Sunday, September 1, 2013

When White & Black Turns to Grey: Danger Mouse's The Grey Album

It's probably not surprising that Charles Manson, despite his psychopathy, heard the beginnings of a race war on The Beatles' 1968 White Album, especially since the album owes as much to black music as With the Beatles did in 1963. In fact, the music heard here, in the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination, does emulate black discontent rather than the romantic hopes heard in the Beatle cover versions of "You've Really Got a Hold on Me" or "Please Mr. Postman." The anger buried within the black sound tapped on The White Album would ultimately find its own distinct voice in 2004. A DJ named Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) had taken samples from The White Album and mixed them with the work of rap artist Jay-Z's The Black Album (2003). Jay-Z was born Shawn Corey Carter in the New York projects a year after The White Album was first released. Besides being one of the most financially successful hip-hop artists, Jay-Z was also the former CEO of DefJam Recordings and Roc-A-Fella Records. He went on the co-own The 40/40 Club and the New Jersey Nets NBA basketball team. Yet even though he was one of the most successful rap artists in America, after his acclaimed 1996 debut, Reasonable Doubt, Jay-Z decided that he'd had enough of the business in 2003 and wished to retire. 

His farewell album was called The Black Album. The "Intro" told listeners that his time had come to quit. From there, the album became an angry and defiant memoir, not unlike John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band, which summed up his career while simultaneously re-assessing it. On "December 4," Jay-Z even featured his own mother Gloria Carter describing giving birth to Jay, after which, he raps about his parent's divorce and how he soon took to the streets. When his mother bought him a boombox, to help deter him from a criminal life, Jay-Z's love of music began. In 2004, shortly after the release of The Black Album, Jay Z put out an a cappella version of the album to allow for DJ re-mixes and mash-ups, which is how the album came to the attention of Danger Mouse. "I had seen that there were these a cappella Jay-Z records," Danger Mouse explained. "I was listening to The White Album later that day, and it hit me like a wave. I was like, 'Wait a minute! I can do this." It wasn't the first time he'd sampled The Beatles either. When Danger Mouse was taking a college class on the History of Rock, the instructor told him how The Beatles had assembled "A Day in the Life" from two disparate pieces. "So I remixed 'A Day in the Life' with a song by Jemini The Gifted One, who was one of my favourite rappers at the time," Danger Mouse recalled. "And that was the weird remix I had on my mixtape: Jemini's Funk Soul Sensation instrumental mixed with The Beatles." Although sampling had always been a huge part of hip-hop culture since the mid-Seventies, the idea of using one album as a sole source of sampling was totally unique. Without seeking permission from the surviving Beatles, Danger Mouse first burned a sample mix for a few friends, but within a month more than a million copies had been downloaded on the Internet. The Grey Album was a hybrid record that darkened The Beatles' sound while providing lighter shadings to Jay-Z's angry confessions.

All through The Grey Album, Danger Mouse doesn't attempt to match the beat and rhythm of both records as he does find the right sound to accompany Jay-Z's voice and lyrics. But sometimes he finds the right Beatles song. In "Encore," where Jay-Z speaks out to fans who want more than he's already given, Danger Mouse samples the melody of Lennon's bitter "Glass Onion," underscoring Jay-Z's declarations with John shouting, "Oh yeah!" The video for "Encore," seen on YouTube, features footage from the TV special scene in A Hard Day's Night. As The Beatles take the stage, with a worried Victor Spinetti surveying the monitors in the control room, Jay-Z takes the stage to join the group. As The Beatles perform the samples from "Glass Onion," the video features a simulation of images non-associated with The Beatles: Ringo doing some record scratching, as Lennon break-dances in front of a chorus of showgirls. During the mournful "What More Can I Say," where Jay-Z laments his monumental career in rap, Danger Mouse samples the appropriate "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." To fit the angry sniping of  "99 Problems," Danger Mouse turns to "Helter Skelter," with all its historical associations, to provide some searing textures that vividly embroider the song. Besides introducing the hip-hop crowd to The Beatles' music, The Grey Album also redefines The White Album for a contemporary audience by discovering its R&B undercurrents undercurrents that were cured in the resentment of the dashed hopes of the Sixties.

While Entertainment Weekly hailed the CD as the Best Album of the year, EMI was not so fond of it and launched a number of lawsuits. Since Danger Mouse didn't get permission from EMI to sample The Beatles, their lawyers immediately sent him a cease-and-desist letter for distribution, reproduction and public performance of The White Album. But in the age of music file downloading, The Grey Album was alive and well online. Furthermore, in February 2004, to protest EMI's actions, more than 300 Web sites and blogs staged a 24-hour online protest called "Grey Tuesday" where 150 sites offered the album free for downloads. Today the bootleg is still available to download, despite continuous legal threats. As for Jay-Z, he ultimately ended his short-lived retirement. In late 2006, turning his back on The Black Album, he stormed back with the hit CD Kingdom Come. In the first week of release, he was back selling 680,000 copies. While his denunciation of a ruthless business and a duplicitous culture that spawned him continued to breathe life over the World Wide Web through Danger Mouse's The Grey Album, Kingdom Come re-instated his desire to be back in the game, top of the heap, happily plugging his highest-selling album in a one-week period. As for The Beatles, The White Album signalled that it was soon to be lights out.

 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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