Few artists this century have been as closely associated with the concept of sampling as Danger Mouse. In 2004, the producer born Brian Burton achieved acclaim as something of an audio Banksy—a pop-art collagist whose rule-breaking wasn’t just a feature, but a calling card. He owed that reputation to The Grey Album, on which he mixed acapellas from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with beats made from bits of the Beatles’ self-titled White Album. It was a deconstruction of two classics that became a significant work in its own right, launching a thousand lawyer’s letters (and seemingly as many lesser imitators, lest we forget The Black and Blue Album).
In the aftermath of his landmark mashup, Burton turned out a few more famed projects crafted largely on samples. That list includes his chart-topping psych-soul team-up with Cee-lo Green, Gnarls Barkley, plus the MF DOOM collab The Mouse & the Mask, built on the backs of library records and Adult Swim IP. But Burton’s work quickly expanded outside of the realm of MPCs and DAWs. By the end of the 2000s, he’d joined forces with the likes of Damon Albarn in the Gorillaz, the Black Keys for their most commercially successful works, and the Shins’ James Mercer in the adored indie-pop duo Broken Bells. Burton had essentially become the Rick Rubin of the blog era: the rare producer who went from flipping breakbeats and loops to being a trusted guru for guitar gods and rock stars.
More recently, Burton has helmed excellent albums from Karen O and Parquet Courts. But aside from a few stray tracks with A$AP Rocky, he’s largely stayed clear of sampling. That changes Friday, when he returns with Cheat Codes, a full-length collaboration with Roots frontman Black Thought dreamed up in the mid-2000s and completed over the past few years. A muscular 12 tracks over 38 minutes, Cheat Codes is catnip for hip-hop purists that never feels musty. Burton digs deep into his crates, using soul and psych samples to build evocative backdrops for Thought. In turn, Thought gives a tremendous pure rapping performance in a career loaded with them. (At age 50, Thought’s lost none of the hunger nor any of the syllable wizardry that’s made him a cult hero. It’s spellbinding to hear him work through his verses on the bluesy title track or the ethereal “Aquamarine.”)
Tariq Trotter’s acumen won’t shock anyone who’s paid attention to his work with the Roots for three decades—or become a convert more recently with his viral Funk Flex freestyle. But with Burton working outside of hip-hop for so long, his contributions may make doubters perk up. In his time away from the genre, the producer’s skills have grown considerably: On Cheat Codes, his drums hit harder, his loops crackle louder, and his melodies swell and move unexpectedly. It’s loaded with striking moments of melancholy, like the beautiful coda to “Identical Deaths” or the posthumous MF DOOM collab “Belize.” But Burton has also honed his ability to deliver straight-ahead head-nodders, as he does on the A$AP Rocky–and–Run the Jewels–assisted “Strangers” or the chilling “Saltwater.” (The latter would sound like a perfect Griselda track even without the guest verse from Conway the Machine.) Cheat Codes surpasses even the best moments of his previous high-water hip-hop project: his 2003 Jemini the Gifted One collab, Ghetto Pop Life. Nearly 20 years after he helped define an era with The Grey Album, Burton is on the verge of releasing his finest work as a beatsmith.
But while Cheat Codes may seem like a departure from his recent work, Burton views it as a piece of the rich tapestry of an unexpected career. Perhaps that’s fitting for an artist who rose to fame weaving together seemingly incongruent things. The Ringer recently caught up with Burton to talk about the album, his return to making sample-based music, how the DOOM feature came about, and what it was like to work with one of his musical heroes.
I think a good place to start is whether you consider this a return to hip-hop for you. Black Thought has said it was, and it’s been in some of the discussion around the album. Obviously you’ve worked on a lot of rock projects the past decade-plus. Do you view Cheat Codes as a return?
I didn’t think about it so deliberately. This was really a collaboration with Tariq that felt very natural. I listened to his music a lot when I was younger. He was my favorite rapper. When I started making beats, a couple of my friends rapped, and the reason I liked certain friends was because they sounded like Black Thought. So it just was a natural thing.
