The following is an excerpt from Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album by Charles Fairchild, out September 25. The 98th volume in the 33 1/3 series, the book is available for pre-order on Amazon, Bloomsbury.com, and at your favorite independent retailer.
Introduction: The Grey Album in a Post-Album World
The proprietor may, if he chooses, allow his crops to rot under foot; sow his field with salt; milk his cows on the sand; change his vineyard into a desert, and use his vegetable-garden as a park: do these things constitute abuse, or not? In the matter of property, use and abuse are necessarily indistinguishable.
The Grey Album has received no shortage of praise since it was released. It has been lauded for its originality, its daring, even its revolutionary potential. We have been told it was a marker of a new era in music-making, building on the old to make the new. Sounds like a template for a “Great Album,” doesn’t it? Rolling Stone and Spin certainly thought so, the former rating it number 58 of the “Top 100 Albums of the 2000s,” the latter raising the ante ever so slightly by naming it number 113 of the “125 Best Albums of the Last 25 Years.” Spin’s equation was pretty much a Hall of Fame candidature slogan: “Best rapper ever + best rock band ever = best mash-up ever.” In fact, one of the more remarkable things about the reception of this album, beyond the aborted legal case against it and the online protests in support of it, was how easily The Grey Album was slotted into a position in the canon. If the mainstream wasn’t thought “ready” for mash-ups before The Grey Album, there was little doubt they were afterwards.
There has been a continual ebb and flow of commentary about The Grey Album over the last ten years. It still stands, like most “Classic Albums,” as a marker of a time in the history of music when so many things seemed possible. The immediate acceptance and recognition of The Grey Album as a valued cultural form suggests it wasn’t nearly as revolutionary in its shape and content so much as in its timing and circumstances. That is hardly a bad thing. It wouldn’t be the first time a “Great Album” was propelled upwards through a propitious turn of events. Not coincidentally, the most surprised-sounding party to all of the events of 2004 seemed to be Danger Mouse himself. What he called his ‘art project’ was supposed to be a limited edition of 3000, but as the thing spread far and wide, it got beyond his control. A passage from the ‘cease and desist’ letter from Cowan, Liebowitz & Latman, the lawyers for Capitol Records, reads:
Reuters has also quoted Mr. Burton as saying, “[t]his wasn’t supposed to happen . . . . I just sent out a few tracks (and) now online stores are selling it and people are downloading it all over the place.”
Capitol’s legal handservants weren’t about to let this slim rhetorical advantage go to waste. They told the recipients of their pallid little missive:
By further distributing The Grey Album, you will not only be violating the rights of those who own the recordings and compositions at issue. You will also be interfering with the intention of the very artist whose rights you purport to vindicate.
And that does put a fine point on it. Not even Danger Mouse wants you to be a pirate. But no one was really listening to Capitol very closely, except Danger Mouse. He faced an unenviable situation. Remove the item from circulation, or face prosecution. He readily complied. The problem for Capitol was that The Grey Album wasn’t, strictly speaking, “his” anymore.
The problem is, Danger Mouse was never going to be able to claim The Grey Album as his own. This is where the controversy over the album pointed out quite sharply the inevitable contradictions between the ownership rights, authorship rights and natural rights we claim to have over music. As Proudhon suggests , the right to property is not necessarily contingent on what you do with it. The music industry has learned to stockpile intellectual property in vast quantities for decades and do nothing with it, no re-issues, no special download packages, nothing, until they decide we want whatever it is they are hoarding. They will allow their crops to rot under foot and sow their fields with salt if the market says so, just to keep us property-less peasants from getting our grubby hands on their stuff without recompense. For better or worse, Proudhon’s most famous dictum, ‘property is theft,’ is not a widely accepted sentiment. In the music industry, property is not theft. But over the last ten years or so a lot of other uses of music have become theft, and in an increasing array of circumstances. Borrowing is theft. Appropriation is theft. Homage is theft. Allusion is theft. Derivation is theft. Quotation is theft. Even sharing is theft. Sharing. All of these forms of traditionally-recognized musical practice are illegal unless you pay the right people whatever they ask and they graciously grant you permission to make the art you want to make or play to the music you want to hear. Regardless of your perspective or ideology, the simple fact is this: it is the whims of property owners that determine when art is legal or not. Even authors don’t have the bucket full of rights that owners do. The rest of us, mere listeners that we are, don’t even rate. As far as our natural rights to music go, they don’t exist in any enforceable way. The music industry looks at us as a bunch of renters or squatters.
A fair number of clever people have gone on at length about the sometimes violent collisions of art and technology in recent years. They certainly don’t need my help to tell you what is important or interesting about the legal context into which The Grey Album entered. Instead, the main subject of this book is the music of The Grey Album. I want to look at what makes The Grey Album an important album specifically because its importance is not limited to the battles over its paternity. What did Danger Mouse actually do to The Beatles and Jay-Z? Despite all of the hullabaloo over it, not much of the talk has been about The Grey Album as an album or about The Grey Album as music.
The Grey Album is more than just a clever amalgam of two seemingly disparate collections of source materials. It is an important and compelling case study about what counts about the album as a cultural form in an era when the album appears to many to be obsolete. The Grey Album is, above everything else, a coherent whole governed by a logic of practice and progression of ideas that pervades every track; in other words, there it little question it is an album in the traditional sense. One could probably even mount a pretty good argument that it is an example of that most album-y of albums, the concept album. What I want to suggest is that The Grey Album shows us that what makes an album important is not merely the assembly of a collection of uncannily well-organized music. An important album changes how we think about the traditions of practice of which it is a part.
In these terms, The Grey Album is not all that easy to place. It is not hip hop although it is clearly derived from hip hop. Nor can this album be easily contained by the loose terms “mash-up” or “bastard pop.” The level of dismantling and reassembly stretches well beyond most mash-ups, most of which depend either on a one-off demonstration of a clever juxtaposition or on a rapid fire system of song referencing and that simply overwhelms the listener’s ability to keep up. On The Grey Album, Danger Mouse doesn’t move improvisationally from source to source like Madlib or flit promiscuously from joke to joke like Girl Talk. He engages in an extended, long-form meditation on his source materials and obsessive exploration of the compositional techniques and logic he used to create his ‘art project.’ The Grey Album is an important album because it had the potential to change how we thought about a whole range of music that is in some way related to it. Not only did The Grey Album change the way many viewed mash ups and bastard pop, it also transformed what the “White Album” and The Black Album might mean, especially in relation to each other.
Charles Fairchild is Associate Professor of Popular Music at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the author of Music, Radio and the Public Sphere (2012) and Pop Idols and Pirates (2008). He has published in such journals as Popular Music, Television and New Media, Media, Culture and Society and Popular Music and Society.