Controversial Grey Album Mixes Beatles with Rap

By now you may have heard of DJ Danger Mouse, and his remix of rapper Jay-Zs Black Album with music from the Beatles White Album. Now that the album has been blocked by EMI, it has become one of the most sought after music downloads on the Net. One site dares to publish the full CD in MP3 format.

If you’ve missed the controversy somehow, rapper Jay-Z recently released an a cappella version of his latest album, The Black Album. A cappella versions contain just vocals, with none of the original backing music. Artists occasionally release these versions to encourage underground remix versions that can help create a buzz around new releases. If an underground remix becomes popular, mainstream artists are in a position where they can make a deal on their own terms with the underground remixer, or squash the release.

The Grey Album - DJ Danger MouseDJ Danger Mouse, a largely unknown producer, took the obvious step of combining the rapping from Jay-Z’s Black Album and combined it with the music of the Beatles White Album, calling it (surprise!) the Grey Album. He pressed a few thousand CDs to share with some of his closest friends, and it quickly got people’s attention because of its blatant appropriation of the Beatles’ music. The Beatles are known for never allowing sampling of their music, and as soon as EMI caught wind of Danger Mouse’s release, they sent him Cease and Desist letters.

Once this happened, some viewed this as censorship, or banning of types of art. In visual art, images are often appropriated and reused in new contexts as a way of commenting on well-known images, icons and stereotypes. In music, this has been a contested area of intellectual property for many years.

Downhill Battle’s Holmes Wilson argues that music labels are turning copyright into a form of censorship. “If Danger Mouse had requested permission and offered to pay royalties, EMI still would have said no and the public would never have been able to enjoy this critically acclaimed work. Artists are being forced to break the law to innovate.” Holmes sees the Grey Album as one of thousands of legitimate forms of musical art that have been stifled by the legal limits of copyright. 

EMI wants to protect its rights, and the rights of the Beatles. The Beatles have an obvious interest in controlling how their music is used. They’ve successfully protected their music, so that it isn’t used to hawk baby wipes and deodorant and nasal decongestants. Licensing their music for movies and commercials would have been extremely lucrative for them. Forgoing licensing income has the effect of letting the music exist on its own, rather than as the soundtrack for a car commercial.

Observers like Wilson, though, see EMI’s tactics as more than just protecting their rights. “EMI isn’t just trying to shut down a musician who they believe is unfairly profiting from the White Album, they’re also trying to censor the album entirely by preventing the public from hearing it. There is simply no justification for denying or attempting to deny the public the right to hear this music.”

Judge for Yourself

Rolling Stone has called the Grey Album “the ultimate remix record”, while other listeners call it boring or opportunistic. EMI has run most sources of the Grey Album underground, making the music some of the most sought-after music on the Web.

One site though, Illegal-Art.org, has boldly posted the full album in MP3 format. Illegal-Art is a web site dedicated to exploring video, visual art and audio that explores ideas using techniques that American culture has deemed illegal. The site takes the view that intellectual property laws have grown to the point that they are interfering with artistic expression, or as the site puts it “artists need legal experts to sort them all out.”

The Illegal Art Exhibit showcases “degenerate art” – art and ideas that lie on the legal fringes of intellectual property. The site is full of controversial work that questions the role of copyright in the world of art. The site as a whole asks the question “Should lawyers decide what is legal in the world of art?”

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