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The Grey Album

Mixed, sampled and produced by DJ Danger Mouse

"The Grey Album is an art project/experiment that uses the full vocal content of Jay-Z's Black Album recorded over new beats and production made using the Beatles White Album as the sole source material.Danger Mouse insists he can explain and prove that all the musician the Grey Album can be traced back to the White Album and its musical content via sampling."

-DJDangermouse.com

It is hard to imagine that when DJ Danger Mouse set out to create The Grey Album he imagined it would sit at the epicenter of a major conflict, one that would start a major cyber-protest and bring the practice of sampling to the legal forefront.

The cleverly entitled album layers the vocal tracks from Jay-Z's Black Album over sampled beats from The Beatles's White Album. Only three thousand copies were produced, intended to be promotional items. When it was released on February 3rd,2004, it caught a few ears and suddenly anyone who had heard it was raving- and with good cause.

Danger Mouse has done something terribly interesting terribly well here. The album itself is beyond engaging, the mix both competent and accessible. It doesn't rely on the notoriety of its source materials instead creating an entirely new product, a virgin land of glitch-hop melody. "99 Problems" takes "Helter Skelter"'s Spector-esque wall of guitars and throws their power behind Jay-Z's cobra bite rhymes. "Justify My Thug" takes the unlikely remix candidate "Rocky Raccoon" and gives it new life, the opening chords packing enough punch to evoke both Beatles' nostalgia and Hip-Hop power bass. Indeed, despite being founded on old material, the project remains ahead of its time.

Where you can find it, that is. Pretty soon, it was moving feet on the club floors. Then the lawyers came knocking. You see, Jay-Z's label (Roc-a-Fella) was more than pleased with remixed projects, the vocal tracks had come from an acapella release of The Black Album. EMI, who control the rights to The White Album were not quite so happy. On February 10th, they sent a cease-and-desist to Danger Mouse and the music stores selling his album. Ebay removed any copies for sale. The following day Blog site Waxy.org posted MP3s of the entire album and asked others to do the same. Soon enough, he too had a C+D all his own. Then came Grey Tuesday.

Music activism site DownHillBattle.org began asking sites to do one of two things: Post the songs for one whole day (February 24th) or "Go Grey" (Present your site in grey scale for the day). The idea is not to encourage piracy, but to defy the heavy-handed and, indeed, stifling tactics of EMI and the RIAA. As of this writing, over 50 sites are prepared to host the album with another dozen Going Grey.

The Grey Album has become far more than another mashup. It has become a figurehead for the sampling movement in an era that is increasingly wary of copyright freedoms. What effect this will have on future such projects (DownHillBattle.org has a list of similar endeavors) remains to be seen, but one thing is sure: The Grey Album is here to stay.

Update: February 23rd, 2004

Waxy.org is reporting that sites either hosting the album or "Going Grey" tommorrow have all been sent C+Ds from Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, presumably the legal representation of EMI. The C+D offers the following interesting bits of text:

  • "Your site is listed among those that will engage in this openly unlawful conduct"
  • "identify the names and addresses of any third parties who have supplied you with physical or digital copies of The Grey Album or who are otherwise involved in The Grey Album's unauthorized distribution, reproduction, public performance, or other exploitation"
  • " provide Capitol with an accounting of all units of The Grey Album that have been distributed via your website, either physically or digitally, and of all instances of public performance of The Grey Album rendered via your website"

While the actual C+D itself is not terribly surprising, the terrifying part of the situation is that these are being levyed against people who have not yet comitted a crime. Downhillbattle.org replied to their C+D with the following:

"Despite your letter, Downhill Battle will be posting the Grey Album on our website tomorrow. Your efforts to suppress this music stifle creativity and harm the public interest; we will not be intimidated into backing down. Downhill Battle has a fair-use right to post this music under current copyright law and the public has a fair-use right to hear it. Opposing EMI’s censorship campaign is precisely the purpose of Tuesday’s protest and we won’t waiver from that goal."

They went on to add:

"Our posting of the Grey Album on Downhill Battle is a political act with no commercial interest and fits well within fair use rights. Lawyers have advised us that we can ignore your demands number 2, 3, and 4 that are listed at the bottom of your letter. EMI has no legal right to make these demands and we will not comply with them. Furthermore, if EMI attempts to disrupt our protest by sending takedown letters to participating websites, ISPs of participating websites, or any upstream ISPs, we will file a counter-suit against you. We consider any attempts to stifle this protest to be an abuse under section 512F of the DMCA."

What effect this will have on Grey Tuesday will make itself apparent tommorrow.

Update!: February 25th, 2004

In spite of the C+D offensive launched against Grey Tuesday, over 170 sites hosted full copies of the album. No other lawsuits have been levied. How much of a success the protest was is in debate, but it recieved considerable media attention from major outlets (NY Times etc.) and will certainly stand as a milestone the fight for sampling rights.

