Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Down by Law:
Great Dance Records You Can't Buy

In the fall of 1983, the aggressive indie dance label Tommy Boy tried to put some legs on a less-than-swift 12-inch by sponsoring something called "G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid's 'Play That Beat Mr. D.J.' Mix Context!" The idea was for club DJs to doctor the G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid record after the manner of Kiss-FM's Shep Pettibone, whose exclusive versions of the hits exploited an old club technique by intermixing hot dance tracks with hooks and breaks from other hot or classic dance tracks. The grand prize was $100, the Tommy Boy catalogue, a Tommy Boy shirt, and, oh yes, airplay and club distribution for your mix. For most of the contestants, that last was basically a career opportunity--a chance to get out of the clubs and turn into the next Jellybean Benitez. But in the public arts, distribution is power--aesthetic power. Tommy Boy certainly didn't realize it then and possibly never will. But by offering to expose a single mastermix to listeners all over the country, the label was putting into motion a set of artistic, ethical, legal, and political contradictions far beyond the power of an indie dance label to resolve.

Pettibone and Benitez were part of a blue-ribbon panel who downed pizza and beer at a listening party where the winner would be chosen from 10 finalists. The hot dance track of the moment, Shannon's "Let the Music Play," saw heavy action in the early going--since both songs are addressed to DJs, there was even a thematic connection. But the ninth entry didn't come from a DJ, and it didn't dip into Shannon's well, either. It did glance off hot dance tracks by Yaz, the Peech Boys, Herbie Hancock, Culture Club, and Indeep amid rap, disco, funk, and rock and roll classics too numerous to mention--as well as less melodic material from Humphrey Bogart, Dr. Saint, Betty White's dance instructor, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. When the tape was through, the judges broke into applause. They knew instantly that Double Dee & Steinski had taken mastermixing into new realms--or appeared to, which was good enough for openers.

On the dance floor, the aesthetic charge of any kind of mix--be it the reshaping of a single song's trajectory by repeating key passages and adding filigrees and sound effects from other records, or the cross-referential interweaving of different pieces of music--has always been what literary ideologues refer to as sensationalistic. It's not just that it's perceived kinetically, without passing Mind, which though bad enough is reluctantly recognized as inevitable in some lower forms. Even worse is that in most cases it never goes upstairs for processing, because each thrill-packed improvisation is designed to be obliterated by the next--in an environment that is not, let's face it, conducive to cogitation. Once the mix is preserved on tape or disc, some sort of considered perception becomes possible, but even then meanings are hard to grasp, much less define, because they're so often purely body meanings. The mixer looks for rhythmic relationships that provide an invigorating surprise rather than an alarming shock--a love bite that doesn't unswitch the pleasure circuits, a popper that doesn't kick off a coronary. Sometimes there'll be lyrical links, but rarely will they do more than throw one DJ or fire or I-will-survive reference smack against another. Less showy but deeper are strictly musical connections, likely and unlikely. It's one thing to know that James Brown begat George Clinton begat Rick James begat Grandmaster Flash, or that "Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll" and "Another One Bites the Dust" have the same papa, another to put those genealogies into practice. And when a pancultural visionary like Afrika Bambaataa follows a hip hop medley with a percussion break from Grand Funk Railroad's "Inside Looking Out," it can really change your worldview, in a small way.

Double Dee & Steinski--for Doug DeFranco, a 27-year-old engineer at a small commercials studio, and Steve Stein, 32-year-old producer of TV spots for Doyle Dane Bernbach--went over the top with both kinds of meaning. Fast-talking hip hop junkie Stein had gotten r&b fan DeFranco hooked at the Roxy a few months after they'd met that summer, and soon they'd evolved into a natural team, splitting roles like a rock group--funky technician DeFranco the reliable bassist/drummer, a regular guy whose tastes ran to the latest dance records, idea man Stein the mercurial singer/guitarist, a record-collecting media nut with global-village tendencies. "The Payoff Mix," as their tour de force came to be called, was pieced together in DeFranco's studio in 12 or 14 hours over two days. What was most striking about it wasn't the plethora of quotes, 24 in all--most of the contestants went for quantity, though few got over 20. It was the specificity and catholicity of their references. This was underlined by the spoken-word stuff: in the middle of a record whose chief lyrical motif was "play it on the radio," "play it for the punk rock," etc., here was Bogie rasping out "you played it for Harry, play it for me"--on the one.

