A game of cat and danger mouse
Chasing the person and persona of a transatlantic hip-hop producer
In the shadow of London Bridge, time seems to drag with a limp. Inside a southeast London pub called The Rose, an old man presides over a fireplace hearth in a spot he may well have occupied for the better part of his days. Outside, it's a typical English evening in early April — a wet wind sweeps down the cobblestone corridors.
There's not a lot of youth emanating from The Rose, but the pub plays its part in the story of a hip-hop producer whose time has come. This is the story of Brian Burton — aka Pelican City, aka Danger Mouse — a producer with local roots and a habit of uprooting, who has managed to achieve international acclaim by bowing tradition across genres, formats and continents. And it's the story of getting to know him while trying to find him.
I first met Burton rather inauspiciously at the Masquerade one late February evening in 2001. He was DJing a set of upfront hip-hop that didn't really reflect the nature of his own productions. Nor did he betray the "little black kid bugging out to Beethoven," as he would later describe himself. At the time, Burton's home base was Athens, his pseudonym Pelican City. He had released The Chilling Effect and Rhode Island, two full-length CDs of moist, earthy cinematic productions that were more meditative than movement-inducing — more head-bobbing than body-rocking — the sound of slowly wandering a city at night.
The muted melody and blunted bliss of Pelican City productions seemed to reveal Burton as a guy trying to find his place by mastering the art of placement — but in the process betraying that he perhaps felt out of place. It's not inconceivable given his history.
Burton was born in the New York area, where his older sister introduced him to hip-hop, but spent his high school years in Decatur. He then attended UGA, where he was indoctrinated into the world of indie rock through working in a record store with several of the members of the Elephant 6 collective (eventually remixing Neutral Milk Hotel's "The Fool" on Pelican City's The Chilling Effect). At the same time, he was DJing around town and putting out hip-hop mixtapes.
By the time he graduated, however, Burton couldn't see much future for what he was trying to do in Athens. So he turned his gaze on new digs. At the time, bands like Portishead and Radiohead were where Burton's head was at, so he decided it was time for the pelican to fly the coop for London.
Arriving with little more than a British booking agent's business card he'd scored promoting Pelican City at the South By Southwest music conference, Burton found himself fielding a meeting for a job at Barfly, a 40 Watt-ish live music venue located above a pub in Camden. A band from New York called The Strokes happened to be playing its first U.K. gig that night, and Burton was impressed by the enthusiasm that greeted the group's music, basically a reinvigoration of the familiar. Burton didn't get the job at Barfly that night, but he did land a bartending job at The Rose and decided to stay.
On typical British evenings, as that wet wind swept the streets, Burton would sequester himself in his room working sampler knobs like beer taps, capturing the intoxicating flow of filmic funk into three or four minute segments. He hooked up with Warp Records subsidiary Lex, who dug his instrumentals, and solicited rhymes from Brooklyn's Jemini the Gifted One, a long-time favorite MC whose verses Burton always vibed to on mixtapes. Lex was into it. Jemini was down with it. Burton and Jemini traded tapes in the mail till they finally convened in New York's D&D Studios.
The resulting sessions were originally slated to be an EP but bulged to an album, and were finally released on these shores in September (three months after its U.K. release) as Ghetto Pop Life. It's 16 tracks of grimy melodic beats and dramatic, dynamic, damn-near operatic verses recorded as Danger Mouse & Jemini (for copyright reasons, written DM & Jemini on the booklet). The record mixes choirs and guitar chords with Jemini's vocal versatility, which can range from bedrock-solid boasting to soaring sing-song. Danger Mouse & Jemini's own reinvigoration of the familiar, marrying careening East Coast swagger to bumpin' West Coast stroll, grew to a partnership. With Jemini playing director to Danger Mouse's cinematographer, the duo assured listeners to "get comfortable, invest in us; we've been around the block, we'll be around a long time."
Now relocated to Los Angeles, Burton continues to stitch together beats and samples like pinstripes and plaids — matching seemingly opposing patterns into sturdy new blueprints. He's worked with the Pharcyde, Tha Liks, Prince Po, Sage Francis, Cee-Lo and Sadat X to make some of the best hip-hop from any coast.
His most recent production, to be released independently in March as a quasi-bootleg, is called The Grey Album. The CD combines the a cappella versions from Jay-Z's recently released Black Album with newly produced musical beds comprised in their entirety from samples off the Beatles' White Album. It's a further fleshed realization of Burton's quest to combine a love of psychedelic rock, soundtracks and hip-hop of the Prince Paul/DJ Premiere variety to build a bridge between outer space and inner city.
In April of last year, three months before Ghetto Pop Life's release, I was in London, so I tried to meet up with Burton. At the last minute, though, he had to fly to New York to do some interviews. So I ended up at The Rose with Ghetto Pop Life playing in my iPod, engaged in a staring contest with an old man. Within six months, British publications including The Face and The Guardian would laud Ghetto Pop Life next to OutKast as one of the favorite hip-hop albums of the year. Eight months later, after failing to hook-up in London and again in L.A., I'd finally see Burton in the flesh in Atlanta. Nice guy, he stopped by my place to drop off a CD of recent productions while he passed through town visiting his family for Christmas.
Over the course of the 10 months since I received Ghetto Pop Life, Burton and I had spoken several times. But it was sitting at The Rose, isolated in my iPod, that I most fully understood his wanderlust, his eccentricities and how he arrived at that album. While you can learn a lot about people in a close-knit town like Athens, an isolating sprawl like London or L.A. can give you the space and time to understand more clearly what you like and are like.
What's more, there are few better ways to determine how sounds relate and translate than by traveling. They should take you on a journey, but they should also journey with you, never sounding outdated or out of place. It helps to have seen and heard a lot of scenery if you're gonna paint a convincing background.
With an effervescent ease, Ghetto Pop Life paints a backdrop of classic hip-hop and psychedelic soundtracks that confirmed what I knew about Burton. Like his earlier productions, it sets mood. Like his DJing, it sets it off. It's like a fine bubbly poured by an experienced bartender — no good if you keep it bottled up. You gotta let it flow. Like Prince said, "Life it ain't real funky/Unless it's got that pop."