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Danger Mouse

January 28, 2009

Grown men in full-body mouse suits not only scare the bejesus out of namby-pamby elephants but, armed with production know-how, also send record companies into panic mode. DJ Danger Mouse, an occasional devotee of the mouse costume, blew listeners away this past winter with The Grey Album (Cat & Mouse, 2004), remixing vocals from Jay-Z's Black Album (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 2003) with deconstructed snares, cymbals and guitars extracted from The Beatles' White Album (Capitol, 1968). Label giant EMI slapped him with a cease-and-desist order for failing to clear the Beatles samples, but on February 24, 2004, 170 Websites independently banded together and hosted the album content online in an act of civil disobedience. Amazingly, more than 100,000 people downloaded the album in that one 24-hour period.

Danger Mouse went “Internet Platinum” in one day and completed the ultimate hat trick for a new artist: He made an album that people willingly broke the law to obtain; he went down in remix history; and he earned mad street cred in the process. Lesser known, however, is his legal music with New York rhyme spitter Jemini, which is the real crime. The duo's Twenty-Six Inch (Lex, 2004) EP should right this wrong.

As with The Grey Album, all Twenty-Six Inch tracks began on DM's bedroom PC with Sony's Acid Pro software. “I do almost all of my preproduction in my bedroom,” Danger Mouse says. “I have to be working next to a bed when I'm coming up with new stuff. It's really bizarre.”

Downstairs, an L.A. basement studio houses a Digidesign Pro Tools HD setup, an E-mu SP-1200 sampler, a Wurlitzer and various vintage organs. But during the recording of 2003's Ghetto Pop Life (Lex), bare-bones was the order of the day. Back then, an Ensoniq ASR-X sampler, a Roland XP-60 keyboard and a pair of Technics SL-1200 turntables formed the core, along with Acid Pro and his trusty bedside PC. “I started using Acid a lot because it's pretty basic,” he relates. “It's more about the person using it than the program itself.”

Sadly, the man's prize possession, a Univox Mini-Korg, is a victim of overkill. “I wish I could use my Mini-Korg a little more, but everyone's using it right now, so I'm trying to avoid it,” DM says. “I have to just sit down and mess with the presets and make my own sounds.”

But in searching for the perfect original sound, DM has learned not to get too attached to his creations. “My first beats were off a little Roland phrase sampler that didn't have any memory on it — no disk drive or anything,” he says. “When you turned it off, all the samples were gone. I'd spend a day working on it, go to sleep and have nightmares that the power would go out overnight. It taught me you have to move on.”

These days, he's outfitted with surge-protected equipment and enforces the time limits himself. “Now, if I'm not jumping out of my seat like, ‘Holy shit, holy shit,'' the first 15, 20 minutes, whatever I'm doing, I just scrap it,” he admits. “You just got to.”

The production strategy goes like this: chop and layer. On The Grey Album, Danger Mouse reportedly averaged 16 layers per cut. To get the secret-agent guitar sound in “The Only One” from Ghetto Pop Life, he chopped up three guitar loops from different samples and tweaked them in Acid Pro. He then tested out almost 30 records over the track before choosing the sped-up sample that energizes the song. “I audition records on the turntables while my tracks are playing to see whatever fits,” Danger Mouse says. “You just have to make sure the pitches match. The record was a little bit off, but it worked, so I just sped it up and made it fit like I was mixing it live. It's all by ear. A lot is just trial-and-error and luck.”

Certainly, DJ mice give sound production advice. Adopt their fashion tips with caution, however. As for the mouse suit, sometimes the best defense is a good offense. “I feel more comfortable in the mouse suit because I feel like I'm giving people a reason to look at me,” Danger Mouse says. “If it's obvious why people are looking at me, it's much better. I just got a new one the other day, so I might start rocking that one here and there.”

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