The Grey Album: The Return of Sampling, The End of New Music, and The Fall of Western Civilization

The Grey AlbumIt’s the most significant rap album since Paul’s Boutique, arguably the only one since the Beastie’s groundbreaking acid trip that can really lay claim to a significant political stance in the upcoming epic battle over corporate copyright laws. While the Beasties may not have set out to craft the ultimate “fuck you” to Disney and the late Sonny Bono, revisionist history says they came damn close. DJ Danger Mouse, however, just put his foot so far up the RIAA’s asshole, Nutty McShithead will be tasting his boot-soles for years.


“You say you want a revolution?” —The Beatles, 1968

“What the hell are you waiting for?” —Jay-Z, 2003

For those that haven’t heard, Danger Mouse took The Beatles’ White Album, pulled some beats from it, and laid them down under the vocals from Jay-Z’s Black Album. (That this pairing just by chance creates “grey,” as in “many shades of grey,” as in the only sane way to interpret law, is no coincidence.) The result is Dope With A Capital “D, motherfucker, D.” I respect and appreciate the Beatles, though I’m no great fan, nor am I one to pimp Roc-a-Fella. But this is not about the Fab Four, nor is it about Jigga, because The Grey Album is bigger than either—they’re just the instruments Danger Mouse plays to construct a new vision of remixed, sample-driven rap that’s as mind-blowing as anything dreamt up by the Dust Brothers back in the day. Just listen—what you’re hearing in the oddly shaped sounds is the future.

And yes, the future resembles a Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel: There’s no more “new” music, everyone is an artist, and we all provide an endless source of free entertainment for each other in a neo-campfire sing-along and high-tech show-and-tell. Steve Jobs would tell you that’s the iLife, but it goes much deeper than that. Think reality TV, This American Life, Jackass, Web cams, blogs, and cell-phone cameras, with all of us on a P2P network that works through our TiVo’s. Those who really doubt we could survive a mass-market entertainment holocaust, you’re invited to my friend Dano’s next karaoke party.

You can make a legitimate argument that no-one has played a new note since before the advent of recorded music, John Coltrane included, but who needs to innovate anyway, now that we have digital tools to catalog and inventory every harmony, melody, and bit of cacophonous silence that’s ever been put down on wax/tape/hard drive? And then manipulate it. I, for one, will be content to listen to nothing other than remixed Classic Rock for the rest of my natural life, if it is handled as deftly as Danger Mouse dispatches The Beatles in the name of hip hop sacrilege.

Sacrilege, of course, since Grey was not deployed for profit, an album so hot it’s melting the cheddar atop the American-as-apple-pie cultural product we know as Hip Hop. True dat, it’s all about the Benjamins, say the marketing mopes, but Danger is all about the revolution of art and the art of revolution, and by the way, this shit is free. The Grey Album is not available in stores, it’s just floating around on the Internet, ready and waiting for you to download. (This means the RIAA is going to have a hell of a time suing you for “stealing” it. No, on this one they’re going to be hanging the DJ, not you and me.)

That it’s free is important. It’s important because it fucks with the most important basis of capitalism, that you can (and should) put a price on anything (and everything). Forget that it pisses off the RIAA and the rest of the entertainment cabal and encourages more people to say, “Fuck your copyright laws.” No, what’s really trick is that Danger Mouse is giving us cause to imagine a world where we’re not paying for culture, but participating in it, where music and other types of art are around us as a daily part of our lives. Where our public space, be it physical or psychological, is not under the grasp of corporate ownership, but free and open to the discourse of the interested.

33 thoughts on “The Grey Album: The Return of Sampling, The End of New Music, and The Fall of Western Civilization”

  1. it’s a good mash-up, but hardly that great. it’s fun and all, but much of it pales in comparison to the original beats and i’m not even really a fan of jay-z.

  2. I agree with ian (except I am a jay z fan). Its a fantastic concept, that kind of fails in its execution. Im kind of a geek for audio as well, the vocals are kind of distorted, the mp3 compression kind of sucks too. Also, there are (many) times when the beats are really overkill. Too much.

    But still, great article Jeff.

    -chris

  3. For me, the Black Album was a terrible let down, and Dangermouse has really found a way to take it to a higher level. Songs like “Dust Ya Shoulder Off,” “December 4th,” and “99 Problems” are brilliant with his mixing. Some of the songs fail miserably, but the concept is so damn cool you can’t knock the guy.

  4. nice article, but the album is much better in idea than actuality. it ranks slightly higher than Luke from 2LiveCrew rapping over Born in the USA.

