Black and White Makes Grey

“When you hear a riff similar to your own, your first feeling is ‘rip-off.’ After you’ve got over it you think, ‘Look at that, someone’s noticed that riff’… Imitation is the highest form of flattery!”
– Paul McCartney

Chances are this is old news to a lot of people, but I just heard about it yesterday so I’m betting there must be some people out there as oblivious as me. In 2004 a man by the name of Brian Burton, or more commonly known as DJ Danger Mouse, released an album called the Grey Album. There are a few remarkable things about this album I would like to outline in this post.

Content

The Grey Album is a mashup between an a capella version of Jay-Z’s iconic Black Album and the Beatles’ timeless White Album. The Grey Album is more than just a slovenly thrown together mash up of the two albums, it is a complete breakdown and reconstruction of the music that creates something completely unique and different. Doing something like this is not easy, it takes enormous amounts of vision, skill, and talent. When listening there are parts where it is hard to believe that what Danger Mouse is creating came from only the two albums and no other outside sources or samples.

Context

Danger Mouse has done something in 2004 that I believe is still far beyond our times even today. What is essentially being proven through this album is that recreating is in fact creating something new (hence black and white makes grey). And even further by that notion, that computers can be used as a tool to create music. Another way to put it would be that computers are valid and useful musical instruments that through mash-ups can most definitely be used to “promote the progress of useful arts.” Though the a capella version of Jay Z’s Black Album was released with the intention for it to be remixed, Danger Mouse did not have permission to use the work from the White Album. Within the context of copyright law this album was illegal and due to its popularity and hype, EMI ordered its distribution to be terminated. This album is ahead of its time both technically and in context with the legal boundaries it crossed. What I mean by that is that in the very near future, it is my belief that those legal boundaries will not exist. After all, the album did “promote the progress of useful arts”.

Concomitants

The album left a legacy.  It influenced some controversy with the law through an event not directly affiliated with Danger Mouse that was known as “Grey Tuesday”. On February 24th 2004 an activist group by the name of “Downhill Battle” organized an online protest. This was a protest against EMI’s attempts at halting the distribution of the album, as well as a general act against the structure of the music industry. Several free copies were released on over 170 websites to promote the idea that artists should be free to sample. Over 100,000 copies of the Grey Album were downloaded that day alone. Even more pertinent to creativity, the Grey Album inspired musicians all over the world to create several new mashups of Jay-Z’s music with artists including Radiohead, Metallica, Weezer, Wu-Tang Clan and others alike.

Whether or not record companies agree with sampling and remix, it is a large part of the future of music and it is important for music intermediaries to understand this. Changes in the law are most likely right around the corner and this means a world of both difference and opportunity in management, publishing, promoting and especially lawyering.

Phillip Richard

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