The Mouse That Roared
If you were compiling a list of the most unlikely statementsever uttered by a hip-hop producer, you could start with this one fromBrian “Danger Mouse” Burton: “When I realized I was so similar to WoodyAllen-this old Jewish man-it bugged me out!” Burton, 26, is standing ona path overgrown with brush outside his East L.A. house, reciting thequalities he most admires about the Annie Hall auteur. “The linebetween seriousness and comedy, the people he works with, beingprolific. People may not like everything he does, but they check for itevery time.”
Messing with boundaries and pumping out a steadyflow of projects fits Burton fine, just like the furry gray mouse suithe dons for public appearances. Raving about indie-rock bands likeGrandaddy and Sparklehorse, claiming that both the film Amadeusand the Britney Spears song “Toxic” have blown his mind, Burton iseclectic, to say the least. Last year, for instance, he painstakinglypieced together Jay-Z’s The Black Album with the Beatles’ self-titled1968 classic known as the “White Album,” creating theattention-grabbing downloaders’ dream, The Grey Album. The concept wasbrilliantly controversial, and pure Burton-a walking copyrightviolation (even his stage name is unauthorized!) whose mild-mannered,music-geek persona has its own B-side: a compulsion to flout conventionat every turn.
Climbing into the backseat of his publicist’s SUV, Burtonbuckles up and says, joking, “Let me strap myself in here so I don’tswing on you if you ask me some crazy shit.” We’re off to a pet storebecause Burton has grown attached to the two mice (christened Betty andVeronica) that Spin provided for his photo shoot. Now, he can’t rest until he provides his tiny brethren with a proper home.
Even in transit, Burton is scrawling appointments in hisever-present day planner while answering the Led Zeppelin “Black Dog”ring tone on his cell phone. Until this year, he was an obscureproducer who had practically abandoned his kitchen to platoons of ants.But with The Grey Album’s notoriety, he’s taking meetings withmajor labels and secretively sifting through a list of potentialrecording offers (“I don’t want to name-drop,” he says). Burton wasn’tthe only DJ/producer to accept Jay-Z’s open challenge to “remix thehell out of” his final record: DJ Lt. Dan, 9th Wonder, Bazooka Joe, Knoof the CunninLynguists, and jazz producer Kev Brown all worked upversions. But The Grey Albumwas easily the most ambitious, earning the praise of Roc-A-Fella CEODamon Dash, producer/rapper Kanye West, and the Neptunes’ Chad Hugo.Not all of the attention was positive-Burton’s use of the hallowedBeatles (always reluctant to license samples) caught the attention ofpeople who rarely listen to hip-hop. And some of those new listenershad the power to make Burton pay for his legal indiscretions.
Just this afternoon, in fact, he learned that he’s thetarget of a possible lawsuit by EMI-which owns the copyright to theBeatles sound recordings (Michael Jackson and Sony/ATV own most of thepublishing rights). But, in a way, Burton has been preparing for thisdilemma for years: The liner notes of his first mix CD in the late ’90sincluded a note saying that he acknowledged the consequences ofappropriating music without permission. “I knew The Grey Albumwas illegal when I was doing it,” he says, “but I didn’t want that tostop me from trying it as an art project. I just never thought it wouldget to this point.”
Burton was cleaning his bedroom, listening to the “White Album,” holding a Jay-Z CD in his hand, when The Grey Album’seureka moment happened. Immediately, he began a two-and-a-half-weekodyssey of ten-hour workdays (with a photo of Woody Allen on the walland a snapshot of actress Monica Bellucci on his computer desktop forinspiration). He disassembled every speck of sound on the “WhiteAlbum,” then constructed new tracks that complemented Jay-Z’s vocals(see below). He pressed 3,000 personal copies, marked for promotionaluse only, then watched as the CD became a prized collector’s item andthe press took notice. Two and a half weeks later, a letter from EMIarrived. “So this is what a cease-and-desist looks like” was Burton’sfirst thought. EMI spokeswoman Jeanne Meyer says her company supportssampling when artists go through the proper channels, but “[Burton]never approached us. He never asked permission, not once.”
By this point, thousands of discs had been sold online,bootlegged, or just given away. A music-activist organization calledDownhill Battle latched onto the Danger Mouse cause, naming February 24″Grey Tuesday,” a day of Internet protest. More than 400 sitesparticipated, many offering free copies of The Grey Album tooppose “the way major labels have turned copyright law into a weaponagainst musicians and fans,” says Downhill cofounder Nicholas Reville.In a 24-hour blitz, users downloaded more than a million individual Grey Album songs.
The Mouse didn’t always live so dangerously. He spent hisfirst 13 years in the Rockland County suburbs north of New York City,grooving to pop and hair metal alongside his mostly white peers. “I’m apretty light-skinned guy, and that’s always affected the way I’mperceived,” Burton says. “My parents never told me what a person ofthis race is supposed to do. I just did whatever.” He learned somesaxophone to play the theme to Pee-wee’s Playhouse and drewcomics. His musical tastes evolved under his older sister’s tutelage,and when his family moved to Atlanta, he became infatuated withhip-hop. “N.W.A and Public Enemy-I loved anything with a lot ofprofanity in it,” he says, chuckling.
For college, he relocated to nearby Athens, Georgia (thetown that’s home to R.E.M., the Elephant 6 rock collective, and about800,000 fledgling indie-rock bands), taking a job as the hip-hop buyerat a local record shop, Wuxtry. A coworker, John Fernandes of Elephant6 band the Olivia Tremor Control, passed along psychedelic rock tips,and Burton sponged up other Elephant 6 influences, including afascination with analog equipment and brainy musical puzzles. “He’s nota slacker,” says Fernandes. “Even after he moved, he’d email the storewith his picks of what we should order.”
In Athens, Burton completed his first original project, The Chilling Effect,a moody, trip-hoppy soundtrack to an as-yet-unrealized film he’denvisioned. To raise money to press and package the disc, he startedDJ’ing, specializing in live turntable mash-ups of seemingly unrelatedrecords. “I have some friends who are into hip-hop and don’t listen toanything else, and friends who just listen to rock and don’t have aclue about hip-hop,” says Burton. “So I figured I could change some oftheir minds about each other.” He also concocted a series of mix CDsunder the Danger Mouse moniker, first tinkering with the Beatles bypairing the bass line from “Come Together” with Wu-Tang Clan’s”C.R.E.A.M.” and overhauling “A Day in the Life.” Eerily, he evenreleased a CD mix that came to be known as the “White Album” because ofits mock-Beatles, all-white artwork (the cover read merely: Danger Mouse).
Burton eventually decided that he needed a change of scenery,so he sold his most beloved possessions-more than 50 Jimi Hendrixrecords-and decamped to London, crashing in a youth hostel. He landed apub job and picked up some soundtrack work for the Cartoon Network,generating enough cash to record and release a 12-inch of mash-ups. Buthe longed to produce a proper hip-hop record; eventually, he chaseddown Jemini, a quick-tongued Harlem MC who was known as “Jemini theGifted One” when he recorded for PolyGram in the mid-’90s. Last year,the duo cooked up Ghetto Pop Life, a swinging collection ofquirky samples and gritty rhymes that featured such MCs as Tha Liks andPrince Poetry of Organized Konfusion. They’re now at work on theirsecond full-length, Kill Your Heroes.
A booming-voiced Brooklyn native, Jemini has been around theindustry block enough times to know every crack in the sidewalk. “Icall Brian the Andy Kaufman of hip-hop,” Jemini says. “He’s yourclassic eccentric, neurotic producer. Before we go on, you can catchhim twisting his hair in knots. I have to slap his hand, like, ‘Cutthat shit out!'”
While unpacking pet supplies on his orange living-roomcarpet, and waiting for calls from his lawyer, Burton still gets giddytalking about the Fab Four. “They had pop music in the palm of theirhands, and what they chose to do with it was so admirable,” he says. “Ithink hip-hop is the new pop, and people need to step up and try somethings like that.”
With the mice settled into their new glass habitat, we move to Burton’s upstairs bedroom, the birthplace of The Grey Album.He motions toward his turntable, then pauses. “For weeks, I haven’tlistened to the ‘White Album,'” he says. “It was like being friendswith somebody for a long time, then sleeping with them. It’s like,you’re still cool, but it’s different.”
It’s tempting to presume that The Grey Album wasBurton’s gimmicky effort to attract the kind of hype that leads to bigrecording contracts and a fleet of Hummers. But if there’s a payday inhis future, he seems more likely to spend it on upgrading his studio orbuying back those beloved Hendrix records.
“I do things and don’t really think about what’s going tohappen afterwards,” he says. “If they feel right, I’ll do ‘em-same withthe mouse suit, same with the record.” Then he catches himself, afraidof seeming too pretentious. “Not to get all deep about it.”
Grey MatterDanger Mouse explains how Jay-Z metthe Beatles on his illicit masterpiece
“What More Can I Say?””While My Guitar Gently Weeps”“This is one of my favorites because I liked the original [Beatlestrack] so much-all the pianos. The drums are real heavy kicks, but Ihad to reverb them. I didn’t want it to sound like I threw drums on theBeatles, I wanted it to sound like [the Beatles] were playing themunderneath.”
“Encore””Glass Onion” and “Savoy Truffle”“I remember hearing that ‘Savoy Truffle’ break years ago, and I was like, ‘Oh, shit! That’s the Beatles? That shit is ill!'”
“December 4th””Mother Nature’s Son” and “Glass Onion”“I saved [the ‘Mother Nature’s Son’ sample] for Jay-Z’s mom’s song.It’s so obvious-a Beatles fan will get it if they put two and twotogether. I like to do a little extra for people who pay attention.”
“99 Problems””Helter Skelter”“Ninety-nine problemsis what it gave me. I kept trying to make the drums dictate the rhythm,and it wasn’t working. The bass line is what makes it roll. I love’Helter Skelter.’ I can’t drive and listen to this song-I’ll wreck orkill somebody.”
“Dirt off Your Shoulder””Julia”“The first bars [of’Julia’] are all I used to make this beat (except for the drums, ofcourse). I was kind of showing off in a way-like, ‘This is all I’mgonna use!’ I wanted it to have a Timbaland type of beat, so there areall the little hi-hats. This is one of the most complex ones, with allthe snares and kicks and all that stuttering and crazy shit.”
“Moment of Clarity””Happiness Is a Warm Gun”“I useda lot of Ringo Starr-one of the reasons I love the Beatles is hisdrumming style, just the subtleties of what he was doing. I made themain beat even freakier, but Ringo was pretty dope on his own.”
“Change Clothes””Piggies” and “Dear Prudence”“Ipulled the ‘Piggies’ loop out and thought people were going to hate it!Getting my ‘Prudence’ bass line to work was the hardest thing, justpitching it right. I know a couple of people have tried to figure allthis stuff out, but you’ll never figure out the drums. I can’t figureout the fucking drums.”
“Allure””Dear Prudence”“In [the Beatles’] recording,you can barely hear that bass line. This is kind of Wu-Tang-y to me,the way it was just hard, dirty. If you listen, [John Lennon’s] vocalsare really peaked-out and fucked-up. I was like, ‘Shit, I didn’t dirtyup his vocals, they were already that way!'”
“Justify My Thug””Rocky Raccoon”“This whole thingcame because of this little hiccup thing right here [plays main loop of’Rocky Raccoon,’ which has a pause in it]. It was an imperfection thatI left in there, and it made me do the beat the way I did. I thought itwas kind of ill, unexpected. I pitched it down three notes to make itmore bass-heavy.”
“Lucifer””Revolution 9″“This was my experimental, whatever-the-fuck song-I used 37 differenttracks. I took the stuff the Beatles had backwards and made itforwards. It’s simple, but nobody even thought to do it. [He plays thetrack: ‘Six, six, six, murder, murder, Jesus, six, six, six.’] On The Grey Album,that’s Jay-Z the whole time. I made his voice really low. He says’murder,’ he says ‘Jesus,’ and he says ‘six’ in one of his songs.”
“My 1st Song””Cry Baby Cry” and “Savoy Truffle”“Crazy,crazy song. I love that loop [plays the vocal hook from the end of ‘CryBaby Cry’]. This was going to be an instrumental track, but I thoughtLennon’s vocals worked over it. But it was kind of odd. Some peoplelike it, some people don’t.” C.G.