Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Grey Album: Danger Mouse's black and white cookie

The hip-hop outfit Gnarls Barkley which came to fame with the phenomenally successful single ‘Crazy’, looks like it might disappoint with their decidedly lacklustre second single and disappear into obscurity like, i dunno, (Australian Idol!) Casey Donovan. However, DJ Danger Mouse, the paler-skinned half of Gnarls Barkley already guaranteed himself a place in the pop music history books with his 2004 release, the notorious Grey Album. The album is an ingenious mash-up of hip-hop maestro Jay-Z’s ‘final’ recording, The Black Album and the Beatles 1968 double album The White Album.

While mash-ups had existed for decades before The Grey Album, what makes the album stand apart is the simplicity of the concept: Use the socially conscious rappings of Jay-Z and lay it over the music of the perennial poster boys of skinny white rock. The highlight on the album is track 5 where Jay-Z’s ‘99 Problems’ is mashed with the Beatles heavy metal ‘Helter Skelter’. Besides the fact that this track sounds like totally awesome and stuff, track 5 is especially fascinating for its link to American race relations. Jay-Z’s lyrics tell a narrative of the artist maligned as a successful rapper and being harassed by the law just because he is black. The Beatles backing track, instead of tackling social issues, originally contained fairly incongruous lyrics about a playground slide from Paul McCartney’s childhood. Helter Skelter became much more controversial in the seventies when Charles Manson thought that the Beatles were sending him messages through their music. The messages specifically predicted a race war between blacks and whites. He called this war Helter Skelter. When it became apparent that the war wouldn’t start, Manson decided to start it himself. For Manson, the White Album was the rock equivalent of Mein Kampf. Manson and the family then committed the murders for which he is infamous. The murderers also stole a wallet from the Polanski’s house and dropped it in a public toilet in a predominantly black neighbourhood. Manson thought that this would start the race war but all this really achieved was blocked pipes. However in Manson’s mind, the blacks were going to win the prophesised race war and kill off the white population during which Manson and the family would hide underground. Then, after a period of time the children of the Family would rise from their underground hidey hole, kill the black population and rule the world. (The world = America for all intents and purposes). With this in mind, it is much easier to see The Grey Album as Danger Mouse trying to musically reconcile two opposing political positions. If I may say so, Danger Mouse is the Martin Luther King of hip hop. Or the Professor Charles Xavier of hip hop. Or whatever. My point is that The Grey Album is attempting racial reconciliation in the same tradition as Jerry Seinfeld’s black and white cookie.

Danger Mouse sampled from Jay-Z and the Beatles without authorisation. Normally this is done and no one really cares but the enormous buzz created by the album caused EMI to order Danger Mouse and retailers carrying the album to cease distribution. In response, the activist group Downhill Battle led a massive Internet-based protest dubbed Grey Tuesday to express the opinion that sampling is fair use and that a statutory license should be provided in the same manner as if a given song had been covered. Since The Grey Album, mash ups have become increasingly popular, though none have been as successful as Danger Mouse’s moment of conceptual genius. Notable efforts include the Kleptones’ mashup of the Flaming Lips’ album Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots with various hip hop artists entitled Yoshimi Battles the Hip Hop Robots. The one-off mash up single has become more likely. The intrepid internet user will be able to track down Destiny’s Child vs. Nirvana in ‘Smells like Booty’ or Christina Aguilera vs. the Strokes in ‘A Stroke of Genie-us’. The lesson to be learned here is that a mash-up is only as good as the wittiness of its title. How about Guns N’ Roses vs. Michael Jackson in ‘Don’t Stop ‘til You Get Sweet Child of Mine’? Or Guy Sebastian vs. Nelly Furtado in ‘Angels Brought me Promiscuous Girls’?

But back to The Grey Album. Unfortunately I will never know for sure whether Danger Mouse intended for it to be the anthem of racial tolerance that I have read it as. One cannot overlook the undeniable pleasure of skinny white kids in tight jeans and Converse sneakers trying to navigate the rhythm of Jay-Z’s rhymes on the dance floor. Meanwhile, Charles Manson will be eligible for parole in 2007. If he is released, what will he think of The Grey Album? Will the murder mastermind be outraged at the recording as Beatles sacrilege? Will he be moved by Jay-Z’s political lyrics resulting in a more empathetic, loving and tolerant Manson. My guess: he won’t even get to hear it. Wouldn't want his parole officer to catch him downloading illegal MP3s.

1 comment:

Jaemes said...


Apart from the Grey album, Danger Mouse has also worked on a number of other you would expect...he produced Gorillaz's Demon Days as well as teaming up with MF Doom to create "The Mouse and the Mask" a Hip-Hop/Rap Album which is pretty experimental in some ways, but I really liked it... just some extra info for you!