But the record's underlying kick was somewhat subtler. "Play That Beat Mr. D.J." is almost designed for mastermixing--with the DJ importuned to play that beat after almost every line at times, new musical phrases can be substituted constantly. At first, "The Payoff Mix" sticks with scratching on the original, using quotes as brief bridges or pointed interjections, such as the abrupt but perfectly timed self-promotion by a rival crew, the World's Famous Supreme Team, after "play it on the radio." Midway through, however, the original is reduced to bridgework, as the mastermix, having respectfully pointed out G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid's virtues, goes on to show who's boss with a series of 10- or 15-second dance collages comprising, say, "Apache," "I'll Tumble 4 Ya," and "Starski Live at the Disco Fever." One of them even incorporates "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel" the first (and still damn near only, as we'll see) mastermix ever commercially released. And for an epilogue there's a comment from Fiorello LaGuardia: "And say, children--what does it all mean?"

By asking itself that question--and inducing a populist hero to equate this arcane dance record with the Sunday comics he loved to be baffled by--"The Payoff Mix" finesses the answer. This doesn't mean there isn't one, though. It's just that as in so much speculative art, question and answer are all but identical, complementary functions of a very contemporary, self-mocking, quasi- parodic tone--a tone you could call postmodernist if it weren't so unpretentious and optimistic, so pop (and maybe populist). The mix's cognitive dissonance comes from the voluble Steinski, it's heartening synthesis from Double Dee's hands-on groove, which endows the absurdist bits and pieces with a logic as ineluctable as a whole greater than the sum of its parts. Half deconstruction and half celebration, this is a message of brotherhood for the age of media overload, disarming "postindustrial" capitalism with humor, know- how, access, and leftfield panculturalism. And like so much optimistic art, it's more utopian--hence more trouble--than it knows.

Hardcore dancers were never wholly convinced by Double Dee's groove--they admired "The Payoff Mix" as a novelty and did their thing to less nerve-racking backing tracks. But on dance radio, which like all radio is for listening, there were no such hitches. Though their only obligation was to air the contest winner once, many stations put the promo cassette into serious rotation, thus sparking sales of "Play That Beat Mr. D.J." Perhaps not quite as much as might have been hoped, however--there was discernable consumer demand for the mastermix itself, and Tommy Boy thought seriously about turning it into a retail item. According to the label's Rick Dutka, these fantasies were quashed by the company's attorney. The problem was simple: releases for those 24 absurdist bits and pieces, almost every one copyrighted. Getting them would obviously be an administrative nightmare. But putting the record on the market without them would be a legal one.

This was cautious advice from a music-biz lawyer whose priority was keeping a modestly capitalized client out of litigation, which threatened from two classes of plaintiff--music publishers and record companies. Legally, you see, my use of the word "quote" has been misleading, because Double Dee & Steinski don't quote, they reproduce, electronically. Not that this is anything new. The homey glow of interpretive approximation that once surrounded the notion of quotation was blown away in 1956 by "The Flying Saucer," a "crazy novelty" in which Brill Building eccentrics Buchanan & Goodman lifted dialogue directly off hit records that they pretended were platters from outer space, e.g.: Newsman: "We're about to hear the words of the first spaceman ever to land." Spaceman: "A womp-bom-a-loo-mom, ba-lom-bam-boo." "The Flying Saucer" rocketed into the top 10 and stimulated sales of such one-and two-year-oldies as "I Hear You Knockin'" and "Earth Angel" before lawsuits from less good-humored copyright owners led to a royalty agreement. Quotation is more like the Ritchie Family's "The Best Disco in Town," a maxi-medley in which Jacque Morali's studio group strung together phrases of a line or two from more than a dozen songs and ended up owing full statutory royalty on all of them, which is why Jaap Eggermont negotiated fractional payments before marketing his Stars on 45 studio group in 1981. The publishers could sock Morali because his record was a fait accompli; when Eggermont threatened to withhold release, they dealt. Why not? As Jay Lowy of Motown's Jobete Music (long notorious for its prohibitive lyric reprint rates) told Brian Chin in Record World: "Medleys have acted as a very positive force: they act as good demos. There's not enough on a medley to stop anyone from recording the whole song again. It's found money."

As a publisher, Lowy fails to draw the rather far-reaching conclusion that would seem to follow from this estimably realistic assessment: if medleys are so "positive," what entitles the copyright owners to their "found money"? Quiet as it's kept, the rationale of copyright law isn't that private property is the highest philosophical good. It's to provide economic incentive for the spread of ideas and information, incentive that would presumably be vitiated were works open to unlimited reproduction and resale. Historically, copyright has been circumscribed by the doctrine of fair use, designed among other things to permit criticism, which is often impossible without examples. In non-critical discourse, the chief test of fair use is whether the use impairs the potential market value of the appropriated material. And as Lowy acknowledges, Stars on 45 no more cut into Stevie Wonder's sales than "The Flying Saucer" did into the Penguins'--or than "The Payoff Mix" did into Culture Club's.