Whether it’s working with people, or other musicians, or I’m sampling myself or trying to play stuff myself, it’s all a little bit of a different process, depending on who I’m working with. When it’s one rapper, it gives me a chance to be isolated and go into the stuff that I did early on, which was grabbing a lot of samples and messing with stuff, and trying to do it that way. Knowing at the end of it I was going to have Tariq, that was great.
We started doing stuff way back, around 2005, ‘06, but it wasn’t really that focused. It was just like, “Oh man, this will be cool. Let’s mess around for a little bit.” But then I got really caught up with Gnarls Barkley, and that took years, and then he was really busy too. So we just kept coming back to it, and then it was just a call. I hadn’t thought, “Oh, I need to get back in there doing more hip-hop.”
How did that call go?
We were talking, “Do we really want to do it?” But we both said, of course we do. I had been starting to sample more around that time, even with some Broken Bells music and some other stuff, it was just a different process. It fit really nicely with getting back with Tariq. But I will say, I don’t think I could have made this record a long time ago. Or it wouldn’t have sounded like this.
I was really comfortable with where I’m at, where I feel like I wasn’t trying to prove anything. I thought it would be fun to hear Tariq over this or hear him over that, that kind of thing. I think if I had done this 10, 12 years ago, it would’ve been trying to prove something more. This time it was more trying to make something I thought I’d want to hear myself.
There are obvious differences in the role of a producer in hip-hop and other genres. In rap, the producer traditionally makes the music. Elsewhere, the producer typically tries to bring the best performance out of the musicians. Beyond that, are there philosophical differences?
The song structure and the melodic nature of things is a lot different. I’m a lot more involved in those kinds of things when I’m working with singers. It’s just a different tone when it’s hip-hop, for the most part. It’s almost like Gnarls Barkley is a mixture of the two, because that was done very similar to this record where I did a bunch of music myself, and then you just go, “Here, listen to this and react to it.” You’re going to get different results that way than you are if you’re making the music with them and then they’re singing as you’re going.
For better or for worse, it’s just different. When I work on things that wind up being more hip-hop related, there’s not as many different directions or variables in the process. It’s really a lot more straightforward of, “Here’s a bunch of music, and sit with it. What’s coming to mind? What are you doing?” When I work with vocalists who are singing, they’re giving me pieces, a little of this, a little of that, and we start putting it together and looking at structure, looking at the verses and chords and bridges and things like that.
I never really wanted producing to be like either one of those, really. I do whatever part needs to be to be there, but it’s really just me trying to make records and stuff I want to hear. And I may have to get much more involved or I may not, it just depends. I’m not really looking to go out and help other people. I’m going out just to make something I want to hear, however I have to do it.
What’s your relationship with sampling these days?
It’s different now. I hadn’t sampled stuff in a long time. I’ve been more into it recently because, like I was saying, there’s some samples on the Bells stuff I’ve been doing. I think it started when I started working with A$AP Rocky—the first thing we did was 2011 or ‘12. There was no sample on that—I came in and I played everything. But then when we started working on that next album, and I was helping out, there are a lot of great samples from other producers he was working with, and I was like, “Oh, that’s great,” and I just missed that. So he got me to go in there and start doing more of that.
I’ve been doing it since then. Some of it wound up on this record, some of it went with Rocky. Some of it’s unfinished, some of it’s on some other stuff that I can’t really get into. It was just basically looking back on an older process, but now, having worked with a lot of songwriters and learning how to write songs, what I look for when I sample and what I do with it is a little bit different. I think it’s a little better, hopefully, than it was in the past.
Listening to this record versus listening to something like The Mouse & the Mask—which was 17 years ago at this point—this feels different. Cheat Codes feels a little dustier to my ears than DANGERDOOM or the first Gnarls LP, where it sounded to me like you were taking dusty samples and trying to get them as clean as possible. Am I off-base there?
