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’Toon tunes
DJ Danger Mouse goes from grey to Technicolor
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DJ Danger Mouse's Web site

Carly Carioli reports on DJ Danger Mouse combines Jay-Z and the Beatles

When Brian Burton started messing around with Jay-Z Black Album a cappellas and the Beatles’ classic "White Album" in his bedroom last year, it was for his own amusement and, perhaps, the small but loyal cult of fans he’d reached as a DJ. "I didn’t intend for that many people to hear it," recalls the unassuming Burton (a/k/a Danger Mouse) of The Grey Album, the downloading sensation of 2004. A cease-and-desist letter from EMI, which owns the Beatles’ masters, prevented him from making a cent from his creation. But the payoff was the publicity boom that catapulted Danger Mouse into the DJ stratosphere.

Just a few years earlier, the stuffier media had frowned when Puff Daddy spit rhymes over the Police and Led Zeppelin. But by early 2004, hip-hop’s magpie æsthetic had become legit. Burton’s pomo gimmick made an irresistible story: the New York Times Magazine dubbed The Grey Album "the most-heard ‘underground’ record ever, not to mention the branding event of the year." The project Burton now calls a "self-indulgent" joke not only put a beatsmith with just one disc to his name — 2003’s Ghetto Pop Life collab with Brooklyn mike wrecker Jemini — on pop culture’s front burner, it got him an offer to produce Demon Days (Virgin), the new album by the faux cartoon band Gorillaz, Blur frontman Damon Albarn’s genre-hopping absurdist side project.

Gorillaz debuted in 2001 as a "virtual band," communicating with the public through a quartet of cartoon characters. Their infectious bubbledub single "Clint Eastwood" left them perilously close to one-hit-wonder status in the United States of TRL, so signing on with Gorillaz wasn’t the most obvious way for Burton to establish an artistic identity. But he sees himself as "an artist/producer," not a traditional hitmaker. "I don’t want to go in and help an artist get what they want — that’s not what I do. I work with people who want to see what happens if we try some things."

Burton says he and Albarn clicked at the first Gorillaz sessions. Using a panoply of live instruments to flesh out Albarn’s tunes, he drew on what he’d learned from the rubbery funk tracks and guitar rock he’d once sampled to create his own soundscapes. For Albarn, Demon Days was a way to follow through on the best bits of latter-day Blur: Think Tank’s looped apocalypso rhythms, the angelic choirs of "Tender," his own disarming trademark wail. What it wasn’t for either Albarn or Burton was an attempt to mimic Gorillaz’ homonymous 2001 debut. "I didn’t really take into consideration anything from the first record," Burton says. Indeed, the sugar-rush vibe that producer Dan "The Automator" Nakamura brought to Gorillaz has given way to darker-toned, more fully-realized pop songs that reflect the freewheeling dynamic between Burton and Albarn. A manic bass line segues into shimmering strummed folk guitar in the first single, "Feel Good Inc." And rapper Roots Manuva rides a nasty two-step beat until an æthereal female vocal hijacks "All Alone." "It’s sitting down there and seeing where the song could go," Burton says, "deconstructing and then reconstructing, going on as many tangents as you can and taking the best ones."

Burton stretches his sonic palette to include a diverse cast of guest rappers as well as Dennis Hopper’s hard-boiled narration on "Fire Coming Out of a Monkey’s Head" and the hazy Madchester pulse that Happy Mondays’ Shaun Ryder brings back to life on "DARE." The disc also reunited him with his old enemy EMI through Parlophone, the EMI imprint that released Demon Days in Great Britain. And he’s still reaping the rewards of The Grey Album: he’s slated to produce new albums by left-field hip-hoppers MF Doom and Cee-Lo.

Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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