The Wire

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In Writing

The Wire 300: Peter Shapiro celebrates two landmark moments in cut ’n’ paste culture

February 2013

Previously unpublished essay commissioned to celebrate The Wire's 300th issue.

The hoary old notion of the single unitary text – that a sound recording is simply a static artefact – was, of course, a preposterous idea long before magnetic tape was anything but a glint in a BASF engineer’s eye, let alone before Pierres Schaefer and Henry spliced and diced their own everything-but-the-kitchen-sink dramas, John Oswald plundered the pop music canon like a marauding Visigoth, pioneering disco DJ Francis Grasso created the first mash-up, U-Roy first trespassed on the Jamaican hit parade, or Grandmaster Flash went joyriding on the wheels of steel. Music has always been a conversation based on theft, liberal quotation, appropriation, sarcastic misquotation, defacement. But cut ’n’ paste would truly begin to take root as the governing principle of just about all worthwhile music and the most appropriate response to capitalist glut and the numbness created by information overload in 1983 with two records that have come to define sonic mixology, Double Dee & Steinski’s “Lesson One: The Payoff Mix” and “Original Big Apple Production Vol II” by The Latin Rascals.

While these two sadly never legally available records are the founding documents of modern audio bricolage, they also share almost nothing in common except for beats and pieces of G.L.O.B.E. & Whiz Kid’s “Play That Beat Mr DJ”. Indeed, the way the two records treat “Play That Beat Mr DJ” characterise their differences: Double Dee & Steinski take the title literally and hallucinate a media junkie’s fever dream of information culture gone mad, while The Latin Rascals take the title as a challenge and dangle the track over a cliff and show off with death-defying edits that force G.L.O.B.E. to engage with Man Parrish, Shannon, Bell & James, The Trammps and Julius Brown.

Former ad agency salaryman Steve Stein was both disillusioned and intoxicated by the mass media when he teamed up with studio engineer Douglas DeFranco in 1983 to create their mastermix of “Play That Beat Mr DJ”. Unlike early hiphop’s other monuments of hunter-gatherer cut ‘n’ paste (“The Adventures Of Grandmaster Flash On The Wheels Of Steel”, “Fusion Beats”, “Death Mix”), “Lesson One” is more than the pure functionality of a DJ working a dancefloor. It’s absurdist, arty deconstruction and polymorphously perverse celebration of pop at the same time. It’s appropriation art that has little to do with the cynicism of either Jeff Koons or Richard Prince; instead, like “Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel”, albeit more self-consciously, “Lesson One” intuits that in an age of digital reproduction (let alone digital networking) the mix and the remix (and the mastermix) are the natural forms of authorship and creativity.

Where “Lesson One” dazzled with its references (“Starski Live At The Disco Fever”, Bobby Byrd chanting “Soul Power”, the World Famous Supreme Team radio show, Arthur Murray dance instruction records, Humphrey Bogart, Indeep, Chic, New York mayor Fiorello LaGuardia), humour, and advertising techniques used in the service of pleasure rather than capitalism, “Original Big Apple Production Vol II” was simply a high wire act by two guys juggling razor blades. Sure, “Lesson One” was virtuosic, but “Original Big Apple Production Vol II” was not only a huge technical leap forward, it had a real sense of danger. Coming from Freestyle rather than R&B and hiphop, The Latin Rascals (Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran) understood synthesizers better than Double Dee & Steinski and also treated the reel to reel machine as if it were one: their edits were like synth stabs – punchy and impossibly precise, a quality that Dave Tompkins has described as “torque”. Indeed “Original Big Apple Production Vol II” often feels like it’s spinning and fishtailing out of control, but Cabrera and Moran always manage to steer into the skid and keep it on course.

The circumstances surrounding the production of “Original Big Apple Production Vol II” are rather murky, but the general consensus is that it was a mix created by The Latin Rascals for their radio show on WKTU and the tape fell into the hands of one of the bootleggers who hung around on the periphery of New York’s dance and hiphop scenes. Another Latin Rascals mix, “Big Apple Production Vol 1” (although it has also been credited to DJ Mikey D’Merola), had been released on B&W in 1982, but it was much closer in style to a traditional medley mix; “Original Big Apple Production Vol II” was a different thing entirely. “Vol II” begins with an admonition to not touch the dial, and then proceeds to spin it like a toddler, but with purpose and the timing of Ziggy Modeliste. It’s fast and furious and breathless, but also complex and clever; it has the speed of one of Jeff Mills’s mixes as The Wizard, but also the structure of “Adventures On The Wheels Of Steel”. Of course, with digital technology, anyone can now replicate The Latin Rascals’ razor-blade feats of derring-do with a couple of keystrokes. Sadly, what’s missing is the intensity and the grain created by scotch tape and worn edges. The thrilling physicality of old has been replaced by the frisson of illegality and righteousness.

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