Danger Mouse’s “The Grey Album”
The concept of a mashup album had been in existence ever since the concept of sampling arose. Once DJs and artists alike learned that they had the ability to take samples and apply them to whatever they wanted, the creative boundaries expanded greatly. DJ Danger Mouse is no different – his seminal 2003 Frankenstein creation, The Grey Album, stands as one of the best examples of the musical possibilities that can come from sampling and the creative identity behind an artist involved with such an art-form.
Background and upbringing:
Born in a small New York suburb, Brian Joseph Burton never had a powerful musical outlet in his early days. He, in essence, was not introduced to the powerful creative forces behind his music until he and his family moved to Atlanta in the early 90s, and he found himself right in the middle of a burgeoning hip-hop scene. Many of the American hip-hop greats hail from Atlanta, and the culture they discovered their talents in stuck around for anyone who would come by in the future. Burton picked up on these hip-hop influences and established an early interest in hip-hop music and culture. However, his artistic passions as they exist today would not be complete until he saw Pink Floyd in concert, and opened up his ears to the power of Rock music.
Burton’s musical career continued on in his college days. He decided to stay near home, and attended school at the University of Georgia in Athens, a town known for a respected music scene that housed the members of the Elephant 6 collective and, most famously, Neutral Milk Hotel. This musical influence rubbed off on Burton, whether he would be willing to admit it or not. His next project, Pelican City, allowed for Burton to finally put out his creative vision, and release his first music with any professional merit or recognition. One of the few remaining tracks from this project is a remix of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “The Fool” – his creative fusion of rock and hip-hop influences resulted in the creation of songs like this.
Rise of DJ Danger Mouse
After his time at the University of Georgia and working under the Pelican City moniker, making film scores and downtempo instrumentals, Burton managed to work up a contract with a publishing company that had connections to Lex Records, a very famous independent, underground hip-hop label in the UK, most well known for the work of MF Doom. Following this connection, he decided to postpone his schooling, in order to continue his musical career, and moved to London, where he picked up the name Danger Mouse.
While in London, his music career blossomed, and he managed to extend his cultural vision further than he was ever able to do before. He began producing music on his own, but his artistic abilities landed him with the opportunity to produce the music for Jemini, a famous London rapper, on his record Ghetto Pop Life. The record was released in 2003 to acclaim, and Danger Mouse’s artistic career extended even further. This 2003 release marked the beginning of a string of successes in Mouse’s career.
The Grey Album
2003 was a fascinating year for DJ Danger Mouse. In September of that year, the album above, Ghetto Pop Life, was released to acclaim, and Mouse’s career managed to grow as he garnered more and more attention and respect from the UK hip-hop community. Underneath all of his work with Jemini, however, Mouse had been working on The Grey Album, and held it in his possession, under the collaboration he completed with Jemini. Unfortunately (and, in a sense, fortunately), the album was leaked in late December, and The Grey Album was in the public’s hands.
The album, as inferred by the title, was a mashup album through and through. In particular, the record took the Beatles’ White Album, and over it, placed the acapella tracks from Jay-Z’s 2003 release The Black Album, creating a completely new creative concept. Danger Mouse’s musical intuition provided the influence for the creation of the tracks, but the record wound up showcasing more of his political views, rather than his musical ones.
The album, itself, features a wide variety of tracks that showcase Mouse’s musical upbringing and familiarity with certain particulars of the two genres involved. One of the more prominent tracks on the record, “99 Problems/Helter Skelter”, is Mouse’s Beatles’ brain and Jay-Z brain hard at work. Not only are the songs in the same key, but are also around the same tempo, and both very similar feels overall – this strong, loud, dark-rock property rides both tracks.
“Moment of Clarity/Happiness Is A Warm Gun”, however, displays the polarities of the albums, and how well Mouse needed to be able to splice the two together, manipulating them in any way necessary. The track resembles a meticulously spliced together combination of the two songs, that required Mouse to be able to properly complete the task, even if it meant making the samples unrecognizable in the end.
Such a project, while an artistic goldmine (the leak and the critical response is evidence of this), was a legal disaster. The concept of a mashup album and the splicing together of the two albums was something that held so much legal weight – Mouse, however, was not simply ignoring this. It was obvious that his creation would not result in unanimous smiles. In particular, the legal backing of the Beatles artistry was where Mouse received the most criticism and attacks. Even with Paul McCartney’s compliment, the album still directly took the music straight from the hands of Apple and placed it in a completely new creative setting, and, as a result, directly hit accepted copyright laws. In the words of Toronto Star reporter Ben Rayne,
“The Grey Album has no legal status to contend. As far as international copyright law is concerned, it is fully illegal.”
The album, while a source of much musical attention and reception, was also the focus of modern musical legal controversies. To some, it extended from the fact that a young, black artist was doing something so brash and culturally loud – in essence, Mouse’s attempt to smooth out race culture, via combining the work of a white artist, called The White Album, and the work of a black artist, called The Black Album. Regardless, the album’s legal significance was something that, while important, never took over the artistic pedestal on which Mouse stood. The album still receives downloads today and still garners attention from those actively seeking it out.
- Biography.com Editors. Biography.com. 3 April 2016 <http://www.biography.com/people/danger-mouse-21272877>.
- Rayner, Ben. “Grey Album Mixes Up Trouble.” Toronto Star, Feb 29, 2004. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/438672894?accountid=10427.
- Werde, Bill. “Grey Album Protesters Defiant, Ready for a Fight.” Edmonton Journal,Feb 29, 2004. http://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=http://search.proquest.com/docview/253096155?accountid=10427.
- Milutis, Joe. “REBIRTH OF A NATION”. Film Comment 40.5 (2004): 16–16. Web.