Rap-Beatles mix draws ugly response

Industry reaction to creative idea is heavy-handed

Pop Music

April 04, 2004|By Eric R. Danton | Eric R. Danton,Hartford Courant

DJ Danger Mouse was wrong, from a legal perspective, to remix vocals from Jay-Z's The Black Album with samples culled from The Beatles, also known as The White Album.

That doesn't change the fact that the resulting Grey Album is the best idea to hit rap music in a long time.

Danger Mouse (also known as Brian Burton) says that every note and beat of the 12 remixed tunes comes from The White Album, and he did an amazing job matching up Jay-Z's rhymes with the Beatles' songs. It's a wonder that no one else has used samples of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Helter Skelter" -- they're perfect foundations for the flow and cadence of rap lyrics.

Anything that shows the slightest hint of outsider ingenuity is alarming to the reactionary music industry, of course, which makes it no surprise that EMI served the DJ with a cease-and-desist order for not having permission to use the Beatles' music.

EMI, which controls the Beatles' catalog, is certainly within its rights to demand a court order, just as the Recording Industry Association of America is on solid legal ground when it sues people who download music.

Neither action is particularly intelligent from the standpoint of goodwill, which is something the major labels can't afford to squander these days.

Danger Mouse didn't intend to profit from The Grey Album -- it was an artistic experiment, he says in a statement issued by his publicist. He made a few thousand promotional copies that he sent out for free. The project has since proliferated on the Internet, which is what drew the ire of EMI.

"I did this project because I love the Beatles and Jay-Z," Danger Mouse says. "I knew when I produced the Grey Album that there might be questions and issues that this project would bring up, but I really don't know the answers to many of them. It was not meant to be anything but an artistic expression, and I still hope that that is the way it's perceived."

That depends on whom you ask.

Downhill Battle, a music activism group, sees it that way. The group calls the cease-and-desist order "one of the most clear-cut examples of what's wrong with current sampling rules." The group organized Grey Tuesday Feb. 24, on which 170 Web sites made full copies of the album available for free download.

It's anyone's guess whether The Grey Album will ever see official release as a remix, but there's little doubt that such an inventive project deserves better than to be lurking on the Internet when it has broader reach.

The Hartford Courant is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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