The Next Big Thing

At the M3 music conference it was that audacious crossbreed The Grey Album

Every few years the cultural margins throw up an album that suddenly clears the air, announcing not just a new Zeitgeist but a fresh generation of music consumers coming of age. Critics scramble to evaluate the new sonic terrain while record company executives begin frantically waving contracts in the presumed direction of this heretofore untapped demographic. Once the dust has settled, and most of these newly signed acts have flopped, the music industry picks itself up, licks its wounds, and settles back into its more accustomed state of self-satisfaction. Until the next go-round.

The year 1991 gave us Nirvana's Nevermind (rock and roll is back!); 1996 gave us the postmodern, cut-and-paste soundscapes of DJ Shadow's Endtroducing ... (rock and roll is dead!); while 2001 delivered the unabashedly retro guitar riffs of the Strokes' Is This It (rock and roll is back!). The fallout from DJ Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, this season's biz phenomenon, remains a bit more ambiguous.

During a panel at last week's M3 dance music conference in Miami Beach, Danger Mouse (Brian Burton to his Los Angeles roommate) seemed positively bewildered by the explosion of international attention he was receiving. Just before Christmas he'd taken a vocals-only version of Jay-Z's recent The Black Album, released by the rapper's own Roc-A-Fella label in a bid to encourage buzz-building remix efforts, and wholly fused it with the Beatles' 1968 White Album. The end result, one of those you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moments, was something altogether greater than the sum of its parts.

Danger Mouse (left), suited up and ready for turntable 
Danger Mouse (left), suited up and ready for turntable action

"This record was not going to be about taking The Beatles and slapping Jay-Z on top of it," Danger Mouse explained to the rapt crowd before him. Strip-mining the White Album during a two-and-a-half-week bedroom studio session, "I was trying to find rhythms to match Jay-Z's cadence.... I was trying to find a drum kick, a snare, the right guitar note in the same key. It was like trying to put a puzzle back together again."

In this "deconstruction/reconstruction," Paul McCartney's voice softly mourning "Mother Nature's Son" eerily circles Jay-Z's own mother as originally heard in his "December 4th"; Jay-Z himself declaims furiously over the swelling organ and wobbly acoustic pluckings of "Long, Long, Long" while his lascivious lyrics on "Change Clothes" seem even more lewd when riding the looped harpsichord from the Beatles' "Piggies." Here the sharp whack of drumsticks from Ringo Starr on "Happiness Is a Warm Gun," there the wheezing harmonica riff from "Rocky Raccoon."

It's all downright astonishing, and not simply because of its conceptual audacity. More than an experiment, Danger Mouse put great care into making sure each song works, that the Fab Four's music and Jay-Z's rapping organically complement each other. For rock fans, who undoubtedly have their own personal set of associations with the Beatles' most emotionally raw collection, The Grey Album is a chance to revisit that inner world with virgin ears. Orthodox hip-hop fans, most of whom rarely encounter samples outside of vintage soul, appear to be having much the same enthusiastic reaction.

Lawyers at EMI, the Beatles' record label, have been less impressed, apropos their policy of steadfastly refusing to license the group's music for sampling -- to anyone, for any amount of money.

This wasn't the first time someone had attempted to graft a slice of Beatlemania. In fact, given EMI's reputation for litigating at even the hint of a forbidden Beatles sample, the band's music has become something of a holy grail for many electronic artists. The 1996 unearthing of a furiously pounding "Strawberry Fields Forever" outtake on the group's Anthology 2 made its way into many a DJ's club set, from the Chemical Brothers to Fatboy Slim; by officially releasing a promo-only vinyl version of that track -- ready-made for turntable scientists -- EMI almost seemed to be daring DJs to respond. And this past summer a ghostly snippet of "Blackbird" was married to a trippy two-step shuffle that became something of an underground hit in London -- at least for the handful of people who could find the cryptically unmarked record.

Danger Mouse's effort, though, seemed particularly bold. He hadn't just lifted a piece here or there. He'd used an entire Beatles album -- make that a double album -- to fashion an entirely new album: The small run of Grey Album copies he'd made for friends and a handful of specialty shops were quickly met by EMI with a cease-and-desist order.

"At that point, it had nothing to do with me anymore," Danger Mouse laughed. Thanks to Internet file sharing, copies of his handiwork were rapidly spreading around the globe. CNN, MTV, NPR, and the BBC were all featuring it -- and then things got really big.

Downhill Battle, an online outfit dedicated to challenging copyright law, saw the perfect grist for its ideological mill: Free The Grey Album! They organized "Grey Tuesday" this past February 24, enlisting nearly 200 sympathetic Websites to offer downloads of The Grey Album for 24 hours, absolutely gratis, complete with customized artwork for your home-burned CD. With only a quarter of those sites' technical documentation available, the New York Times estimated that more than 30,000 copies of the CD were downloaded that day. Downhill Battle puts the total at more than 100,000 -- and counting. In the face of all this viruslike activity, the latest round of cease-and-desist letters from EMI just seemed futile.

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