The Intercollegiate Student Magazine

Steinski and Cultures of Amateur Reproduction

Hannah Höch: "Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany"

The first time that I saw Hannah Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany, I remember being pulled into it. Not being able to focus on any one thing caught my attention with such fervor that it didn’t matter that I was looking at it nearly a century too late. Images of Kaiser Wilhelm II don’t affect me the same way they affected continental Europeans in 1919. But, I can still feel the uncertainty that the creation of a piece like this was trying to ease. The relatively “new” medium of photomontage allowed Höch and her contemporaries to turn old references into new ideas and to engineer an identity in an age of instability. The cut-and-paste technique and unique composition make it hard for the eye to focus on any one thing on the canvas: it’s dizzying and exhilarating. 

At the end of the day, though, it’s a bastardization of references and images that I will never be able to interpret in their original context. The piece means no more to me than the sum of its disparate parts. Yet, even if I like it for its visual appeal more than anything else, I can appreciate the motivation behind it. Cutting things up to be reassembled is fun; taking the best parts of things you like and mashing them together is fun! Luckily, that mentality didn’t disappear as the artistic Dada movement faded—the bastard tradition has lasting power. 

Steven “Steinski” Stein and Doug “Double Dee” DiFranco are the most influential hip-hop duo that you’ve never heard of. In the early 1980s, they broke onto the scene by participating in a contest hosted by Tommy Boy Records (funny enough, the audio from the contest found a second life on Dr. Dre’s The Chronic). The independent record label—credited for propelling the careers of Queen Latifah, De La Soul, and Coolio, among others—awarded Stein and DiFranco first place for their first “Lesson.” This piece, now known as “Lesson One: The Payoff Mix,” contained samples from all of the following, and more: “The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel,”, dialogue samples from Casablanca, and “Stop! In the Name of Love,” by The Supremes.

For the majority of the time Steinski had been making music, however, they haven’t been able to release most of it legally. To give a brief history of sampling, it’s pretty easy to be sued for illegal use! Steinski was, rightfully, wary of lawyers because they knew the risk of using uncleared samples in music that would be released. For decades, it existed primarily in bootleg copies handed around by those in the know.

Steinski’s attitude was, for lack of a better way to put it, “fuck the lawyers.” Music critic Robert Christgau says much the same in his contemporary essay on the duo: “disarming ‘postindustrial’ capitalism is a sideline for [Steinski]. He’s just a perpetually disillusioned optimist who still assumes that 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.” While Christgau may seem critical, the way that I understand this quote actually illuminates the beauty of bastardization: it’s inherently meaningful because of its form. It’s not about making some statement about the music industry or the laws that govern it.  There doesn’t need to be a thesis or ideological intention behind the piece; it’s merely the act of mish-mashing things together that carries purpose.

Essentially, Christgau posits that Steinski wasn’t telling lawyers and labels to fuck off and not come for their music, but rather that they didn’t care about releasing the music. It was about making the music, about paying homage to that which came before, and about weaving together a fabric of cultural and musical references to make something new. Much like Dada, I think that the mashup culture exemplified by Steinski reflects a cultural anxiety that is coming back with force: the anxiety of running out of things to create. 

Christgau goes on to say in the same essay: 

“… in 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, its 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 pan-culturalism. And like so much optimistic art, it’s more utopian—hence more trouble—than it knows.” 

The most fascinating aspect of the quote is that it comes from almost 40 years ago. And yet, we still haven’t left the “age of media overload.” Even in the last 20 years, more mashups have been created. Two of my favorites are Osymyso’s “Intro-Inspection” from 2001 (only available on YouTube) and Danger Mouse’s Grey Album from 2004 which blends together The Beatles and Jay Z. Conditions of the modern music industry, perspectives on creativity, and emerging attitudes towards production and property set up the economic context that makes that kind of creativity necessary. 

Despite my endless pontificating on the subject, this piece isn’t about my favorite Dada art or the culture of musical mashups—it’s about the “absurdist, arty deconstruction and polymorphously perverse celebration of pop at the same time.” 

Well, kind of. I just thought that Peter Shapiro of The Wire had a good point, and what is an essay about recombinant artistic cultures without some cut-and-paste of my own? I suppose that’s what this essay is really about. About a century after the Berlin Dadaists pasted pictures of political fools onto canvases and somewhere around 40 years after Steinski quietly revolutionized musical mashups, here I am. I have not even half the genius of my forebears, but I think that I feel the same productive anxiety as they did. There’s a pressure to feel special and to constantly draw lines in the sand of identity about what makes you unique—and therefore valuable. 

I’ll be entering the workforce within the next year, and in some ways, I already have. If you couldn’t already tell by the roundabout way this piece has been written, academia is in my future. Education is not typically seen as a creative field and the current state of affairs can be bleak: endless publishing requirements while having to teach classes, and that’s only after making it through grad school by having enough good ideas that they’ll let me in. And now, the education I’m currently receiving can at times feel like a barrage of allusions to past people who have done things of insurmountable significance. The originators of my field of study are still alive and teaching and producing. What does that mean for me; what is left for me to discover?

There’s a level of professionality where you glaze over and decide to be an island instead of a person; while precursors taught you what to do, their work should be separate. I want to be an academic in the tradition of Dada artists and amateur DJs; I want to create new methods and new ways of looking at the things that have inspired me—is that not creation and production? There is such immense pressure to set yourself apart just as the world is shrinking. Sit back and take in the centuries of people who have led you here now.

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