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Jay-Z & Timbaland »

What do you get when you take the greatest living rapper and the greatest hip hip producer. You get one hot album. Sign the petition and lets make it happen.

by rocafan on 6/04/2004 03:22:00 PM

The 'Grey' Zone: Danger Mouse mashes up Jay-Z, Beatles

LOS ANGELES -- For record producer Danger Mouse, it was perfectly natural to combine the vocals from rapper Jay-Z's "The Black Album" with the music of the Beatles' "White Album." The result was "The Grey Album," and it has become an underground sensation since surfacing in late January.

For the giant label EMI Music, it was equally natural to send a cease-and-desist order to the Los Angeles-based artist and to outlets selling the work. That put a lid on the record's limited "street release," but in the age of file-sharing and compact-disc burning, it can't stop the spread of "The Grey Album."

This high-profile skirmish in the pop-music wars is an intriguing collision of the newest technology and musical styles and themes as old as artistic obsession and property rights. Among the issues it raises: Is a record-maker justified in using unauthorized materials if that's the only way to fulfill a vision? And does calling a record "an experiment" and declining to make money from it excuse the appropriation of protected material?

Danger MouseMyung J. ChunLos Angeles TimesIronically, the unexpected attention accorded "The Grey Album" probably contributed to its suppression. After all, mouse-wielding producers have been creating "mash-ups" -- mixing one song with another -- for at least a decade. These records are played in clubs and passed around on the Internet and as bootleg CDs. No clearances, low profile, no problem.

Danger Mouse, a k a Brian Burton tried to keep things similarly unassuming with "The Grey Album," pressing only a few thousand CDs and giving most away. He did sell some in an unsuccessful effort to cover his costs. But when "The Grey Album" got written up not just in record-geek chat rooms but also on CNN and MTV, the game was up.

A representative of EMI, which controls the Beatles' recordings, said that company policy prohibited comment on legal matters. But a source at the label confirmed that a cease-and-desist order was sent to Burton and to some retailers and eBay re-sellers. "Sampling has become a real creative element in music today, and the music industry has a process to clear those things," the source added.

But Burton knew that the Beatles never authorize samples of their music, and here he was burning up to use 45 minutes of one of their most revered albums. (He figured that Jay-Z, whose vinyl release of an a cappella "Black Album" was widely seen as a tacit endorsement of creative mashing, has no problem with his work, although he hasn't heard anything directly.)

"The Beatles just don't do it. They don't grant clearances for anything," Burton said. "That's what I was told by enough people on the inside, so I didn't chase it up. [Plus] the whole idea of it being legal or not -- can you see how I couldn't think about that? What? Was I supposed to not do that whole thing just because I'm not supposed to?

"I took it into my own hands, and I just did it. I'm not trying to do it with malice, I'm not trying to take sales away from anybody. In fact, I think it's getting a lot of people into both of these [acts] that might not normally do it."

White wedding

At the center of this fuss is an audacious tour de force that ingeniously weds the biggest rock band of all time with one of today's biggest stars. At first listening, it sounds like a stunt, but before long the mix of Jay-Z's raps with the sounds of "The White Album" -- painstakingly deconstructed and reassembled into altered forms of the familiar strains -- becomes a merger of equals, Brooklyn boasts and Liverpool lilt forming a bond that's entirely, well, natural.

"I was cleaning up my room one day looking for something, and I was listening to 'The White Album' and it just popped into my head," Burton said. "It just hit me, boom, and I was like, 'Oh, this is gonna work, this is gonna work.' I don't know how or why, I just knew it was gonna work, and I started right then and there, and for 2½ weeks I didn't leave my room -- well, I did once or twice, but generally, 10, 12 hours a day, till it was done.

"It sounds cheesy, but it's for the love. That's why I did it. It was so gratifying. When I was finished, it was the biggest sense of accomplishment I've had over anything."

This isn't the first time Burton matched hip-hop with the Beatles. When he was attending the University of Georgia, he would mash rappers and rock bands and make copies to sell in stores or at his DJ shows.

Burton was used to unlikely blends. He grew up in a Jewish neighborhood in New York City listening to '80s pop and hair bands, as well as his sister's hip-hop and his parents' R&B. He got heavily into hip-hop when the family moved to Georgia, then deliberately diversified during his college years.

He made a couple of instrumental albums under the name Pelican City that found some success at college radio, then moved to London and signed with Warp Records. "Ghetto Pop Life," a 2003 teaming with rapper Jemini, earned acclaim, and the two are almost finished with the follow-up.

"The melding of everything, that's how it comes to me doing this record," Burton said. "I wanted it to be a catalyst for people putting different genres together. What I hate is when you have a rock section of reviews and then a hip-hop section. It's so disrespectful."


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