Cut Up or Shut Up: An Edited History of Cut’n’Paste
By Neil MacMillan
Originally published in Big Daddy Magazine
(Slightly edited; we apologize, Neil)
Part Two: Lessons in Lessons (and other stories)
In the late 1970s, the Bronx’s response to the innovations of the downtown DJs and mix editors was itself a story of innovation, true to the formula by which (poverty) X (imagination) = invention. But it was invention on radically different terms, and with glaringly different priorities, to what was happening in Manhattan. When Joseph Saddler heard Kool Herc and Pete DJ Jones, invented the quick mix and became Grandmaster Flash, he did so in a way the downtown DJs of the time – Walter Gibbons and his peers, from whom Herc and Jones learned so much - would have found alien. Not only did he have to beg, borrow or steal his records and equipment, sometimes having to construct the latter himself, but he had no plush (or even grotty) discotheque to install it all into. To throw a party in the Bronx, you didn’t just have to have your DJ, your records, your sound system and the rest - you had to be mobile. So in more ways than one, the story of the uptown cut-ups, small but vitally important as it is, could be described as …
… Adventures on wheels, not reels
The first true hip hop cut-ups are products of the live party environment. Sure, routines were sometimes premeditated, constructed and worked on beforehand, but the only way they were to emerge on vinyl – ‘Fusion Beats’ excepted - was as live mixes, recorded straight off turntables. Sometimes at a party, sometimes in the studio – but live nonetheless. From the beginning, performance was at the very heart of hip hop. Walter Gibbons may well have started making his reel-to-reel edits partly to save the wear on his 45s, but to those masterminding parties on block corners, in parks or in youth centres all over the Bronx in the late 1970s, your DJs had to be doing it right there in front of you. Even if they’d turned their decks off and were pounding the hell out of a beatbox.
It wasn’t just a case of restricted resources or uncontainable party spirit – it was also, quite simply, early days. In terms of working out how to capture all this on vinyl, no one had really thought beyond switching on a cassette deck at a jam. As a result, from today’s perspective, the first vinyl cut-up to emerge from the fledgling uptown hip hop scene seems too drawn out, not chopped up enough, too live’n’loose to be classed as conventional cut’n’paste. And as for the audio quality – forget about it. As one of its makers was to say, it sounded ‘like doo doo’. But Afrika Bambaataa and Jazzy Jay’s 1979 ‘Death Mix Throwdown’ was the first record to show the world something of the style and atmosphere of those formative years. And, crucially, it became an early indicator of what obsessive break-hunting and turntable tricknology could bring to cut’n’paste. As such, it’s the rambling, shambling dirty old uncle of turntablism’s first bold cut-up statement, ‘Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’.
Being a Paul Winley record, however, the ‘Death Mix’ was only ever going to infuriate its creators. As Bambaataa recalled to David Toop in 1984, ‘This is a tape like – suppose she came to my party and made a tape, and she made a copy for you, and you made a copy for me, and I took the tape and gave it to him, and he put it on record … It was really a bootleg type of mess’. But it’s also a beautiful type of mess, perhaps especially to those born far from the Bronx, who found in it not only a certain raw spirit but a lost archive of esoteric breakbeat knowledge. The enduring appeal of the ‘Death Mix’ can be seen not only in the way its constituent parts continue to be rinsed today, but by the fact it has generated its own cut’n’paste tribute tracks – one in jest, the Mexican’s ‘Deaf Mick’s Throwdown’ – the other in deadly earnest, ‘Tribute to Jazzy Jay’ by the Bronx Dogs.
Grandmaster Flash’s ‘Adventures on the Wheels of Steel’, meanwhile, was itself accorded the accolade of being hijacked by Double Dee and Steinski on their inaugural ‘Payoff Mix’ (surely one of the first examples of a cut-up track cutting up a cut-up track). Nowadays, Flash’s mastermix is perhaps the most famous of the hip hop cut-ups in terms of reputation and recognition, and not just because of the enduring familiarity of most of its ingredients. The motivating inspiration behind a thousand DJ tracks, ‘Adventures’ also qualifies as a bona fide cut’n’paste classic for its sheer variety, musicality and intelligent structuring. The change in key between the b-lines of ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ and ‘Good Times’, the rubs and chops introducing each new section, the sixteen climactic bars of ‘Ninth Wonder’ dropped right in the middle, the cutting in of the Furious Five’s names along with their zodiac signs – let’s just say that there are cut-up records coming out now which don’t even approach the level of compositional nous displayed by ‘Adventures’.
That the mix still works wonders on dancefloors betrays the fact of its live, party-rocking origins. Of course, it was a routine Flash deliberately constructed for the studio - using his turntables like an Edit King would use tape, testing his skills to the max in an effort to get the combination of elements just right - and not something he attempted too often in a club (although UK hip hop veterans will remember him replicating it at Fresh ’86). But studio or no studio, fifteen takes or not, it was all live off three turntables. And thus, like the ‘Death Mix’, ‘Adventures’ strikes a blow for the real-time of the Bronx against the reel-time of downtown.
Even today, Flash gets quite animated about reel-to-reels. As he described it to BD’s special correspondent Tim Saccenti in New York recently, uptown, everyone was too poor to afford the pricey machines, and in any case they were too busy throwing parties. They made their mixes with turntables, casssette decks, and combinations of them. [The other recognised cut-up of the time, ‘Fusion Beats’, by Afrika Bambaataa, Afrika Islam, and Jazzy Jay],is a masterful example of a pause-button edit, stringing together ‘Get Up, Get Into It, Get Involved’, ‘The Champ’ and ‘Let a Woman be a Woman’ using only a cassette deck. It appeared on Bozo Meko records in the early ‘80s, alongside the live version of the Furious Five’s ‘Flash to the Beat’.
So no disco reels for Flash, even when he wasn’t doing it live. ‘Reel-to-reels ain’t my style, man’, he says, revealing that the issue went deeper than price tags. Equally, it had to do with forging an individual way of doing things, for himself and for hip hop, which contrasted with what was happening downtown.
