Gregg Gillis needs to make a decision, fast. The 25-year-old Pittsburgh musician, who goes by the name Girl Talk, has just released his third album, Night Ripper, and right now he's wrestling with a question that lies at the center of so many artists' consciousnesses: Should I quit my day job?
On the one hand, Gillis, on the day I speak with him, has just been offered a permanent position at the biomedical lab where he's toiled for the past few years as a long-term temp. On the other hand, Night Ripper is generating the kind of internet buzz of which musicians (and their publicists) can only dream. Just a few weeks ago, the indie kingmakers at PitchforkMedia.com threw their critical weight behind Night Ripper. In the ensuing days, the album sold out and needed a repressing, Gillis traveled to New York to play an MTV Video Music Awards after-party, and, in the same weekend, flew to London to play a gig. Back in Steel City, Gillis has just finished another day at the lab when I reach him by phone.
"It's officially decision time," he says. "I like the job and it's cool, but it also seems like perhaps it's time to dedicate my life to music for at least a little bit."
Let's hope so, because the Pittsburgh biomedical lab's loss stands to be the gain of party people the world over. Gillis has dropped a freaky, sugarcoated amphetamine rush of an album that mixes, mashes, and recontextualizes more than 160 samples into a plunderphonic whole. Drawn almost exclusively from Top-40 hits, Night Ripper is a soundtrack for the ADD generation, a dizzying aural phantasmagoria that lacks a genre—it's not really a straightforward DJ mix or a mash-up—but does not lack an ethos: P-A-R-T-Y.
Whereas the typical mash-up answers only one question—what would the Clash sound like with Missy Elliott, or more famously, the Beatles' "White Album" with Jay-Z's Black Album?—a single Girl Talk song poses a press conference full of questions. One track alone, "Minute by Minute," has at least 14 samples (it's hard to say exactly how many there are—even Gillis says that he loses track of all the source material), including Ying Yang Twins' "Badd," Sophie B. Hawkins' "Damn I Wish I Was Your Lover," Michael McDonald's "I Keep Forgetting," Neutral Milk Hotel's "Holland, 1945," Punjabi MC's "Mundian to Bach Ke," Missy Elliott's "On & On," Better Than Ezra's "Good," Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit," and Steely Dan's "Black Cow." (Gillis, who does not pay for any of the samples he uses, is relying on a decidedly mellow legal strategy, arguing "fair use" laws and asserting that record labels could only benefit from his work, "so they should embrace it.")
But is Girl Talk a gimmick? Glancing at the extensive list of samples and beats that go into each song, it's easy to call bullshit on the whole project; the samples look like an almost too-perfect mix of mainstream goo, hip-hop swagger, and indie cool, and it seems possible to view the whole Girl Talk project as one long in-the-know wink to the Pitchfork crowd.
But, one listen to the album and you realize it's not a gimmick. The thing that rescues Gillis is his ability to meticulously transform the samples into sonic collages that sound altogether original. Describing Night Ripper as a "sample-based recontextualization of current Top 40," Gillis adds that the album is simply "a celebration of pop music."
Gillis works by trial and error, and he says it's not unusual "to work on a remix for three hours to produce 15 seconds" of material. He spent more than a year working with a .wav editor on his laptop to produce Night Ripper, and acknowledges that it's hard to know when to call something finished and resist the temptation to layer it ever-deeper with samples.
"I could have packed this record with twice the number of samples and made it over the edge and totally abstract, or I could have calmed it down with half the samples and made it way more danceable," he says.
The fact that Night Ripper is weighted so heavily toward Top-40 hits is no accident, and it represents a gradual evolution of Gillis's musical perspective. In high school he listened to a lot of Merzbow, the godfather of Japanese experimental noise, and belonged to a noise band called the Joysticks. The first Girl Talk release, a glitchy, fuzzed-out, mostly unlistenable record called Secret Diary, came out in 2002. By 2004's Unstoppable, however, Gillis was embracing the pop music that he had scorned as a jaded youth. Whereas Secret Diary seems to allow room for some ironic distance—maybe he's laughing at Joan Osborne and Lil' Bow Wow by mixing IDM beats and fuzzed-out screeches over their songs—Unstoppable makes it clear that at the heart of Gillis's hit-radio deconstructionism is an unabashed pop fan: t.A.T.u.'s "All the Things She Said" plays over the drum beat to "Billie Jean," Sean Paul is laid under AC/DC, and, hilariously, Khia's sexually explicit "My Neck My Back" is accompanied by the piano refrain to Richard Marx's ballad "Right Here Waiting."
Night Ripper takes Unstoppable's pop fixation to the next level, and while Gillis says the album is primarily a representation of his personal taste, he doesn't deny that there is a subtle agenda at work on some of his mixes.
"My friends and I have always been into a wide variety of music, unlike some people who always have these really knee-jerk reactions based on what they're supposed to think," he says. "When I'm playing 'My Humps' at an indie rock club, I'm not blatantly trying to challenge people, but in the back of my mind I am trying a little to break that alt barrier so people can drop their coolness and just go with what they actually like."
Gillis may be the most open-minded DJ you've ever heard, and his omnivorous ethos seems like a fitting groove for the eclectic bouillabaisse of the iPod era. If we're already open to playlists composed of, say, the Pixies and Mary J. Blige and LCD Soundsystem, Gillis seems to ask, then why not take it one step further and collapse these genre-spanning mixes into one three-minute song? In a musical landscape where Bob Dylan can't stop talking about Alicia Keys, and where André 3000 has said that he never could have written "Hey Ya!" without the inspiration of the Hives, the whole notion of musical genres seems to be in flux—and that might be a good thing.
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