  5. Well, there’s no accounting for taste, but I think the album sounds incredibly fresh, and different enough from other sample-heavy rap to be worthy of praise. Comparing it to the genre of “rapping over” other music is surely not giving Danger Mouse enough credit.

  6. “Comparing it to the genre of “rapping over” other music is surely not giving Danger Mouse enough credit.”

    absolutely. i was beings assholishly coy. and i think there are some really good moments, the “helter skelter” for example. i mean, danger mouse, gets credit for not only a) having a great name, but 2) for doing something to take HS back from U2.

    i think i wanted more chunks of the WA in chunks, like that. Too much of it seems like chopped down bits. You can do that with anything.

    Anyhow I don’t have the whole thing. Justify My Thug, however, is an embarrassment to all involved.

  7. Regarding copyrights, intellectual property and such…

    David Bowie made a comment in the NYTimes around the time “Heathen” was coming out (2002?) that I thought was interesting — though clearly not something he came up with on his own. But it’s interesting to hear an established artist’s opinion on the matter.*

    Entertainment (specifically recorded media) are going to soon be like electricity or water — just a continuously available utility in your home. And the ability to wrap one’s legal and financial arms around it is getting ever weaker. Artists (and the business that surrounds them) need to realize that live performance is the only unique thing they’ll have to offer soon. Which then may explain the ridiculous heights that concert tix are soaring to.

    * You have to realize, of course, that Dave probably isn’t overly concerned about who pays whom for his back catalog as he sold it all off several years ago through Goldman Sachs via what are now commonly called “Bowie Bonds.” Bastard. Genius.

  8. >True dat, it’s all about the Benjamins. . .

    In this case, the reproduction (then manipulation) of existing artistic creation brings up another context: Walter Benjamin.

  9. Does DJ DangerMouse live off of donations, handouts, begging?

    I gather that Mr. Mouse is probably paid to appear at “gigs” no?

    If he is just a Robin Hood philanthropist of modern music than please excuse my ignorance.

    But I suspect that his using of other peoples music without their and or their record companies permission is making him money and notoriety.

    All technology means is that artists now have a choice, attempt to distribute their product by themselves, or with a third party.

    And yet somehow, because of past business practices of some less desirable individuals, we are to deem that art should become “free”.

    The only difference between today and yesterday is, the convenience of technology.

    Show me the artist who wants to give you his work for “free” and I show you are a starving homeless person.

    But than again is Mr. Mouse an artist? I mean really, he heard one great record, and liked the music. Heard another and liked the words. He might be technologically savy, and may or may not have good taste depending on your opinion. But taking other peoples work and calling it your own is hardly cause for celebration of the dawning of new thought.

    The case has less to do with overcharging for records and what there real price should be in this instance, as much as it has to do with, if Mr. Mouse can distribute someone elses work free of charge or royalty payment, why cant I just steal the original record. And the reason is simple, someone made a product and placed a pricetag on it, I agree or disagree whether that price tag is appropriate and purchase or do not.

  10. I believe what is at stake here is not only what defines music, but what defines an artist.

    Hip-hop is a hot commodity right now, but the truth of the matter is most of its’ music is focused around loops and beats. It is mostly devoid of originality and the Grey Album, or whatever the hell it is, can’t touch the B Boys “Paul’s Boutique” for many reasons, especially since the Beastie Boys’ incorperated samples while still rapping with INTELLIGENCE and telling A STORY; two things that modern rap or Hip Hop, sadly fail to do.

    Im sorry, but someone that raps words over a bass line or loop just isnt an artist in my book, (with the exception of the Beaties Boys and a few others,)although they are talented in their own respect.

    The really sad reality is that there are bands out there; new bands that could and would knock down the complacent crap that that we are continuously inundated with. But record co. exec.s dont think in artistic freedom; they dream in $$$$ and Hip Hop is what sells in this era.

    What a truly sad time we live in……..

    Where are the Neil Finns, the Andy Partridges, the Marshall Crenshaw’s..etc..when we need them most? They are relegated to indie labels because they don’t sell.

  11. >Where are the Neil Finns, the Andy Partridges, the Marshall Crenshaw’s..etc..when we need them most? They are relegated to indie labels because they don’t sell.

    Anon: That’s not precisely true. Actually, they’re on indie labels because few of us buy them. If more were to plunk down the cash, then they would be bigger on the scene. But is bigger necessarily better? Wouldn’t some people (as in, say, the extended GloNo posse) look/listen askance at them if they were to be big?