On the other hand, not everyone was going to be able to do an ‘Adventures’. The enduring mystery from this part of the story, then is …
… whatever happened to the definitive early Bronx studio cut-up?
While the most impressive technical parts of the ‘Death Mix’ are probably Jazzy Jay’s responsibility (see BD 11), Bambaataa, the Master of Records, presides over the whole with the selection abilities of a true cut’n’paste don. What seems unbelievable now is that he never made any other records which could be classed as cut-ups in the strict sense of the term. True, his wildly eclectic tastes are audible to all on most of his early projects, but as far as can be discovered, he never released another record which was constructed from lots of bits of other records. Famously, Arthur Baker had the beats and melody lines which constituted ‘Planet Rock’ replayed by a Roland drum machine and Fairlight synth, even though they were lifted straight from Kraftwerk and Babe Ruth. Whether this technique of imitating sampling through instrumentation was motivated by the miniscule amount of sampling time available, or just a desire to experiment with the technology, it has been repeated since, most notably on ‘Big Apple Noise’ by Translux. Constructed by eccentric Yugoslav-born mix-maker Began Cekic in the style of the Edit Kings’ mixes, ‘Big Apple Noise’ was made not from spliced tape but from drum machines, keyboards and voices cleverly replaying parts of other records (including ‘Rockit’ and ‘Cavern’). (More recently, UK pop pickers, even the Sugababes last number one hit could be said to employ similar methods in its covering of an existing bootleg merging Gary Numan and Adina Howard.)
If Bambaataa had got into reel-to-reel editing, all this might have been a different story. And if Tommy Boy himself, Tom Silverman, hadn’t been so careless as to lose the tapes, some kind of Bambaataa cut’n’paste may have made its way into the world. Right around the time that Flash was conceiving of ‘Adventures’, Silverman had taken Bambaataa to an eight-track studio in Manhattan called In The Red with the intention of recreating the feel of the Bronx parties. One song they made a demo of, he remembers, included
Kraftwerk’s ‘Numbers’, Babe Ruth’s ‘The Mexican’, ‘Do You Like It’ by B.T. Express. A lot of the songs with breakbeats that Bambaataa used to use. We used a Rick James song, as many songs as we could but just the bass lines, whatever the hooks were, and we tried to string ‘em all together in some way using Oberheim synthesisers. It didn’t have any rapping on it.
From Sliverman’s description, it seems that the excerpts were replayed on the synth rather than ‘sampled’ (i.e. tape-edited), but we’ll never know for sure. And if Bambaataa ever kept a copy, he’s not telling. Perhaps, to paraphrase the song, it wasn’t all good. We can only imagine.
The blame for the lack of a definitive early Bronx studio cut-up cannot solely reside with Tommy Boy’s carelessness, however. Perhaps, back then, the priorities were just different, and if the experience of ‘Planet Rock’ was anything to go by, the publishing costs of copying bits of other people’s records could be high. And unless you were going to use a reel-to-reel or replay entire tracks (and outside of Sugarhill and Enjoy, who could afford to hire session musicians?), the technology wasn’t around with which to construct such records. Certainly, there were some fine DJ tracks appearing, but joints like the B-Boys’ ‘Rock the House’ and ‘Cuttin’ Herbie’ were content with manipulating only one or two elements over a constant beat. The prevailing attitude may well have been to leave all that megamix stuff to the downtown radio editors and get on with experimenting with the electro sound which Baker and Bambaataa had brought to the table.
Appropriate, then, that among the only recognisable Zulu-related studio cut-ups of the early-to-mid ‘80s are the electro segueways of Grandmixer D.ST. Herbie Hancock’s ‘Megamix’ (on the flip of the CBS ‘Future Shock’ 12” in 1984) is arguably the best, cutting in Time Zone’s ‘Wildstyle’ over and alongside ‘Future Shock’ and ‘Rockit’ and including some wigged-out scratch routines, neat edits and effects. His follow-up effort is also worthy, ‘Megamix II (Why Is It Fresh)’ (Celluloid 1984), but perhaps it serves better as a vehicle for his phenomenal scratching skills than anything else. And don’t be fooled by the title of ‘Grandmixer Cuts It Up’, the record he put out with the Infinity Rappers in 1982 . As the lyrics state, D.ST’s ‘a hypnotiser, a mesmeriser / He can cut the beat / Or play the synthesiser’, but on this joint he chose to stick with the latter.
Ultimately, D.ST’s major contribution to the cut-up genre was not to be through any of the records he put his name to, but by the way he influenced Danny Krivit’s ‘Feelin James’ and ‘Rock the House’, and by extension, Criminal Element Orchestra’s ‘Put the Needle to the Record’ (see Part One in BD 11). To restate, Krivit – the downtown DJ and reel-to-reel editor - was inspired by some of D.ST’s live turntable routines at the Roxy. If this is ironic in terms of the ‘downtown v. the boogie down’ scenario painted here, it’s also fortunate for the history of cut’n’paste, because they would never otherwise have been committed to wax.
Lessons in lessons (1) : registration
If one thing is apparent from this (so far) fairly New York-centric history of the cut-up, it’s that the distinction between downtown and uptown proves most fruitful when it collapses in on itself. Arguably the most creative and influential of all the hip hop cut-ups, Double Dee and Steinski’s ‘Lessons’ series, was made not by aspiring Bronx turntablists but two [middle-aged], middle-class white men with no real hip hop credentials - other, that is, than the important ones, an absolute love for the music and a blatant disregard for the rules.
In 1983, Steve Stein and Douglas Di Franco (an advertising copywriter and sound engineer respectively) entered a competition to remix ‘Play That Beat Mr DJ’ by G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid, which Tommy Boy had decided needed an extra push. The resultant ‘Payoff Mix’, which fused the track with everything from Culture Club and Little Richard to spoken word excerpts from Humphrey Bogart and dance instruction records – and STILL managed to pay respect to the original - was judged a clear winner by an all-star panel of radio and record executives and DJ's [including] Silverman, Bambaataa and Shep Pettibone. Winning $100, a few t-shirts and the Tommy Boy back catalogue, Stein and DiFranco also got to have their mix pressed up and distributed by Disconet. Stein recalls Tom Silverman’s surprise on first meeting them:
We went down to Tommy Boy, who was pretty astonished – he was like ‘What are you, two old white guys? We got 70 entries here, and you guys were far and away the best, and look at ya!’ We met him and got the t-shirts and the records, split the hundred bucks, he took a picture of us and shook our hands and said ‘Fine, it’ll be out on Disconet’, and Douglas ran off a bunch of reel-to-reel copies of the mixes for the radio stations that agreed to air the winning piece.
