Danger Mouse’s The Grey Album (33 1/3 Series)

Charles Fairchild
New York: Bloomsbury, 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-6235-6660-9
RRP: US$14.95

Ian Rogers

RMIT University (Australia)

Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series has long provided a helpful provocation for music academics. The theme of the series remains deceptively simple: tell the readership something new about a popular album. As such, the June opening of Bloomsbury’s submission window creates a welcome burst of activity amongst colleagues and friends. We’ve all either thought about submitting or have done so. As a means to speak to each other, as specialists and fans, the series has become an ongoing topic of conversation, something to talk about at conference dinners and online and such. The currency of these books neatly dovetails with some of the core aesthetic tendencies of popular music studies. The series squarely addresses our history of public outreach; something all-but-written into the DNA of popular music studies via the early involvement of leftist advocates like Stuart Hall and the music-critic-slash-scholar Simon Frith. Additionally, popular music studies is a discipline that has always had to contend with the widely circulating work of Greil Marcus, who in many ways popularized the kind of focused ‘deep-dive’ into a music ‘moment’ found in so many of the books included within the 33 1/3 concept.

All of this feels particularly pertinent when considering The Grey Album by University of Sydney academic Charles Fairchild. It is an unusual addition. Firstly, the album in question is perhaps the most famous mash-up of all time, drawing its instrumental bed samples from The Beatles (1968, known more colloquially as The White Album) and its vocal a cappella from 2003’s The Black Album by Jay Z. The back-story of The Grey Album’s technical production is straightforward and unspectacular: New York hip-hop producer/DJ Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) assembled the album largely to impress his friends. It is the exacting work of a master craftsperson but few of the usual narrative tropes fortifying canonization and mythmaking apply here. Yet, the album remains popular, controversial and, as Fairchild notes, unusually affecting: “Danger Mouse seemed to humanize Jay Z in ways the rapper’s own work could not . . . The brittle edges of Shawn Carter’s public persona, slightly smoothed through honest and unexpected introspection, achieved more range than might have been initially granted when twinned with Paul McCartney’s Arcadian ramblings” (116). In short, the album is undeniably important. At heart, this book is about the cultural and commercial forces that occasionally obscure this importance.

Fairchild’s book is divided into four sections. The front half concerns reception, specifically how The Grey Album was positioned, attacked and censored by the music industries. Despite the centrality of commercial enterprise, the history of music scholarship is not—with notable exceptions like Frith and Keith Negus—particularly awash with nuanced critique of the music industries. More recent work by Matt Stahl, Mike Jones, Jim Rogers and Mark Banks corrects this somewhat, and I’ll happily situate this book in that camp as well. For what it is—a work of popular non-fiction—the first two sections of The Grey Album serve as an admirably succinct and relatable introduction to the field. This book would make an ideal text for undergraduate study of music and industry and Fairchild’s agility as a writer is evident throughout. Take, for example, the interwoven threads of cultural/media studies combined here with various subtle nods to concepts such as brand extension, product life cycle and marketing: “Many people seem to think that the music industry exists to make music. In fact, it exists to make money from music, mostly by moving it from one place to another” (44), and

. . . we all know music acts as a kind of socially organizing medium that helps people make sense of social experiences. We know this because we have experienced this. Music gives us something we want and value. The music industry’s job is to exploit what music gives us as thoroughly as possible by trying to create as many social, cultural and economic relationships with as many of us as possible and keep them going as long as they can (46).

In short, Fairchild very carefully examines a seldom-discussed topic: the long-lasting effectiveness of the music industries. Despite the popular rhetoric, these industries are still pervasive, active and profitable. They remain legally enacted and protected, and The Grey Album proves a valuable case study in how the desires of industry can still clash and overrun those of listeners.

The remainder of the book presents a brief history of sample-based music (for want of a better term) and a final chapter on the exact assembly of the album from its source materials. I found the history lesson helpful and clear. Also interesting was the contrasting history of the two source albums, specifically the similarities in the career arc between the two source artists. Only the final moments of The Grey Album proved a little dull; strictly for fans only. The minutiae of where particular samples were drawn from and how they were assembled and why certain combinations proved effective were fascinating for track one but I soon found myself skipping ahead. A discussion of the specific sampling technologies utilized might have added something to this discussion. Or perhaps it would have labored it further. I don’t know.

Ultimately, Fairchild’s book is at its best when considering the album at a distance. The story of the album’s reception and circulation is paramount here. It is doubtful that The Grey Album would have attained the status it did if the commercial music industries had not intervened and raised the album’s profile. I’m even surer that a book pitch for such an album would be met with little interest failing this absurd example of the ‘Streisand effect’. Instead the specific cultural circumstances surrounding the distribution and legitimacy of this recording provide grist for the mill. This particular moment in music history provides a unique opportunity, which this author has seized for great effect. His subject proves an invaluable lens through which to critique all manner of cultural industry and institution. Never mind the fact that Charles Fairchild has provided an entry into the 33 1/3 series about an album that was never really for sale. It’s a brave move but a worthy one. I commend the author, and the editors who commissioned it.