- No matter how hard fans fight for its legitimacy, Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album was always doomed to a life on the run. But what started as a stunt wound up a masterpiece.
Three weekends ago, Emily’s mum came to visit our new apartment. Having assured herself that her only child wasn’t living in a crack den, Sara settled onto the couch for tea. As I got up to boil some water, I turned on the stereo for some background noise. Our five-disc CD changer contained three discs of mine and two of Emily’s, and – anticipating my fiancée’s wishes – I immediately flipped to one of her renaissance music CDs for some proper tea-drinking music. I set the amplifier to a polite volume.
I had barely entered the kitchen and begun filling the kettle when I heard Sara holler back, “Hey! I wanna hear The Grey Album!”
What does this say – other than, my future mother-in-law is unbelievably with-it and hip? Just that everyone is fascinated with this cultural phenomenon. In the subsequent weeks, Emily and I have had a number of housewarming guests, and the Grey Album jewel case, with its arresting cartoon graphics (see above), has been an unwitting conversation-starter. The box has been sitting in my “now playing” CD stand for weeks, and I admit I’m leaving it there, in part, because I know it interests people. But really, the box is sitting there mainly because I’ve been listening to The Grey Album nonstop.
For those who haven’t read any of the reams of online and newspaper coverage, a quick summary: A fellow who calls himself DJ Danger Mouse created The Grey Album by combining the rhymes of Jay-Z’s November 2003 release The Black Album with samples from the Beatles’ “White Album” (a.k.a. The Beatles, 1968). Of course, neither Jay-Z nor the Beatles, nor either record label, authorized the project, and the album is officially banned. Danger Mouse, née Brian Burton, claims he never intended to profit from the project, and indeed no money has changed hands in the spread of The Grey Album, at least where Burton is concerned (bootleg shops and aftermarket profiteers are another story). Nonetheless, lawyers for EMI, the Beatles’ label, have demanded that Danger Mouse cease distribution of the album, as well as any Internet site posting its tracks for free download. The threatening, legalese-heavy letters have been flying all over cyberspace.
I’m coming out of a long blogging silence and getting to this story rather late, obviously. But four months after the project’s release, and two months after hundreds of thousands of listeners downloaded The Grey Album on a single “Grey Tuesday” in protest of EMI, Danger Mouse’s project remains the most exciting release – indeed, music happening – of a still-young 2004.
It’s estimated that The Grey Album has been downloaded somewhere between 200,000 and 500,000 times. It’s hard to measure, not only because of the album’s illicit nature, but because many PC users have tracked down the album the way I did: song by song, on peer-to-peer networks. Still, if these full-album downloads could be tallied, The Grey Album would at least be certified gold, on its way to platinum.
The album has been reviewed by the major media, including The New York Times Magazine and SPIN. Rolling Stone even named the Grey Album remix of the hit Jay-Z single “Change Clothes” as its “Hit Pick” of the month back in March, opining that Danger Mouse’s addition of harpsichord samples from the Beatles’ “Piggies” improved Jay’s falsetto-soul ditty. Accompanying the reviews have been news stories on the EMI-vs.-Danger Mouse fight, much of the coverage focusing on fans’ howls of protest over typically heavy-handed record company tactics.
The key point that’s been missing from the coverage has been this project’s doomed fate, from the moment Danger Mouse thought it up. Fans have been shocked, shocked that EMI would strong-arm the DJ and his online followers the way they have. Indeed, the battle does nothing to improve the ever-worsening climate between the record industry and its customers. However, Burton himself, while feeling somewhat victimized by EMI’s army of lawyers, has been appropriately philosophical, calling his masterpiece nothing more than an “underground thing” and indicating he never expected to lead a protest against the record industry. In short, his fans are more surprised than he is.
Let me state this very clearly: There was never any chance that The Grey Album would be an authorized, legal release, and anyone who’s surprised is extremely naive.
For starters, sampling the Beatles is like asking Rudy Giuliani to sit for a portrait by Chris Ofili – you can ask, but you’ll never get a blessing. The Beatles never, ever authorize sampling. To my knowledge, the only major rap release ever to feature recognizable Beatles samples is the Beastie Boys’ 1989 album Paul’s Boutique, which stole some unauhorized riffs and beats from Abbey Road. Had Paul’s Boutique been released after the landmark 1991 ruling in Gilbert O’Sullivan vs. Biz Markie, the Beasties no doubt would have had their Beatles samples pulled, too.
So the law is on EMI’s side, and by extension, the Beatles’. But the moral victors are clearly Danger Mouse’s thousands of fans. Five years after the Napster revolution and three years after the mainstreaming of online “mash-ups,” The Grey Album is the flashpoint for a philosophical battle over 21st Century musical freedom.