"I intended for it to be for friends and for people who knew my stuff. I figured it would get passed around, and it would be this little underground thing, but it kind of took off on its own"1

After eight consecutive summers of creating Hip-Hop history, Brooklyn rapper Jay-Z decided to call it history. Jay, better known as Shawn Carter to his mother, took pen to pad for the first time as he constructed The Black Album. Meant to be his last and final album, TBA combines Jay-Z divine flow with a myriad of different producers, ranging from the vogue and chic, The Neptunes, to legendary Hip-Hop pioneer and rock producer Rick Rubin. He intended the album to be loosely based on his life before his first album hit the streets. What he did not intend was to stir up one of the most virulent debates in music.

Jay-Z must have known that this would be his most scrutinized album, as he wrote the lyrics to the tracks instead of his normal process of chilling with the beat and then spitting his flows. When he released an a capella version of the cd, he was unaware of how it would be used. Since the release of this version of The Black Album, several DJ's have tried their best to create new music to go with Jay's words. The Red Album contained dub, ragga and dancehall beats to compliment Jay-Z's flow. The DoubleBlack album combined Jay's lyrical sweetness with the distorted aggression of Metallica's own The Black Album. Yet neither of these remixes received anywhere near the press and intrigue of DJ Danger Mouse's offering, The Grey Album.

Combining samples taken solely from The Beatles' The White Album, Danger Mouse fused the music of The Beatles with Jay's vocals, creating a combination of rap, rock and techno. Having heard the "forbidden" disc several times, all I can say is god bless the software that Danger Mouse used to create this near masterpiece.

Danger Mouse got his first inkling to start such an endeavor when he heard of the a capella cd, however, D-Mouse did not want to use any of his own beats for a remix album. In an interview with AllHipHop.com, Danger Mouse said that "I was sitting here listening to the Beatles and it just hit me all of a sudden, I was listening to the White Album and ... it just kind of hit me all at once."2 Within two grueling weeks of hard work, Danger Mouse had gone through The White Album and taken a sample of every drum hit, guitar chord and bass pluck. Every sound on The Grey Album, besides Jigga's voice, obviously, came from The White Album in some way shape or form. On many of the tracks, Danger Mouse stuck to just one song to sample from. Legal hype and digital mastery aside, one thing remains to be answered "Is it any good???"

Public Service Announcement:

Originally track 10 on The Black Album, Danger Mouse fittingly places this song first on The Grey Album as it is a good introduction to Hova. Slices from Long Long Long are used to form the jangly guitar and straight-forward beat underneath Jay-Z's vocals. D-Mouse's work is on point, making it seem like Jay's spitting over the beat Danger Mouse manufactured. Not bangin', but just plain good.

What More Can I Say:

I admit, I love Kanye West. I love every piece of music that escapes from his head, but Danger Mouse gives him a run for his brand new Roc-A-Fella bling. This time taking samples from the somber, yet incredibly beautiful, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Mouse juxtaposes heavy, rough bass hits with a melodic, staccato piano line.

Encore:

I can listen to this song for days. Gone is the mediocre beat and in its place is a driving beat, highlighted by cries of Oh Yeah, taken from Savoy Truffle. That is, until 1:21 mark of the song when the beat switches to a lick that sounds like Danger Mouse did no work and just placed some of The Beatles' music underneath Jay's words. The music is actually snippets of Glass Onion. Danger mouse also shows off his production skills on this one as he drops the beat out at different times in the first segment, enforcing the sound and flow of Jay's rhymes.

December 4th:

This track had to take time to grow on me. I still skip it on occasion. It's not Danger Mouse's fault that Just Blaze's production on the original was immaculate. More jangly guitar highlights this track, this time it's taken from Mother Nature's Son. To me, it seems that Danger Mouse didn't do enough to differentiate Jay's raps and his mother's spoken memories of Jay's youth. However, Jay-Z's fading voice as he repeats "If you can't respect that /// your whole perspective is whack /// maybe you'll love me when I fade to black" is an obvious, but nice touch to this song.

99 Problems:

DJ Danger Mouse had several reservations about this track. He knew right away what Beatles track he would use to provide the beat to this remix. Originally a noise-fest mastered by Rick Rubin, D-Mouse pulls from the semi-scandalous Helter Skelter to craft the beats. While the hectic beat he devised bummed me out a bit, I've come to grips with the fact that Rubin's original sound fit the song so much, it was ok for Danger Mouse to do something similar. Distorted guitar and bass push 99 Problems along, along with some strange ratchety noise, which only adds to the frantic sound Danger Mouse created.

