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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Girl Talk reinvents music with laptop and moxy

Published: October 17, 2008
Section: Arts, Etc.

The thing about pop music is that many of its best songs have approximately 45 unforgettable seconds that make the song worth playing every 15 minutes on the average radio station. Gregg Gillis, aka the mashup DJ Girl Talk who has performed once at Brandeis two years ago and is due to come back again this year, has built two successive albums on samples of those 45 seconds. Having transitioned from a more experimental early career, Gillis has become famous for both his music and for his raucous live shows.

Night Ripper, his 2006 album which introduced the form, was a masterpiece of sampling when the idea of the mashup was filtering into mass consciousness. This year’s Girl Talk album, Feed the Animals, was released online this summer, following a pay-what-you-want model like Radiohead’s In Rainbows release.

If you haven’t heard any Girl Talk mixes yet, you’re in for a bit of a surprise. Gillis takes the idea of a mashup and takes it to the point of absurdity, mixing hundreds of samples, many of which are 15 seconds or less. The entire album is a non-stop mix divided into 14 tracks. The ideal listen, though, is definitely straight through, as one unbelievably danceable pop culture overload.

Night Ripper’s greatest moment is about one minute of the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Juicy” playing over the instrumental from “Tiny Dancer” and though there’s no single moment as good on Feed the Animals, Gillis comes close a few times. Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” fits perfectly over Kanye’s “Flashing Lights” beat and the drums from Radiohead’s “15 Step.” Busta Rhymes’ “Woo Hah!! Got You All In Check” is somehow amplified tenfold when backed by the Police’s “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic” and the “na na” line of Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances.”

What Gillis does best is give new life to songs that are played out, bringing back pop hits from the 1990s or the beginning of this decade and making them feel fresh.

Gillis also enjoys playing with lyrical contrasts, fitting together disparate vocal tracks in ways that present semi-coherent ‘lyrics’. On Feed the Animals “Jessie’s Girl” mixes with Three 6 Mafia’s “I’d Rather” to form the line, “I want Jessie’s girl…but I’d rather get some head.” It’s a shame that he doesn’t further explore these possibilities, the traditional domain of mashups, in either Night Ripper or Feed the Animals.

Gillis is not only influenced by pop culture, but by internet culture; the album’s aesthetic and content are both indebted to YouTube, MySpace, and the ease with which files can be downloaded online. In Feed the Animals Gillis is cognizant of those influences, throwing in a bit of Rick Astley’s “Never Gonna Give You Up” and Soulja Boy as a nod to this year’s most prominent internet memes.

Gillis has also become a poster child for copyright reform campaigns. Theoretically, copyright law allows for fair use, which, among other things, includes the right to create new works with an existing work, so long as the new work is not merely derivative, but uses the old work in such a way as to completely recontexualize it. The new work must be substantially different than the sample.

It seems like Gillis would be covered, but court cases in recent years have made it clear that music with recognizable samples needs to be licensed and cleared, regardless of how short the sample. Gillis has somehow managed to avoid a lawsuit thus far, but he may still face legal action.

A face-off between Gillis and the RIAA could potentially help modernize copyright law and expand fair use doctrine to fulfill its promise.

Feed the Animals is licensed under a Creative Commons copyright license. Creative Commons, founded by copyright activist and legal scholar Lawrence Lessig, lets artists permit reuse of their work. Gillis has permitted any other artist to sample him in any noncommercial work as long as the source is attributed.

Listening to any Gillis track makes it clear that, though the music is based on samples, it is a creative effort which is completely original. The samples are building blocks assembled by Gillis, and though the samples are essential to the music, the albums clearly represent something greater than merely a sum of pop music samples.

Most interestingly, Gillis often samples songs that contain samples of other songs. Sampling has become a part of musical culture, reflecting an overall trend of cultural self-reference that is now commonplace in all genres of art.

As the remix and the mashup are both furthered by the internet as a new distribution tool, it seems almost anachronistic to own a Girl Talk album on CD; an album built on sampling of popular songs is almost destined for consumption in MP3/other digital audio form, since that’s how most of the source material would be discovered and consumed.

Nonetheless Feed the Animals will be released on CD October 21 (though it certainly won’t be available at mass retailers concerned about copyright liability) and is available for download at any price (including free) at For the curious, contains a fairly exhaustive breakdown of samples used in both albums.