I think that I’ve certainly never tried in the past to clean up anything. I felt like the first Gnarls record was pretty dirty—at the time, that’s what I was thinking. But I guess I have a lot more context right now, so the more stuff you do, the more things you go, “Oh, well that’s not very dirty. This is dirty.” Maybe there’s something that has to do with that, but that certainly wasn’t conscious. I like generally dirty, distorted, heavier types of things—things that are broken. I’m always looking for something that makes sense, even though it’s broken, I guess, and so that’s what I’m trying to pull from things. Maybe [on Cheat Codes] I was better at getting that across, or had more context as to how far I could go. Whenever I’m doing something, it’s really just: It makes sense to me, and I don’t see how it could be any other way. And then I can look back on it 10 years later and go, “Well, why didn’t I do this? Why didn’t I do that?” But at the time, it makes sense to me.
You talk about being able to do things now that you might not have been able to do had you done Cheat Codes when you first discussed it. Like, I hear it personally on the back half of “Identical Deaths,” which is beautiful. But what does that mean to you?
I think it’s restraint—just being really glad that things are great, and not trying to insert too much more, trying to put a mark on something. I’ve learned over the years that showing a series of things that you love is actually who you are. It’s not that you have to hammer this or do this, or stick this here or stick this there just to make sure that you left your mark. Just have the confidence that over time, grabbing this, grabbing that, putting this here, putting that there, that’s great. It feels really good. If it’s not right, you keep going until it sounds right.
[Also] thinking a bunch of other beat makers are listening to see if I’m worthy, or something like that. I don’t really care about that. Maybe I would have before, but this was much more a personal pleasure. I just know that when you do 30 songs, it will be clear to other people. The patterns will show themselves. They’ll pop out. You may not even know what the patterns are yourself, but they’ll be there, and don’t worry about it.
I was wondering whether you felt pressure to prove yourself all over again.
Nah. I’ve been listening to hip-hop for a long, long time, and I haven’t listened to a whole lot of new stuff, relatively. It’s not really the main genre I listen to—it hasn’t been for a long time. But I still have the core of it from my formative years, so it’s still there. It’s still a very natural thing to do, but how and where that fits in outside of making it, I don’t know. And I didn’t know with this album how that was going to work either, but it didn’t really matter because I can’t change how I feel about the work I’m doing. I can’t make myself like something more than I do, so I don’t even try.
It was always curious to me that you became really well-known off The Grey Album, which is one of the most famous examples of sampling of the 21st century. And within the next few years, you were working a lot with live bands and not really sampling as much. Was that an intentional shift on your part?
Not really, because that’s not really how it played out in my head. I know what you mean, but I think that the next two projects I did that were pretty significant were very sample-based, which was DANGERDOOM and Gnarls Barkley. There were samples on almost every song on those.
I think it was more having to do with having worked with Damon [Albarn] on the Gorillaz album [Demon Days]. The Damon record being the one without samples—it was me learning songwriting, learning structure. And the possibilities when you weren’t limited by the samples and by the music you’re taking and using here and there. There were so many more variables and options and places you could go, as opposed to the samples, which were really limiting at the time.
I feel like the music on the Gorillaz album reminded me a lot more of the songs that I remembered listening to before I got into hip-hop. Whether it was ’80s pop and rock music, even hair metal music, and then my parents’ soul records. So I went more in that direction, but it was piece by piece. It was project by project.
That was more me collaborating with people like Beck and the Black Keys, where they had these abilities to do these things. But how I heard what they were doing was different than how they heard it, and that was an interesting combination. So little by little, I was learning more and more about songwriting, while still using aesthetics that made sense to me. So it was never really planned. It was tapping back into something that was even more, I think, inherent, and more based in my foundation—more songs, melodies, and things like that.
Is there value in those limitations when you’re just starting out, in a weird way?
Of course. You have to have them. It’s too hard if you know all the options that are available to you. If you understand the complications of everything, it’ll just screw your head up and you won’t even try. You wouldn’t do anything if you understood how many different things you could be doing, so it’s better when you’re younger to just go and do stuff based on that. You don’t want to learn too much about what you’re doing before you start doing it.
How is Black Thought as a collaborator?
He’s incredible, honestly. I’ve never seen anybody be able to do so much with words, the way he puts things together and the time that he does it in. It’s incredible. When we recorded, it was just the two of us. I didn’t use an engineer, which I usually do for everything else. It was just the two of us doing it together, and just writing it and recording it with a microphone. I thought originally we were going to be like, “Oh, we’ll demo these things,” but we wound up keeping everything. We kept working that way.