Dirt Off Your Shoulder:

One of my favorite tracks off of the original mix, Danger Mouse chops up John Lennon's ode to his mother, Julia. And when I say chopped up, I mean it. The intro is a short 10 second sample, then what follows sounds more like techno or drum and bass than Hip-Hop, let alone the song he sampled from. Chopped, staccato guitars, thumping, quickly repeating bass as well as shuffling snare hits provide the undercurrent to this former club hit. While not as pounding and bassy as Timbaland's original, Danger Mouse still creates a fat groove which Jay-Z's words can easily flow over. It's perhaps the best song on The Grey Album and always makes me turn the volume up.

Moment of Clarity:

Just as I love Kanye, I must admit my love for Mr. Mathers as well. While Eminem is just coming into his own as a producer, what Danger Mouse does on this track is utterly delightful. He grabbed a distorted guitar chord, fuzzed it out even more and placed it over a rolling bass line. As with many other songs on this album, the groove is created mostly from the bass drums and the guitar sample. This is another track where it seems like Hov is spitting over the music Danger Mouse created. His beats fit the song incredibly well. According to the good Vandewal, Danger Mouse uses a sample of Happiness is a Warm Gun to create the beat for this song.

Change Clothes:

And go away! I could not stand The Neptunes's production on the original. I understand that it was the lead single but I still found it too poppy and silly for my tastes, it might have been Pharrell's horrible falsetto, but I digress. Gone is the annoying cymbal/triangle/cow bell nosise and in its place is what sounds like a Hurdy Gurdy. This bouncy sound pushes the track along, as the drums don't lock onto the groove like they do with other tracks on the album. Danger Mouse took samples for this track from Piggies.

Allure:

This was another song on the original mix I found myself skipping a lot. Dear Prudence receives the Danger Mouse ginsu treatment for this track, providing a solid groove devoid of Neptunian influences. However, this track still fails to stand out as something special.

Justify My Thug:

Justify this remix! As we return to L'album noir, or grey as the case may be, we find that Rocky Raccoon fell into the chipper/shredder again, even if you might not be able to tell. After listening to such great remixes of Dirt Off My Shoulder and Moment of Clarity, this track just seems to be filler. Repetitive guitar chords and fuzzed bass drums provide the meat of this track, as they do for most of the album. Nothing too special here, these aren't the droids you're looking for, move along.

Lucifer (I think):

I think this is a remix of Lucifer. It's hard to tell when all the vocals are backwards! This track is great because of the haunted feel created by the bass and the sporadic, non-linear drum line. It seems like it was made for more of a suspense/horror soundtrack than an actual album. Or maybe it was his ode to Paul being dead? Paul's health aside, Danger Mouse pulls from Revolution 9 to create his chilling sound.

My First Song:

Danger Mouse, what the fuck did you do? My First Song was my favorite track off of Jigga's swan song, and I don't know what Danger Mouse did, but I can tell you he didn't do it right. Jay-Z's flow on this track is unlike any other I've heard before. I guess this uniqueness made it hard for Danger Mouse to provide something good for a beat. Seemingly random drum hits combined with a ghostly vocal line run underneath Jay's rhymes, which sound incredibly out of place and off beat. I can hardly listen to this track, which is a tragic shame considering some of the magic that Danger Mouse had worked elsewhere on this album.

The one thing that surprised me about the Grey Album is how clear Jay's vocals were. Not that I couldn't understand them in the original mix, they seemed to stand out more on Danger Mouse's mix. The Mouse recorded over 200+ hours of work over 2 and a half weeks to create this CD. Beyond the copyright issues embodied within it, The Grey Album is still a good album that stands out in more ways than one. I recommend firing up your not-so-legal file sharing programs and having a stab at this highly bootlegged album, as that's the only way you can get a copy.

"I’m just worried whether Jay-Z will like it, or whether Paul and Ringo will like it. If they say that they hate it, and that I messed up their music, I think I’ll put my tail between my legs and go."3
Sources
1: Jay-Z, Beatles album: An unauthorized Web hit - http://www.cnn.com/2004/TECH/internet/02/25/music.greyalbum.ap/
2: Danger Mouse Interview -http://www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=741
http://www.allhiphop.com/features/?ID=748
Grey Album Producer Danger Mouse Explains How He Did It - http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1485693/20040311/story.jhtml
3: The New Yorker : The Talk of the Town - The Mouse That Mixed - http://newyorker.com/talk/content/?040209ta_talk_greenman\
Jay-Z, the Beatles meet in 'Grey' area, Renee Graham - http://www.boston.com/news/globe/living/articles/2004/02/10/jay_z_the_beatles_meet_in_grey_area/
Danger Mouse :: The Grey Album :: DJDangerMouse.com, Dan Mennella - http://www.rapreviews.com/archive/2004_03_greyalbum.html


All quotations are spoken by DJ Danger Mouse, and taken from where the numbers say they come from. I don't have a copy of The White Album (blasphemy, I know) So I had to take other people's word on where the samples come from, this is also why some samples are missing. If I messed up anywhere, please don't hesitate to let me know.

Thanks go to Spork_Avenger and those dude I partied with last night for the poop on the Lucifer sample.

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