Danger Mouse Creates the Mash Up
Nick Anderson | Tuesday, October 6, 2009
Music has shattered into a million segments. Thanks to the Internet, all styles, influences and genres can be explored, experienced, interpreted and appreciated with thousands of other like-minded listeners.
According to Google, there are several Web sites concerning “jazz polka fusion.” This, undoubtedly, is good for our culture. Passionate fans will always push for better art than the spoon-fed masses. And as much as we music snobs have fought it, there’s been a leveling of artistic merit, leaving quality nearly subjective.
What we’ve lost, however, is shared cultural experiences. There will never again be a performance like the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, Woodstock or James Brown saving Boston in ’68. Chuck Klosterman suggested that Johnny Carson’s retirement represented that last time our entire culture cared about a single event. Because of this, it’s getting harder to define a generation by its music. Instead of a rock, punk, soul or rap culture, we’ve collected an amalgamation of styles, a schizophrenic representation of our modern mindset. While we’re shuffling through the crowded, noisy background of culture, a new style has emerged to match: the mash up.
Within the past five years, mash ups have come as close as the 2000s will have to a dominant music style. Of course, this is the result of a distinct lack of clear style, incorporating any and all songs with an interesting hook, lyric or sound. Performers like Girl Talk, the Hood Internet and Team9 have worked their way to the top of the game, but the credit for the genre falls square on a single album from a DJ who quickly gave up the style.
Back in 2004, Danger Mouse was relaxing at his home in London when he was struck by two albums, the a capella release of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” and The Beatles’ “White Album.” Instead of merely overlaying Hova’s vocals on the Beatles instrumentation, Danger Mouse retreated into a room for two weeks. Deconstructing both albums to not only find similarities in beats, but tones, keys and atmosphere of songs, he spliced the two albums into a single, coherent product, creating the first ambitious, intelligent and excellent collection of music mash ups. Tongue firmly in cheek, he titled it the “Grey Album.”
The unlikely pairing, the Jigga man with the four lads from Liverpool, brought a fair number of skeptics, but the obvious care Danger Mouse put into its construction pays off. While it cannot be said to top either album, it is the most interesting album of the last 10 years. Impressively, it actually becomes better on subsequent listens. As with many mash ups, the novelty wears off quickly. Instead, the listener is left with Jay’s aggressive, steady flow layered over sonic details from the depths of the “White Album.”
Even with such an astonishing product, Danger Mouse only pressed 3,000 copies to pass out among his friends. As the songs spread across the Internet, EMI, the owners of the Beatles copyrights, took notice. The samples of both the Beatles and Jay-Z were illegal, even though the album was being distributed without charge. Danger Mouse stopped promoting the album after receiving a cease and desist letter.
Even with the threat of legal action, several Web sites took up the cause arguing fair use over the copyright restrictions. The issue came to a head on Feb. 24, 2004, referred to as Grey Tuesday, when more than 200 sites made a coordinated effort to spread the song. More than 100,000 copies were downloaded and no lawsuits were filed. The only ways to acquire it remains illegal downloads or knowing someone with a copy.
The “Grey Album” will be remembered for both its incredible artistic excellence in combining the greatest rock band with one of the greatest rappers and it relevance to our times. The fact that one of the best albums of the 2000s not only couldn’t be purchased in stores but could actually get you punished may be the best explanation of the current state of our music industry.