The Greatest Mash-Up Album You’ve Never Heard
The Beatles x The Greatest Rapper of All Time
DJ Danger Mouse (a.k.a. Brian Joseph Burton) is better known as one-half of Gnarls Barkley, but before his venture with Cee Lo Green, he spent years as a shy DJ and producer. During this time he created one of the great “lost” albums of the 21st Century, The Grey Album. What is the origin of this Internet phenomenon, a rave-reviewed mash-up of the Beatles’ The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album?
Origins of The Grey Album
The Grey Album has its origins in a series of a capella tracks Jay-Z released on The Black Album in 2003. Jay-Z intended for these vocal-only tracks to be used specifically for sampling and remixing. The idea to create this mash-up popped in Danger Mouse’s head one afternoon in 2003 as he listened to the Beatles’ The White Album. Danger Mouse calls the work an “art project,” and he meant for the deft piece of work to act as an homage to both sets of artists.
The mixture of black and white made for a natural “color” title for the twelve-track album. Jay-Z definitely takes lead mic on the project with the Beatles performing perfectly as a backing band. Sixteen of their tracks from The White Album are used to provide material for background singers and audio beds. The mix of “99 Problems” with the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” is one of the best tracks on the album, and you can check it out below.
The spotlight track on the album, however, is the combination of “What More Can I Say?” with the Beatles’ “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Danger Mouse creates a soft wall of sound that shouldn’t mix with Jay-Z’s vocals on the song, but it does so well. Danger Mouse’s master work is below. The mix of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” is the single spot of disappointment on the album. The Beatles’ “Julia” is completely overpowered by Jay-Z’s strong vocals, which makes it sound more like competing songs rather than complementing songs.
There are conflicting points on the distribution of The Grey Album. DJ Danger Mouse did pass out copies to friends, and there were reports of 3,000 pressed CDs created for sale. If you can find one now, these pressed copies easily sell for $200 or more online. The vast majority of exposure for The Grey Album came through Internet distribution via torrents and file sharing sites, with hundreds of thousands of copies of the album downloaded.
To promote the album, a pair of Swiss directors created an amazing promotional video called The Grey Video. The video mix is a televised Beatles performance with a live Jay-Z on lead. Body doubles of several of the Beatles start break dancing as well during the performance of Jay-Z’s “Encore,” which is bundled with a bed of “Glass Onion” and “Savoy Truffle” by the Beatles to create one of the better and most accessible tracks on the album for fans of both artists. You can check out the video below.
Jay-Z went on record supporting DJ Danger Mouse’s work of art. Apple Records, the publishing company that holds the rights to the Beatles’ record catalog, issued a cease and desist order to DJ Danger Mouse shortly after the release. Since then, Paul McCartney came out publicly in support of The Grey Album and Danger Mouse’s effort to blend the two genres. He told the UK Sun:
“I didn’t mind when something like that happened with The Grey Album, but the record company minded. They put up a fuss. But it was like, ‘Take it easy, guys. It’s a tribute.’”
McCartney’s comments did nothing to prevent Apple Records from fighting distribution of the album. Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album became an interesting legal study on intellectual property, sampling rights, and free distribution in the early days of the Internet.
African American music was extremely influential on early Beatles’ recordings. One of the Beatles’ earliest hits,“Twist and Shout,” is a song originally popularized by The Isley Brothers.
The Beatles’ White Album has a mysterious origin of its own, with part of the 30-track, double album written while the band spent time in India studying transcendental meditation under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Unlike earlier Beatles’ efforts, many of the parts are recorded individually, as drummer Ringo Starr quit the band for a time. The album marks the beginning of the end for the Beatles as a group, with the band breaking up less than two years after the release of the album, but not before releasing three more LPs.
The album gained additional notoriety for its connection to Charles Manson, who felt the Beatles spoke directly to him through The White Album. Manson prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi’s book Helter Skelter notes several tracks from the album that Manson felt connected to, including “I Will,” “Revolution 9,” “Piggies,” “Blackbird,” and the ubiquitous “Helter Skelter.” Manson Family member Paul Watkins put a creepy spin on this influence by saying, “Before Helter Skelter came along, all Charlie cared about was orgies.”
Danger Mouse Today
Often too shy to show his face in early performances, DJ Danger Mouse wore a giant, gray, mouse costume for early gigs. The Grey Album was the first of his works to gain mainstream notoriety, and it led to a gig producing the Gorillaz’s Demon Days and to Burton’s first mainstream hit and Grammy award.
Cee Lo Green and Burton formed Gnarls Barkley in 2006, which rejuvenated the career of the former member of the Goodie Mob. Burton continues to produce, and he played a major role in the recently released Norah Jones comeback album, Little Broken Hearts. Burton is currently producing an album for U2, which isn’t bad for a guy who first gained notoriety for mixing rap and late 60′s rock tracks together.
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