The mix, later known as ‘Lesson One’ to tie in with the rest of the series, became a top ten request item on every station it was sent to. Then, as Steinski continues, ‘we started hearing that cassettes that people had run off from the radio in Philadelphia were getting sold on street corners for 20-30 dollars. And it was selling in England for 60 and 70 and 80 dollars. And it was like “Really? No shit! This is so cool!”’
Inspired by their success, the pair tried it again, this time coming up with a James Brown cut-up. ‘We brought it to Tommy Boy and they said “Oh yeah, we’ll put this out” – they did, and woo-hoo, the same thing happened again! Yahoo, the latest thing from Double Dee and Steinski!’ Thus ‘Lesson Two’ came into existence (again, initially, as a Disconet DJ-only release). Perhaps the most irreverent JB mix ever produced – is that Junior’s ‘Mama Used to Say?’ next to The B-Boys’ ‘Rock the House’ in there? – ‘Lesson Two’, like its predecessor, also fed voraciously on a previous cut-up track, [adopting the intro from ‘Feelin’ James’]???] before wandering off on its own contrary way. As Steinski recalls, it was this mix which gave the name to the series. ‘Even though we called them “lessons” it was sort of coincidence, it was like “Oh look guys, at the start of this record your guy says ‘Lesson Two’”. “Oh, fine, put it on”. [laughs] So they became lessons, it wasn’t like we sat around like “Now, another message from out two great minds.”’.
‘Lesson Three’, however, seemed very much like a message from two great minds. An immaculate collage of hip hop’s most famous breaks, and therefore aptly subtitled ‘The History of Hip Hop’, the mix also displayed the masterful selection and timing of spoken word excerpts for which the duo were becoming renowned. Although Herman Kelly put a spanner in the works of any official release, ‘Lesson Three’ appeared first on Disconet before joining its predecessors on a rare-as-hen’s-teeth Tommy Boy promo. The series was complete, and would forever thereafter be known simply as The Lessons.
It’s tempting to wax long and lyrical about the importance of The Lessons – their off-kilter funkiness, their invention, their pinpoint beat placement, their ability to tell a story or create an absurd scene – above all, perhaps, their overriding sense of humour. Coldcut’s Matt Black even credits the records with kickstarting the sampling revolution.
Its also important to understand The Lessons within the wider context of the careers and experiences of its creators. While the mixes themselves are now widely known, thanks largely to incessant bootlegging, surprisingly little has been printed about the histories, philosophies, techniques and obsessions of Double Dee and Steinski themselves. It’s time to go some way towards setting that straight.
‘We’ll Be Right Back After This Word’: an interview with Steinski
Big Daddy: When did you personally get into digging for records in a serious way?
Steve Stein: When I first got a job that allowed me a fair amount of disposable income, which was when I became an advertising copywriter. I was able to start really buying records [instead of] passing by record stores and averting my eyes so I wouldn’t cry! About that same time, I was living way downtown in New York, and a very hot club opened up just above where I was, a place called the Mudd Club, a new wave, punk-ish sort of a dance club. It was an astonishing place because they played a full range of music – this was before DJs and music that got played in dance clubs became so narrowly categorised. So there was rock stuff, there was old funk, there was all kinds of stuff that got played. It was wonderful and it got me like ‘Yeah man, I really want all those records!’ So I started buying one record every two weeks, then two or three, until the dam burst and I went out and bought 25 records [at once]! This was before CDs, so vinyl was relatively inexpensive, like five, six, seven bucks a pop, and I was spending … five, six, seven thousand dollars a year on it. That meant a lot more in terms of buying stuff [back then]. I would make up lists, go out, fulfill the lists, just do everything.
BD: Where did the lists and the knowledge come from?
SS: The lists started with me just sitting down and thinking of every record I ever liked or responded to, or anything I read about, because I was reading about [music] extensively. When my tastes switched over from rock stuff to old funk and hip hop, and I started recognising the breaks, I’d go out and buy the 45s that the breaks were on.
At the same time, when I was working for the advertising agency, I was also DJing out in Brooklyn for a food-buying co-operative which had its roots in old hippy communal living type stuff. It’s still there. But I was DJing for two or three hundred old hippies. Which was fine, because old hippies will dance to anything, but they won’t dance to it for longer than 15 minutes. So I could play rap music, and that was fine, and at the end of the 15 minutes I’d play some old rock’n’roll, and at the end of that I’d play some James Brown, and then after that I’d be like ‘Okay, now some African stuff’. It was great, a lot of fun. They weren’t expecting any slick DJ-type jazz – the end of one record blended over the beginning of the next, and ho ho off we go! This was before turntablism, and nobody went to house clubs so no-one expected a continuous mix. Which was just fine as far as I was concerned.
BD: So maybe cut’n’paste owes something to the hippies! Can you recall the year you started DJing, roughly?
SS: It was around the time of splitting with my wife, somewhere in the region of 1980.
BD: What, did your wife leave you because …
SS: [laughing] No no no, they were totally independent events! She came to the dances after we separated and she enjoyed ‘em. It wasn’t like, ‘The records are taking over and I’m leaving you, goodbye!’ – ‘OK, just don’t step on ‘em on the way out!’
BD: Spoken word recordings feature heavily in your collection, don’t they …
SS: Well, that’s been a preoccupation from since I was a kid, because there were certain comedy records on 78 that my parents had that I can STILL recite word for word. There’s something about the rhythms of people’s voices which really gets me. I haven’t ever intellectualised this. Sometimes it doesn’t even have anything to do with what they say. These old comedy records by Buddy Hacket, these orange label Coral 78s, that was the first stuff. Then there’s stuff that I list as cut’n’paste influences, like Buchanan and Goodman, which I really liked because they were combinations of comedy records and music and had this crazy hollering and screaming. And coming up to when I started collecting records seriously again, about 20 years ago, it was kinda always in my mind, I was always buying these things. It never even occured to me [to ask] if they fitted what [other music] I was buying. If they didn’t fit, whatever, but if they did I’d use ‘em on mixtapes at home.
