How ‘The Grey Album’ Re-Invented the Remix
Danger Mouse’s 2004 Jay Z / Beatles mashup is a breakthrough for sampling, genre-bending, and DIY production
In a recent article calling for the end of terrible mashup albums, Noisey writer Daisy Jones said, “Let’s euthanize mash-up culture and burn it in a kiln so only its ashes remain.” While Jones’ stance is perhaps a bit extreme, this angst sums up the emotional state of many listeners who suffer from remix and mashup fatigue. The once-novel concept of taking two disparate artists or albums and mixing them together has been beaten to death to a point that even when done well, it is now often approached with a high degree of skepticism.
Modern listeners may feel jaded towards new mashup releases, but not too long ago the mashup was a still a fresh concept. The origins of mashups span back to the early days of hip-hop DJing, taking form in bootleg party records, mixtape blends and megamixes by folks like Double Dee and Steinski. You can hear the foundation of mashups in Dr. Dre’s 86 In The Mix, Ron G’s Michael Jackson blends, DJ Spinbad Rocks The Casbah: 80s Megamix Vol. One and countless mixtapes where DJs blended disparate genres with rap. When Z-Trip and DJ P made their Uneasy Listening Vol. 1 mixtape in 2001—pairing classic pop and rock songs with rap acapellas and instrumentals—it brought a newfound awareness to genre-bending remix projects. The self-produced, underground mix CD made the year-end favorite lists of Entertainment Weekly, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and URB.
These ambitious creative efforts set the stage for Brian “Danger Mouse” Burton to release The Grey Album in 2004—a high-concept mashup of Jay-Z’s vocals from The Black Album and beats made from samples of music from The Beatles’ “White Album.” It would have a cascading effect on the music industry, not only blurring the lines between genres, but also writing the blueprint for every future do-it-yourself Internet remixer to follow.
To understand how Burton, better known as Danger Mouse, went from releasing The Grey Album to producing albums for Beck, Broken Bells, The Black Keys, and U2, it is important to look at the early years of his career. Before composing The Grey Album, DJ Danger Mouse was making CDR mixtapes with the British cartoon character of the same name featured on the artwork. These early mixtapes included mashups using Nas vocals and Portishead beats—not as refined as his current work, but an indication that a project like The Grey Album was not far away.
Take a closer look and you will also see he was remixing a certain Liverpool band on his Promo Vol. 2 tape in 1999. “That was the first time I ever mixed The Beatles,” Danger Mouse later explained in a short video interview.
While his initial attraction to reworking The Beatles had been formed, the creation of The Grey Album was still a few years away. Early on, his choice remixes were pressed on vinyl and sold at various ‘mom and pop’ record shops alongside his mixtapes. In 2003, he transitioned from mixtape DJ to official album producer with the release of Ghetto Pop Life, his collaborative effort with rapper Gemini The Gifted One. Although Danger Mouse produced beats for his own mixtapes, his production for Gemini was his earliest official album work. “The first three beats I did, I stuck ’em on a CD, and Gem rhymed on all of them,” he said in an interview with Lawrence Billups. “They’re the ones that got me the deal at the record label (Lex Records).”
But with the Internet still relatively new in 2003, independent artists had far fewer options for making direct connections with fans and catching the eye of the press. DM & Gemini — as they were called at the time — were fortunate to have writer Adrienne Acosta in their corner, who later would help in various aspects of promotion at Danger Mouse’s label, Lex Records. Acosta’s recollection of their initial meeting made it sound like a doomed partnership. Danger Mouse, who had never spoken to Acosta before, said, “Before I sit down and have a conversation with you, I need you to tell me your top five favorite albums. I really can’t communicate with people that I’m not on the same level with.” As luck would have it, they shared a common three: Portishead’s self-titled sophomore LP, Isaac Hayes’ Hot Buttered Soul, and Sparklehorse’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
Although their partnership may have seemed inauspicious at first, Acosta’s efforts in promoting Ghetto Pop Life paid off. The fledgling indie hip-hop album received strong reviews from the likes of The Independent, Pitchfork, and XLR8R. “Along with Outkast’s double-header, Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, Ghetto Pop Life is this year’s most engrossing hip-hop record,” wrote The Independent.
