Steinski: Ad Exec, Hip-Hop Legend

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 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.’