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'sThe 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.

"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 Albumis 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 entireBeatles album -- make that a double album -- to fashion an entirely new album: The small run of Grey Albumcopies 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.

"I wasn't trying to challenge copyright law,"Danger Mouse insisted. "It sounds corny, but I was trying to do something artistic, to challenge people's ideas about rock music."

After a round of questions from his audience, he was barely able to dismount the stage before being besieged by a scrum of TV cameramen, photographers, and one very angry A&R woman from a major-label record company. "Answer your damn phone!" she hollered at Danger Mouse. "I've been trying to reach you for days!"

Yet while he may be the new poster child for the music industry's woes -- from online piracy to the aesthetic realignment caused by the mainstreaming of hip-hop -- Danger Mouse made for an unlikely revolutionary. The rail-thin 26-year-old blinked unsteadily amid the popping flashbulbs, perhaps contemplating a bolt for the safety of his hotel room. Still he had one last twist to reveal to Kulchur. EMI, perhaps realizing that younger rap fans oblivious to Sixties rock offered yet another opportunity to hawk the Beatles' catalogue anew, had changed their tune on The Grey Album.

"I'm in talks with the EMI guys now," he told Kulchur, dropping his voice conspiratorially. "They might want to do something with me." He smiled, rubbed his chin, and then shrugged: "Or they might still sue me! It's that close."


The rest of M3 was free of the "next big thing" hype so common to past years of the Winter Music Conference's (WMC) competing industry gathering. That meant the WMC's hordes of Midwestern rave promoters and suburban drug dealers looking to "go legit" were refreshingly absent. Also missing were Hustler magazine's troupe of "DJ girls" in hot pants, busy making the rounds of the WMC's host hotel.

Instead M3 served up a welcome dose of cold business reality: The party's over, but the beat goes on. "Major labels need to sell 500,000 copies [of an album] to make a profit," explained Steve Beckett, president of Warp Records, during one panel. Unlike the self-delusionary "high point of ten years ago," Beckett's company had realized that its artists -- such as Aphex Twin, Autechre, and the Boards of Canada -- were never going to shift those kinds of numbers in America, regardless of how much glowing press they received. Accordingly, Warp had stopped trying to strike ambitious distribution deals with the majors -- or even larger independents. Scaling down its vision and going it alone was the new philosophy: "For us, if an artist sells 10,000 to 50,000 copies, we can make our [new] business model work."

That sentiment was echoed by Beth Urdang, founding director of the New York-based Agoraphone agency, responsible for placing obscure electronic songs in TV commercials for products from Nike sneakers to Saturn automobiles. Those TV spots may be a great way for underground musicians to bypass conservative radio programmers and reach a mass audience, but they were hardly transforming the marketplace -- as once predicted.

Rather Urdang was seeing "the advent of a musical middle class," cutting-edge artists able to live comfortably -- not spectacularly -- with their licensing fees buttressing their otherwise meager record sales. It was only the platinum-selling acts that were pulling down platinum-size commercial fees, such as Ozzy Osbourne -- whose "Crazy Train" earned the family man $1.5 million from Mitsubishi, noted Deutsch advertising agency senior vice president Vinny Picardi.

Over at the third annual Dancestar USA dance-music awards gala in downtown's Bayfront Park, organizers got the message. Their goal may have been to put a Grammys-style stamp of artistic respectability on dance's leading lights, but with B-list starlets such as Carmen Electra, Paris Hilton, and Jaime Pressly holding court as presenters, this was one musical upheaval that sounded awfully familiar. By the time "Ian Schrager's Sky Bar Girls" went into action, the evening's shrewdest visionary seemed to be the brain trust back at Hustler.

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