When it first came out, Danger Mouse’s “Grey Album” was pretty innovative. I can’t deny that the idea of taking Jay-Z’s raps and mixing them over the Beatle’s “White Album” was pretty ingenious. But as The Wolf would say, “Let’s not start sucking each other’s dicks just yet.” Let’s be frank: “The Grey Album” was a cute concept; not the earth-shattering work of art that it was portrayed as by music critics (“Entertainment Weekly” named it the album of the year and “Rolling Stone” proclaimed it “the ultimate remix album”). The “ultimate remix album”? Really?
In hindsight, the album consists primarily of Jay-Z’s raps while The Beatles play second fiddle. Often, you can’t even make-out what Beatle’s song is being used, and more commonly, the background music is a garbled distraction with bleeps and squeaks popping out of the speakers sporadically. When you get down to it, Danger Mouse’s mash-up creation didn’t take much talent at all (a lot of patience I suppose). My friend Tim always joked that he could do the same thing using his basic audio mixing program Acid, although his idea was to mix Jay-Z over Journey (he wanted to call it “Journ-Z”).
Maybe “The Grey Album was the best remix album in the early days of the mash-up, but looking back, Danger Mouse’s opus sounds amateurish. Since then we’ve seen other DJs take DM’s concept into more interesting horizons. For example, this past year, Bullion released “The Beach Boys vs. J. Dilla”. Instead of just tossing some rapper vocals over remixed audio, British DJ/Producer Bullion has taken two of the best producers of the past 50 years (hip-hop producer J Dilla and the Beach Boy’s mastermind Brian Wilson) and intertwined their sounds in a way that is intricate and refreshing. I should point out now that this actually isn’t even a mash-up. Rather, Bullion took “Pet Sounds” and ran it through his interpretation of J Dilla’s sound; his legacy. It’s more of a re-imagining, answering the question that I’m sure no one has ever asked: “What would it sound like if J Dilla produced ‘Pet Sounds’?”
J Dilla, possibly the greatest hip-hop producer of all time, died back in 2006. Over the past two decades he was involved with albums for some of the biggest names in the rap community: Tribe Called Quest, Redman, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, etc. Within Bullion’s tweaking of the Beach Boys you hear echos of J Dilla’s classic sound, although it’s impossible to fully capture what J. Dilla did within his production.
Speaking of production, The Beach Boy’s “Pet Sounds” is looked at as a benchmark in the field. This is due to Brian Wilson’s orchestration, complex arrangements, and his vast use of track-layering. It is impossible to overestimate the expansive influence this one album had on music as we know it. “Sergent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” would not exist, and if “Sgt Peppers” was never made…well…there may not be any Nickelback. Paul McCartney went so far as to call it “…the classic of the century”. Of course, he also said that he’s “…often played Pet Sounds and cried.” Then again, we always knew Paul was a little mary.
Bullion has taken these two classic sounds and created something that tastes refreshing. In recent years we’ve seen the re-emergence of a focus on vocal harmonies in bands like Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective, and on this album we are reminded that The Beach Boys were mastering this approach decades ago. While there is the classic B-Boys vocals, there are no rap vocals here. At times it feels like without a rapper spitting rhymes that the songs may be missing something, but then again, the lyrics would only hide the brilliance going on in the background.
Each track runs 2-3 minutes, and this is more than enough. Actually, the album seems to run a bit long. You can only listen to garbled Brian Wilson for so long. Of course, you can always just listen to the album in pieces, or even better, as background music. If you’re one of those headphone wearing folk who sit and dissect ever nuance of a song, you may be disappointed.
On the album, Bullion doesn’t rely solely on the two producers at hand. On “God Only Knows” he brings in audio of soul singing sisters, taken from some cover version of the tune, giving the track a GZA vibe.
At times interview audio of Brian Wilson emerge, talking about the spiritual power of music and on “Let’s Go Away for a While” he even pops in to make some producing requests. If you don’t smile when he calls for the drums, you simply have no soul.
No, I’m not going to name this the “greatest mix-tape ever” (that honor goes to the mix-tape I made in 9th grade entitled “Master Scab” featuring Dinosaur Jr AND Fugazi), but I do believe what Bunion has accomplished here is much more complex and intriguing than the pseudo classic “The Grey Album”.