Danger Mouse, “Problems”
It’s hard to say whether or not The Grey Album, a digital melding of Jay-Z’s The Black Album and the Beatles’ The White Album, would have garnered such high regard were it not for the lawsuit filed by the Beatles’ long-time guardian, EMI. But one thing is certain: Danger Mouse’s deft alchemy behind the soundboard pushed so-called mashups squarely into the mainstream. His “99 Problems,” which conflates Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” with the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter,” became an underground hit and set the standard for future mashups.
That’s not to say Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton) created the genre. It’s unclear exactly when mashups first appeared; Wikipedia’s entry on the topic runs more than 6,600 words-about the same weight the site gives to its discussion on DNA. Initially, mashups layered the vocal track of one song onto the instrumentation of another. Thanks to the increasing sophistication of computer programs, any aspiring producer can now search vast musical archives and match songs of every genre that have wonderfully complementary chord structures, rhythms and tempo. Today, thousands of mashups trade hands in file-sharing peer-to-peer groups. Some unlikely pairings: Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” with Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” Blondie’s “Rapture” behind the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm,” and the Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain” with Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder.”
But none have made an impact like The Grey Album. In late 2003, shortly after Burton sent a few copies of his effort to a handful of friends, the record began making the rounds online via file-sharing sites. A few months later, Ben Greenman wrote a favorable review in The New Yorker. Soon The Grey Album began appearing in record retail outlets around the country, forcing EMI to take legal action to stop its distribution. But it was too late. Danger Mouse’s cat was already out of the bag.