The role of the producer is not always clear in music. Generally a producer is someone oversees the production of an album, making suggestions and tweaks here and there, twisting knobs, fiddling with levels, working with the engineer. Rick Rubin, legendary producer of the Beastie Boys, Metallica, Run DMC, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, is said to often lie down on a couch while the band plays, occasionally scribbling something down to remember for later. If Rick Rubin scribbles on a pad of paper and yields some of the greatest albums of all time, Danger Mouse/ Brian Burton must be writing novels every time he sits on the producer’s couch. (hit the jump)
With a career like his, it usually forces people to have a “what the fuck?” moment when informed of his eclectic path, Danger Mouse has truly reinvented the definition of a producer. It’s not often that someone can call be called an auteur of music and not sound pretentious, but Danger is all about modesty and downplaying his achievements. He is so modest, in fact, that no one could put the pieces of his career together until Gnarls Barkley forged audio crack in the form of the insanely addictive “Crazy.”
Dictionary.com defines a film auteur as “a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp.” Danger Mouse has, over the course of his more mature career, slowly developed an award-winning style that can apply to almost any genre of music.
Perhaps one of the most important things to know about Danger Mouse is that he either works alone, or works on an entire album with a collaborator. It is a challenge to find a spare track produced by Danger that was not part of an album. Some tracks include “Tighten Up” from The Black Keys’ “Brothers,” and a few old hip hop remixes from Big L and Nas, but if you are looking for a rap album with a singular Danger Mouse track, don’t bother.
Big L - I Put it On... Danger Mouse remix
Nas - It Ain't Hard to Tell... Danger Mouse remix
The first known music project of Brian Burton was a trip hop project called Pelican City. With only 2 albums and a few smaller (harder to find) releases, Danger Mouse devised a collection of grave and obscure trip hop tunes. Stuffed full of twangy, tremelo guitars, distant, echoing drums, and ambient strings and synths that make you feel like you’re staring out of the window of a car on a rainy day, Pelican City acted as a guinea pig for what would much later develop into a specific and varied set of separate components to be included in all of his further production.
When looking at his career now, it would be hard to tell that Danger Mouse was responsible for one of the best underground rap albums of all time. For a producer that is has bagged more than a couple of Grammys in recent years, it seems like hip hop may be above Danger Mouse. Wrong. “Ghetto Pop Life,” released in 2003 with rapper Jemini, has some of the greatest production in hip hop history. The detail that hides in each separate aspect of the drums alone can wow listeners the instant they hear it. Tracks like “Ghetto Pop Life,” “Born a MC,” and “Medieval” are favorites among fans for their captivating drums, epic arrangements, and most important, “oohs”. The operatic intro that bleeds into “Ghetto Pop Life” moans in a church choir sort of way “I’m giving bitches good dick, so what you want?” When the beat finally arrives you’re unsure whether the clapping and cheering you hear is in the song or from your own hands.
Still completely under the radar at this point in his career, Danger Mouse made a small passion project as a challenge to himself that would eventually popularize an entire subgenre of dance and hip hop music. The mash up of Jay-Z’s “Black Album” and the Beatles “White Album” can hardly be defined as a mash up. To put it simply, many fans will argue that “The Grey Album” is a better classic than both of the albums sampled in it. The mash-ups that followed were spastic and shallow by comparison to “The Grey Album.” Girl Talk will impress listeners by throwing a new familiar song into the mash up every few seconds, but Danger Mouse only had 2 sources of material and made a unified and consistent sounding record out of both extremely different classics.
At this point Danger Mouse had received overwhelming acclaim for “The Grey Album,” and was on the hidden hot list for just about every major act in the world of hip hop and electronic music. With the help of Adult Swim and MF Doom, “The Mouse and The Mask” was born. This begins the process of Danger Mouse solidifying his place in cult music history. If “The Grey Album” wasn’t enough, “The Mouse and The Mask” became an instant favorite of underground fans and late-night TV watching nerds and stoners. Just when it seemed like Danger Mouse has a firm and comfortable position in hip hop music, he served as producer for the Gorillaz second album “Demon Days.”
