From the Beatles’ ferocious, shaggy-haired harmonies all the way up to Britney’s burgeoning forays into bridal-themed lesbianism, musicians have a keen understanding that as long as they are what decent people shouldn’t be listening to, they will be heard and purchased.
For the longest time, the most outrageous musical activity was extracurricular. It’s only recently that the songs themselves seem to be causing brouhaha in the non-commercial sector, specifically the modern argument regarding the legality of music use and ownership.
New York producer/DJ Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album has become a figurehead in the public debate. The album is a remix of Jay-Z’s insta-classic, The Black Album, combined with beats, hooks and riffs from the Beatles’ eternal classic The Beatles, (That’s the one everyone calls the White Album).
Utilizing a limited-release, a cappella version of The Black Album, Danger Mouse recreates it using backing tracks developed from loops and samples lifted from the White Album. The resulting eleven tracks are a colossal, albeit inconsistent, collision of worldviews and musical heritages.
And it’s illegal. Shortly after the release of The Grey Album, Danger Mouse was served with a cease and desist order from EMI, the company that owns the sound recordings of the Beatles catalogue. The Fab Four’s musical legacy is one of the most protected in the industry, and such a blatant piracy of the material was bound to be stopped at some point.
But somehow, for an illegal, unsellable album with a pressing of only 3,000 copies, The Grey Album has garnered an incredible amount of mainstream coverage. There have always been bootlegs, and mash-ups have been around for years, (Remember that bizarre Aguilera vs. The Strokes song you downloaded when you could still use Audio Galaxy in your dorm?), but why is this album receiving so much attention?
It’s because The Grey Album represents an entirely new and unforeseen idea in the world of musical rebellion. It is rock deconstructualism brought to technologically-based fruition.
Years ago, punk rock destroyed the notions of what popular music was, by showing the world that artists didn’t need to know how to play their instruments to make art. Bands like the Ramones kept it simple and turned it up to 11. Building upon this idea, rap artists were able to rock crowds and express ideas without an instrument at all. All thst performers like Grandmaster Flash and KRS-One needed were a mic and a message.
Now, Danger Mouse has made it clear that you don’t even need an original recording to get people thinking. Created out of two separately existing albums, The Grey Album is infused with the moods and tones of its thematic donors, but is undeniably different and unique. The fact that it’s illegal certainly doesn’t detract from its appeal.
The idea of being in on something, and being able to stick it to the man is certainly a reason behind The Grey Album’s sudden fit of popularity. Most people aren’t paying attention to the fact that only six of the 11 songs are worth owning, and the world is far to politically correct to comment on how bizarre it is to hear Jay-Z holler the N-word over a loop of John Lennon’s tender yearning from “Julia.” But that is so beside the point.
The Grey Album is an actual act of guerrilla musicianship. Owning it, or perhaps just even hearing it, allows the listener to rage against the machine in a brand new way.
The Grey Album is an act of rock rebellion all its own. While mash-ups will forever suffer from low exposure and impossible distribution issues, The Grey Album is a compelling argument in favor of their existence.
Robert James Algeo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org