Danger Mouse - Biography
Introducing Danger Mouse as a hip-hop artist doesn't quite do his multi-dimensional body of work much justice. Danger Mouse has stated that he aspires to be in full-control of selecting his artistic projects, as well as producing them. While the rodent-masked producer cut his teeth within the world of urban music, his vision of attaining auteur status is a realistic one, considering all the genres he has traversed.
Before he became Danger Mouse, Brian Burton was just a shy kid from White Plains, New York. While attending college in Athens, Georgia, Burton produced and remixed a sizable amount of electronic music under the name Pelican City. He also began to DJ for the university and released several mixtapes of remixes. While spinning public DJ sets, the introverted Burton would perform in a mouse costume to hide his face. Appropriately, Burton adopted the moniker Danger Mouse after the British cartoon series of the same name. As his musical prowess progressed, Danger Mouse was given the opportunity to perform an opening DJ set for Atlanta heavyweights Outkast and Goodie Mob. After his set, Danger Mouse passed along a tape of his music to Goodie Mob’s soulful anchor Cee-Lo.
While living in England in 2003, Danger Mouse got a record deal with Lex Records and released his first album, which was a collaboration with Brooklyn rapper Jemini called Ghetto Pop Life (2003 Lex Records). The unfortunately underrated album is a superb example of Danger Mouse’s unorthodox yet danceable hip-hop production. He utilized nontraditional samples such as the operatic vocals on “Medieval” and the chants on the title track, creating a solid foundation for Jemini's witty wordplay.
Critics were fairly receptive to Ghetto Pop Life, but Danger Mouse wouldn’t fully step into the limelight until his next album leaked to the public later that year. After hearing several of Jay-Z’s a capella peices from his supposed final-opus The Black Album (2003 Roc-A-Fella) as well as the Beatles The Beatles (a.k.a. The White Album) (1968 EMI) all in a single day, Danger Mouse decided to fuse the two ubiquitous musical icons and call it The Grey Album. The hybrid deconstructs and rewires samples from The Beatles classics like “Helter Skelter” and lays them over a capella tracks like Jay-Z’s defiant “99 Problems.” The Grey Album led the charge in the “mash-up” movement, which is characterized by the simultaneous mixing of two disparate songs to create a new song. Originally, Danger Mouse had intended to merely distribute The Grey Album amongst his friends. However, the project quickly acquired a buzz and was spread virally throughout the internet. The album’s sampled nature began to raise questions about copyright laws. As the popularity of the project expanded, The Beatles’ former label EMI (which holds the rights to The White Album) ordered all outlets that were selling The Grey Album to immediately cease their sales. Assisted by the controversy the album caused both legally and musically, The Grey Album was named “Album of The Year” by Entertainment Weekly.
The projects that Danger Mouse chose were quickly earning the rodent-themed producer a reputation as an unpredictable yet prestigious artist. Amongst The Grey Album’s admirers was Damon Albarn, frontman for Brit-pop icons Blur and The Gorillaz. With the departure of the group’s original producer Dan the Automator, Danger Mouse was picked to produce The Gorillaz's second album, Demon Days (2005 Virgin), which was released in 2005. Danger Mouse enlisted a squad of guest artists that matched his esoteric reputation including Trugoy of De La Soul and Bootie Brown of The Pharcyde, as well as unexpected guests like Ike Turner (who plays piano on “Every Planet We Reach Is Dead”) and Dennis Hopper (who narrates “Fire Coming out of the Monkey's Head”). The Gorillaz’ 2001 debut album Gorillaz (2001 Virgin) thrived on the mere novelty of an all-cartoon characters band. Conversely, Demon Days was a further exploration of the identities of the group’s core cartoon members, as well as the fantastic world that they inhabit. Demon Days earned Danger Mouse a Grammy nomination for “Producer of The Year.”
Returning to his hip-hop roots, Danger Mouse teamed with the enigmatic and prolific MC MF Doom to form the group Dangerdoom. Their album The Mouse and the Mask (2005 Epitaph) further showcases the flexibility of Danger Mouse’s talents. The album was blessed with Mouse’s melodic savvy and featured guest appearances such as Ghostface Killah and Talib Kweli. However, The Mouse and the Mask also fed Danger Mouse’s desire to involve himself in lighthearted and upbeat projects, which can be heard through the album’s sizable amount of cartoon culture influence, including its close ties to several of Cartoon Network’s edgy cartoon series like Space Ghost and Aqua Teen Hunger Force.
In early 2006, Danger Mouse reconnected with Cee-Lo, a former member of Atlanta-based rap group Goodie Mob. The pair had previously collaborated on several songs for various projects including Dangerdoom (“Benzie Box”) and Danger Mouse’s collaboration with Jemini (“What U Sittin’ On?”). However, while the duo had come together on hip-hop-oriented projects in the past, the pair’s new amalgamation, Gnarles Barkley, pushed its music far beyond their previous boundaries. Gnarles Barkley’s album, St. Elsewhere (2006 Downtown), gently fuses soul, hip-hop, and alternative rock. Danger Mouse has stated that he felt no artist is ever taken seriously unless they are perceived to be somewhat crazy. Gnarles Barkley’s first single, the violin-powered and aptly-named “Crazy,” was an unexpectedly popular song. It charted at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and number one on the UK charts.
An integral part of the Gnarles Barkly brand of insanity was the duo’s costumes. Cee-Lo and Danger Mouse dressed as Roman warriors, super heroes, and movie monsters, as well as characters from Star Wars, A Clockwork Orange, Napoleon Dynamite, The Wizard of Oz, and so forth. The wildly popular St. Elsewhere went on to platinum status, which ironically highlighting the fact that the original title for the album was to be Who Cares?
2006 also saw the versatile producer work with artists like Sparklehorse on their album Dreamt for Light Years in the Belly of a Mountain (2006 Capitol), as well as several tracks on The Rapture’s Pieces of the People We Love (2006 Vertigo). Towards the end of the year, Danger Mouse’s artistic achievements went beyond music and into grassroots, situationist prankster territory. About 500 retail store copies of Paris Hilton’s album Paris (2006 Heiress) were replaced with decoy copies that had liner notes laced with satirical photos of Hilton and, instead of the expected music, an audio-collage of unintelligent Hilton sound bites. It was later revealed that the scandal was perpetrated by Danger Mouse (who mixed the audio-collage) and renegade visual artist Banksy. The incident certainly revealed the producer’s punk rock prankster side.
Next, Danger Mouse produced an album for a nameless supergroup comprised of former-Clash bassist Paul Simonon, Simon Tong of The Verve, legendary Nigerian-percussionist Tony Allen, and Gorillaz catalyst Damon Albarn. The Good, The Bad and The Queen (2007 Parlophone) is a concept album that examines life in London. The album was fairly successful, despite the minimal amount of promotion that went into it.
2008 was yet another busy year for Danger Mouse. He produced Attack & Release (2008 Nonesuch) for Ohio-based blues rockers The Black Keys, and then Beck’s eighth album, the warmly-received Modern Guilt (2008 Interscope). The most important project Danger Mouse attended to in 2008 was probably Gnarles Barkley’s follow up to St. Elsewhere, The Odd Couple (2008 Atlantic). While the album saw a stronger emphasis on Cee-Lo’s soulful projections, songs like “Who's Gonna Save My Soul,” “Run,” and “No Time Soon,” continued to bend genres. Danger Mouse also later released elpuoc ddo eht, which is the entire Odd Couple album played backwards. It was released both free of charge on the internet, as well as on a bonus disc on the vinyl edition of The Odd Couple.