But demo or no demo, Lowy wouldn't have been as sanguine about Double Dee & Steinski's electronic reproduction as he was about Stars on 45's medley of quotes, not in an era when the home taping flap has occasioned attacks on "rampaging technology" like this one from RCA president Robert Summer: "Our defense of copyright, while rooted in this industry's struggle for solvency, is part of an overall defense of what is so fundamental to living society--its cultural foundations." And who can say what a judge would have made of "The Payoff Mix" had Tommy Boy released it and (by no means a certain consequence) gotten sued. Aesthetics and law mesh poorly if at all, and while I say the mix qualifies as parody and discourse and for that matter criticism, a more literal soul might well conclude that Double Dee & Steinski grabbed a piece of "I'll Tumble 4 Ya" because it has a good beat and you can dance to it--and be right. So no manner of parallel--the increasing dependence of the visual arts on appropriation techniques, or the untroubled experience of WBAI's Peter Bochan, a significant influence on Steinski who sells duplicates of his spoken-words-and-music Shortcuts tape collages--proved encouraging enough to give the ordinary consumer access to "The Payoff Mix."

The biggest push came in England, at Polygram, Tommy Boy's well-staffed U.K. distributor. It was a nightmare. After a month of form letters and phone calls, legal assistant Sally Bevan left for A&M believing she'd landed almost every release. But Island's Clive Wills, who took up the job after Tommy Boy moved to his label, found that many of Bevan's contacts denied having granted clearance. In two significant areas, however, Bevan's and Wills's experiences were identical. First, indie labels were pleased to help, while majors balked. (Bevan says she was down to two acts on one major--"Labels always tell you it's the acts." She declined to name either; my guess is CBS, corporate home of Culture Club and Herbie Hancock.) Second, nobody expected money--all clearances were granted gratis, with no royalties at issue.

Meanwhile, Doug DeFranco and Steve Stein proceeded with their lives. Delighted with their newfound renown even though they'd long since gone through the prize money, the did a James Brown mix called "Lesson Two" in the spring of 1984, shortly after Stein got himself canned at Doyle Dane. DeFranco had a career objective: he wanted to build his rep as an engineer and mixer. Stein's basic motives were tribute (to JB, to Bambaataa's "Fusion Beats," to Fiorello LaGuardia) and "personal satisfaction," the chance to apply his professional skills and global vision to what he loved most--and then, if "The Payoff Mix" was any example, have people hear it. "Lesson Two" was distributed to DJ and radio stations in a pressing the duo financed themselves. Soon DeFranco had moved into Stein's Brooklyn apartment, where they set up their own eight-track studio. Stein was working as a free-lance cable consultant; DeFranco quit his job and began to organize his own free-lance gigs, including board work and a little mixing at Tommy Boy. By early 1985 the label had something else for them.

And thus Double Dee & Steinski wound up with one more tour de force and one more administrative nightmare. Hip-Hop--The Album, the centerpiece of both, was an exemplary venture for an aggressive indie dance label: a compilation of six long-out-of-print indie dance hits that hip hop DJs had been buying used and bootlegged for 25 and even 50 bucks ever since they'd revealed their funky break beats to mixer-shamans like Kool Herc, Bambaataa, and others. Tommy Boy's licensing included the right to create a single out of all this groove, and Double Dee & Steinski were commissioned to mastermix one up. In fact, they did two--one constructed from nothing but the six album tracks, the other incorporating their usual plethora of references. But neither was ever commercially released, and neither was Hip-Hop--The Album. Seems that ownership of Herman Kelly & Life's "Dance to the Drummer's Beat," which as it happened provided the mastermix's recurrent theme, was, shall we say, in dispute. Dance music is a rough business. Tommy Boy shelved the project.

I have a cassette of the album, and it's too bad you can't buy it--a more user-friendly gathering of strange percussion bits and unselfconcious James Brown imitations would be hard to duplicate, much less make up from scratch. But the real mastermix you couldn't have bought in any case. My tape begins with the commercial-release version, a virtuosic piece of mixing that masks the slight tempo shifts between break beats with refrains and intros also lifted from the six records. In its subtle way, it shows a lot of wit, but this time subtlety isn't the big prize. The proof is in the three-song promo 12-inch of all Double Dee & Steinski's mastermixes that Tommy Boy graciously mailed out after Hip-Hop--The Album died. "Lesson 3," as the full-length hip hop mastermix is called, has the pizzazz of a full-fledged administrative nightmare. It begins with spoken words from Otis Redding--"We gonna do a song that you never heard before"--and goes on to JFK announcing that "the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans," Lauren Bacall inviting the Human Beat Box to pucker up and blow, Ed McMahon jamming Johnny into Newcleus, the castanet break from "Hernando's Hideaway," a Groucho Marx joke, a "Flying Saucer" quote, applause from the Whoopi Goldberg album ("We wanted something polite," Steinski explains), and Fiorello LaGuardia taking his second curtain call. Also, perhaps, his last. For in the course of 1985, DeFranco fell in love, took another job doing commercials, and moved out, no longer inclined to pursue the nocturnal habits of a hip hop junkie. He took the equipment with him--Stein his hardly the first media nut who can't work a board--and Double Dee & Steinski are no more.