In addition to the much-welcomed critical acclaim, it was during the recording process for Ghetto Pop Life that Danger Mouse would hone his meticulous ear and obsessive willingness to scour records for usable bits and pieces. When breaking down the process of constructing “The Only One,” which ended up becoming the album’s most recognizable track, Danger Mouse explained that he used three different samples to construct the record’s signature guitar sounds while trying out 30 different records to find the perfect vocal sample for the intro and hook. It was this level of dedication to finding the perfect fit that would inform his production process for The Grey Album.
Two months after the release of Danger Mouse and Gemini’s debut, Jay Z dropped The Black Album, which he had dubbed as his final LP, creating a fervor around the project. Always a marketing genius, Jay figured out another way to increase the hype surrounding his “retirement” effort by taking note of what his peers were doing. In previous years, Nas had experimented with putting out the full album acapellas — the isolated vocals only, with no beats or music behind them — for his albums Stillmatic and God’s Son. This gave aspiring producers a chance to remix his work and, by extension, further spread his lyrics to new fans.
Jay followed suit and released a full-length acapella version of The Black Album to radio DJs on a promotional-only basis. Producers clamored to get a copy so that they could have a chance to rework Jay’s vocals, with folks like 9th Wonder and Kev Brown doing remixes of the entire album. “Danger Mouse called us and was like, ‘Please save me two copies of the Black Album acapella vinyl,’” says Cuepoint’s Mike Pizzo, who ran online record retailer HipHopSite.Com at the time.
Once his copies arrived, Danger Mouse wasted no time in sharing his idea for The Grey Album with Acosta, who continued to be a trusted confidante after playing a critical role in helping Ghetto Pop Life find its audience.
“That morning when I went to work, he was like, ‘Sit down, we need to talk, I have this brilliant idea!’” Acosta recalls. “I’d never seen him get that excited.”
According to Acosta, the moment that The Black Album acapellas arrived, he said, “I’m going to be in my room, don’t expect to see me.” Burton affirmed this apparent level of hyper-focus in MTV interview after The Grey Album’s release. “I was obsessed with the whole project, that’s all I was trying to do,” he said. “Once I got into it, I didn’t think about anything but finishing it.”
The obsessive, repetitive listening that Danger Mouse utilized when composing Ghetto Pop Life would serve him well in his endless replaying of The White Album. MTV’s Corey Moss reported, “he scoured all 30 songs on The White Album, listening for every strike of a drum or cymbal when other instruments or voices were not in the mix.” He then used all of the isolated sounds he collected to produce original instrumentals to pair with Jay Z’s vocals. Danger Mouse’s tireless dedication to only using one album for his sample sources is impressive. Even the drums were composed of “every possible Ringo Starr part from The White Album.” While the art of sampling was already a few decades old in 2004, only using one album for your sample sources to compose an entirely new album was generally unheard of.
A project this intense may have taken some months to complete, true to his earlier conversation with Acosta, but Danger Mouse completed The Grey Album in just a few days after working nonstop. “He came out of his room and he looked horrible,” laughs Acosta. “He was like, ‘Check it out and tell me what you think.’” Acosta, Burton, and his roommate sat down to listen to the album and in an instant they knew they had something special on their hands.
Pizzo’s camp, who hadn’t spoken to Danger Mouse since they sent the Black Album acapellas, was contacted as soon as The Grey Album was completed. The album went on sale on CD a short time later. “The night that we actually posted it on HipHopSite.com for sale, it sold out immediately,” says Pizzo. “The next day we got the cease and desist letter. We were like, ‘well, there’s no more anyway, soooo...’ Once MTV reported that EMI had sent a cease and desist letter out, it made the project so much bigger.”
The cease and desist letter didn’t come as a complete surprise to Danger Mouse. “I never once thought for a second it would get cleared,” he said in an interview with UCLA’s Hammer Museum. At the same time, he didn’t realize it would end up having the reach that it did. “All I thought when I did it was that it would be a cult underground thing that maybe some people would talk about later on,” he said. Furthermore, he was more concerned with making a quality project than worrying about copyright law. “I didn’t do it because of copyright laws,” he said. “I just wanted to see what would happen.”
Although Danger Mouse has said that he was more focused on the music than the legal aspects of the album, while talking to MTV a short time after The Grey Album’s release in 2004, he seemed to have a sense the project would open many people’s eyes to the power of a mashup or remix album. “It is an art form. It is music,” he said. “It doesn’t have to be just what some people call ‘stealing.’ It can be a lot more than that.”
