Why Was "The Grey Album" Such a Big Deal 20 Years Ago?

Why Was "The Grey Album" Such a Big Deal 20 Years Ago?
Justin Hampton's promo artwork for The Grey Album

The headline "Underground Rap Producer Remixes The Beatles" might get 40 retweets in 2024. Why would we be interested in hearing a guy whose only claim to fame was a Jemini album chop up samples of the canonical greatest band of all time? We have AI for that! But 20 years ago it was a daring, bold proposition, especially when combined with some acappellas from Jay-Z's recently-released "final" album.

I don't know the exact date that Danger Mouse ILLEGALLY released The Grey Album—a mashup of The Fab Four's White Album and Jay's Black Album—but it was 20 years ago this week that it began attracting attention from outlets as prestigious as The New Yorker. A cease-and-desist from Beatles copyright holder EMI soon followed, and in response, a frenzied free-download extravaganza by multiple blogs on February 24th, dubbed "Grey Tuesday." The album, as innocuous as it seems now, was a hot-button issue.

The idea of the mashup existed long before this, most notably in the mid-'90s via alternative channels that dubbed the style "bastard pop." That feels like an almost entirely separate history. The Grey Album was unequivocally the start of a more mainstream cut-and-paste culture that would peak a few years later with Girl Talk and spawn diminishing returns once fratty acts like The Hood Internet and Super Mash Bros began to mimic Greg Gillis (Girl Talk)'s contrast-dependent, short-attention-span style.

Burton was more old school, usually limiting his compositions to one track apiece by the artists he blended. Using The Black Album was no big deal, as Jay had for some reason opted to release the acappellas, which led to later mashups with Weezer (The Black & Blue Album) and Radiohead (Jaydiohead), as well as "legitimate" hip hop tracks that used his sampled vocals as a hook (Cassidy's "I'm A Hustla" and T.I.'s "Bring 'Em Out" chief among them). But The Beatles were a white whale. After a frenzy of '90s litigation against songs that sampled far less prominent '60s and '70s acts in far less obvious ways, The Grey Album was asking for trouble.

In the end, Burton got off with no more than multiple slaps on the wrist—after all, he exclusively released the album as a free download (digital and physical bootlegs would follow, but none authorized by Burton). Rather than turning Burton into a pariah, it made him a hotshot producer who Rolling Stone wrote about with near-Rubinesque hushed tones. He's perhaps most famous as one-half of Gnarls Barkley alongside Cee-Lo Green, but he also did a collaborative album with MF DOOM, formed Broken Bells with The Shins' James Mercer, and in more recent years, has staked his claim as a legit producer on albums by Gorillaz, The Black Keys, Beck, U2, ASAP Rocky, Parquet Courts, and MGMT. The Grey Album looks more like a footnote in the rearview, despite how crucial it was in Burton's rise to prominence.

Does it hold up? is an interesting question. The Grey Album was a critical success in its time—it edged out Madvillainy for the #10 spot on the 2004 Pazz & Jop poll, hit #1 on Entertainment Weekly's year-end list, and got a respectable 7.7 from Pitchfork's Rollie Pemberton. But can it be divorced from the political importance it carried as an avatar in mid-2000s debates about intellectual property, copyright, and fair use?

It's clearly the work of a more talented producer than whoever made the aforementioned Weezer and Radiohead mashup albums. On my favorite Grey Album tracks, Danger Mouse goes beyond the standard mashup practice of looping a wordless 4-bar section of Song A underneath the acappella from Song B, then perhaps swapping it out for another part of Song A on the hook. He flips "Long, Long, Long" and "Julia" into glitchy folktronica, adding deft, knocking beats underneath both. "Dear Prudence" is nearly unrecognizable as the pompous backing of "Allure." Although "Mother Nature's Son" is kept a bit more intact underneath "December 4th," the off-kilter programmed drums are perfectly attuned to the song's strum pattern, and having them cut out during Jay-Z's Mother's spoken interludes is a great touch.

It's when the Beatles samples are more obvious and easier to pick out that I start to question why I'm listening to this. "What More Can I Say / While My Guitar Gently Weeps" gets by on a very cool added breakbeat, but the sampling is just as lazy as the kind I described in the last paragraph. "Justify My Thug / Rocky Raccoon" is an all-out mess—whereas the way Burton mirrored the "Mother Nature's Son" guitar with his drums worked absurdly well, that strategy backfires into a jerky, bumpy ride on this one. I probably prefer this "99 Problems" to the leather-jacket-badass, Rubin-produced original, but deploying "Helter Skelter," far and away The Beatles' heaviest song, feels like low-hanging fruit.

My biggest hangup, I think, is that I've never liked The Black Album that much. Its highs—"Public Service Announcement," "Dirt Off Your Shoulder," "Encore," "December 4th"—are some of Jay's best, but there's some real filler in there, and the back half in particular is rough. Jay assembled a murderer's row of producers for his fake-retirement album, including Just Blaze, Kanye, Timbaland, The Neptunes, 9th Wonder, and DJ Quik, but little of it feels like any of their best work. Maybe I would like Rubber Doubt or Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Life & Times of S. Carter better.