[Steinski goes on to list his favourite spoken word records and artists: the JFK recordings, US kids TV presenters Sandy Becker and Shari Lewis, comedian Jerry Clower, Albert Hoffman, performance artist Ruth Draper, Malcolm X, actors Jerry Stiller and Danny Hoch. He then enthuses about his collection of commercial spoken word records, including a sex education record made by the Bishop of the Archdiocese of New York, a dog heartbeat record for vets, and an explanation of the concept of stereo by Amos and Andy (black comic stereotypes played by white actors) which was pressed up privately for a furniture dealers convention. And there was more – but the edit must prevail …]
BD: Steinski, you are the don of spoken word! So from being a DJ and enthusiastic collector, when did you start putting cut’n’paste mixes together?
SS: Well, I had always known about Buchanan and Goodman – I heard them when I was about 6 or 7, on jukeboxes, which was one way you heard stuff. So I remembered that stuff from then. And then I was doing mixtapes, on my own, which incorporated spoken word. But there was a very definite start in that besides going to the Roxy and Negril and places like that with a sort of religious fervour, what happened was I began writing and producing radio commercials on a freelance basis. And one of the people I worked with was Douglas DiFranco. We really got along, and he was working in a studio where he had a lot of latitude in terms of the amount of time he [could] spend working on all the equipment. So, we hooked up and started spending a lot of time hanging around his place. I was like, ‘Hey man, did you ever get into rap music?’and he was going ‘No, I’m into dance music’, so I said ‘Really? Let’s go to the Roxy one evening.’ He really got into it, so we both started going a lot.
What happened was that another producer [David Witz] who Douglas worked with, a guy from CBS, [saw the original Tommy Boy advertisement in an industry publication] said ‘Here, you guys should enter this contest’ – it was the remix contest for Tommy Boy. We said ‘Yeah, sure, why not, what the fuck’, because we’d already been fooling around a little bit – we’d rented a sampler and screwed around with it, we’d rented a couple of drum machines – but nothing like ‘Oh, we’re gonna make records, this is really gonna happen’. Then one weekend we went in on a Saturday morning and worked until really late Saturday night, coming back in mid-afternoon on the Sunday to finish it really late that evening. We sent in the tape to the contest and about six or eight weeks later, in typical lackadaisical Tommy Boy style, we heard we had won. And that was the first thing we did.
But don’t forget that I had the advantage of working with Douglas, who was not only technically excellent in the studio, but had worked on record company commercials for a long time. So he would be working on 60-second commercials that incorporated, say, five or six cuts from the new Eagles track or some nonsense. They would basically start [puts on classic voiceover accent] ‘Presenting … Hotel California … BLAM’, then the first cut would start and you’d get five-to-ten seconds of that with a bit of chorus in it, then ‘The new album … by the Eagles … BLAM’, and underneath that, the segue happened. On the beat, in came the new cut. ‘Available in stores … May 14th … BLAM’, you know, like that. Douglas could do this like a champ, and he could do it using vinyl records on an eight-track machine. And it always worked. It was like he just flew the son-of-a-bitch in and it hit on the beat. If he had to he would roll the stuff off to two-track tape, make the edits he needed to make, and then roll the two-track tape. But he could do it. And I showed up for making this mix with six crates of records, cos I was buying records like a son of a bitch. We both had a real feel for spoken word recordings. We were both like ‘Let’s try this, let’s try that, let’s try this’. It became exceedingly ‘left-turn’ orientated – ‘Oh, let’s put in Humphrey fuckin Bogart! Let’s put in this Houdini sound!’ And Douglas would listen to it and go ‘Yeah yeah, it’ll sit right here’, and boom, and I’d go ‘I bet this works’. I didn’t even have speeds on my records, but I’d just get a sense of what would fit, like ‘This’ll go right here, and we can loop this part up’, and Douglas’d be like ‘Yeah, we could do that and we could add this’. And it would take another twenty little minutes to have that happen. And that’s how it worked.
BD: Could you explain the recording set-up in a bit more detail?
SS: The recording techniques were very simple. They still exist now, it’s just that you don’t find them in professional studios. There was an eight-track tape recorder that Douglas had, a turntable for vinyl, two or three two-track tape machines and a mixing board. And we would just layer the stuff up. Every time you needed to make a transition, you’d switch to the next pair of tracks.
BD: Right, so you used multitracking primarily as opposed to tape splicing …
SS: Right. There was some [splicing] but not an inordinate amount, because you’re not working with a mix of a record where you’re like ‘Now we’ll just do repeat edits, boom boom boom boom, then into the next section’. It wasn’t like that. Our stuff was much more multi-faceted and multi-layered for that time. It was a wonderful combination of the two of us: Douglas’s sensibilities and his extreme technical expertise, and me sitting around waving my hand around going ‘Wow, bet this would work, try this!!’ Spontaneity doesn’t even begin to describe it. I mean, we were ahead of ourselves all the time. We almost never had an idea. We went into working on those three records, The Lessons, and we usually only had an idea of how we were gonna open it. For the second one, obviously we knew we were gonna use multi James Brown records. But that was pretty much how it worked: ‘This is how we’ll begin, and let’s see what happens’. And that’s still how we work – on the rare occasions when we work any more.
BD: Could you tell us some more about how you approached the Tommy Boy competition?
SS: We looked at it like it was a commercial job. Within five minutes, make a mix of this record. That’s basically your only limitations.
BD: It’s worth remembering that it was supposed to be a remix and not a megamix.
SS: Right, but ours kinda busted out.
