display | more...

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.