Looking Back at “Shades of Blue” - Blue Week


By Matthew DeMello

Photo courtesy of The Picklebear.

Save for the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s suicide that occurred over the weekend, the internet is piping with music-focused ten year anniversaries lately. When, roughly a decade ago, music publications both online and offline felt the need to quantify the cultural output of the 20th Century, the music that was released in the midst of that nostalgia sat idly in a sort of forgotten zone of pop culture–at least when it comes to that all-too-subjective sense of an artist “getting their due.”

Here’s a great example–Rolling Stone’s list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time” was released in the late November 2003 issue, the same that awarded a four-star review to the now-classic The Black Album by Jay-Z.

It may be hard to tell why now, but there was some risk in giving a record even as obviously outstanding as The Black Album too much merit. Especially in the same issue in which the Baby Boomer critics’ age-old debate over Sgt. Pepper vs. Pet Sounds was “decided” once and for all. (Suck it, Mojo magazine.)

Fast forward to 2014 and if you check out Rolling Stone’s haplessly updated online version of the list today, you’ll find The Black Album sitting comfortably at #349, between Muddy Waters’ At Newport 1960 and The Yardbirds’ Roger the Engineer (aka Over Under Sideways Down). The license for revisionism that the magazine feels the need to execute over their own list (or how transparent they should be about such changes) is another discussion all together–and definitely doesn’t trump far more important debates about journalistic etiquette being had over the world wide web.

Though it does highlight the awkward obstacle between the music from that time period and its proper legacy; only now are we starting to recognize that the music of Bush America did not, in fact, suck whole sale. As writers like Michael Azzerad and Simon Reynolds have said about the Reagan era (not sure if there’s a direct political causation here, but the parallels are palpable), some of the best music of the ‘00s sat just below the radar, saving its Nirvana-style pop-chart revolution for some ever-postponed tomorrow.

Among the more unique developments of the era, as is being celebrated somewhat now under the wider umbrella of the ‘golden-age’ of indie hip-hop, is the growth of mash-up culture. It is difficult to point to a precise work where the idea of the mash-up first began. What began as an attention grabbing creative exercise flirting with the pitfalls of copyright law, is now less a musical genre and more another tangential accessory of internet life.

Where the term entered popular lexicon is a little easier to pinpoint, musically. My best guess would be between Danger Mouse’s career-defining mixtape The Grey Album–which placed Jay’s rhymes in front of an unprecedented tapestry of samples cut directly from The White Album–and the first Girl Talk record. But before college students huddled around laptops marveling at how well “Jet” by Wings sounded behind Dem Franchize Boyz, there was Madlib and Shades of Blue.

If you’re unfamiliar with Madlib, there is a good chance you probably don’t actively frequent BTR’s lineup of alternative hip-hop podcasts. There, you’d be hard pressed to find a beat clearly culled from some asinine ‘70s Sunday morning cartoon special that doesn’t partially owe some credit to the cult-inspiring producer. On the whole of the internet, however, you can find his name filed under piles of op-eds published within the last few weeks all discussing the nearly sacred place that Madvillainy (his 2004 project with the enigmatic MC, MF Doom) now holds in the underground.

Yet just a few years before, Madlib’s name was big enough to be courted actively for a nearly unprecedented collaboration with the dinosaur jazz label, Blue Note, in which the producer was allowed extensive access to their archives for the ends of making a predominantly instrumental hip-hop jazz record.

The resulting project, 2003’s Shades of Blue, gives us an idea of what might have happened had Danger Mouse sought EMI’s approval before pulling apart Beatles’ tracks for The Grey Album–or rather, if the industry actually embraced digitally-driven post-modernism the way it should be embraced. Though Shades of Blue may not have as much clout as The Grey Album does today for bucking the system (not to mention coalescing two substantial works by such disparate and towering artists), there’s something to be said about the polish that an official industry sanction can give to the kind of musical endeavor that normally operates on the legal fringes.

Back to back, Shades of Blue practically sounds like an audiophile’s paradise compared to the often rougher ends where software limitations held back The Grey Album from its full sonic potential. Then again, The Grey Album was never about sounding great so much as proving such a lofty and ambitious idea was even possible to begin with. That Danger Mouse never sought EMI’s permission to access the original White Album session tapes is half of his accomplishment (in addition to the album being even remotely enjoyable, let alone brilliant).

In the case of Shades of Blue, the quality stakes were higher for Madlib where the legal stakes were inexistent. Simply put, there was no excuse not to sound like the product of the latest and greatest technology that 2003 could afford.

Check out the video below to hear “Stepping Into Tomorrow” from Shades of Blue. Unlike anything on The Grey Album or Madvillainy, the “lead vocal” sample sounds like it was recorded yesterday, never mind that it is a 10-year-old sample of a now 40-year-old song.

Here’s the original composition by Donald Byrd, released on Blue Note Records in 1975. The dirtier YouTube bounce of the track, while still substantially better quality than you can find elsewhere on any video site, gives you an idea of how much grittier Shades of Blue might have been if Madlib never had Blue Note’s support.

That cleanliness may make Shades of Blue less sexy to the purveyors of cool. For those who love the underdogs of music, a beautiful mess will always be more interesting than a shining diamond given life through industry approval. Though record labels seem to have gotten the clue that suing beatmakers over samples is fruitless if not outright asking for bad publicity, there have been fewer examples in the time since Shades of Blue of labels brokering the means to sample their material.

Over a decade later, Shades of Blue is a reminder of what can happen when labels put down their guns–I mean lawyers–and start embracing the limitless potentials of artist collaboration.