BD: You said ‘Lesson One’ was a big radio hit, so in that sense it connected with the disco edits of the time …
SS: I guess, but we had no real knowledge of Disconet and all of that stuff. I was an advertising copywriter who went to rap clubs, and Douglas was a studio engineer who went to rap clubs, and we didn’t really pay a lot of attention to that professional and semi-professional stuff, although he did end up marrying the woman who was the secretary of Disconet.
BD: Did you manage to make Lessons Two and Three in such quick time?
SS: ‘Lesson Two’ took us about a week or two … Douglas would remember better. And then we did the last mix in our own studio, after we had moved into a huge apartment in Brooklyn together. There we had our own eight track machine, two track machine, vinyl, turntable … we didn’t need much more else than that. We got approached to do ‘The History of Hip Hop’ mix. ‘Would you do this, and would you use “Dance to the Drummer’s Beat” in it because it’s a big deal’, and so on, and we’re like ‘Yeah, solid, this sounds like a good idea!’ That actually took us a month or two between jobs and mopin’ around, and just coming back and coming back to it. But we got that done and then whaddayaknow, that was the first time anyone went ‘Eh, what about the legal rights for this?’ I think at that point Herman Kelly, who still owned the rights to ‘Dance to the Drummer’s Beat’, was like ‘Yeah, I want a BILLION dollars’ – basically, a fairly unreasonable request – and since that was key to the mix, it was like ‘Uh, fine, that’s not gonna come out legally either’.
BD: Can you remember how many copies of each lesson appeared?
SS: Well, it was always white labels, promo copies. It was never ever made up for sale. We weren’t even thinking like that then because Douglas and I both had jobs, we weren’t so much in the subculture of things. So it was nothing like the Big Apple mixes which were sold in stores. Or they would turn up in stores but it would be a reviewer or DJ who had given up their copy. As to how many copies, I wouldn’t even know.
There’s some artful looking bootlegs out now with a ‘Lesson Four’ which we didn’t even do on the other side. It’s like some disco mix that somebody did.
BD: What, another ‘Lesson Four’ …
SS: There’s a zillion ‘Lesson Four’s! I’m very flattered that everybody did these various lessons, but with the one that’s coming out now, I listened to it and thought ‘What is this, this is a disco tape edit, this blows!’ But what are you gonna do?
[Spotters note: this rogue ‘Lesson Four’, falsely attributed to Double Dee and Steinski, is actually the aforementioned ‘Big Apple Noise’ by Translux (therefore not actually a tape edit), pressed on a record faked-up in the style of the Tommy Boy ‘Lessons’. The ‘Sugarhill Suite’, which is officially available on a Castle promo 12” and compilation LP, is on the flip.]
BD: On ‘Lesson Three’, there’re some very classic breaks on there, in keeping with the ‘History of Hip Hop’ theme – but what makes it really great are the odd things you put in too, things that must’ve been pretty unknown …
SS: Well, Douglas and I are old, so we put in things that were probably older than most people would recognise. I think that’s the one that has ‘Hernando’s Hideaway’ by Archie Bleyer and his Orchestra, which … well, obviously you didn’t hear that in clubs! That was one of the records I bought off the list of records I liked as a kid. And I ran it down in some store for whatever, a buck and a half, two bucks for a 7”, and I realised, ‘Oh shit, what do you know, that’s like an acapella there, we can throw that in! Ha ha!’ So we did. But in terms of actual instrumental breaks, I don’t think we snuck in too many things. We were sort of your average [breaks] fans at that point, I wasn’t seriously diggin’ in the crates or anything like that. We had a whole bunch of James Brown stuff, obviously, but that was about the extent of it. I’m sure I was also buying the Ultimate Breaks and Beats records. Those were early ‘80s - I think it was ’81 or ’82 when [Breakbeat] Lennie put out the first one. He had been hanging around with Bambaataa and the Zulu Nation DJs in the Bronx and he started to understand that ‘Oh yeah, you can sell a record with six hot breaks on it, because everybody’s goin’ crazy lookin’ for these records’.
BD: I like the story about Bambaataa asking you about the Rufus Thomas ‘Itch and Scratch’ break, which you used on ‘Lesson Two’. Is that true?
SS: Well, I remember he asked about it, but I’m not sure that he didn’t know about it. It was in the context of ‘Who is that?’ ‘Rufus Thomas.’ ‘Oh, yeah.’ So I think he knew what it was, it’s just he wasn’t sure.
BD: There’s not much disputing that Bambaataa was the don of digging at that time …
SS: In a lot of ways, yeah. I think he was freakin’ amazing. He had a great ear for records – he was around at the birth of hip hop and understood what hip hop needed in terms of a break. And his concept of what would work was very, very large – much larger than a lot of people’s. Bambaataa was the first person I knew who used rock breaks, for example.
BD: In terms of the use of breaks in cut’n’paste, and their legality, where do you stand? Because for a lot of people, those artists should’ve been grateful for the exposure. But instead, as with Herman Kelly, some of them got greedy.
SS: There’s always an argument that [to be sampled] is [to be] advertised against your will in some way. When Stetsasonic did that rhyme about James Brown being dead before Eric B and Rakim came out with ‘I Know You Got Soul’, [you could see] there was a certain amount of truth to that because people had been overlooking him. But James Brown is a little bit like Duke Ellington – he’s only gonna get overlooked so much before someone goes ‘Wait a minute, this guy’s a fuckin’ genius’. Sure, a lot of people who got revived because of a hot break or something like that might otherwise not be known, but if I was Herman Kelly I’d probably want to get paid too. He was asking for what was considered to be an unreasonable amount of money at the time, because the situation hadn’t solidified yet, it hadn’t become a code – ‘Oh, this is how it works, you’ll get paid that, that seems to be about right’. There was no ‘about right’. He was like, ‘Oh, you’re usin’ my record? Pay me a lot of money’. I thought it was unfortunate, but it wasn’t completely out of line. That’s the way it works.
BD: Did you plan releasing anything else as Double Dee and Steinski immediately after ‘Lesson 3’?
SS: No. What happened was that Douglas had met Pat from Disconet, we were living in our apartment in Brooklyn, we were both freelancing, and Douglas decided that he wanted to move in with Pat and go back to work in the studio. So he moved to Queens with Pat. And I didn’t want to stop making records. So I thought, what could I do that would have a lot of emotional impact? And I started searching around, and that’s when I came up with the idea of the Kennedy record, which was the next thing.
