Gregg Gillis can't believe all the attention his musical alter ego is getting.
"The past couple months have been particularly ridiculous," he marvels. "First you've got Mike Doyle talking about me in Congress. Two weeks later I'm playing a high-school prom, playing to all these seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds. The next week I'm playing Coachella, and Paris Hilton jumps on stage." At this point, the Pittsburgh-based musician can't help chuckling to himself. "Oh, and somewhere in there, I played a show for Wired and received an award for innovative use of technology."
Gillis, the mastermind behind the celebrated sound clash of Girl Talk, should not be surprised by the diversity of his supporters, considering the eclecto-hipness of his last record, Night Ripper, the mash-up par excellence that appeared on many critics' Top 10 lists for 2006.
In case you've been stuck in a Guantánamo waterboarding spa for the past year, Night Ripper is a 42-minute composition comprising samples of everyone from Paula Abdul to Pavement, Kansas to Kanye. Gillis chopped, screwed and mutated hundreds of snippets to create a party-pleasing traffic jam of hip-hop, indie rock, R&B, industrial and more. The Notorious B.I.G. drops some "Juicy" verses over Elton John's lilting piano from "Tiny Dancer." Paul McCartney and Wings struggle to make their "I love you"s heard over 2 Live Crew's relentless bellowing: "Hey, we want some pus-say!" Ciara coos her "One Two Step" lyrics over a Terminator X squeal and the Hall and Oates chestnut "Maneater." Frequently humorous, surprisingly danceable and occasionally chaotic, the ambitious Night Ripper stretches far beyond the limited possibilities of the mash-up, wedging more content and meaning into each second than anything associated with that genre. Though the record is a stunning — and just plain fun — musical achievement, it has sparked far more dialogue and controversy for the questions it raises regarding intellectual property, creative expression and the nature of art.
While Night Ripper has gained Gillis some high-profile attention and critical acclaim, the record is not the laptop jockey's first plunderphilic showcase. His 2002 debut, Secret Diary, is a frenetic, glitchy pastiche of samples, alternatingly irritating and exhilarating. Many of the samples are burned beyond recognition or layered to the point of being unintelligible. While fans of experimentalism appreciate the noisy chaos, one disappointed eMusic customer says simply, "Don't waste your time. You will just be pissed."
"When I did my first album," Gillis recalls, "I was eighteen. I came from an experimental-music background — listening to Negativland, John Oswald, stuff like that. But doing live shows influenced me a lot to make the music more accessible and push the party vibe."
While warming up crowds as an opener for live bands, Gillis started bringing the experimentalism of sample-based music into the mainstream. The results can be heard on the twitchy-yet-catchy Unstoppable. "My second album was based more on beat work," he explains. "I started playing a lot more house parties, taking out beats, and it just naturally evolved. I listen to a lot less experimental music now. This album was much more influenced by hip-hop DJs and things like that."
After Unstoppable, Gillis spent nearly two years honing his material during his live sets before finally sitting down to edit the tracks. While working full-time as a biomedical engineer, the mix maestro spent nine months painstakingly looping, cutting and splicing digital samples into the crunk collage that would become Night Ripper.
Exactly zero samples from that album were cleared or approved by the original artists. This places Gillis in a lineage with pioneering sonic anarchists such as the KLF, his heroes John Oswald and Negativland, Danger Mouse and countless hip-hop artists who have fought — and often lost — legal battles in defense of recontextualization, manipulation and fair use in the face of copyright-infringement accusations. The debates about whether these works are original or can even be called "art" are reminiscent of the furor over the "readymade" works of Marcel Duchamp nearly one hundred years ago. Duchamp famously exhibited found objects like bicycle wheels and urinals in art galleries and salons, gave them titles (the urinal was called "Fountain") and presented them as original works of art. Gillis, by hacking up carcasses of pop culture in his laptop Cuisinart and leaving just enough intact to make them identifiable, asks similarly pointed and humorous questions about artistic ownership and consumption.
For Gillis, these musical works are natural in a business transformed by disintermediation and democratization through technology. "You get the chance to play with these huge, untouchable artists and manipulate them," he enthuses. "Music's at a great point right now, where it's not being controlled by a handful of people in suits." He sees only positive results for both artists and music lovers from this dissemination of power. "It's so much easier to get your music known now. I can't imagine being a kid into Nirvana and going to their MySpace page, finding their friends and following the links. My record sort of does that. So many hip-hop kids have e-mailed me, wanting to know more about who the Pixies are."
Though Gillis borrows liberally from big names that pose a serious legal threat, Night Ripper has yet to be targeted for litigation. It helps that Gillis is keeping good company. His record label, Illegal Art, which has released all three Girl Talk albums, publicly defends its artists' fair-use rights to create new music from shreds of existing art. With the specter of legal action looming, however, the major download retailers, iTunes and eMusic, have removed Night Ripper from their catalogues.
While Gillis has remained largely beneath the legal radar, he's received plenty of recognition from his peers. Artists such as Beck, Grizzly Bear, Peter Bjorn & John and many others are beating down his door for remix work. To accommodate these requests, Gillis partnered with producer Frank Musarra of Hearts of Darknesses to form Trey Told 'Em, a non-sample-based production entity. "A lot of people want Girl Talk remixes," Gillis notes, "but they don't want to deal with the samples. With this project, we can work with no preconceptions about what we have to sound like." Gillis is also working on a handful of remixes under the Girl Talk moniker, including upcoming tracks for Of Montreal and the Go! Team.
The mild-mannered musical mathematician is in such demand, in fact, that he recently quit his day job. While this frees up time to keep up with all the production work coming his way, Gillis cites the ability to do more live shows as the chief reason for making music his full-time job. "I'm always behind as far as doing shows," he says. While you might not expect much from a performer whose primary instrument is a laptop, Gillis's performances have become famous — or infamous, if you're on that side of the law — for their outrageous energy, uninhibited debauchery and general nudity. Crazed, dancing fans join the artist on stage as he whips himself into a frenzy as fevered as the crowd's. Last November, at San Francisco's Be the Riottt! festival, authorities concerned that Girl Talk's riotous fans would damage the next band's equipment shut off the power and forced Gillis off stage after only ten minutes.
"I used to play for a room of twenty people, all waiting for a rock band, and I felt like I needed to get people fired up," Gillis says, explaining the origins of his manic stage show. "I'd drink everyone's drink and just have a party. Once I got a little more popular and people were actually interested, it was easy to win them over. And then, after people saw some YouTube clips, a specific Girl Talk concert etiquette has developed where people just expect to jump on stage." Gillis feels this level of abandon fits the spirit of his music perfectly. "A lot of my shows are on the verge of being shut down, on the verge of the stage breaking, on the verge of my computer breaking, and it never seems overly thought out. For people to be into Girl Talk, they can't be afraid to admit they like Hall and Oates, Young Jeezy and the Pixies, and they can't be afraid to dance."
Or to be sued, apparently.
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.