The other day, my son and I were driving to his baseball hitting session at Valley College. He was behind the wheel, rolling with his learner’s permit, and as he is wont to do, listening to some rapper that started or ended with either Lil’ or Baby. Sorry but it’s hard to keep them all straight. Spontaneously, he asked me for my top 5 favorite rappers. Hmmm…“What about rap groups?” I asked. “Do I get the group, or do I need to identify an MC within them?” He was good with groups. On a side note, what the fuck happened to Rap Groups? Talk about endangered species; you’re more likely to see a dodo bird on your back porch than you are to hear a new rap group in the traditional band-like sense. I guess the youngns don’t like to share.
With the caveat that this list can shift with the winds, here’s what I went with (in any order):
…And…shrug emoji. Hard to come up with my fifth. In simpler times, maybe I go with Kanye before he went full anti-Semite. NWA? Only one classic album. You might say the same about Wu Tang. From a technical rhyme spittin’ standpoint, I’d probably put Eminem in the fifth slot. But there’s a bit of an inconsistency in the quality of his catalogue. I mean, “Rap God” is a fucking masterpiece, but some of those songs about skull fucking his ex (paraphrasing) aren’t gonna light up my playlists.
In the 5 slot, ultimately I went with Jay Z. Like I said, winds change, tomorrow it might be OutKast. Or Em. Or Nas. For the sake of moving this show along, we’ll go with Hova here.
Which brings us to Danger Mouse’s Grey Album. I told my son about it – son, sit on my knee, I got a story to tell…what’s that? you’re 15 and currently behind the wheel of a car!? – in 2004, an at-the-time unknown producer posted music on the internet that caused a viral sensation. Titled the Grey Album, it was a mash up of Jay Z’s Black Album and The Beatles White Album. You’d consider it a gimmick, except it is a true feat of brilliant turntabilism – a dizzying amalgam of hip hop beats created out of everything from “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” to “Long Long Long”. Think about the creative mental gymnastics it took to turn John’s mournful ballad “Julia” into the backbeat of “Dirt Off Your Shoulder”. Head blown emoji.
The most thematically congruent track is “99 Problems”, backed by the Fab Four brewing “Helter Skelter”. An obvious combo. The whole project is so audacious. A genius move of both musicality and self promotion, Danger Mouse looked two formidable rights holders in the face and created something so fantastic, Jay and McCartney had to nod in appreciation. You crazy for this one, Mouse.
As a hip hop tribute, the Grey Album was one of one. Sure, there are other classic mash ups (humblebrag: I own both the Grey Album, and Mos Dub – a mash up of Mos Def and reggae classics, on vinyl), and you gotta love the Girl Talk and 2 Many DJs shit. But mashup doesn’t really do TGA justice – he took a landmark rock classic, dissected it like Dahmer in his prime, and put it back together with Jay Z’s rhymes, creating a musical Frankenstein done right. Surely no producer or DJ put themselves on the map like this, and no one ever will again.
Unfortunately, due to digital streaming going legit, file sharing and sound clouding has become rather niche. There could be someone out there creating mash ups of Stones albums with the Beastie Boys (Check Your Goat Heads Soup, anyone? Nah…), who knows. The Grey Album, like other music phenomena in the early aughts (Vampire Weekend dropping “Cape Cod” and “Oxford Comma” and the indie blogosphere exploding/orgasming comes to mind), it was a moment in time when the internet and file sharing could be weaponized for creative good. Mashups, like sampling before it, is a brilliant form of musical expression that is just not feasible in these winner takes all times.