BD: Steinski and Mass Media’s ‘And the Motorcade Sped On’. And that was you on your own.
SS: That was me on my own. I rented some studio time at a place in New York where a lot of hip hop tracks were being cut, a place called INS, Ian North Studios. And I worked with this engineer who was very sceptical at first, then we kinda loosened up with each other - a guy named Craig Bevan who I’m still in contact with every once in a while. And Craig helped me do the beat for that. We assembled the entire thing on multitrack then mixed it down together.
BD: And that was more of a political record than before …
SS: Well, I would say for me it was meant to be more of an emotional thing. It’s not like I’m a conspiracy theorist and I was making my views known through this, it was more that at the time, that material had a lot more emotional resonance with people who were listening to records. Now, not so much because everyone’s a lot younger, this is ancient history for them – ‘So a president got shot, big deal.’ But I was around when that happened, 12 or 13 or something, and I remember very very clearly that everybody thought the world was gonna end. Exactly the same feeling as when the Trade Centers blew up. People were very, very scared, it was very crazy. And when I went back through my records and listened to that, my heart just kinda seized up and I thought ‘Yeah, let me do that’.
You know, I try not to be too arty with my stuff, in terms of ‘Oh, I’m not interested in whether people can tap their feet or nod their heads to it or dance, it’s really more about the fabulous idea’. I don’t really do that. I want stuff to have a strong rhythmic base – that’s just my taste. But [‘The Motorcade’] seemed to have a strong intellectual overtone to it. I guess because it had no people singing! Just people writhing in pain, basically.
BD: That record ran into legal problems as well, didn’t it, over the use of Walter Cronkite’s voice …
SS: It didn’t run into legal problems [as such]. At the time, I called someone at CBS – I can’t remember whose name I got, or what department I called – and said ‘Say I wanna do a record like this’. They listened to the proposition and went ‘There’s no chance in hell we’d ever clear that’. And I went ‘Uh, OK fine’. But it didn’t stop me from doin’ it. I was just like ‘OK, so I can’t get legal clearance for it’. And the reason it came out on Tommy Boy was that they owed me money for some stuff, because Douglas and I had been doing work for them in various capacities, so I’d said ‘Tell you what, don’t pay me the money, just put the record out, get it out to college stations and stuff’. And they said, ‘Yeah, OK, fine’. It made less of an impact here than it did in England.
BD: Well, there were definitely more copies around in the UK, as it came out on a free 45 with the NME.
SS: Right, I remember that.
BD: Another record you made a little later, the anti-war cut-up ..
SS: ‘It’s Up To You’, with the Bush thing …
BD: Yeah, that’s also got emotional impact, especially in the light of recent events, along with a real hard political edge …
SS: That was more overtly political. That was more like ‘Ah, fuck you guys, this ain’t a real war’. It was like we cooked it up so George Bush could claim to be a wartime president. I just didn’t get it, here was this country that got invaded, the size of a postage stamp, it was such a nebulous little Middle Eastern dispute – what are we doin’ in the middle of this? Sendin’ people to get their asses killed. The whole thing was seriously bogus, the same as Reagan’s Grenada war, the same bullshit. I’m just extremely cynical when it comes to this stuff. So my friend Alan and I made that record – Alan Freedman. Which was really, really great.
BD: I don’t know how you feel about what’s happening in the Middle East at the moment, but to me that record sounds more relevant than ever …
SS: Well yeah, actually, when I was at the Product Placement concert, a DJ that I know came up to me and said ‘I’ve been playin’ it on my show, it really fits the times’. I was like ‘Oh, wow’. I mean it depends on where you come down – there are a surprising amount of people who are running around ready to have the flag tattooed on their ass. So I don’t really bring up a lot of political stuff – I’m just like ‘Alright, fine, thank you’.
BD: When did you realise your cut-ups had influenced others to make similar kinds of records?
SS: I guess we’d heard Fresh Gordon’s James Brown record for Tommy Boy [‘Feelin’ James’, an ‘official’ JB mix with live instrumentation which is unrelated to Mr K’s original], but it was more when we heard the first Coldcut record, which they sent to us – ‘Say Kids’ - and we were like ‘Oh wow, this is cool, listen to what they did with that Jungle Book shit, that’s really hip!’ We liked that a lot.
Over time, I drifted in and out of contact with rap and hip hop in various stages. When rap stopped being party music, I started having a certain arms-length distance from it because it wasn’t fun any more. That’s as much a matter of my aging tastes as anything else. Then I started getting back into it a couple of years ago, and looked around, and it took me a long long time just to hear instrumental stuff that I liked. And then, somebody said ‘Have you heard this DJ Shadow record that you’re namechecked on?’ and I said ‘No, what’s that?’ And I heard [Endtroducing] and I went ‘Sonofabitch! Who is this guy?’ And another person showed up and said ‘Did you hear this Cut Chemist thing?’ ‘Who’s he?’ And they played that and I was like, ‘Oh damn. Who are these guys?’ And then I realised ‘Oh yeah, something seems to be happening here with our old records’. People were listening to the stuff, and taking it seriously, in a way that I hadn’t realised. It took a long time for it to dawn on me that this was going on, because I’m never particularly fast on the uptake with these sorts of things, but now I’m aware of it. Having played with Shadow and Chemist at the Skratch Piklz demise party, and having been in England a couple of years ago, DJing and meeting people there – that’s when it really dawned on me. I called Douglas from England and said ‘You won’t believe it, we’re like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters over here. I can’t fuckin believe it!’ It’s not like I was walking around with a white leather vest with fringes going ‘Oh, yeah, we’re such hot shit.’ Not at all. I just run around, I do my work … It’s nice getting recognition like this, but it’s hard to understand – or it’s just not something I expected.
