DJ Dangermouse's 2004 The Grey Album is a remix album founded on a simple premise: take the (then) recently released a cappella version of Jay-Z's swansong record, entitled The Black Album1, and provide a musical backdrop using samples taken only from the self-titled 1968 Beatles record, nicknamed The White Album.
The practice of sampling - using other recorded sounds (often portions of a previous song), adding new vocals and music and releasing the result as a new track - has its origins in early hip-hop. The process used by DJ Dangermouse, nicknamed 'mashing-up', is regarded by some as the logical conclusion to this method. In this case, you sample a large percentage of the instrumental track from one song, and combine it with a large portion of the vocal track from another song. Very little or no new music is created for use in the new track: this is a kind of musical magpie-ism.
While The Grey Album was far from the first effort at melding together two seemingly unrelated pieces of music, and arguably not even the best2, the project catapulted the concept of 'mash-ups', record company copyright and DJ Dangermouse himself into the mainstream media.
The tracks are named for Jay-Z's songs - the White Album samples are noted in brackets after each track name:
|1.||'Public Service Announcement'||('Long, Long, Long')|
|2.||'What More Can I Say'||('While My Guitar Gently Weeps')|
|3.||'Encore'||('Glass Onion, Savoy Truffle')|
|4.||'December 4th'||('Mother Nature's Son')|
|5.||'99 Problems'||('Helter Skelter', 'Wild Honey Pie')|
|6.||'Dirt Off Your Shoulder'||('Julia')|
|7.||'Moment of Clarity'||('Happiness is a Warm Gun')|
|10.||'Justify My Thug'||('Rocky Raccoon')|
|11.||'Lucifer'||('Revolution No. 9', 'I'm So Tired')|
|12.||'My 1st Song'||('Savoy Truffle', 'Can You Take Me Back')|
Critical and Legal Reaction
DJ Dangermouse wasn't the only person to have taken Jay-Z and mixed his vocals with music from other albums. Among others, there was the Double Black Album, using Jay Z with Metallica's own self-titled 'Black Album'; there was also the (possibly apocryphal) Slack Album, using Jay-Z with samples from Pavement's Slanted and Enchanted. So why did The Grey Album capture the public's attention?
There were probably three reasons. The first was the inspired play on words in the album title - which had undoubtedly been the impetus to make the album in the first place - and the intriguing concept of taking a well-known and respected rapper and fusing his vocals with arguably the greatest songwriting partnership in the world. The second was the care DJ Dangermouse showed in picking his samples. For instance, Jay-Z's childhood autobiography and ode to his mother 'December 4th' is scored with the Beatles' 'Mother Nature's Son', and the noise-fest of 'Revolution No. 9' is paired with a backwards tape of Jay-Z's 'Lucifer3'. Some critics hailed the album as something genuinely fresh and able to stand as its own work; others dismissed it as an unusually well-crafted novelty album, but a novelty album nonetheless.
But it was the legal reaction to the album that made the whole project newsworthy. Ignoring copyright - and no doubt aware of what releasing the album would entail - DJ Dangermouse made a limited release of the album without clearing the use of either Jay-Z's vocals or The Beatles' music. While Jay-Z's record company didn't take any action, lawyers from EMI, the Beatles' record company, clamped down soon afterwards. Efforts to save the album, including a 'Grey Day' protest on more than 150 websites, failed to sway EMI, and caused the album to go quickly underground. It is now only to be found on file-sharing networks in defiance of EMI's cease and desist order.
Jay-Z went on to record a six-track 'official' remix EP with Linkin Park, entitled Collision Course; this is generally felt to be inferior to The Grey Album. DJ Dangermouse continued to work as a DJ; his most recent work at the time of writing was on the Gorillaz' Demon Days. The surviving Beatles' reactions are not recorded.