Danger Mouse & Jemini The Gifted One at the Opera House (735 Queen East), Monday (May 31). $25.50. 416-870-8000.
Even though Brian Burton has been recording intriguing triphop soundscapes under the Pelican City alias while producing provocative left-field hiphop joints as Danger Mouse, no one seemed to take much notice until he created his Grey Album by grafting Jay-Z's rhymes from The Black Album onto tracks built from bits and pieces pulled from the Beatles' White Album. Yet however conceptually clever Burton's home-recording project was, he soon discovered that sampling the Beatles without proper clearance could have dire legal consequences. Evidently, the people at EMI who oversee the Beatles catalogue were not only displeased with Burton's creative reconstruction of the White Album, but they also didn't care much for being portrayed as the heavies in the ensuing publicity.
So now that Burton finally has a project that the press is clamouring to talk about, there's still one thing he can't discuss in interviews. Hilarious - but Burton isn't laughing.
"Because of the sensitivity of the situation with EMI, which hasn't been completely resolved," explains Burton from his L.A. home, "I'll have to say -no comment' to any questions concerning The Grey Album."
Fine, then, let's talk about mash-ups. From the time of its limited release, The Grey Album has been wrongly characterized as a mash-up, or, in British terminology, a "bootleg." But Burton didn't follow the conventional mash-up strategy of simply dropping a cappella versions of Jay-Z's rhymes onto existing Beatles songs. He meticulously synthesized each backing track - a snare sample from here, a kick drum from there - from all over The White Album.
"I've done mash-ups for years," says Burton. "Some of them can be cool if they really work, but that's rare. Doing them properly requires a good understanding of both styles of music. It was fun for a while, kinda like solving a puzzle. My best ones always happened in my head first, and they'd only take 20 to 30 minutes to finish.
"Eventually, I'd had enough and decided I wasn't going to do that stuff any more. That's why I did The Grey Album. But I don't consider it a mash-up at all."
True enough. Burton's inventive Beatles deconstruction is much closer in concept to John Oswald's Plunderphonics work than to, say, the novelty of setting a Missy Elliott rap to AC/DC's Back In Black. And The Grey Album goes much deeper still. There's something in the collision of The Black Album and The White Album that brings into play issues of race and culture in ways that previous hiphop/rock clashes haven't.
"It's very much about race and perceptions," says Burton. "Who I am and how I grew up is really what led me to this project. As a DJ in an indie-rock town like Athens, Georgia, where I was going to school, I'd always mix in some 80s pop and classic rock to reach the people I was trying to get to listen to hiphop. When people heard something familiar, it struck a chord.
"When I'd put mixes on tapes - like Nas with Portishead, or Audio Two with Air - I found that the converted quickly became the preachers. They couldn't wait to play the tapes for their friends to see their reactions and convert them, too. That's how a message spreads really fast.
"I could see the same thing happening with The Grey Album. As soon as someone heard it, they knew immediately all the other people they were going to play it for."
Sales of The Grey Album have long since been halted, but the music continues to circulate on the Internet and through CD-R copies. It hasn't done much for Burton's bank account, but it's raised his production rep significantly.
"I've been getting a lot of calls for studio work lately, but a lot of the projects don't really fit with what I want to do. Some of the stuff is, like, -What are you thinking?'
"Right now, Jemini and I are finishing up the follow-up to Ghetto Pop Life, and I'm producing MF Doom's new album. Actually, I just did a remix for Zero 7 involving MF Doom that was a challenge, but I'm really happy with the results. I don't want to speak on projects that haven't happened yet, but I can say The Grey Album has definitely changed my life."