"It has the basic rhythm of the original 'Revolution' going on with some 20 loops we put on, things from the archives of EMI. We were cutting up classical music and making different size loops ... all those different bits of sound and noises are all compiled." John Lennon on the creation of "Revolution 9"
"If you take a song like 'Revolution 9,' no one's really developed that and yet that type of music has got more potential." Paul McCartney, 1997
What if there were an album described as "an ingenious hip-hop record that sounds oddly ahead of its time" by Rolling Stone and "a feat of trickery and invention" by the Sunday Herald; one that the Boston Globe said was the most "creatively captivating" of 2004?
What if this album were illegal?
That's precisely the situation that "The Grey Album," a new disc by producer DJ Danger Mouse (of DM and Jemini), finds itself in.
"The Grey Album" was originally sent out last November by DJ Danger Mouse to his friends and colleagues. It's a work of collage that incorporates the entire lyrical content of Jay-Z's "The Black Album," with sampled and resequenced musical elements from the Beatles' "The White Album." A reissue of the original promotional disc was released this month to the general public.
Musically, "The Grey Album" is an interesting experiment that sometimes shines and sometimes misses the mark. The most successful song, in terms of combining old with new, is "99 Problems," which incorporates the rich bass textures and raw energy of "Helter Skelter" with Jay-Z's lyrics decrying those hip-hop boilerplates, girl troubles and encounters with police. "Dirt Off Your Shoulder" has an intricate rhythmic structure and mysteriously heavy beats, when you consider that much of the sampling came from the placid and soothing "Julia."
Though only 3,000 copies of the album were put into circulation, EMI, the company that controls the sound recordings of The Beatles, issued a cease-and-desist order to Danger Mouse as well as to the few retail outlets that were selling the record, such as hiphopsite.com and Fat Beats.
Regardless of EMI's claims of the legality (or the lack thereof) of this kind of artistic expression, there is a significant community of people who believe that this music has the right to exist, and that you have a right to listen to it.
Downhill Battle (www.downhillbattle.org) is a group of self-described "music activists" who believe that sampling, p2p file sharing, mix CDs and mash-ups such as "The Grey Album" are legitimate forms of creative expression. They claim that attempts to stop such practices amount to censorship, and that restrictive copyright laws requiring clearance for sampling bits of published sound recordings are stifling innovation.
To this end, they organized an experiment in online civil disobedience called "Grey Tuesday" (http://greytuesday.org) on February 24, recruiting websites to host "mirrors" so people could download the now-illegal Grey Album.
Hours before the protest was to start, all the websites that were listed as participants received a "cease-and-desist" e-mail from attorneys for Capitol Records, the American subsidiary of EMI that controls the Beatles' sound recordings. The letters accused the would-be protesters of "common law copyright infringement/misappropriation, unfair competition, and unjust enrichment." How exactly the protesters were competing unfairly with Capitol/EMI and unjustly enriching themselves was not made clear, since nobody was trying to profit from the protest. Neither was it noted that those Beatles samples may well be considered "fair use" (briefly defined as a use that is legal though no permission has been obtained from the copyright owner) primarily because the work has been distributed for free and also because the use is transformative, in that the samples are used to make new pieces of music.
Obviously, the intent of these e-mails was not to protect the sanctity of the Beatles catalog, but rather to silence this protest and prevent the dissemination of a work of art that the record industry did not approve of.
Good thing it didn't work.
Over 400 sites participated in the protest (including this author's personal website), and more than 170 sites mirrored the files for downloading, in spite of the cease-and-desist orders. The protest got coverage in The New York Times, Wired News, and MTV News. Tens of thousands of copies of the album were distributed for free to anyone who wanted them.
Will this online protest have any effect on the legality of Danger Mouse's release? Probably not. But it will serve the broader end of making people think about whether it is the role of the record labels or the role of artists to define what constitutes art. It will demonstrate that the best way to turn people on to new ideas and new aesthetics is with a free sample.