Shortly after the cease and desist letters were sent, the website Downhill Battle organized a massive campaign of civil disobedience. Downhill Battle was an influential non-profit in the mid-to-late-2000s whose mission was to “support participatory culture and build a fairer music industry.” Refusing to accept EMI’s attempts to limit access to Danger Mouse’s album, they worked in collaboration with 170 other websites to host the album for free download for one day. The involved sites also changed their banner design to a grey background as a display of solidarity. February 24th, 2004 would be known as Grey Tuesday. The online event was a massive success and the start of Danger Mouse’s meteoric rise to fame.
While Grey Tuesday helped push the album’s popularity to its limit, Downhill Battle co-founder Holmes Wilson is quick to point out that The Grey Album was already a critical darling before his website got involved. “It had been written up in The New Yorker already, it was going to be on some peoples’ best of the year lists for sure,” he says. “This was part of why we did the protest. We were asking ourselves, ‘How the hell could an album that’s a critical hit and getting written up in The New Yorker, of all places, be getting sued out of existence, and chased off the internet?’ It just seemed so backwards and sad that the musician who made this should be sitting there in fear of getting sued.”
While Wilson is correct in acknowledging that The Grey Album would have made an impact without Grey Tuesday, the increased reach after the protest is undeniable. In a 2004 interview with Z-Trip, Wilson and Downhill Battle co-founder Nicholas Reville revealed that the album was downloaded 100,000 times on Grey Tuesday, which was a huge feat in the early days of digital music. In another post, Wilson and Reville shared some fascinating results from their file sharing analysis. Users had downloaded Danger Mouse more on Grey Tuesday than Kanye West and Norah Jones. Danger Mouse had gone from a producer with some minor buzz to a household name with over one million of his tracks downloaded in one day. He had outperformed two of the most bankable names in music (for one day, at least).
In addition to helping Danger Mouse reach levels of popularity that had seemed impossible without a major label or publicist behind him, The Grey Album and Grey Tuesday shined a very bright light on the murky sampling laws that prevent many independent musicians from making licensed remix and mashup albums. In an interview with MTV a short time after Grey Tuesday, Reville said, “Musicians that build a collage are treated like criminals. We need to find a way to change that to make sampling practical.” EMI was unmoved by this sentiment at the time and felt that Danger Mouse had avoided using the appropriate procedure for sampling their work. “There is a well-established market for licensing samples and remixes,” an EMI spokesperson said. “In this case, the DJ did not ask us permission and never attempted to use established channels.”
Indeed there were established channels for clearing samples in 2004, yet legal sampling can be complicated, expensive, and often cost-prohibitive. For a little-known artist like Danger Mouse to go through the proper channels and clear every sample on The Grey Album would have required a budget well beyond his scope, a fact EMI would have been aware of. To give some context, AMC’s Mad Men made headlines in 2012 for paying $250,000 to license a single Beatles song.
There may have been other factors that made Danger Mouse cautious about going through official channels with his album. There is a long and well-documented history of rock musicians and their record labels not having a favorable view towards sample-based music. As Turtles founder Mark Volman once said after settling out-of-court after a sample dispute with De La Soul, “Sampling is just a longer term for theft. Anybody who can honestly say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.”
The fierce debate over The Grey Album’s right to exist exposed another problem with sampling laws: labels sometimes ignored their artist’s opinions towards having their work sampled. Subsequent interviews with Paul McCartney revealed that The Beatles camp had little interest in raising a stink over The Grey Album. When asked about his feelings towards the project, McCartney told BBC Radio 1, “I didn’t mind when something like that happened with The Grey Album. But the record company minded. They put up a fuss. But it was like, ‘Take it easy guys, it’s a tribute.’”
Jay Z echoed a similar sentiment while speaking to Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. “I think it was a really strong album,” Jay said. “I champion any form of creativity, and that was a genius idea.” Roc-A-Fella backed up this sentiment and neglected to take any legal action action against Danger Mouse. While it is nice to see the appreciation both artists had for Danger Mouse’s effort, if all artists being sampled approve of a mashup or other work of sample-based music, shouldn’t the label consider their opinion before sending out a cease and desist?
Grey Tuesday and the resulting media attention helped Danger Mouse’s project reach the far corners of the internet, but he seemed to have mixed feelings about Downhill Battle’s efforts when reflecting on their protest a few years later. “I realized it was probably more about what they were doing than what I did,” he said. “It was just hoping that it had the right effect when it was done. I still didn’t know how I felt about the whole thing. But I figured I wasn’t going to say anything one way or another.”
