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Girl Talk blurs the line between artist and audience

Jaweed Kaleem
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

Where do you draw the line between originality and flat-out musical theft? Does it even exist?

Mash-up DJ Gregg Gillis wants you to reconsider your notions of sampled music - and the idea of pop altogether.

"I don't think there's any original music anymore," says Gillis, whose stage name is Girl Talk. "It's all about taking a previous idea and recontextualizing it. That's the art of pop."

There are 167 artists on "Night Ripper," Girl Talk's third album, a 42-minute dance-driven glitchy bombardment of chopped and re-stitched snippets of more than 200 songs. In an average 2 ½-minute track, the keen ear will catch 10 contemporary and classic hip-hop, rock, pop and R&B tracks from Hall & Oates and Smokey Robinson to Weezer and Notorious B.I.G.

"I take these familiar sources and manipulate them. I put them in a new light, which is really no different than any rock band today sounding a bit like Jimi Hendrix. Every band has a bit of that," says Gillis, 26, who finds inspiration in Top 40 radio stations and clubs. Gillis didn't invent sampling, but he's taken it to an extreme.

With all that borrowing and no endorsement by artists he samples, it's only appropriate that his label is called Illegal Art. But Gillis and the label claim the music is, in fact, legal. "Fair use," he says, citing a part of copyright law that he says allows use of parts of art for new material that doesn't encroach upon the original. When the album was submitted to a CD manufacturer in 2006, it was rejected because of the sampling. Another company ended up taking the job.

Yet, as he's made a name for himself, from his basement-show roots as a student five years ago in Cleveland to Spin magazine naming "Night Ripper" one of the 40 best albums of 2006, nobody has sued him or requested royalties.

"Actually, a few major labels have contacted me, even reaching out to potentially work on remixes for them. It makes complete sense to me," he says. "Remixes help the artists."

Until recently, Gillis lived a double life. By day, he sat in a cubicle, crunching research and development data at a biomedical company in Pittsburgh. On weekends, he played sold-out shows at small venues in New York, Chicago and San Francisco. Once he flew to London to open a Saturday concert for Beck and made it back to the office on Monday. His co-workers had no clue - he didn't think they would understand the music - and he liked it that way.

"I had about 10 vacation days a year, and I would save those for the so-called long tours," he says. "It was cool - for a minute. Now I can actually tour a lot more thoroughly."

That doesn't mean those earlier shows were lacking. Instead of being on stage, Gillis likes to set up his "instruments" - a laptop and sound equipment, no turntables here - on the floor with the audience surrounding him. Conversely, he'll invite fans onstage with him as he fumbles from song to song. People trip, wires get unplugged, the music stops, there's confusion, and then it starts all over. Gillis comes prepared with a template of mixes to play, but much of it is done on the fly with the click of the mouse and simple audio software.

"By the end of my shows, everybody is sweating and shirts are missing and people are bleeding from their knees. I like it to be personal. I push for the house party vibe," he says. "It's not like a dance club. I've never considered myself a DJ, just a laptop producer."

In his early performances, Gillis was known to strip nude and spit beer on fans, but after a few gigs were stopped because of it, he's toned it down a bit. Still, some antics shouldn't be a surprise. Gillis only takes himself half-seriously, he says. If the time comes for the Girl Talk gig to be over, he'll happily return to an office job.

"I picked the name Girl Talk to be the antithesis of the openly serious world," Gillis says. "It's a very cheesy-sounding teen opposite of what an artist should be."

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