This tweet reminded me that I wrote about DJ Danger Mouse’s much-lauded mash-up album, Grey Album (combining Jay-Z’s Black Album with The Beatles’ White Album) back in 2004 for the SF Bay Guardian. As their archives are still slowly being brought back into function, here’s the original copy I filed with my editor back then (enhanced with links to some of the songs but of course, The Grey Album isn’t available through any legit channels because of copyright).
Shades of White
By Oliver Wang
In late 1968, jazz pianist Ramsey Lewis released Mother Nature’s Son, 10 cover songs based on The Beatles’ White Album, itself barely a month old. Bringing together forward-thinking blues producer Marshall Chess (the Chess Records’ scion) and Cadet Records’ in-house arranger-extraordinaire Charles Stepney, Lewis and Co. mined the hodge-podge of The White Album and created a surprisingly affective mix of delicately textured ballads (“Mother Nature’s Son”) and funk-tinged groovers (“Cry, Baby, Cry”).
At its best, Mother Nature’s Son wonderfully re-imagines The White Album in ways that both pay homage to the original source but allow Lewis, Chess and Stepney their own room to maneuver. For example, the album’s finest moment comes on “Julia,” as Stepney re-arranges Lennon’s plain, quiet ballad into a exquisite wave of sweeping sentiment punctuated by Lewis’ elegant tinklings. A familiarity with the Beatles’ version certainly doesn’t detract from Lewis’ cover but it’s not a prerequisite either. The mark of a good cover/remake is that it nods back to its progenitor but still stands on its own.
In this respect, Mother Nature’s Son shares an unlikely resonance with a mix-CD 36 years its junior: DJ Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. Danger Mouse works with a simple, brilliant premise: he remixes Jay-Z’s recent Black Album by using samples solely from The White Album. It’s a gimmick to be sure, but high concept gimmick as DM brings together Brooklyn’s finest with Liverpool’s Fab 4 like you’ve never heard before.
Some quick background: When Jay-Z released The Black Album, Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam made sure that an entire acapella version was also widely available. Nas and Columbia Records were the first to put this idea into play and by last fall, four different mix-CDs appeared, including 9th Wonder’s God’s Stepson and Soul Supreme’s Soulmatic, remixing Nas’ God’s Son and Stillmatic respectively. With The Black Album, at least five mix-CDs have already appeared – note that Jay-Z’s LP is barely two months old – including DM’s Grey Album, Kev Brown’s Brown Album, Kardinal Offishall and Solitair’s Black Jays Album and Prince’s Purple Album (that last one was a joke, but you never know).
Danger Mouse’s Grey Album sets itself apart far from the pack. This is no trucker-hat hipster mash-up that lazily jams a Jay-Z acapella over “Revolution 9.” The only time DM uses a truly obvious sample is lifting the familiar melody of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” for his remix of “What More Can I Say?” but most of The Grey Album disassembles The White Album into small sonic shreds and builds from there.
For example, for “Dirt Off My Shoulders,” Danger Mouse cuts up Lennon’s croons from “Julia” and stutters it into a beat that would make Timbaland proud. DM’s remix of “99 Problems” tears into “Helter Skelter” and lifts portions from at least three different points to craft a track that rivals Rick Rubin’s raucous original. One of the best remixes is “Justify My Thug,” a song that originally suffered from DJ Quik’s dull, plodding production. DM takes a guitar lick from “Rocky Raccoon” and then overlays a chopped-up stab from “Revolution 1” creating an incredible sounding remake that improves the appreciation for Jay-Z lyrics since you’re now more invested in actually listening to the song.
Danger Mouse also makes you hear the Beatles differently. My friend Hua Hsu and I agreed that when we listen to The White Album now, we subconsciously start checking for potential beats (i.e. why didn’t DM sample “Don’t Pass Me By”, that fool!) or get thrown off when the Beatles’ songs proceed differently from DM’s arrangements. In essence, The Grey Album doesn’t just transform the original songs from both artists into new forms but it also transforms how we listen to Jay-Z and the Beatles. Yet it bespeaks DM’s achievement that you could be wholly ignorant of both pop icons (unlikely as that might be) and still find his CD to be a revelation. Like Lewis’ Mother Nature’s Son, The Grey Album is original in its own right, a bastard son whose style needs no father. (Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, Jan or Feb 2004)