For some reason, a lot of people thought The Grey Album was the work of a rebel. The general tone of much of the response to it was that he was somehow attacking or mocking both Jay-Z and The Beatles while taking a few subversive shots at the music industry for good measure. This was especially true in academic circles where mash ups were thought by many who wrote about them to have grown up out of the very fertile ground of digital subversion, mockery, and abuse with little mention of anything else. But Danger Mouse never even hinted at such things. For him, this “art project” as he called it, was part technical exercise, part aesthetic challenge. He wanted to show people who knew a lot about sampling how good he was at it. He also wanted to show people how much he respected his source texts by spending so much time manipulating them.
The whole DJ rebel thing seems to stem from a lack of understanding as to where mash ups came from in the first place. There are least two and probably three main kinds of sources. (I’ll deal with the more historical aspects of the musical tradition that produced this album in another post.)
The first and most obvious is the development of sample-based music. Not music that relies on a few samples for a hook or a bit of color, or music that carefully places the odd bit of sound over original bass and drum lines. What I’m talking about is music made entirely from samples. Amongst the first influential examples of such music were ‘The Lessons’ by Double Dee and Stenski, aka Doug DiFranco and Steven Stein. The first lesson was produced for a competition sponsored by Tommy Boy records. As Stenski explains in a Q&A posted on YouTube, his collaborator DiFranco ‘was an expert studio engineer who…worked on radio commercials for record companies and he was an expert at making one record going into another seamlessly underneath someone talking.’ The rich lineage of so-called instrumental hip hop which has grown from such seminal works as DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing… and J Dilla’s Donuts, as well as those produced by The Avalanches, Madlib, and countless others, emerged from this seemingly simple formula. Any survey of the extensive paper trail left by albums of sample-based music produced by these artists demonstrates the transformation of the figure of the DJ from someone who once was often derided as someone who ‘played someone else’s music’ and acted as a mere accompanist to dancing, singing or rapping, to an artist who stood in their own right, uniquely able to infuse their chosen tools with the same soul, life, and feeling as any other artist.
The second source is a series of very self-aware song parodies produced by groups such as The Evolution Control Committee and Negativland. These sound artists engaged in what would later be called ‘culture jamming,’ a term coined by Negativland based on a term used by CB radio operators to refer to the radiophonic harassment of other users. The central ideal of culture jamming is a direct extension of the practices of collage artists such as the Dadaists, William Burroughs, and many others, who cut, ripped, and extracted words from their original contexts and recomposed them. The goal was transform our understanding of the most common of media materials that perpetually surround us. The chosen texts of The ECC and Negativland just happened to be taken form the sea of media sound in which we are all just little tiny fish.
The third stream is the work of experimental sound artists, especially the work of composer John Oswald. Oswald’s compositional method was to reduce the most widely-known sound recordings to what he called ‘plunderphones,’ or the smallest recognizable fragments of music he could create, and then apply his techniques of reassembly to them, which he appropriately called ‘plunderphonics.’
In each case, these artists subjected to most common of materials from our collective mass culture and subjected them to sometimes violent transformation. While some might be able to see this as some kind of rebellious gesture, that aspect of mash-ups has been far too overstated far too often. More important than the snark with which some of these pieces are couched is the fun house mirror reflection they hold up to ‘our music.’ Mash ups took this gesture and expanded upon it in a multitude of ways, from sarcastic to mocking to earnest and loving to downright funny. Maybe if we think about The Grey Album winding its way around these various spectra of emotion we can learn more about what Danger Mouse was trying to do, beyond simply sticking to the man. – Charles Fairchild