The dance between bootleggers and the industry is nearly as old as rock n’ roll. But even widely bootlegged albums like Bob Dylan’s decades-old Ten of Swords haven’t enjoyed the instant credibility of The Grey Album. When unauthorized recordings become this commonly available, they take on the authority of the marketplace, and litigation becomes irrelevant. The Beatles and their representatives, who have resisted all entreaties to bring the group’s music into the Internet economy (most notably, refusing to join iTunes), are going to have to make peace with technology eventually, even if it’s by force.
If only to keep themselves current, the Beatles would do well to embrace The Grey Album, the way Suzanne Vega, 14 years ago, authorized and helped distribute an underground dance remix of her “Tom’s Diner” by British DJs DNA. As for Jay-Z’s people, although they haven’t authorized the Danger Mouse project either, they’ve signaled their tacit approval. Roc-a-Fella Records president Damon Dash spoke to the BBC out of both sides of his mouth, saying that while proper permission should have been obtained, “I think it’s hot. It’s the Beatles. It’s two great legends together.” What Dash should have added is that the album enriches both artists’ work.
Friends know that I’m a Beatles nut, but I’m also fairly passionate about Jay-Z’s latest album. Purportedly Jigga’s last, The Black Album is a victory lap by an MC leaving the game on top (six No. 1 albums in the last six years!) and comfortable with his legacy. The record is heavy on laid-back soul samples and marked by Jay’s effortless flow, but the hubris that could sink the album instead buoys it, and the production and rhymes are remarkably forceful coming from a guy about to retire. Going into 2004, The Black Album was already, arguably, the most critically underrated record of the year, easily better than 50 Cent’s blockbuster and more consistent than OutKast’s epic.
Jay’s MCing has always been easy to take for granted – it can be numbingly workmanlike – but what’s made his last couple of albums special was his increasingly melodic cadence, not unlike Biggie Smalls in his prime. Early Jigga hits relied heavily on melodic samples, most famously “Hard Knock Life”’s Annie quote. But more recently, on The Blueprint and The Black Album, Jigga confidently let his rhymes carry the day, earning some of the best reviews of his career. No wonder he feels ready to retire.
Then The Grey Album came along and exposed added layers of richness in Jay’s flow. The Beatles’ indefatigable melodies nicely underpin Jigga’s rhymes, but surprisingly, the Fabs’ fat hooks don’t dominate Danger Mouse’s mixes; the melodies truly complement – indeed, compliment – the rhymes, bringing out their melodicism even more clearly.
As if there needed to be another reason why the Beatles are rarely sampled, besides the threat of litigation, there’s also the little matter of the Fabs’…well, lack of funk. Genius songwriters though they were, John Lennon and Paul McCartney weren’t exactly avatars of off-beat rhythm or the low-end theory, Paul’s innovative bass-playing notwithstanding. Beatles records brilliantly synthesize the R&B rhythms of their day into what McCartney cleverly termed “Rubber Soul”; but Beatles music, even at its most experimental, is mass-appeal pop, not an intuitive foundation for rapping. Obviously, there have been decades of soul remakes of Beatles songs, by Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Earth Wind + Fire to name a few; but these covers often feature heavy rethinking of the Fabs’ arrangements. Actually rapping over an original Lennon-McCartney or Harrison recording is much tougher. Scores of hip-hoppers, including Chuck D, the Neptunes and Wyclef Jean, have named Beatles records among their all-time favorites, but few of them, I dare say, would choose to rhyme over them.
This is what makes Danger Mouse’s project extra-special. Proudly proclaiming that “all the music on The Grey Album can be traced back to the White Album – every single kick, snare, and chord,” Burton has done the near-impossible, julienneing the original Beatles records into a pulsing sound bed. The most rewarding tracks are the most surprising, as when Lennon’s delicate ballad “Julia” is shredded into a stuttering staccato, over which Jay raps “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.” Mouse also finds the sweetest, most underrated hooks on the White Album (no “Ob-La-Di” sampling for him) and showcases them – like my favorite Grey Album moment, in the middle of “Encore”: Danger Mouse cuts everything to silence, then brings back Jay’s “Look what you made me do, look what I made for you,” atop a chunky horn break from “Glass Onion.” It’s a better hook than Jay had on the entire song in its Black Album version.
There’s no question that The Grey Album, in its creation, was a stunt. Black plus white equals grey – a great gimmick. Already, other would-be Danger Mice are mixing Jay’s Black rhymes with music from other “colored” albums (Jay-Z plus Metallica’s own “Black Album” equals “The Double-Black Album”; Jay-Z plus Weezer’s “Blue Album” equals “The Black and Blue Album”) with middling results.
That The Grey Album ended up as the greatest mash-up album of all time is a testament to Burton’s skill, but also to the two records he serendipitously decided to mix – albums by artists at their peaks, and near their careers’ end. The White Album found the Beatles, a year and a half away from their breakup, throwing far-out ideas against the wall to see what stuck. The Black Album found Jay-Z throwing in the towel, with grace and a total lack of fear. When you’re an underground DJ trying to make your mark, you might as well ally yourself with artists who had nothing left to lose.