  12. Anonymous, you might not have intended it, but your comment reeks of racism. “…rapping with INTELLIGENCE and telling A STORY; two things that modern rap or Hip Hop, sadly fail to do.” Do you listen to much new stuff? Sure, there are a lot of dumb lyrics, but even a cursory listen to any maninstream rapper will reveal plenty of stories. And, whether you think so or not, there’s a great deal of intelligence behind the rhymes. It’s ridiculous to even have to point that out. Sheesh.

  13. Jake, it is all how you read into it…

    I didnt sniff any racisim or a need for the person to caveat their remarks.

    You have implied that the Beastie Boys (white) and modern hip-hop (black) equals that earlier rap was intelligent modern not so.

    If there is any modern hip-hop that is telling a new or revealing bit of americana. If so it is “indie” hip-hop that is not what is selling because this stuff is the same stuff over and over and over.

    This is not Public Enemy, NWA, KRS-One and such.

    With the exception of the Roots, I see and hear alot of contrived eMpTV cartoon characters.

    If Jim O’Rourke were to take Blonde on Blonde and rewrite the lyrics for each song and release a record called Brunette on Brunette, would it be modern artistic achievement or fraud.

    In visual art, it is called forgery.

    In written word, is is called plagarism.

    In music, it is called sampling or remixing or whatever, but it is essentially the combination of both, especially in a case where someone borrows from anothers art without the provided right to do so.

  14. Actually, in visual art, it’s called collage.

    Outkast, Kanye West, Ludacris, Jay-Z, Nelly, Missy Elliot, they all tell stories in their raps, and while I don’t listen to much of that stuff, it’s still very relevant to a lot of people. And why do lyrics have to say something new? You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs, but I look around me and I see it isn’t so. Oh no. What’s wrong with that? I’d like to know.

    Here’s a pretty cool lyric from Jay-Z from “99 Problems”:

    If you don’t like my lyrics you can press fast forward

    Got beef with radio if I don’t play their show

    They don’t play my hits well I don’t give a shit SO

    Rap mags try and use my black ass

    So advertisers can give em more cash for ads…fuckers

    I don’t know what you take me as

    or understand the intellegence that Jay-Z has

    I’m from rags to riches nigga I ain’t dumb

  15. actually a collage in visual arts is defined as:

    “an artistic composition made of various materials (as paper, cloth, or wood) glued on a surface”

    or

    “an assembly of diverse fragments ”

    The latter definition might apply arbitrarily to art.

    Jay-Z is being held back by the man

    I hope his fifteen minutes of fame don’t end

    Because the moment his whack persona drys up

    The sooner he will be back on the VIBE, BLENDER, SOURCE bus.

    I never said their “entertainment” was not relevant to many people. But then again “Friends” is relevant to many people.

    I have no problem with hip-hop nor rap, I just think it was quick to exhaust its creative resource which was limited to borrowing ideas to begin with. The Roots are one of a very very few bands/groups that took things in a new direction by adding, gasp Instrumentation.

    To me, and perhaps I am wrong, the majority of hip-hop is the creative equivalent of the majority of 1980’s hair-metal. Canned, decorated, pre-packaged and very uninspiring.

  16. I heard the Grey Album. It sucks. End of story. It is a great idea, with no delivery. It died on the way.

    Bright Eyes kicks mullet head ass!

    Peace.

  17. One last thought and then I should probably do something work-related….

    To bring it down to a level that’s easier (for me anyway) to understand, I once asked my musician friend what he thought of file-sharing. He’s in an established band, signed to a sub of Mercury, tours US and Europe. Performs and sells music. His fans are primarily tech-savvy kids. So his material — the stuff he earns his living from — is being downloaded willy-nilly.

    His take is that there’s no way to stop it. Whatever protections/processes are put in place will be routinely (and almost immediately) overcome by the file-sharers of the world. Therefor, he just makes sure that he gets his share of free stuff as well — tunes, movies, software, games, etc.

    See ya in the next century.

  18. To all the people saying the Grey Album sucks, go ahead and make your own remix. That what this is all about. It’s a proof of concept as much as anything. And it’s proving that the existing copyright laws and licensing rules are STIFLING THE FUCK out of an entire style of music-making.

  19. “To me, and perhaps I am wrong, the majority of hip-hop is the creative equivalent of the majority of 1980’s hair-metal. Canned, decorated, pre-packaged and very uninspiring.”

    …and also one of my favorite music genres. But then again, you’ve already said I have bad taste.

  20. “To me, and perhaps I am wrong, the majority of hip-hop is the creative equivalent of the majority of 1980’s hair-metal. Canned, decorated, pre-packaged and very uninspiring.”

