Charles Fairchild is a Senior Lecturer in Popular Music at the University of Sydney in Australia and here, with his entry into the 33 1/3 series he looks at The Grey Album by Danger Mouse, an exercise in collage and contrast, in the melding of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and “The White Album” by The Beatles to make something new; something other. But Fairchild does a good job in explaining the similarities – common themes and approaches – in the two albums as they sat distinctly, before being pulled together. The main focus of this trim book though is to access and understand the music – and the validity of it, the authenticity – within The Grey Album. He shows the end product as so much more than just the zippering together of seemingly incongruous sources.
Fairchild does this with an excellent potted history of where the music industry was at leading up to and around the time of the release of The Grey Album – this book celebrates the 10th Anniversary of this game-changer. Fairchild’s aim is to accept and explore the album as being something that sits outside of hip-hop, that uses some of the tools from hip-hop culture, passed down via dance and dub musics too, the book offers just a cursory glance to Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) as musician and producer outside and away from this project. Burton’s biography is in fact not of interest here, though Fairchild certainly acknowledges the “business card” that The Grey Album became for the Danger Mouse brand.
The crucial element – seemingly – is timing. That The Grey Album meant so much for when it happened, more so than how it happened, the epiphany being described away as little more than a simple exercise in cut’n’paste; a chance for the producer at the helm to show off some skills. But it arrived, by stealth, and then made the most noise – and attracted the most noise – at a time when there were dime-a-dozen remixes and mash-ups entering the mainstream, many because of Jay-Z’s faux-retirement announcement and his offering up of the a cappellas from his Black Album; his gift of braggadocio – essentially daring anyone and everyone to see what they could do.
Cue a cease and desist letter for The Grey Album – meant to be the breaking of the album but actually the making of it. Cue Danger Mouse slipping straight into the mainstream, cushy jobs now producing dud U2 albums around the occasional project of actual interest. Amazing to think that it all started with an album that – on paper – seemed so strange, so silly; that on paper possibly existed for the pun as much as anything, the blurring of colours – in a musical, cultural and racial sense.
The reality is a standalone masterpiece – something that Beatles fans and Jay-Z fans can admire and adore, something that introduced hip-hop to people previously sceptical or uninterested, something that re-charged The Beatles catalogue in a sense. Something that showed – very clearly – that two separate albums can be chopped up and twisted and turned into something entirely new, something that deserves to exist in its own space even when (and in fact because) it has taken from existing music. Danger Mouse showed – to an eventual mainstream – that a finite musical source can become infinite. Fairchild examines all of that and presents the findings with a hint of his academic tone but it’s passionate, engaging and exciting.