Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Civil Disobedience For A New Generation

I only found out about it through the New York Times, and once you read an article about a cultural phenomenon in the Times, it's over.

The Times today had an article about a new album called The Grey Album, which is achieving acclaim, notoriety and all that. It's by DJ Dangermouse, who I had actually heard of as an up-and-coming mash-up artist -- that is, a musician that takes fragments of other songs and makes new songs out of them. So here's what happened. Jay-Z has a hit album called "The Black Album," which he has touted as his swansong. It's a great disc, if you're into the more mainstream hip-hop. I can't claim to be an expert in that area, or even intermediately experienced, but the man has an absolutely stunning ability to "flow" -- that is, to continuously talk on the mic nonstop while keeping rhythm, keeping rhyme, and actually saying something worth hearing. (Admittedly, he's a lot heavier on the pimps and hos and crack than I would like, but there are some deeper things going on there as well, like when he includes fragments of an interview with his mother about how she tried to raise him right in a bad environment.)

Jay-Z then chose to release a version of the album (he has his own record label) that was nothing more than his own acapella flow on 12" vinyl -- that is, just his own words, with no beats, no breaks, no loops, no nothing. He hoped that people would finally be able to understand his words for the first time, but also wanted to encourage people to "remix the hell out of it." He got his wish. People have been trying to do their own beats and loops to match the lyrics.

The most successful thus far has been Dangermouse, who got the cheeky idea to use the Beatles' "The White Album." Thus, the Black Album + the White Album equals Dangermouse's new disc, The Grey Album.

Here's a chart for those of you keeping track at home (courtesy of Hua Hsu):

Public Service Announcement <-- Long, Long, Long
What More Can I Say <-- As My Guitar Gently Weeps
Encore <-- Glass Onion + Savoy Truffle
December 4th <-- Mother Nature's Son
99 Problems <-- Helter Skelter
Dirt Off Your Shoulders <-- Julia
Moment of Clarity <-- Happiness is Warm Gun
Change Clothes <-- Piggies
Allure <-- Dear Prudence
Justify My Thug <-- Rocky Raccoon + Revolution 1
Lucifer 9 <-- Revolution 9 + I'm So Tired
My First Song <-- Cry Baby Cry

The disc quickly got acclaim from Rolling Stone ("an ingenious hip-hop record that sounds oddly ahead of its time") and the Boston Globe ("the most intriguing hip-hop album in recent memory").

Oh, yeah. And it's flagrantly illegal and EMI is sending cease and desist letters to everyone it can find. EMI has no sense of humor -- none -- about The Beatles (always capitalized), which they want to enshrine in the "classical music" pantheon as soon as possible. The idea that a LA DJ would slice and dice the Beatles into snippets of rhythm and beats was utter sacrilege.

People's irritation with the suppression of the album mounted, made worse by the fact that the only way to get a copy of the album was to flagrantly violate the Digital Millenium Copyright Act and steal one from some website or filesharing service. The result was "Grey Tuesday," an online protest in which 170 websites all agreed to start hosting MP3s of the album on February 24th. And even though EMI and the RIAA worked throughout the day to shut them all down -- and to even shut down sites that supported the effort without actually hosting the songs -- and to shut down the people selling copies on eBay -- the cat got out of the bag.

No, I won't link to it for you, because even though EMI/RIAA/MOFO is only going after the people hosting the files, they might get jumpy. Unfortunately, it's hard to find a site that still has it, but this kind of illegal-art org won't go away.

All of the above is already old news (yesterday), and it's been blogged endlessly. So why do I add more?

Because for the first time in a long, long time, the cause celebre is worth celebrating. This album is absolutely mind-blowing. It's not really hip-hop so much as it is something new, something more, something that makes you understand what hip-hop fans have been hoping for all this time. Beatles fans find it to be a refreshing introduction to how hip-hop can be fabulously complex, while Jay-Z fans are discovering the depth and richness of their parents' music. That doesn't mean it's easy listening -- it's easy to ignore it at first (especially if you're not hip-hop inclined), and when you start to hear how complicated the beats are, it's easy to reject it. But then it clicks. You realize that Dangermouse spent a lot of time making sure that the tone of the tunes didn't only match the lyrics but commented on them. It's a tango between an MC and a DJ that have never met.

Let me give you a point of reference. Until this afternoon, I had been listening to the Outkast album Speakerboxx/The Love Below, and I admire those albums very much as a startlingly creative and involving work of art. They are a great example of why hip-hop is a true revolution; a new post-modern way of thinking about music. (Don't get me wrong. It's hard to find the brilliance among the wannabes and hasbeens and ginandjuicers, but easier than finding brilliance on any given Clear Channel station.) It's not all "Hey Ya," either -- though "Hey Ya" is a lot richer than some give it credit for being. I was ready to blog about how great it is.

But The Grey Album makes Outkast sound like Hillary Duff. It's mental gymnastics that you can shake your ass to.

I'm genuinely excited about this album. I want to share it with people (on surreptitious CD-R), and I don't know the last time that happened. It makes me understand why people would go out of their way to hold the Grey Tuesday protest.

Here's hoping it's the first of many.

 9:19 PM

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