Tuesday, May 4, 2004

...So I "acquired" recently a copy of the illegal album by DJ Danger Mouse, 'The Grey Album,' his art-collage mix of the Beatles and rapper Jay-Z. Curiosity drove me to check out this disc, which has been one of the more controversial releases of the year - even if you can't actually buy it anywhere. EMI, the Beatles' label, clamped down hard on Danger Mouse's unauthorized release and it's only available by searching the digital world.

Producer Dangermouse took the vocals from Jay-Z's "The Black Album" and mixed them with fragments and shards of music and vocals from The Beatles' "The White Album." The result is a trainwreck of styles -- the familiar tones of Beatles numbers like "Helter Skelter," "Glass Onion" and "Julia" turned into glittering beats and riffs for Jay-Z's authoritative rapping. It shouldn't work, yet it does, in a twisted kind of way.

I say this as someone who's not a big rap fan -- Eminem and Outkast are about all the recent hip-hop acts I listen to -- and who'd never heard a Jay-Z album. So I'm coming in with half the information -- I'm a certified Beatlemaniac, and can dig what Danger Mouse did to their tunes, but I haven't heard Jay-Z's "Black Album." Particular highlights of the "Grey Album" include "Encore," which takes "Glass Onion" and recasts it as the stuttering backdrop for Jay-Z's tale of thug life, or the winkingly romantic "My 1st Song," using Paul McCartney's disembodied voice from "Take Me Back" as a floating pulse. Another highlight is the anti-violent anthem "Justify My Thug," which takes a pounding beat and manages to name-check Madonna, "Rock Around The Clock," and the harmonica beat from "Rocky Raccoon." Jay-Z is less misogynist or violent than some rappers, and his booming voice makes a riveting counterpoint to the mellow Beatles sounds.

But is it art or a novelty act? You can make something new out of combining together two different things -- it's been done everywhere from collage to Andy Warhol's soup can art. Some critics have raved. Enjoyable as some of the alchemy is, I can't see "The Grey Album" replacing "The White Album" as a musical journey for me. There's the whole copyright angle to consider behind a work like this -- it's hard to ignore the valid concerns Paul McCartney might have about his work being sliced-and-diced like this. But does the work no longer belong to him, but to the culture, regardless of the law? Should art remain the artist's property forever? How would you feel if it was your work Danger Mouse sliced up?

One thing's for certain -- with the Internet and the ability to create, burn and remix music with the click of a mouse, this is just the beginning of a whole new way of thinking about music. There are many other "Grey Album" variations out there already (mixed with Pavement? "The Slack Album". Mix with AC/DC? The "Double-Black" album). The tiger is out of the cage, and it's doubtful all the record label lawyers in the world can stuff it back in.

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