BD: As you experienced with ‘The Motorcade’, it’s probably fair to say that cut’n’paste took hold more in the UK, from the late ‘80s onwards, than it did in the States. You even scored a minor hit with ‘We’ll Be Right Back (After This Word)’. I wouldn’t like to theorise about it …
SS: But there are cultural differences. Historically, jazz has always taken hold in Europe, and away from the United States, in a stronger way, at least certainly while bebop was happening. While Charlie Parker certainly got his dues at the time, and so did a number of other people like [Thelonious] Monk, over here, we went to see Monk, we were like ‘That’s great, that’s terrific. Now, who else. What’s goin’ on? What’s the next thing?’ Whereas in Europe, a lot of people were like ‘Shit, Monk, what a great thinker this guy is, this is some deep shit here!’ And the focus stayed on. With American culture - people say it’s disposable, and that’s true – but everybody always wants to know what next thing is. And the last thing is just the last thing.
BD: But people aren’t always around when the last thing’s the new thing – sometimes the last thing has to be rediscovered. And with Coldcut, a lot of people over here probably heard them first, and then discovered you, and your stuff became seminal through the light they shone on it. Which was great, because their record was intended as a tribute. And then the process happens again with Shadow and Cut Chemist’s Lessons. I take it none of those guys ever came to you first to ask if you minded them doing a lesson?
SS: No, which is fine. We didn’t ask James Brown. A whole part of this is pretty much charging ahead. It’s not the sort of artform – if it’s even an artform – where you can ask permission.
BD: You recreated The Lessons with Shadow and Cut Chemist at the Scratch Piklz party – how was that?
SS: Jeez, I missed two thirds of the cues, I was so embarrassed by that – I felt like a true dinosaur of hip hop. I had a wonderful time, and it was really an honour – Chemist and Shadow did fabulous work, they had really practised – but I showed up at the tail end. They’d recreated the music perfectly, they’d practised for a week, called me in advance, and said ‘We’ll fly you out here, would you like to perform this, play the samples over the top of the track?’ ‘Yeah, OK, let’s roll!’ So I went out, but the problem was we only had about 4 hours of practise time, from midnight of the night before we played. Which was great for them, because they already knew what they were doing! Not so great for me, because it was a first, and I didn’t know that they could really do it so exactly.
BD: Looking back on the last few years of Tommy Boy’s existence, it seems they were trading too much on their past successes, with strings of reissues and so on. But on the plus side, this meant a promo reissue of the ‘Lessons’ which also got you and Douglas working together again, on the incredible ‘Jazz’ mix of Afrika Bambaataa’s ‘Jazzy Sensation’.
SS: I was really happy with that, we thought we did a good job, they really liked it – I got a wonderful phone call from Tommy when he got a tape of it, which was very gratifying as he was so enthusiastic. Oh yeah, we’ve had a lot of good feedback on that. It was a ball for us to do right because we hadn’t worked together in years. Obviously we’d been hanging around together, and we’d done commercial work together, but we hadn’t done records.
BD: Then you did the ‘Sugarhill Suite’ megamix together …
SS: Yeah, that was about a year later. Coldcut got involved in that project and suggested to the people that were running it that we do an overall mix of the catalogue. The cats who were running the label were amenable to it, and Douglas and I took it and ran with it. We had a really good time.
BD: How’s your technical approach to making music changed over the years?
SS: Well, things have obviously moved on a lot. There’s no tape here – there’s a DAT, but that’s as tape as it gets. What I have now is an almost top-of-the-line ProTools [set up], with tons and tons of plug-ins, which I’m getting the hang of now. My studio has just been expanded hugely and I have now the full capability to make records, which is all I wanna do.
BD: So from being reliant on engineers, including Douglas early on, you’re now doing it all yourself.
SS: Well, for the first three records, I was making a lot of suggestions, pullin’ out a lot of records, doin’ a lot of the traditional producer stuff, and the other half was Douglas doing the same thing, but also constructing the friggin’ record on tape. Which was unbelievable. After he decided he didn’t want to be doing that any more, it was a healthy thing for me … I worked at different studios with different engineers, my commercial work was also taking me to different studios, I started meeting other people and finding out about other ways of doing stuff. Over time, when stuff started switching over to being more digital than tape, I realised ‘Yeah, I might be able to fumble through this’. I’m better at it now, but I’m still nowhere near as good an engineer as Douglas or some of the other engineers that have taught me. Not even close. Douglas and a lot of these guys knew what they wanted to do when they were seven. They understood compression when they were twelve. I’ve been working with compression for 15 years, I still don’t know what the fuck it does. I use it all the time – I just don’t know what it is. These guys really know, they went to technical high schools and technical colleges. I’ll never be that good in that respect. But in other respects, it really makes it easy for me to get in there and say ‘Ah, what happens if I take these eight things and toss them around like this and do that?’ It’s a lot easier for me to do it myself than tell someone else what it is that I need. I can have new ideas half-way through, and change it up, and nobody’s sittin’ there goin’ ‘Will you make up your fuckin’ mind??’ That’s nice, that’s a real luxury.
BD: How did that affect you and Douglas’s working relationship when you came to do the ‘Jazzy Sensation’ and ‘Sugarhill Suite’ mixes?
SS: Well, at that point Douglas had been working on a digital system, but because he had had a falling out with the studio where he was working, he didn’t have access – he was in the process of leaving. But I had ProTools, so we started working at my place. But the problem was, he didn’t know how to use it. He does now – plenty great! But at that time he didn’t, so the roles were completely reversed. He was sitting behind me, cracking his knuckles and looking at the ceiling, trying to figure out what we were gonna do, and sometimes he’d be like ‘I can’t sit here!’ and he’d go walking round the studio or around the hallway. And I understood it perfectly – it was a complete reversal. It was pretty funny actually. But we always have a great time when we work.
BD: That’s what comes across on all the Double Dee and Steinski mixes, including the more recent ones. What have you been working on recently?
SS: I’m very happy with the stuff I’ve been doin’ on this show for Solid Steel, which is gonna come out, one way or another, as a mix CD. I think it’s pretty great. I finished a preliminary mix of it so I’d be able to send it out to a dozen or so people whose opinions I trust, and the notes are comin’ back and I’m very, very gratified. It hasn’t been broadcast yet, we’re just tryin’ to figure out how it’s gonna come out.