In my early teens though, The Grey Album was a game-changer. My friend's older brother burned four or five of its songs onto a CD that also had Outkast's "B.O.B." and A Tribe Called Quest's "Scenario" on it, and that's the moment I truly became a hip hop fan. It also introduced me to mashups, which became a larger part of my life than I'd like to admit. I got super into Girl Talk and started making my own, even bullshitting my way through my "senior project" (basically a baby thesis for graduating high school students) by playing one of my mashups for a panel of bemused boomers and explaining why I thought it was "the future of music."

Utopian arguments like that dominated the conversation around mashups and sampling in the 2000s to a degree that would feel comical if it happened again today. Major labels still had their thumbs up their asses trying to make money in the post-Napster, pre-streaming world, and this felt like one more way to waggle your fingers at them and go, nyah nyah nyah you can't stop me. We all know who got the last laugh there, but it was fun while it lasted.

It's hard to imagine a modern pirate/bootleg/remix-mentality art project garnering as much attention as The Grey Album did in 2004, except maybe the first all-AI album (but in a bad way). If that disruptive reputation, and Danger Mouse's ensuing exploits, are the mashup album's legacy, and its music is more of a briefly entertaining blip, I think the album is still worth remembering.

BOI (Best Of Inbox) #17

Cassie Kinoshi's seed. - "ii"

Genre: grandiose jazz // RIYL: Nubya Garcia, Kamasi Washington

I can't say I'm anything close to a jazz aficionado, so take this with a grain of salt, but I've probably spent more time listening to the great LA saxophonist Kamasi Washington's 2017 EP Harmony of Difference than any other half-hour of music in the past decade. I get similar vibes from the two tracks that British saxophonist Cassie Kinoshi has released from her upcoming album with her ensemble, seed.: sweeping and cinematic with orchestral flourishes, consistently varied but always moving forward. "ii" was, logically, shared alongside "i," and to get the full picture you should absolutely listen to both in succession. gratitude is out 3/22.

Mount Kimbie - "Fishbrain"

Genre: gnarled electro-pop // RIYL: King Krule, driving desert highways

I can't get enough of this new Mount Kimbie sound! "Fishbrain" is the second single they've released since announcing that they'd expanded from a duo into a quartet last fall, and it's every bit as great as "Dumb Guitar," which I featured back in November. It's easy to see why MK's tight with King Krule, as they mine similarly queasy, off-kilter territory (I personally like their take on this sound more than Krule's though). On April 5th, Mount Kimbie will release The Sunset Violent, their first album under this new iteration, and I couldn't be more excited.

mui zyu - "Everything To Die For"

Genre: doomy indie ballad // RIYL: depressing montages in teen dramas

mui zyu is a restlessly creative Hong Kong British artist whose most recent release was a remixed version of her previous album that twisted her left-of-center bedroom pop into weirder and weirder shapes. But on the moody new single "Everything To Die For," she casts herself in much sharper relief. It's a cinematic bummer of a ballad.

Punchlove - "Guilt"

Genre: slackgaze // RIYL: big, shimmery guitar tones

Getting their start as a two-piece collaboration between vocalists/multi-instrumentalists Jillian Olesen and Ethan Williams during the first year of the pandemic, Brooklyn's Punchlove have now expanded into a five-person lineup that even includes a visual artist. "Guilt," taken from their upcoming debut album, is an immersive listen, beginning as a sullen slacker anthem before lunging headfirst into a whammy-bar-laden tapestry of gargantuan overlapping guitars. Channels is out 3/1.


Genre: industrial // RIYL: Nine Inch Nails, Ministry, Uniform

This song's press release had "Kim Gordon meets NIN" in the subject line, and especially with Ms. Gordon's recent, rage-rap-adjacent single fresh in my mind, I was expecting a lot from "Broke." Upon first listen, PUREST FORM's new single hews far closer to NIN (specifically the 1992 banger "Wish"), but that's no problem at all. This LA trio let the aggression out in ways most heavy bands could only dream of. Their self-titled debut EP is out 3/7.

So Totally - "Distinct Star"

Genre: good old fashioned shoegaze, baby // RIYL: My Bloody Valentine, LSD and the Search for God

If there's one thing missing from the ongoing wave of hi-def, 4K shoegaze, it's that gauzey skuzz that defined so much of the genre's earlier material. Well, Philly's So Totally have that, which is refreshing! "Distinct Star" is the lead single from their album Double Your Relaxation, out 5/10 on Tiny Engines.

Sonny Falls - "Going Nowhere"

Genre: garage power pop // RIYL: Ty Segall, Dinosaur Jr.

Sonny Falls is the one-man project of Chicago's Ryan "Hoagie Wesley" Ensley (great nickname). On the cover of his upcoming self-titled album, he's pictured reading Stephen King's It in the bathtub with a pint of beer next to him. "Going Nowhere" is a big, fuzzy anthem whose title belies its uplifting road trip vibe. Sonny Falls is out 3/1.

Track of the Week

Meklit - "Antidote"

Genre: Ethio-jazz // RIYL: I'm woefully ill-equipped to provide Ethio-jazz recommendations

This is such a great example of why I love doing this newsletter. Meklit is an Ethiopian-born, San Fransisco-based vocalist who I've never encountered before, who plays a style of music I'm not familiar with, and who also has my favorite song of the week. "Antidote" is the sort of uplifting lyrical fare that I rarely find myself drawn to, but it's so stately and graceful in its execution that I find it a very heartening listen. The Ethio Blue EP is out 3/8.

All Inbox Infinity picks are available in playlist form via Apple Music and Spotify.

Subscribe to Inbox ∞ Infinity

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson