Most mashups suck. It’s no one’s fault; the genre is built upon a faulty premise. Apart from novelty, there’s no good reason to take two perfectly good songs and synthesize them into a janky, Dr. Frankenstein version that, combined, is less listenable than both songs individually.
Of course, there’s always the odd exception. Falling squarely within this camp is 2004’s The Grey Album, the brainchild of decorated music producer, Danger Mouse. A mashup between JAY-Z’s The Black Album and The Beatles’ The White Album, the project was an unlikely triumph that managed to sidestep the usual trappings of the mashup genre, despite its gimmicky name and concept.
Here’s Danger Mouse in 2007, talking to Matthew Rimmer about what set it apart:
“A lot of people just assume I took some Beatles and, you know, threw some JAY-Z on top of it or mixed it up or looped it around, but it’s really a deconstruction. It’s not an easy thing to do. I was obsessed with the whole project; that’s all I was trying to do, see if I could do this. Once I got into it, I didn’t think about anything but finishing it. I stuck to those two because I thought it would be more challenging and more fun and more of a statement to what you could do with sample alone. It is an art form. It is music. You can do different things, it doesn’t have to be just what some people call stealing. It can be a lot more than that.”
In addition to being a referendum on the art of sampling and a stress test for Danger Mouse’s creative ingenuity, The Grey Album is also just a joy to listen to. For the legions of hip-hop fans who’d thoroughly run The Black Album into the ground by 2004, it recontextualized the record, offering an opportunity to appreciate songs like “Moment of Clarity” and “Dirt Off Your Shoulder” in a new light. Danger Mouse’s version of the latter, for example—featuring a masterful chop of The Beatles’ “Julia”—made the song feel new again, salvaging it from its ubiquity with a frenetic, thumping beat that is every bit as stunning as Timbaland’s earth-shattering original.
Widely acclaimed in the press, The Grey Album ultimately acted as a springboard that launched Danger Mouse into music’s upper echelon. Improbably, this experimental mashup album set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Danger Mouse, born Brian Burton, producing music for some of the biggest names on the planet, including The Black Keys, Norah Jones, and Adele. Just two years after releasing The Grey Album, he was one half of Gnarls Barkley and in possession of the number two song on Billboard’s Hot 100 with “Crazy.” A decade later, he was being name-checked by U2 during their acceptance speech at The Golden Globes. (They won Best Original Song for “Ordinary Love” from the movie, Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom).
Considering Danger Mouse’s meteoric rise, it’s easy to forget that, for the better part of 2003 to 2006, he worked primarily as an underground hip-hop producer. He foreshadowed his eclectic aspirations by producing the hugely successful album Demon Days for Gorillaz in 2005. Still, otherwise, he spent the bulk of this era working exclusively with relatively obscure rappers like Jemini the Gifted One, Prince Po, Busdriver, and MF DOOM.
The contrast between this early stretch of his career and his post-2006 output is striking. In the 13 years that have amassed since, Danger Mouse has visibly refocused his efforts away from hip-hop, except for a handful of uneven songs he produced for A$AP Rocky and one collaboration with Run The Jewels. Going back through his catalog recently, it occurred to me what a vacancy this departure left in the genre.
In just three years of working as a rap producer, Danger Mouse established himself as a uniquely singular force, whose cinematic and whimsical sensibilities haven’t been convincingly replicated by anyone since he left.
Consider Ghetto Pop Life, Danger Mouse’s collaborative album with Jemini the Gifted One. Despite receiving praise at the time of its release, it’s no mystery why Danger Mouse went on to have a storied career in the industry. In contrast, Jemini eventually faded from the public eye. Sure, the latter’s charismatic delivery and playful boasts are nothing to sneeze at, but the album succeeds mostly on the merits of its production. Across its 16 songs, Danger Mouse marries idiosyncratic samples with hard-hitting drums and orchestral flourishes to create a string of beats that are insatiably catchy despite their eccentricities.
“Medieval” is perhaps the best encapsulation of these quirks. Keeping with the titular theme of the song, Danger Mouse loops an operatic choir atop Pete Rock-inspired drums, creating something that shouldn’t work, but improbably does. Thematic sincerity aside, it’s incredibly infectious. A minute in, you’re left wondering why more producers don’t harken back to the sounds of the middle ages to score upbeat rap records. The instrumentals for “Don’t Do Drugs” and “That Brooklyn Shit” conjure similar thoughts regarding twee samples of bombastic horns and stabbing strings that are too fetching to resist.
For as indebted as Ghetto Pop Life is to Danger Mouse’s singular style, it thankfully never errs on the side of being too esoteric. Whenever it threatens to cross this threshold, Danger Mouse manages to ground the music in accessible footing, occasionally conjuring comparisons to the work of Just Blaze (“The Only One”), Timbaland (“Bush Boys”), and DJ Quik (“What U Sittin On”). Fittingly, even when Danger Mouse’s music is derivative of others’, the names he invokes are among the most heralded producers of his generation.
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Of course, “derivative” is not an adjective anyone would ever use to describe Danger Mouse’s next official release, the aforementioned Demon Days with Gorillaz. Presented with the opportunity to collaborate after the group’s frontman Damon Albarn heard The Grey Album, Danger Mouse’s outsider whims were finally unleashed, culminating in one of the most off-kilter cult classics of the decade. Though the tracklist featured just three rap songs, the album borrowed heavily from the genre throughout, furthering Danger Mouse’s burgeoning reputation as one of the most inventive producers in the game.
Of these three songs, the consensus favorite “Feel Good Inc,” the album’s contagious first single, featuring De La Soul. For my money, however, the MF DOOM collaboration, “November Has Come,” has always edged it out by a hair. To this day, it’s the first and only time I’ve heard DOOM rap on a song with genuine crossover appeal. What’s more, it doesn’t come at the expense of DOOM’s unique aesthetic. Even with its catchy chorus, the song is just as odd as anything DOOM’s ever rapped over. Beginning with an off-key synth that sounds like it could have been sampled from the score of a horror movie, Danger Mouse gradually layers melodic elements on top of this sinister canvas until it eventually transforms into something undeniable.
Perhaps this is what led the pair to team up again later that year to form their supergroup, DANGERDOOM. The projects they released in tandem, 2005’s The Mouse and the Mask and The Occult Hymn EP, released the following year—both sponsored by Adult Swim—were wonderfully weird; featuring skits voiced by Adult Swim characters, lyrical references to the network’s shows, and instrumentals that sampled their music.
For his part, Danger Mouse orchestrated these projects with a level of conceptual commitment that would have made Prince Paul proud. Both projects are chock-full of hard hip-hop beats, like the “The Mask” and “Sofa King,” that could counterintuitively be described as “zany” or “cartoonish.” Meanwhile, instrumentals like “Perfect Hair” and “Crosshairs” are glossy enough to satisfy the requirements of Cartoon Network, but gritty enough to feel authentically tailored for DOOM. It’s an incredibly thin line to straddle.
The Mouse and the Mask is also notable for featuring the song “Benzie Box,” a collaboration with Danger Mouse’s future Gnarls Barkley compatriot, CeeLo Green. Incidentally, the duo’s first album, St. Elsewhere (released in 2006), was a harbinger of things to come. At the time, CeeLo was primarily a hip-hop artist, and Danger Mouse was primarily a hip-hop producer, and yet, the pair took a hard left turn and opted to release an album filled with soulful pop instead.
Genre notwithstanding, it’s a great album. In isolated moments, it even borrows from hip-hop—like on the song “Transformer,” which boasts a rattling trap beat years before trap became a popular subgenre. Unfortunately, it was also the beginning of Danger Mouse’s extended hiatus away from the genre. The album was influenced by rap, sure, but it featured little to no rapping.
Seven years later, in 2013, A$AP Rocky tapped Danger Mouse to produce the song “Phoenix.” Without Rocky’s invitation, his sabbatical could have continued indefinitely. Nevertheless, the pair’s ongoing collaborative relationship gives me a glint of hope. It’s a symbol, however faint, that Danger Mouse may return to his hip-hop roots. As a fan, it’s easy to rally around this; to convince me that Danger Mouse’s seven hip-hop collaborations since 2013—six with A$AP Rocky and one with Run The Jewels—have been able to recapture the urgency of his earliest output. To do so, however, would be to lie to myself.
For better or for worse, the style Danger Mouse pioneered from 2003 to 2006, and the momentum he built will forever be tied to that era. In the 13 years that have since passed, the genre has undergone several significant transformations. To think Danger Mouse could hop back in and immediately pick up where he left off would be misguided. The only thing we’re left with, then, is revisionist history.
Listening to Ghetto Pop Life or The Mouse and the Mask, it’s hard not to fantasize about what would have happened if Danger Mouse had stayed the course. I often catch myself fantasizing about the creative chemistry he might have shared with rappers like Danny Brown, Action Bronson, and Tyler, The Creator had they ever worked together. Whenever I get too caught up in one of these fantasies, however, I make it a point to take a step back and remind myself what a selfish exercise this is.
The artists we love don’t owe us anything. They grow and evolve on their own time, and it’s not for fans, like me, to dictate the directions in which they pivot. Rather than entertain hypothetical fantasies about what could have been, it’s much more important to appreciate what was.
In the case of Danger Mouse, this means celebrating a body of work that packed more wizardry per square inch than many artists are capable of squeezing into their entire careers. I feel fortunate to have had the privilege to witness for three years. To ask for any more would be greedy.