While it will undoubtedly go down as one of 2004's most buzzed-about music events, it's unclear what kind of lasting importance The Grey Album will have. (Is it a clarion call to would-be culture jammers or merely another sound bite in this short-attention-span theater we call pop culture?) But one thing I'm certain that the work accomplished is its eclipse of one of 2003's best hip hop LPs, Danger Mouse and Jemini the Gifted One's Ghetto Pop Life. Released last September on Lex, GPL is a fun, funny, and sophisticated collection of booming beats and clever rhymes. Using old-school hip hop party acts like the Pharcyde and De La Soul as touchstones (members of the former make a cameo on "Medieval"), it updates the formula with Burton's witty productions, which express his wily sense of humor, and Jemini's nimble rhymes, which find him flowing so many syllables into a measure of music you'd swear his sentences had their own air traffic controllers. Despite its brilliance, though, compared to The Grey Album, GPL received no attention whatsoever.
Thanks to Burton's recent dalliance in the spotlight, however, the tag team is finally hitting the road in support of its masterpiece; tonight marks Burton's first-ever visit to San Francisco. And while you shouldn't expect to hear any of The Grey Album at the duo's performance at the Independent -- Burton won't even whisper its name in a recent interview for fear of pushing EMI's already hot buttons -- you should, as Jemini puts it, "Come prepared to throw your hands in the air and wave 'em like you just don't care."
"To me, it's good and it's bad," says Jemini from his apartment in New York City when asked about the public's renewed interest in what is somewhat of a comeback album for him. A veteran rapper out of Brooklyn, Jemini had some early successes, most notably his 1995 debut on Mercury, Scars and Pain, but has toiled in the underground ever since. "As long as they hear [GPL]," he continues, "that's the most important thing. But I think that all of the hoopla around The Grey Album, which is an incredible concept album, is kind of overshadowing the greatness of the Ghetto Pop Life album. People are so transfixed on The Grey Album that they look at Ghetto Pop Life as a footnote, and I think actually it should be the other way around."
He's right, which is doubly impressive when you consider that GPL marks Burton's debut as a full-length producer. The 26-year-old former graphic designer didn't start out as a musician. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta and New York, he was "obsessed with music, but never really tried to do much with it." When he eventually came around to making beats, his first demos were a mix of abstract, experimental flavors and quirky hip hop mash-mixes.
"Most of the stuff I had done before was instrumental," he says, speaking by phone from his home in L.A. "I guess they call it downtempo or whatever, soundtrack-sounding kind of stuff. ... I never worked with MCs very much."
In the early '00s, when Burton was living in London, he used his DJ connections to get a few tapes to Tom Brown, who runs London-based Lex. The imprint is the hip hop arm of the notoriously cerebral electronica label Warp. The fact that Lex -- which has put out releases by Anticon side-project Hymie's Basement, Boom Bip, and Bay Area crew Disflex6 -- was interested in Burton's work is a testament to its not-so-pop quality.
"I normally wouldn't meet up with somebody to listen to their demo, because it can be quite excruciating," remembers Brown, adding that Burton was the rare exception. He asked the producer to bring some tapes to the label; half the material turned out to be "weird soundscapy things," the other half rough-around-the-edges beats. "At the time, Danger Mouse wasn't getting a lot of respect for his style of sampling," Brown continues. "People thought it was slightly old-school and a bit wonky."
Burton's original plan was to put out a mostly instrumental album with only one track that featured an MC. Jemini was one of the first he considered. Says Brown, "[Burton] came in and said, 'Check out this Jemini stuff; he's my favorite MC that never quite made it.'" A few days later, Brown put Burton on a plane to New York. According to Jemini, the first thing the MC did was school his new producer on the hip hop basics.
"He listened to psychedelic music and stuff like that," says Jemini. "You could hear it in some of the early beats; there was a lot of stuff going on. So I helped him simplify it down to a hip hop essence: strengthen the snare, don't be all over the place with the drums unless you're trying to particularly do that -- little suggestions like that. And that helped turn him into the producer he his now, 'cause where he is now is not where he was when I met him."
The collaboration worked out so well that the duo decided to do another track, then another. Eventually they figured it would be best if they just did a whole album together. The result is far and away the most accessible material Lex has ever released.
In addition to his advice on production elements -- which surely helped make tracks like "Yoo-Hoo!" and "The Only One" the radio-ready ear-candy they are -- Jemini provided the perfect foil to Burton's arch sensibility. The MC's more mature, 35-year-old perspective tempered Burton's snide, high-minded leanings. "Don't Do Drugs," for example, finds Jemini playing the part of the manipulative drug dealer canvassing the ghetto as a bed of old-timey ragtime samples and what sounds like a radio ad from the '30s swing along in the background.
"They're very contrasting in their styles," observes Brown. "Left to their own devices, neither of them would have made a record like Ghetto Pop Life. It just came out like that because of the combination of the two of them."
This odd-couple dynamic reaches its zenith on the title track, the chorus of which goes, "I've got bullets in the clip/ So what you want?/ I've got a lyric I can spit/ So what you want?/ I'm giving bitches good dick/ So what you want?" Nice, huh? Now, imagine that whole hook sung by a full choir of female sopranos, à la the Rolling Stones' "You Can't Always Get What You Want." Again, that's a full female choir drawing out lines like "I'm giv-ing bitches goooood diiiick," which crescendo triumphantly just as a thumping boom-bap beat drops like a boulder in a bathtub.
"We didn't think it'd be good to have little boys singing it," deadpans Burton, "so we got a mostly older choir to do it."
"Brian is like the nutty professor," says Jemini. "He's definitely a different kind of dude. I call him the Andy Kaufman of hip hop production. So when he suggested the mouse costume, I said, 'Go ahead and do it.'"
Oh yeah, the mouse costume. Whenever the duo performs, Burton stands behind his four turntables wearing a giant gray-and-pink fuzzy mouse costume. "It's weird," says the producer of his getup. "When everybody's looking and laughing or pointing or whatever, I don't get embarrassed, because I know exactly what they're looking at. But if I was exposed just [as myself], it's a little bit harder for me. They'd be looking at me -- just me -- that's not really what I signed up for this for."
Whether he signed up for it or not, these days that's what happening: Thanks to The Grey Album, all eyes are on Danger Mouse. One would think this would boost the sales of Ghetto Pop Life, but according to Brown, that hasn't happened. "At the peak of the stuff around Danger Mouse," he says, "when the news stories were really big, we were selling a really similar amount of records to what we were selling before, and I was like, 'Damn, what?'"
To Jemini, the solution is simple: "I think if more people got to hear [GPL], it would spread a lot quicker. The people who have heard it got it; I just don't think enough people have heard it."