Long before Glee aired its unfortunate mash-up of Beyoncé's "Halo" and Katrina & the Waves' "Walking on Sunshine," there was The Grey Album. A completely unauthorized mix of the Beatles' The White Album and Jay-Z's The Black Album, the underground release gave birth to the whole mash-up movement while garnering unprecedented press for creator Brian Joseph Burton, better known as Danger Mouse.
Of course, that was nearly 10 years ago. So when local audio engineer John Stewart decided on a whim to stay up all night remastering The Grey Album, he had no idea that anything would come of it. But after posting the result on his Soundcloud page, he was amazed to watch it go viral and reach the point where, two days later, he'd been profiled on Forbes.com and written up by high-profile sites like Slate, NME and the Source.
Two weeks later, the 25-year-old Stewart is still trying to make sense of this latest development in what was already an unlikely career trajectory.
Raised in Lebanon, Tenn., a Nashville suburb that's not exactly an epicenter of hip-hop culture, Stewart says he would accompany his mom to the Kroger down the street so that he could pore over hip-hop mags like XXL and The Source while she was getting groceries.
After his family relocated to Colorado Springs, he graduated from District 20's Rampart High and enrolled in a Dallas recording school. It was there, he says, that a chance encounter with Kanye West backup singer Tony Williams led to Stewart engineering projects that would feature artists ranging from John Legend to Kanye himself.
Now back in the Springs, Stewart continues to work with national artists — he's just finished a new mixtape for former U-N-I emcee Yonas Michael — as he contemplates his next moves. In the following interview, he talks about his take on The Grey Album and what could possibly come of it.
Indy: I saw a post on Facebook the other day where someone said, "You have 99 problems, but needing a remastered version of The Grey Album ain't one." What did motivate you to undertake this project? Was it something you just did for yourself, or was it in the back of your mind that it could go viral?
John Stewart: I had no idea. It was just kind of a project that I put together for myself, and I had no idea that people would care at all.
Indy: So if someone with no background in audio recording listened to the two versions back-to-back, what differences would they hear?
JS: The moment that you hit play, on his version you hear the vinyl surface noise of the Beatles recordings. I mean, I have a huge vinyl collection, and I love hearing the scratches and little tics when you're listening to vinyl. But I hate hearing that in MP3 form. If I'm in my car, I don't want it to sound like I'm listening to vinyl.
So the first thing I did was to try to strip away a lot of that noise. Beyond that, I played with the high end to try to give a little more clarity to Jay-Z's vocals. And I also wanted to give more body to the low end. Back in the Beatles' day, they'd basically just have three room mics on the drum set. So to my ear, it was like, "Oh, I wish the kick drum just kicked more."
Indy: I know there's a tradition of unauthorized remixes, but doing an unauthorized remastering seems almost masochistic. It's not like there's much glamour in it.
JS: Yeah, that's the crazy thing. I mean, I've always loved the project, and Danger Mouse was a genius to put it together in the first place. But I'm an engineer, I didn't create anything new. Honestly, it's like the same CD that people have had for almost a decade. I made it sound a little bit better. And I mean, in all honesty, I still don't think it sounds that great.
Indy: This does seem like something that would only appeal to a very niche community. So how did it go from there to Forbes?
JS: I'm not sure. I wish I could replicate it. I'd do it all the time. I was just on my phone, retweeting the flood of tweets about it, and this e-mail showed up saying "Interview Request for John Stewart." And I was like, "Alright, someone wants to interview me, awesome!" And then I open it up and it says, "I'm a writer for Forbes.com." I was like, "Excuse me, what?" And we ended up talking for 25 minutes.
Indy: So at this point, what's the best thing you could imagine coming out of all the media attention you're getting?
JS: Honestly, I really don't know what to expect. The biggest thing I could ask for would be the opportunity to work with great artists making great music. You know, in whatever capacity that's in. If it's someone local here, that's incredible, I would love to work with them. If Kanye calls me tomorrow and says, "Hey, we're going to Hawaii and I want you to be on board," then awesome. But, you know, I don't really expect that.
Indy: Have you paid your phone bill just in case?
JS: Um, I haven't, actually. I got an e-mail from Verizon a few days ago. Yeah, I probably need to do that.