When assessing the legal issues that surrounded The Grey Album, it is important to remember that there was an actual body of music behind all the juicy controversy. The album was very well-received by critics and fans for its innovative production and creative sample use. Pitchfork described the rework of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”—which utilized an unexpected sample source in “Julia”—as “Prefuse 73 meeting David Banner”. Respected hip-hop journalist Oliver Wang said, “he’s doing Timbaland-type work to program these tracks to perfection.” In particular, Wang was impressed by the utilization of “Helter Skelter” in the remix of “99 Problems,” as Danger Mouse flipped no less than four of the source material’s elements to craft his instrumental. The praise of various magazines and news outlets wasn’t mere passing fancy either. NME ranked The Grey Album as number 80 on it’s The Top 100 Greatest Albums of The Decade in 2009.
Beyond critical acclaim, Danger Mouse inspired a generation of producers to release what they could assemble with records, a turntable, a simple multi-track records program like Acid Pro, and their imaginations. Looking back on Danger Mouse’s path to fame, Pizzo sees his journey as an embodiment of the hopes and dreams of many young producers today. “To do The Gorillaz album immediately after The Grey Album, that’s what every budding SoundCloud producer wishes for,” he says. “That’s what everyone is hoping will happen, ‘I’ll remix this and then the artist will hear it and I’ll be officially remixing their stuff.’”
In a strange twist of fate, Demon Days, that Gorillaz album Danger Mouse produced, was released by Parlophone, whose parent company is EMI — the same company that tried to shut down The Grey Album and inadvertently made Danger Mouse a star.
“[The Automator] wasn’t busy, the [project just] needed a slightly different approach,” Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn told MTV in 2005. “Danger Mouse, in my opinion, is one of the best young producers in the world.”
“I had a very up-and-down year [in 2004], but it was definitely a big up when I got a chance to [work with Gorillaz],” Burton remarked in the same interview.
In just four years after The Grey Album was released, he went from making records in his bedroom to producing albums for Cee-Lo Green [together as Gnarls Barkley], MF Doom [as DangerDoom], and The Rapture, just to name a few. He further cemented his legacy by continuing to produce for artists like A$AP Rocky, Norah Jones, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others.
What does the future hold for this industry-changing album? While a legal, EMI-backed release seems unlikely, The Grey Album continues to spark creativity and conversation. Author Charles Fairchild penned a book about it for the popular 33 1/3 book series and successful audio engineer and DJ John Stewart remastered The Grey Album in 2012. But perhaps most importantly, as Holmes Wilson points out, after the album came out, “music got a lot less genre-bound, since you didn’t have major label people as a filter anymore. It was like, ‘we can make whatever kind of music we want,’ which I think became more of a thing as the Internet took over.”
And what about Danger Mouse’s career? After laying the blueprint of a best-case-scenario career path for aspiring producers, he seems content to play the role of behind-the-scenes conductor for the biggest names in the industry, keeping a low profile on social media and general aloofness about himself. This was proven when one thousand finished copies of The Grey Album vinyl appeared on his doorstep— its grey discs looking like marble with a new cover now featuring a beautiful cartoon illustration of Jay-Z and The Beatles. Because it took several weeks for the record pressing plant to be finished, the batch arrived well after his initial batch of CDs—well after the cease and desist letters and Grey Tuesday. The vinyl copies were then rendered useless, to be treated as illegal contraband. Instead of selling them, the paranoid, reclusive producer handed out the marble grey vinyl to his friends, hand-numbering each copy and keeping a log of who had each one to circumvent eBay hawking. This was simply to avoid further threats of litigation from EMI, yet it built up his legend even further.
The story of The Grey Album and Danger Mouse’s career in general is fitting for a man who praised The Beatles for veering “away from millions of screaming girls to do something more challenging and meaningful to them” when reflecting on their decision to give up touring for more focused studio work. Whether he becomes more of a public figure or remains clouded in studio mystique, it appears the best of Danger Mouse’s work has yet to come.
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Gino Sorcinelli is an academic support teacher and writer. He writes about DJing, rapping, samplers, synths, and vinyl on his Micro-Chop publication. You can connect with him through his Bookshelf Beats project or on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.