February 10, 2004

Beatles Sing Back-up for Jay-Z
By Canyon Cody
Published in The Heights

When John Lennon said, "Music is everybody's possession. It's only publishers who think that people own it," clearly he failed to anticipate underground hip-hop producer DJ Danger Mouse.

Danger Mouse (DM) has taken the anarchy of musical intellectual property to a new level by remixing Jay-Z's Black Album, using nothing but samples from the Beatles' White Album, creating an impressive and entertaining new remix, The Grey Album.

When Jay-Z released the a capella version of his entire Black Album on vinyl, he seemed to be offering his tacit approval for DJs remixing his vocals onto their own beats. In just a few months, no less than six major producers have offered their own versions of Jay-Z's final album.

The remix fad began with 9th Wonder, when he remixed Nas' God's Son, layering Nas' vocals on top of his own signature fluid, old school beats. The remix project earned the unknown producer so much buzz that when Jay-Z was gathering his all-star list of producers for The Black Album, he included 9th Wonder.

At first, Danger Mouse wasn't even going to do his own remix, since he knew that so many other DJ's would be doing the same. He was busy working on other projects, including the follow-up to his stellar debut album with emcee Jemini, Ghetto Pop Life.

Then, the idea of taking samples exclusively from the Beatles' White Album dawned on him. "I did it real quick," Danger Mouse told The Heights in an interview, "because I was afraid someone else was going to have the same idea." After just two weeks and over 200 hours of studio time, Danger Mouse released his remix.

The Grey Album is awe-inspiring collage of Ringo's snare, Paul's bass, Lennon's voice, and Harrison's weeping guitar that demonstrates the delicate art of sample-based production. Some songs are immediately recognizable as looped samples, while DM rearranges some songs to an almost indecipherable effect.

"It was basically just an experiment for me, like an art project," DM said. "I'm actually surprised people like it because I really just did it for me. It was a test, like 'For this song I have two loops and that's it, so let's see what I can do with that.'"

On "What More Can I Say," when Jay-Z's first verse drops on top of a slowed down guitar riff from "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," the collaboration at first catches the listener off guard. Fortunately, the quality of Danger Mouse's production eclipses the gimmick that initially piques listener's interest.

Many will listen to the album simply for the concept's novelty value, but this is no generic mash-up. On "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," DM takes "Julia," speeds it up, slices it in half and throws some meat on the beat until it's an entirely new song.

As Nick Hornby writes in Songbook, to accuse an artist like Danger Mouse of plagiarism is ridiculous: "You may as well make the same case against a writer whose book contain words that other writers have used before."

Unfortunately, copyright law does not agree. Sampling has been a rich man's game ever since Biz Markie was sued for sampling in 1991. The judge ruled that the Biz had violated "not only the Seventh Commandment, but also the copyright laws of this country."

Danger Mouse knew there was an insurmountable sample clearance issue that prevented him from releasing the album commercially and instead made the album available to friends and fans on underground hip-hop sites on the Internet. Recently, the album has even disappeared from these non-traditional venues.

Danger Mouse suggests, "Go find it on the Internet and make copies for your friends. I knew I was never going to make money off this, that wasn't why I did it."

On "Encore," DM's production reaches its most impressive point, with a looped breakbeat from "Glass Onion." Halfway through the song, DM switches the beat to a short drum-based sample from 1:08 into "Savoy Truffle."

On some songs, such as "Moment of Clarity," Danger Mouse falters and fails to create an engaging beat from the scraps of "Happiness Is A Warm Gun." Similarly, The Beatles' "Cry Baby Cry" doesn't seems to be able to keep up with Jay-Z's double-time rhyme on "My 1st Song."

The Grey Album shows what Danger Mouse and sample-based production in general is capable of, if not for the financial limitation involved in clearing samples. Most likely this sort of art will continue to flourish in the underground, below the radar of record label lawyers but just perfect for true hip-hop fans.

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