By Kester Alleyne-Morris
NEW YORK (Reuters) – When rap great Jay-Z released his retirement opus ‘The Black Album’ last year, a hip-hop remixer called Danger Mouse had an idea — why not meld the blackness of rap with the Beatles’ classic ‘White Album?’
The resulting ‘Grey Album — an unlikely mix of the often explicit lyrics of Jay-Z with samples of music from the Beatles’ 1968 classic — has become an underground hit among hip-hop aficionados.
But without permission from either the rapper or the Beatles, this is one album you can’t buy in local stores.
The album was produced by 26-year-old underground hip-hop disc jockey Brian Burton, aka Danger Mouse, who found modest fame last year as half of the hip-hop duo DM and Jemini.
‘‘It was an experiment. It was supposed to be an underground project, not playing in clubs,” Burton said in a telephone interview about the buzz surrounding his latest work.
Burton said the idea for ‘The Grey Album’ came to him in December after hearing Jay-Z’s latest release. The similarity in the two albums’ names sparked an impulse to do the remix but Burton said he also relished the challenge.
Over the course of two weeks filled with 12-hour days, he remixed Beatles favorites like ‘Helter Skelter,’ ‘Back in the U.S.S.R.’ and quirkier ditties like ‘Piggies,’ stripping out the vocals and creating samples and loops that often bore little resemblance to the original songs.
After topping his new Beatles-inspired sounds with lyrics from Jay-Z songs like ’99 Problems,’ Burton sent a few hundred copies of the hybrid to friends and music industry people. With only 3,000 copies of the album pressed, ‘The Grey Album’ quickly became an underground hit.
CEASE AND DESIST
Few copies were available in specialty record stores for disc jockeys, but the album quickly became a club favorite and garnered acclaim and popularity among users of Internet file-sharing programs.
Burton, as well as many of the music providers who were selling the album, have received ‘‘cease-and-desist” letters from EMI Group, the Beatles’ record to stop production.
‘‘The (album’s) already out there and there’s nothing I can do about it,” Burton said. ‘‘It’s just going to make it a lot more difficult for people to find it.”
For a while it traded on Web site eBay for between $10 and $34 a copy, but it has been pulled from the site.
Those who have been able to lay their hands on the album have been generally positive about its sound.
New Yorker Julius Thorne, 18, said he downloaded ‘The Grey Album’ out of curiosity and found it fun. ‘‘It’s sorta like ‘Charades,” he said, adding, ‘‘It’s not like you can really mess up Jay-Z anyway.”
Jermaine Daniel, 29, a regular of Los Angeles’s hip-hop clubs, says the new school/old school mix isn’t as jarring to young ears as might be expected. ‘‘You have to realize that a lot of the stuff nowadays is recycled beats from way back anyway,” Daniel said.
Indeed, ever since The Beastie Boys released their groundbreaking album ‘‘Paul’s Boutique” in 1989 — which mined samples from sources as diverse as Johnny Cash, Bob Marley and The Beatles — sampling classic hooks from yesteryear in hip-hop has been as ubiquitous as Bentleys in rap videos.
Jay-Z himself has dipped into the sampling pool repeatedly, legally borrowing beats and lyrics from his contemporaries like the late Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G.
‘‘I haven’t heard from Jay-Z but I think a lot of the people at (his record label) Roc-A-Fella like it.” said Burton.
Neither the rapper or Roc-A-Fella Records returned calls seeking comment.
For Burton, the project was a labor of love intended to pay homage to both Jay-Z and the Beatles.
Michael Donnelly, a New York-based Beatles fan who helped organize recent events to mark the 40th anniversary of the Fab Four’s first trip to America, thinks he may have succeeded.
‘‘I think ‘The Grey Album” is utterly fantastic and a real fresh way for the hip-hop generation to listen to the Beatles,” he said.
Donnelly singled out ’99 Problems’ and ‘December 4th’ for special acclaim. The two tracks are set against the Beatles’ ‘Helter-Skelter’ and ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ respectively.
‘‘’99 Problems’ exactly captures the energy of ‘Helter-Skelter,”’ said Donnelly, adding that the blend of ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ with ‘December 4th’ turns the song from what he describes as ‘‘corny” to ‘‘warm and nostalgic.”
Robert Thompson, a professor of pop culture at Syracuse University, said ‘The Grey Album’ comes at a time when the Beatles have re-emerged as ‘‘an avant garde band” for a new generation.
‘‘If you’re a 16-year-old listening to the Beatles, it makes you really on the edge of cool,” he said.
All this acclaim has Burton more than a little bemused.
‘‘This wasn’t supposed to happen,” Burton said. ‘‘I just sent out a few tracks (and) now online stores are selling it and people are downloading it all over the place.”