The best-reviewed album of 2008 is by a 57-year-old advertising executive named Steven Stein. Steinski, as he is better known, emerged on the hip-hop scene in 1983, when Tommy Boy Records held a promo asking entrants to remix the single “Play That Beat, Mr. D.J.” by G.L.O.B.E. and Whiz Kid. The result, “Lesson 1 — The Payoff Mix” not only won the contest, but became a hip-hop classic in its own right. Steinski, sometimes with partner Doug DiFranco (“Double Dee”) and sometimes without, released several other breakthrough tracks over succeeding years, which are included in the collection What Does It All Mean? 1983-2006 Retrospective, which was released by a label called Illegal Art this year to overwhelmingly positive reviews and is now 2008’s top-reviewed album on Metacritic.com. Listeners encountering the collection for the first time may not recognize the music, but will possibly pick out some of the hundreds of sound bites Steinski layered over the tracks, particularly the “What Does It All Mean?” sound bite that was appropriated by De La Soul for its “Three Is the Magic Number” track in 1989. Usually, the sound bites — from old movies, advertisements, speeches and whatever — are used for comic effect, though “The Motorcade Sped On,” which uses Walter Cronkite’s commentary during the Kennedy assassination has a different goal as does the haunting “Number Three on Flight Eleven,” which uses Betty Ong’s cell phone call from United Flight 11 on 9/11 and turns the song into what Pitchfork Media called “an unsettling, ambient Eno-esque dirge.” Perhaps the most amazing thing about the music is that most of it has been unavailable until fairly recently because of copyright concerns. Previously, the only way to hear Steinski’s music was at clubs or on bootlegs. Brandweek editor Todd Wasserman spoke with Stein last week about his 25-year overnight success and why he never quit the advertising business.
Brandweek: Are you still involved in advertising now?
Steven Stein: Up to my ass.
BW: Who are you working for?
SS: I’m a freelancer. I have my own company and I do a lot of radio and audio work for various people. I have an agency in Philadelphia I’ve been working with for a really long time [Gyro Worldwide] and I do work on and off for Nike — various parts of Nike — I’ve done some work for Reebok.
BW: What kind of stuff do you do?
SS: I do a lot of radio commercials. I write the scripts, I cast them, I produce them. There’s that. I do sound effects for existing commercials. I do tracks and music for TV commercials. I’ve done some incidental music for features.
BW: But back in 1983 you worked for DDB.
SS: The many times former DDB.
BW: What accounts did you work for?
SS: Accounts that don’t exist anymore. I started working there on Polaroid on this bizarre failing product called Polarvision — instant film. At the time videotape was becoming popular it was pissing in the wind, but I also worked on GTE, I did a bunch of work for Volkswagen . . .
BW: I read you worked on Atari.
SS: Yeah, that was a back-door kind of thing. That’s when I was slowly separating myself from the agency and working three days a week and they snuck me in on that because I could work really fast and I didn’t care about going to meetings, so basically they’d throw a bunch of work at me on Tuesday and I’d get it done by Thursday and they’d go into the meeting and say ‘Yeah, look what we did.’
BW: When did you leave DDB?
SS: 86 maybe. I went to work as a consultant for a bunch of different cable companies, MTV . . . I was doing a lot of work at a company called Fred Alan and that was two guys who had been the creative directors at MTV and they had split off and formed their own company. So I was freelancing there and freelancing at a lot of cable companies and doing a lot of advertising.
BW: So did you think that you’d be able to make records full time?
SS: It never occurred to me. It never occurred to me that it would be anything but a hobby. It took a lot of life changes for me to turn around and say ‘That’s what I want to do.’
BW: Wasn’t it the case that a lot of your records were illegal?
SS: They were never available. So Douglas and I had this sort of underground infamy, but at the same time it never really occurred to us to just stop what we were doing and become full-time record makers.
BW: Was that because the stuff was copyrighted?
SS: No, it’s just because we were both so bourgeois-y that we didn’t want to give up our pleasant middle class existence and steady paychecks for the rough and ready world of ‘Hey, we made a record and whaddya know, nobody likes it?’
BW: When you saw the Beastie Boys having huge success though, didn’t you think ‘I’d like to do that also’?
SS: Don’t forget though that around the time the Beastie Boys were having their huge success they were 20 and I was 35, which seemed like a large gap at the time.
BW: You weren’t the first one to take sound bites from movies and put them in records, right?
SS: Oh no. Buchanan and Goodman [Dickie Goodman of “Mr. Jaws” and Bill Buchanan]’s ‘Flying Saucer’ records Doug and I both knew about. And I wouldn’t say we patterned ourselves after them, but we knew of their existence and the fact that we’d been screwing around with sound in the studios for some time sort of opened us up to the possibilities. When we did the contest, it all seemed to come together.
BW: It seems like you drew stuff from all over the place. Where did ‘What does it all mean?’ come from?
SS: That’s the old mayor of New York, Fiorello LaGuardia. He was reading the funnies on the radio.
BW: That’s probably the most famous one. Are there any that came from ads? I remember one sound bite that began ‘Mellow as moonlight, as warm as a mother’s embrace.’
SS: Right, that was from an old Welch’s Grape Wine ad back when Welch’s was making alcoholic products.
BW: Some reviews online say they love the album, but they thought ‘The Motorcade Sped On’ is tasteless. What were you going for there?
SS: I wanted to make something very emotional that would really be more emotional than a dance floor record. And it never really occurred to me to write something and get someone to voice something, so I looked around and asked what do I have that’s really arresting? And I found that and I said ‘OK, I’ll use it.’ It wasn’t to make fun of the Kennedy thing because at the time it was far enough away that there was a sort of antiseptic distance there.
BW: Similarly, you had a 9/11 track.
SS: That was different. That one I didn’t add any kind of gloss to at all. There was almost no beat. It was just a dirge-like piece because shit, I watched that happen and I was thinking very much about Betty Ong’s family.
BW: What is your philosophy on sampling?
SS: I would say Fair Use really needs to be ramped up and that laws restricting sampling need to be strongly reexamined because they were basically rammed through legislatively by the corporations attempting to stifle the technology, which was like turning to the people who make buggy whips for wagons and saying ‘What should we do about the automobile?’
BW: The retrospective has gotten great reviews. Are you getting a lot of attention now?
SS: Well, yeah. The label that put it out, Illegal Art, did a great job with the packaging, but they hired some really good promotion companies and these companies have done a great job. I mean I got an 8.7 [out of 10] on Pitchfork and four stars [out of five] in Rolling Stone, which is about as separated as you can get and still be doing OK. I’m not sitting around saying ‘Wow, the world has finally discovered what a genius I am.’ It’s like ‘It really helps to have a great promotions company working for you.’
BW: Will there be a follow up?
SS: I hope so. Right now I’ve had two clients drop two huge jobs on me.