BD: Any more plans to work with Douglas in the near future?
SS: Douglas is real busy working for a major advertising studio, so I am reaching out to a number of different people to do collaborative work with. I got hooked up with these management guys, who are good people, and the first thing they said was, ‘If you had a wish list of people you could collaborate with, what would it be?’ I came up with a pretty decent list and they got in touch with just about everybody on it, and some stuff just like immediately started to happen. DJ Food is flying in tonight, we’ve got a week and a half and are probably gonna come up with a finished cut in that time. I did some work with Amon Tobin and there’s a couple of other people – I don’t want to jinx it by saying who they are – who it looks like I’ll be able to work with, which is really very thrilling. So I’m reaching out in a lot of very different directions, sort of learning as I go what sort of stuff I want to do. To be honest with you, I’m not sure I have the temperament to make the big killing in advertising or in commercial music. Everyone thinks it’s there, and maybe it is, but for other people, probably not for me.
BD: Happily for us, because that means more Steinski records!
SS: Oh yeah, I have such a great time making records it’s ridiculous. I had dinner a few weeks ago with some guys I went to high school with, and I was sitting in the corner, giggling quietly, because these guys were talkin’ about their retirement, and ‘my hobby’ this, and ‘my hobby’ that, and I was thinkin’ to myself, ‘Holy shit, I am SO lucky, I’m doin’ this stuff that I really love, I’m meeting all these fascinating people – who are basically my peers, even though they’re a lot younger than me – it’s fabulous.’ And I don’t have to sit around worrying about retiring to the golf course or any of that stuff.
BD: Steve, thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
SS: Thank you, it’s extremely gratifying to be asked to contribute to this article.
Lessons in lessons (2) : the saga of four, six and … where’s five?
If a measure of a great record is the number of covers or tribute versions it generates, then the original three ‘Lessons’ truly take the cut’n’paste prize. Steinski declares himself flattered and enthralled by the string of extra ‘Lessons’ which have appeared since the beginning of the ‘90s, even to the point at which he seems happy to abandon his classes to these upstart student teachers. ‘We wouldn’t do another lesson. What’ve we got to say? There are obviously a lot of people thinking about this a lot these days, so I don’t think we have much to contribute other than our pleasant sensibilities.’
DJ Shadow would no doubt chide Steinski for his modesty, but then he is obviously a man who has thought a lot about cut’n’paste. The dedications on the sleeve of Endtroducing alone have become an essential port-of-call for cut-up devotees, comprising as they do a veritable who’s who of edit-obsessed DJs, mixers and producers. Although most of his own work could be said to be cut’n’paste in some form or another, it’s Shadow’s more straightforward breakbeat collages which assure his place in this history: ‘The Number Song’ (as well as Cut Chemist’s smoking remix), the ‘Back-to-Back Breaks’ section of ‘Entropy’, the ‘Legitimate Mix’ of Zimbabwe Legit (on Hollywood Basic), and, of course, his tribute to those two aging middle-class white guys, the peerless ‘Lesson Four’.
Originally released on the b-side of Shadow’s promo remix of ‘Real Deal’ by Lifer’s Group in 1991, ‘Lesson Four’ is a straight-down-the-line New York style b-boy jam, utilising many of the same breaks which had been stock material on the barrage of cut’n’paste records appearing in the mid-to-late ‘80s. Of course, Shadow slips a few lesser-known gems in there to bridge the gaps (and exercise the spotters), but the real beauty of his track lies in its simple but musical structuring. Every break seems to loop for just the right amount of time, every cut is on point, the blends are perfect and, like the best Latin Rascals mix-ups, it knows when to hit the peaks. ‘Lesson Four’ – a major influence on DJ Format, and many people’s favourite post-Double Dee and Steinski Lesson – doesn’t just pay respect to Double Dee and Steinski, it seems to sit, pen in eager hand, in front of the entire cut-up tradition. In other words, it’s learned its lessons, so it’s rightly entitled to dispense one.
What is still a source of confusion regarding the subsequent Lessons is why Cut Chemist also made a ‘Lesson Four’. Chemist’s mix, which first appeared on the flip of Jurassic 5’s ‘Unified Rebellution’ 12” in 1994 before later surfacing on the first Return Of The DJ comp, is definitely more of a DJ track (albeit a Steinski-esque one) than a straight cut’n’paste, with one hook repeatedly returned to, a constant beat and a gabble of spoken word samples and rap acapellas shredded over the top. (Perhaps for that very reason it deserved to call itself a ‘lesson’ – it was bringing something new to the series.) But Cut Chemist did not know of Shadow’s earlier version. In fact, the mix-up brought the two together. As Shadow recalls:
I had met Luke [aka Cut Chemist] through my friend DJ Zen (formerly of Solesides) who informed me that someone else in LA had done a ‘Lesson Four’. Seeing as how mine was limited to 800 copies, it slipped Luke by without him knowing of its existence. When the Unified Rebellution single came out in '94, Luke used the b-side to offer a tribute to the Lessons saga. DJ Zen informed him that I had already done a ‘Lesson Four’, and he was shocked that someone was on the same wavelength, especially since that style of production was conspicuously absent from the flavor of the time.
Thus, as Shadow continues, when the Chemist went on to do his ‘Lesson Six’, ‘he skipped five as a tip of the hat and acknowledgment of my earlier version’. But the story does not end there. According to DJ Format:
Cut Chemist was planning on doing a ‘Lesson Five’ and he was gonna try and do it in 5/4. ‘Cos I put him onto the Soft Machine break that’s in 5/4, and said ‘Look, this is a really wicked track but I’ll never use it’, and he was like ‘Fuck, I could use this for “Lesson Five”’. But whether he’ll ever get round to it, I don’t know.
It would make sense – parts of ‘Lesson Six’ are in 6/8 time. Shadow backs up the story, at least in part: ‘There indeed was talk of doing a ‘Lesson Five’ in 5/4 time, but as others started doing Lessons here and there we decided to move on to other things rather than contribute to the glut’. So maybe it’ll never happen. But just in case it does, it’d be nice if the bootleggers left the number alone for a while.