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Wednesday, Dec. 29, 2010

Girl Talk’s Recycled Content

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One unassuming Monday morning last month, Girl Talk posted a free download of his latest record, All Day, only hours after completing it. The record was promoted with little more than a press release and a couple of tweets, but demand for it nonetheless exceeded the server space his label allocated, crashing its website almost immediately. Music news outlets around the web swarmed to the snafu, garnering all the buzz the album needed, free of charge.

Such publicity has seemingly swarmed to the career of Pittsburgh native Gregg Gillis, the long-haired, bandana-adorned dude behind Girl Talk. The attention began with his 2006 breakthrough, Night Ripper, which stirred a major legal controversy for its use of unlicensed samples—though to this day no one has challenged Gillis in court for copyright infringement, and it’s not clear anyone will. Gillis claims he's protected under Fair Use, an exception of U.S. Copyright Law that allows using copyrighted material in small snippets to create an innovative work that doesn’t interfere with the original’s sales.

His 2008 follow-up, Feed the Animals, stuck with the sample-collage method (as have all of his records) and gained some notoriety for piggybacking on Radiohead's pay-what-you-want model, giving each listener the option of deciding how much, if anything, the album would cost them. And shortly following the release of All Day, the City Council of Pittsburgh, much to Gillis’ surprise, officially declared Dec. 7 to be Gregg Gillis Day. He'd gone to City Hall thinking he’d receive a quiet pat on the back, but the event turned into a media frenzy.

"I walk in and there are television cameras, lights and the room is full of 100 people," Gillis says. "It was a lot more than I expected."

Unexpected hype isn't the only thing Gillis has on his side, though. He emerged at the perfect time for a mash-up artist. The culture-changing, video-sharing website YouTube had just been born, and with it came a new way to process and warp information. Users began taking existing media and forming their own original videos, a recent example being Antoine Dodson's “Bed Intruder Song.” Dodson’s infamous local news interview inspired The Gregory Brothers to create a silly, catchy parody of Dodson and Auto-Tune, one that would eventually earn more than 50 million views.

"There’s so much recycled content [on the Internet]," Gillis says. "We’re all witnessing how many different takes and reinterpretations of pre-existing media can really go on to produce new, transformative ideas. That general change is something I couldn’t have predicted, but it happened to sync up real nicely with when the Girl Talk project became a bit more popular."

All Day
is Girl Talk's most expansive record, running 71 minutes long, yet it is also his most accessible. It is less frenetic, more relaxed and includes more recognizable tunes. Its transitions aren't as dizzying and its samples drag out longer than ever before. The opening sample, Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs,” hangs around a minute and a half before Gillis moves on. The album sounds like a mix between a club DJ’s set and a Girl Talk record. Gillis contends, however, that his craft is still as precise and dynamic as his earlier work.

"It’s changing as much as ever, even though it’s sticking to the same source material," he says. "With the past two, I’d already shown what I can do as far as cramming in as many different samples as possible in a short amount of time. It seemed pointless to sneak in smaller samples, quicker [on this record]. I’d rather use similar techniques to build things that are more musically interesting."

To call Gillis a mash-up artist isn’t giving him enough credit. He’s much more than that. With the right tools anyone can overlay two songs with similar tempos. What Gillis does is compile unrelenting pop music collages. His records include more than 300 samples from rock, pop, hip-hop and R&B. He breaks his material into two- to five-minute songs, yet changes the character of each track every 30 seconds or so. It’s fun, unabashed dance music that plays out like a game to see who can spot the most samples, making it great fodder for both music geeks and night clubbers.

"I want to make a record people can throw on at a party," he says, "but also something people can listen to on their headphones and walk into work."

Girl Talk kicks off his winter tour with a Dec. 31 performance at The Rave as part of the venue’s Stellar Spark New Year’s Eve bill.