It’s pretty special to see him do it. “You wrote that just now?” And he’s like, “Yeah.” He’s just so—I wouldn’t even say fast, because that acts as though that’s more important than the quality, but the quality of it’s so high, and he’s so tuned in to what he’s doing. He’s really good at listening if there’s suggestions on things. He’s dedicated. He cares, and it’s just something that’s hard to find a lot of times with people who’ve gotten to a certain place in their careers. It’s really hard to find people still really care so much about the details of things, and really, really putting themselves into it all the way.
It’s amazing to me how sharp he is today, still. There’s always talk about rappers falling off, and he’s as sharp if not sharper than ever, and it comes across on this record.
Well, think about it this way too. Rapping is not singing, so it’s more like being purely a writer in a lot of ways. You’re bound to get better with time, through your experience. He’s probably rapped more than any rapper who’s ever lived, probably two or three times over. He was in a band playing 300 shows [a year] for decades, and who’s rapped that many times? Process-wise, who’s actually, as an active skill, rapped more than Black Thought? Nobody, not even close.
His muscle memory and his ability to do that is on such a high level, and there’s no reason why it won’t keep getting better, as long as he keeps wanting to practice it the way someone would at a high level of any other skill. And it’s not something that’s going to erode like his legs or his arms, or anything else like that. It actually could get better for a while, and it sounds like he has.
If you go back and listen to his earlier stuff, it’s different. His voice tone is a little different, but delivery-wise, it sounds more like a chosen difference than a limitation based on anything that has to do with age. I think he’s the best he’s ever been. It makes sense why. You see that freestyle he did on Funkmaster Flex: Only somebody who has reached that level—which we just haven’t seen—can do something like that. I don’t know what would’ve been more impressive, if he had memorized it all and nailed every little bit of it with the cadence, with the delivery, or if he was changing it up and going off the top of his head.
How did the DOOM feature come about? Was that something that you had kicking around?
When DOOM and I finished the album, we kept working together for years here and there. Track here, track there, but not really a lot of finished stuff. And there was a time when that overlapped with me working with Tariq. They were both fans of each other, and so there were a few songs we did where I was like, “Hey, I got a verse from Black Thought. You want to do one?” He was like, “Yeah, great,” and then vice versa. This particular song was one that I never did get Tariq on, but was what we had talked about. We had talked about doing that. So I had it, and I just held it and held it, and when we were doing this project, decided to use it.
Are there any artistic considerations that go into working on a posthumous collab with an artist like DOOM? Are there any extra pressures, any extra care? I would imagine there are some emotions that go into it.
At the time I didn’t realize it, but looking back on it, probably. I changed the music a few different times to make sure it was right. But Tariq helped with that, and helped with his input on it, and we were pretty confident this was good to go when it was time. But we’d had a couple of, actually, other versions of it musically, where the beats I thought were good at the time.
Sometimes you’re doing something creative, and you’re just like, “I know it’s not right.” Other people might not know exactly what it is, and you don’t even necessarily know how to make it right, but you just know it’s not. I started messing with it more and then realized it could be something that would work, that I felt like, “Oh man, this just sounds right.”
I know you said that you didn’t feel any pressure to prove yourself on this. But ultimately, what do you hope people get out of Cheat Codes?
With any record, I just hope people live with it long enough for them to have it be part of their lives for a while, and then when they come back to whenever they hear it, they remember this time, whether it’s a summer or winter, a whole year, anything, a relationship, whatever. That’s why I wanted to make music in that way. That’s what I always do with albums. I hope people can listen to it as an album, but who knows these days. Do you listen to albums as albums anymore?
I do my best to. Often, you listen to it once or twice, and then songs end up on playlists. But I have been listening to Cheat Codes a bunch prepping this, and it works as an album.
I think it’s just that much harder to keep people, especially when they have access to every other music they want to listen to. So I’m hoping that I can make this stuff into its own playlist—like it’s good enough to where you wouldn’t have to skip. I think that’s what everybody tries to do, but we’ll see.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.