Biomedical engineer by day, subversive party animal by night, Gregg Gillis has turned his laptop into a lethal weapon. He was one of the most talked-about artists of 2006. Things tend to get out of control when Gillis, aka Girl Talk, mouse-clicks his digital menu of sampled beats, melodies and vocals and starts twisting them into new shapes for the pleasure of his fans.
Gillis is known for joining the frenzy, the frivolity extending to beer showers, bumps and bruises. Only a few weeks ago he shattered a tooth while diving into a crowd of dancers. “My parents happened to be at the show,” Gillis says. “My mom was worried things would get out of control, and didn’t want to go. But I kept telling her not to worry. Then I end up cracking a tooth, and she’s freaking out.”
Gillis, 25, grew up in the Pittsburgh suburbs. After graduating from Case Western in Cleveland, he went to work as a biomedical researcher for a large corporation in his hometown. Many of his coworkers in nearby cubicles have no idea what he does on weekends.
“When I started there, music wasn’t encompassing so much of my life, so it never came up,” he says. “Now I’m leaving work on Friday and jumping on a plane to go somewhere every weekend. It’s like I’m living this double life that no one at work knows about.”
Gillis is busier than ever because of the attention given the third Girl Talk album, “Night Ripper,” released last spring on the Illinois-based Illegal Art label, which specializes in experimental sample-based recordings. Since the early ‘90s, electronic sampling has become increasingly expensive; a court ruling against the rapper Biz Markie over the use of an unauthorized snippet of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” ended hip-hop’s Wild West era, forcing labels to compensate copyright holders even for the smallest samples.
But Illegal Art is based on the notion that some sampling of copyrighted material, especially when manipulated and re-contextualized into new art, is legit and deserves to be heard.
“Night Ripper” takes the biggest liberties of any release in the label’s catalogue; it’s constructed out of samples from 250 mostly well-known songs. Gillis slices together snippets from the worlds of hip-hop, rock and pop, including hits by major acts such as Madonna, LL Cool J, Nirvana, NellyLady Sovereign and Fleetwood Mac, and reconfigures them into something new. A piano line from Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” drifts beneath a Notorious B.I.G. rap from “Juicy,” while Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” organ ripples beneath a vocal loop from Ciara’s “Goodies” and Ludacris’ saucy rhyming on “Pimpin’ All Over the World.”
Gillis spent a year concocting different sample combinations, editing them into tight compositions. The album’s 16 tracks are sequenced like a deejay set, with the beats per minute rising from 90 to 125. And though Gillis designed it as a dance album, it rewards closer headphone scrutiny. The opening track, “Once Again,” crams 16 samples into 180 seconds, some so fleeting they barely register on the consciousness before new sonic treats drift within earshot.
Illegal Art’s owner, a university professor who goes by the pseudonym Philo T. Farnsworth, says some manufacturers and distributors have declined to work with “Night Ripper” for fear they might get sued by a major record label. But so far, record company executives are too busy courting Gillis to do remixes for their artists to bother with cease-and-desist orders.
“The industry is re-evaluating how it wants to deal with these kinds of issues because (of the success) of MySpace and YouTube,” Farnsworth says, referring to the social-interaction Web sites that allow consumers and fans to re-contextualize copyrighted material and expose music that might otherwise escape notice. “The industry is realizing they can’t control all of the content out there, and that viral marketing and mash-ups actually help their artists.”
“Night Ripper” has sold fewer than 10,000 copies, so it’s not a money-making venture for Gillis or Illegal Art. But it has raised Girl Talk’s profile, with the album making numerous year-end top-10 lists. And, two years after the Beatles effectively prevented wider distribution of DJ Danger Mouse’s “Gray Album” (a melding of the Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay Z’s “The Black Album”), the positive response to “Night Ripper” suggests that the perception of what constitutes fair use of copyrighted material might be broadening.
That would be just fine with Gillis, but he says the legal implications of his laptop compositions aren’t the main reason why he does them.
“I started Girl Talk because I wanted to make experimental music using all pop source material,” he says. “I wanted to re-contextualize pop into experimental music, take familiar elements and twist them into new things that are pretty weird. It’s music for me and my friends to hear, and even if it wasn’t being put out on CD, I’d still be making it. It’s about having fun.”