Pop album of the week: While my guitar gently downloads

What happens if you sample The Beatles, overlay with Jay-Z and send the result into cyberspace? Quite a stir, writes Kitty Empire

Danger Mouse
The Grey Album
(illegal download only)

You can't buy this album from any official channel - although the determined could probably track down a pirate copy, and it should still be available on the net. So why review it? Because in the past couple of weeks, internet downloads of The Grey Album passed the magical million mark. It has become the most talked-about record in American music - even the New Yorker recently raised an august eyebrow at the fuss The Grey Album has caused. The row over the record's existence and propagation has pitted record giant EMI and its copyright lawyers against a motley assortment of hip hop fans, downloaders and defenders of untrammelled creativity.

There is nothing quite like a ban to whet appetites for a record. But The Grey Album is neither incendiary nor obscene. Rather, the furore stems from issues of copyright. The Grey Album combines vocals from The Black Album, the last LP from hip hop superstar Jay-Z, and music derived entirely from The Beatles (popularly known as the White Album). Sampling is, of course, widespread in pop music, but to date EMI have rebuffed all requests for bits of Beatles songs; EMI's litigiousness has meant that few have risked sampling the sacred catalogue on the sly.

Danger Mouse - DJ and music producer Brian Burton - has promised EMI's lawyers not to circulate the record any further. But the genie is out of the bottle. It's telling that the other half of the equation, Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella label, tacitly supports the record, releasing a cappella versions of Black Album tracks for such re-use. Reference, homage and intertextuality are vital currencies in hip hop, and EMI has been cast as a curmudgeonly dinosaur for failing to distinguish between art and theft. Really, they should just cut Danger Mouse a deal and reap the profits.

So, it's an audacious undertaking. And an incredibly painstaking one too. Rather than merely lifting beats or melodies from The Beatles and slapping Jay-Z's vocals on top, bootleg-style, Danger Mouse spent hundreds of man-hours dissecting tiny snippets of sound from The White Album and reassembling them into new music that is often unrecognisable from its source. It's a labour of love that Burton hopes will tickle the surviving Beatles' sense of experiment and humour. 'Lucifer 9', for instance, is where Jay-Z's 'Lucifer' meets the Beatles' cut-up 'Revolution 9'; it is largely backwards, as per the 'satanic' messages often ascribed to heavy metal.

But technique aside, is The Grey Album any good? In part. Mostly, it will entertain fans of experimental hip hop who love playing spot-the-sample. 'Dirt Off Your Shoulder', for example, is a glitchy tour de force that harvests pastoral guitars from The White Album for dazzling folktronic effect. Elsewhere, though, Danger Mouse pays less regard to musicality. 'Moments Of Clarity' is quite terrible, failing to respect the space between the vocal and production. Many other tracks also sound like laboured mush.

But there are some absolute gems, chief among them 'What More Can I Say'. It borrows an entire hook from 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' and lays one of Jay-Z's most moving autobiographical raps on top of it. It's closest to the cut-and-shut bootleg template that Danger Mouse wished to avoid, but works splendidly as a pop song. 'Encore' is fun too, with recognisable bits of 'Glass Onion' raising a smile (as does the 'Piggies' harpsichord on 'Change Clothes'). This is the chief selling point of The Grey Album (if it were being sold), the sense of delight at the mischief and artisanship of Danger Mouse's undertaking. Once that smile wears off, though, all that is left is a clever sonic experiment. Like The Beatles or The Black Album, say.



Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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