The phenomenon known as the “mashup” can be traced back through at least several decades of radio DJs and record producers manipulating, or “remixing,” one or more existing recordings to create a new musical work. With the rise of digitally distributed music and of inexpensive, sophisticated production technologies in the late 1990s, however, the phenomenon was radically democratized, and a trend was born—a trend that reached its highest level of public awareness with the event known as “Grey Tuesday,” which took place on this day in 2004.
Grey Tuesday was a well-organized, one-day effort to distribute from as many Internet sources as possible a controversial work called The Grey Album, created by the American DJ/Producer Brian Joseph Burton, aka Danger Mouse. Burton lived in England in the early 2000s, at a time when the mashup phenomenon exploded in the UK thanks to a radio program called “The Remix,” which invited its listeners to send in their own examples of what was also known as “bastard pop.” Among the most popular and creatively successful mashups introduced on “The Remix” were: Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke of Genie-us” (2001), which paired Christina Aguilera’s vocal from “Genie in a Bottle” with the instrumental track of The Strokes’ “Hard To Explain;” and Go Home Productions’ brilliantly titled “Ray of Gob” (2003), which combined Madonna’s “Ray of Light” with the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” and “God Save the Queen.”
Burton’s inspiration for The Grey Album came in December 2003 while listening to the Beatles’ White Album shortly after hearing an a capella version of Jay-Z’s Black Album. Over an intense two-week period, Burton constructed a brand-new version of the Jay-Z album layered over beats and samples lifted from the Beatles. Burton created The Grey Album only to share among his friends, so he never even tried to clear the rights to the Beatles samples it contained. Even as The Grey Album caught on as a word-of-mouth Internet phenomenon, Burton’s only concern was a creative one: “I’m just worried whether Jay-Z will like it, or whether Paul and Ringo will like it.”
It is fair to say that EMI, the owners of the rights to the Beatles’ master recordings, did not. The intensity of their legal response to The Grey Album, however, did not sit well with vocal Internet opponents of the music industry, and Grey Tuesday was organized in protest. On that day, hundreds of websites organized to offer Burton’s album for free download in defiance of EMI. That protest, and its attendant publicity, combined to make The Grey Album the most widely distributed mashup album in history.