    So is most rock, country, jazz, etc that is being marketed, but there are also amazing artists in every type of music. This statement should only attest to your dislike of hip-hop..and that’s fine. Hip-hop is not for everyone. Neither is math-rock.

    But if you think the the Beastie Boys are the only Intelligent hip-hop…

    “Mowin’ down MC’s like I’m mowin’ the lawn” is not really a creative or intelligent thing to say. Neither is “it’s finger-lickin good, y’all.”

    I like the Beasties, but why do white people think they are the pinnacle of rap? They’re white kids who sample well and re-create Run DMC as whiny as they possibly can.

    And adding instruments to rap isn’t new thanks to the Roots, either. But why do they need instruments so bad for you to respect it? Why is a five-chord guitar based song more interesting to you than using modern technology to layer many sounds and insruments together?

    Watch the film “Scratch” and you can see how rapping evolved from days when the DJ was the focus peformer, not the MC.

  21. *And adding instruments to rap isn’t new thanks to the Roots, either.*

    A little off-topic, but that statement bugs me by itself. The Roots aren’t to thank for anything except being incredibly pretentious and self-important. Do not, under any circumstances, read an interview with any of them. You’ll ruin your magazine with all the throwing across the room.

    And as for the Grey Album… bah. Hype hype hype, blah blah blah, not brave, not cutting edge, not especially creative or well executed. But that’s just me. Strangely, even among people I like this is becoming a hot argument. Many of them love it to pieces, which makes me think twice, which makes me put on the record again (or “record,” if you please), which makes me think it’s hype all over again.

    No, my mind is pretty much made up. The Black Album is better with real producers, rather than a laptop.

  22. One other thing: The Grey Album is heavily front-loaded, meaning the first few tracks are the best. The first track is especially dope. I wonder if people holding it up as the greatest thing since… well… the Beatles have carefully listened to the whole thing. Some of those later tracks are *real* uneven, if not outright messy.

  23. anybody who prefers the beats on the Black album to dangermouse’s production on the Grey album is either 1) retarded or 2) sincerely enjoys the beats johnny j made for “all eyez on me.”

    ian at the top claims that “much of it pales in comparison to the original beats.” ARE YOU F#CKIN SERIOUS? is the eminem-produced instrumental to “moment of clarity” truly superior to dangermouse’s version?

    i listened to the black album when it first came out, it thought it was lame. a couple things with single potential, but mostly disappointing. the grey album restored my faith in jay-z’s lyrical skills.

    dangermouse should re-release the mp3s with higher quality compression, AND THEN we’ll see what’s up.

  24. so many bright eyes references, so little time on these boards. i would like to see puffy even attempt a project that is 1% as ambitious as the grey album, but i know it wont happen.

  25. paul,

    like i said. “much of it pales in comparison”. the eminem track sounds lazy. a few of them do. i like the rick rubin and just blaze tracks. i’m not that concerned with “single potential”. i also don’t think dangermouse makes jay-z a better lyricst. the beats don’t sound tailored to his rhymes. it’s an interesting experiment. that’s all. oh yeah, better sound quality won’t make the tracks anymore interesting.

    yours,

    retarded

    p.s. mf doom makes this all moot…

  26. I hate to say it, but the people who think Jay-Z’s OG beats outdo DJ Dangermouse’s are just stale old men lagging behind the times as far as rap fans go.

    The Grey Album probably has the most evolved beats I’ve ever heard in any music created by anyone ever.

    The only reason this style of laying down beats will never be popular is because only a few people have the skill to map out all the rhythms like DJ Dangermouse does.

  27. And to the fools who have made comments like “Mr. Mouse…” [uhh.. he has a real name and a pseudonym, mr. mouse is neither] “…just heard two records and mushed them together, he’s not an artist, yadda yadda”; these fools obviously have never listened to the Grey Album, have never tried to remix an album or (probably) both.

    To say the grey album is just an amalgam of the Beatles’ work and Jay-Z’s work is to turn a blind eye to the skill and art (yes I said art) of creating music. If you’ve listened to the grey album you know it sounds like neither of the albums it was derived from.

    It is more than the sum of its parts. And isn’t that wholly the essence of artistic creations?

  28. gregory,

    i was taking you seriously until…”The Grey Album probably has the most evolved beats I’ve ever heard in any music created by anyone ever.” i knew you were joking. you had me for a minute.

  29. Is there a way to hear the Grey Album without the vocals? I want to feel what it’s like to give full concentration to the samples and beats.

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