By Emma Silvers
By Gary Moskowitz
By Alee Karim
By Ian S. Port
By Ian S. Port
By Derek Opperman
By Emma Silvers
By Alee Karim
Danger Mouse, Danger Mouse, Danger Mouse! Apparently Donald Rumsfeld isn't the only rodent making headlines these days. If you are a sentient human you probably got at least a whiff of the story surrounding The Grey Album, the full-length mash-up of Jay-Z's The Black Album with the Beatles' "The White Album," illegally conjoined by producer/DJ Danger Mouse, aka Brian Burton. Since "Grey Tuesday" on Feb. 24 -- when Web sites across the country, in defiance of copyright holder EMI's cease and desist order, posted copies of the album for free downloading -- Burton has scored remix work for acts like Zero 7 and MF Doom, played a DJ set at Coachella (where none other than Tommy Lee gave him props backstage), and booked a spot on this summer's Lollapalooza tour. Meanwhile, copycat works like The Slack Album (Jay Z + Pavement), The Purple Album (Jay Z + Prince), and others have flown across the Net.
While it will undoubtedly go down as one of 2004's most buzzed-about music events, it's unclear what kind of lasting importance The Grey Album will have. (Is it a clarion call to would-be culture jammers or merely another sound bite in this short-attention-span theater we call pop culture?) But one thing I'm certain that the work accomplished is its eclipse of one of 2003's best hip hop LPs, Danger Mouse and Jemini the Gifted One's Ghetto Pop Life. Released last September on Lex, GPL is a fun, funny, and sophisticated collection of booming beats and clever rhymes. Using old-school hip hop party acts like the Pharcyde and De La Soul as touchstones (members of the former make a cameo on "Medieval"), it updates the formula with Burton's witty productions, which express his wily sense of humor, and Jemini's nimble rhymes, which find him flowing so many syllables into a measure of music you'd swear his sentences had their own air traffic controllers. Despite its brilliance, though, compared to The Grey Album, GPLreceived no attention whatsoever.
Thanks to Burton's recent dalliance in the spotlight, however, the tag team is finally hitting the road in support of its masterpiece; tonight marks Burton's first-ever visit to San Francisco. And while you shouldn't expect to hear any of The Grey Album at the duo's performance at the Independent -- Burton won't even whisper its name in a recent interview for fear of pushing EMI's already hot buttons -- you should, as Jemini puts it, "Come prepared to throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care."
"To me, it's good and it's bad," says Jemini from his apartment in New York City when asked about the public's renewed interest in what is somewhat of a comeback album for him. A veteran rapper out of Brooklyn, Jemini had some early successes, most notably his 1995 debut on Mercury, Scars and Pain, but has toiled in the underground ever since. "As long as they hear [GPL]," he continues, "that's the most important thing. But I think that all of the hoopla around The Grey Album, which is an incredible concept album, is kind of overshadowing the greatness of the Ghetto Pop Lifealbum. People are so transfixed on The Grey Album that they look at Ghetto Pop Life as a footnote, and I think actually it should be the other way around."
He's right, which is doubly impressive when you consider that GPLmarks Burton's debut as a full-length producer. The 26-year-old former graphic designer didn't start out as a musician. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta and New York, he was "obsessed with music, but never really tried to do much with it." When he eventually came around to making beats, his first demos were a mix of abstract, experimental flavors and quirky hip hop mash-mixes.
"Most of the stuff I had done before was instrumental," he says, speaking by phone from his home in L.A. "I guess they call it downtempo or whatever, soundtrack-sounding kind of stuff. ... I never worked with MCs very much."
In the early '00s, when Burton was living in London, he used his DJ connections to get a few tapes to Tom Brown, who runs London-based Lex. The imprint is the hip hop arm of the notoriously cerebral electronica label Warp. The fact that Lex -- which has put out releases by Anticon side-project Hymie's Basement, Boom Bip, and Bay Area crew Disflex6 -- was interested in Burton's work is a testament to its not-so-pop quality.
"I normally wouldn't meet up with somebody to listen to their demo, because it can be quite excruciating," remembers Brown, adding that Burton was the rare exception. He asked the producer to bring some tapes to the label; half the material turned out to be "weird soundscapy things," the other half rough-around-the-edges beats. "At the time, Danger Mouse wasn't getting a lot of respect for his style of sampling," Brown continues. "People thought it was slightly old-school and a bit wonky."
Burton's original plan was to put out a mostly instrumental album with only one track that featured an MC. Jemini was one of the first he considered. Says Brown, "[Burton] came in and said, 'Check out this Jemini stuff; he's my favorite MC that never quite made it.'" A few days later, Brown put Burton on a plane to New York. According to Jemini, the first thing the MC did was school his new producer on the hip hop basics.