classic hip-hop. Technically, these songs do nothing but repackage music we’re already familiar with, but, by turning familiar sounds on their heads, it allows us to appreciate them in whole new ways. This doesn’t dissect popular music for the purpose of rendering it meaningless; on the contrary, Steinski’s revisionist histories help us to better understand the beauty and meaning that were there all along.

So sophisticated and detailed are these compositions that, while the party-reel flavor and relentless beats seem to beg for the dance floor, this music ultimately rewards close, attentive listening. Steinski isn’t just a fun-time beat master; he’s a storyteller, an artist, and a provocateur. Accordingly, three of the collection’s most beguiling and memorable tracks turn the artist’s sonic tomfoolery into protest art, his sound-collage narratives jerking our attention back to our own history and asking us to understand it differently. Blurring the lines between good taste and bad is “The Motorcade Sped On,” a strangely upbeat sampling of newsreel material from JFK’s assassination that takes more surprising twists and turns than Oliver Stone’s JFK movie. Much more potent is “It’s Up to You,” touted as one of the only major protest songs from the first Gulf War. A nasty fusion of political speeches and news reports with vintage record samples and movie lines, Steinski is at the height of his powers here, crafting a blistering political satire that just happens to double as a stirring call to moral accountability and civil responsibility. It’s a masterful achievement, but it does nothing to prepare the listener for the collection’s most haunting and difficult piece, “Number Three on Flight Eleven,” a ghostly collage of sounds from 9/11.

And as if these highlights weren’t enough, there’s also “I’m Wild About That Thing,” Steinski’s riotous sex-ed film set to music, to say nothing of the album’s second disc, Nothing to Fear— an hour-long display of the artist at his most viciously funny and dizzyingly imaginative, and generally considered to be one of the finest mix tapes ever made. Put it all together and you have a package that, even at two discs, can barely contain all the creativity and musical virtuosity contained inside it. And if Steinski’s gift is in telling alternate histories, that doesn’t make his histories any less accurate; indeed, it’s no coincident that the collection’s title, What Does it All Mean?, is a phrase invoked in several of these tracks. By taking the familiar and turning it into something fresh and new, Steinski is asking his listener to consider what these histories tell us about ourselves, our art, our politics, even our conceptions of what’s true and what isn’t. It may be a pastiche, but it’s also pregnant with meaning and alive with possibilities– of course, it’s also probably illegal, which makes it all the more urgent and essential to pick up this set as soon as possible. This is, simply put, the most visionary feat of creativity that you’ll hear all year, and even if the music itself might not be around for too long, its legacy won’t ever be lost.


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4 responses to “Steinski: “What Does it All Mean? [1983-2006 Retrospective]””

  1. Sean says :

    Great review, minor quibble: your definitions of postmodernism and postmodern art are a bit questionable. I mean, to be fair, postmodernism is not so much a unified thing as it is a push away from modernism, but most commentators have agreed that if postmodern mindset and art is defined by anything, it is the embrace of subjective narrative perspective over objective “fact-based” truth, so saying postmodern art is defined by lack of story, seems counterintuitive.

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