Damon Albarn is known to be a musical genius on his own, but proved to the world that he can collaborate successfully with some of hip hop’s best. Dan The Automator produced the first Gorillaz album with help from Kid Koala and Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, and set the stage for Albarn to expand on his hip hop-influenced sound.
The songs on “Demon Days” have Danger Mouse written all over them. One song can be bursting with energy and electro power, the next can be cloudy and minor. By this time in his career, Danger was already forming his list of signatures to include on every album from then on. Some regular sounds and styles to expect on a Danger Mouse-produced album would be:
- Muted guitar, down strumming – “Crazy” “Kids with Guns”
- Psychedelic/echoing moans or voices – “Gamma Ray” “Psychotic Girl”
- 2 kinds of drums
- Explosive, loud, distorted, full of cymbals – “Go Go Gadget Gospel” “Chemtrails”
- Soft, old rock n roll type clean drums – “Charity Case” “The Ghost Inside”
- Sad, sweeping instruments or vocals, simplified/stripped down but well layered – “The High Road” “Who’s Gonna Save My Soul?”
These are not the only weapons in the Danger Mouse arsenal, but you are likely to hear any of these techniques on a Danger Mouse record. After the success of “Demon Days” came the absurdly popular Gnarls Barkley. This group just works. Bringing back some of the sad soul that only the fan’s parents knew of, Danger Mouse and Cee Lo brought an incredible amount of attention to neo-soul music, while also adding a mature and evolved sound to popular music.
As Gnarls Barkley grew in popularity, just about every artist with 2 ears tried to book Danger Mouse for their new album. Some of the groups that got lucky include: The Black Keys “Attack and Release,” Beck “Modern Guilt,” and The Good The Bad and The Queen’s self-titled release.
Having proven himself not only behind a mixing board, but behind a piano, a guitar, and a drum set as well, Danger Mouse was no longer just the producer, he was in the band. Broken Bells is a project from The Shins’ James Mercer and Danger Mouse, which expanded on Danger’s sadder, melodic side. Gnarls Barkley was his opportunity to collaborate with one of the most talented singers that not enough people had heard yet, with both members contributing to the groups spastic and conflicted sound and lyrics. The tone of both Gnarls Barkley albums is undeniably somber and thoughtful, and is completely able to force a reflection on your own problems and duality.
Not one to slow down or settle, Danger Mouse continues to gain recognition for his incredible skill set. Currently finishing production on U2’s new album, he is also about to release one of the strangest but smartest releases in years. “Rome,” a collaboration between Danger and Italian composer Daniele Luppi, is a spaghetti western-inspired album that features vintage instruments and the actual musicians who recorded the soundtracks to famous westerns originally scored by the man who inspired the album, Ennio Morricone (legendary composer of “Fist Full of Dollars,” and “The Good the Bad and the Ugly”). The spaghetti western sound, full of slow and elongated notes from horns, strings, and guitars, and soft drums that often lead to a showdown or shoot out, is perfect for Danger Mouse’s sad and melodic approach to music. The sound is reminiscent of his Pelican City days, but tones down the hip hop drums and drags the notes out a littler longer.
Broken Bells - The High Road
After his unfathomable success thus far, Danger Mouse is able to focus on making adult music that only few will genuinely appreciate. However, this does not mean he has forgotten his hip-hop roots. Although it has been years in the making, he is said to be releasing an album with Black Thought from The Roots, as well as a follow up to “Ghetto Pop Life.” Even if he never touches an MPC again, Danger Mouse’s legacy is enough to make Phil Spector so jealous that he’d murder someone else (maybe not that jealous). Danger Mouse is only 33 years old and has already made a sturdy impact on modern music. If he ever does settle in one genre, I can guarantee that it won’t be where you expect him.
by Ken Glauber