The split seems completely congenial, and both artists will pursue their own careers, as the saying goes, but you know what's lost when a group breaks up: synthesis. The spoken-word interjections on Double Dee's hot dance remix of downtown composer Peter Gordon's "That Hat" share the cut-up surrealism one hears on other arty remixes, and I suspect a certain aura of abstraction will linger when he gets mainstream assignments, as he surely will. Steinski's "Technical Difficulties," a medley drawn from indie phenom Steve Gottlieb's hit compilation of TV themes and set over a functional "Planet Rock" electrogroove, is more overtly satiric (hence less complex tonally) than any of his Double Dee collaborations. Yet though both pieces diverge discernably from their common heritage, they do continue on all too familiar tradition: neither seems likely to achieve commercial release. The head of CBS Masterworks was so baffled by "That Hat" that he had to be talked into pressing up white-label DJ copies. And though Gottlieb had been warned that Steinski did better on radio than in clubs, he was disturbed by the mastermix's "fragmented" groove and commissioned a substitute.

After dozens of hours and several thousand dollars, Steinski is also nearing completion on another piece you won't be able to buy: a mastermix of JFK's assassination that he compares to Paul Hardcastle's "19." One keystone of the concept is a specific newscaster: "Walter Cronkite is the national daddy. I don't want anybody else. You want the thing, you don't want the almost-thing." But CBS, fearing "trivialization" of Big Daddy's wholly owned vocal cords, refused clearance on Cronkite's 1963 coverage. So Stein is settling for more personal satisfaction. He'll get Cronkite-included cassettes out to interested parties when he's done, and as long as he's not taking money for them, the law will protect him. But the law is an ass. Profit isn't the issue for Steinski, and except in a speculative way (will "trivialization' reduce Walter Cronkite's market value?), it's not the issue for CBS either. The issue is who gets to use this stuff, and for what--whether the public has any claim on the output of public artists whose creations would mean nothing without it. In an age when all products of the mind have been commodified, the freedom to sell equals the freedom to disseminate. It means access, control. That's what's really at stake in Steinski's work.

I wouldn't claim Steinski is any kind of rad; disarming "postindustrial" capitalism is a sideline for him. He's just a perpetually disillusioned optimist who still assumes that the sounds and images rippling through the American consciousness are, forget copyright, every American's birthright--that we're all free to interpret and manipulate them as we choose. His disillusion, I should say, didn't begin with his recent disappointments--it goes back at least as far as JFK's assassination, and it's what activates his absurdist, quasi-parodic tone. A rad like me could even wonder whether his disillusion isn't a little corny, but--especially but not exclusively when it's turned around by Double Dee's freewheeling natural optimism as well as Steinski's own--it's clearly too much for the information barons. The keepers of the copyright at CBS wanted to protect the physical and intellectual property called "Walter Cronkite" from "trivialization" because they didn't want it sullied by Steinski's absurdist disillusion, or his lowlife pancultural optimism either. They didn't want it criticized --not as a judge is liable to understand that concept, with its traditionally forbidding baggage of essay form, but much more sensationalistically, and much more potently and directly for that.

I don't mean to single out CBS, although I do suspect that the more information one controls, the less one worries about other people's information deprivation. And I should make clear that neither Stein nor DeFranco, media pros both, fully agrees with me. But I think this is censorship, and I think it's reprehensible. Appropriation art isn't even the parallel, because appropriation art's primary purpose is undermining images. Double Dee & Steinski only recontextualize, as in that quintessential 20th century genre, collage, thus achieving a cool tone that's more affectionate, more irreverent, and more distanced, than, say, a Weird Al Yankovic takeoff. Maybe G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid or James Brown can legitimately claim partial credit for the vitality, meaning, and commercial value of their respective mastermixes. But to make the same kind of claim for Culture Club or Ed McMahon is like forcing Tom Wesselmann to get a clearance from House Beautiful, or wherever he cut out the gardenscape you can see through the Great American Nude's window. I'm not saying there isn't a kick to hearing Culture Club or Ed McMahon changed utterly--to hear the thing, not almost-the-thing, subjugated by a rival culture and vision. And I'm not saying they should like being taken over by hip hop's new generation of Americans. But they shouldn't be able to stop it by administrative fiat. As long as the copyright is a weapon of censorship, "postindustrial" capitalism will remain armed.

Village Voice, Mar. 25, 1986