It isn't until halfway through Night Ripper, Girl Talk's excellent 2006 album, that its startling originality comes into clear view.
On the surface, Night Ripper is a mix CD in which Girl Talk blends together popular songs. Most DJ mixes compile anywhere from 15 to a little less than 40 tracks, letting most of each song play before blending it into the next. But Girl Talk uses hundreds of songs, juxtaposing rock chestnuts with mainstream rap cuts. He mashes together Smashing Pumpkins' "1979," Three 6 Mafia's "Stay Fly," Laid Back's "White Horse" and Fleetwood Mac's "Little Lies" all within the space of one minute. He often plays just a few seconds of a track, and then starts the next. Somehow, it works brilliantly.
When Night Ripper was released last summer, Girl Talk played several gigs in Atlanta. The first time, when he played at the leaky old Lenny's nightclub on Memorial Avenue, only a few dozen people showed up. But when he subsequently appeared at the Decatur Social Club at Azul, he packed the dance floor. He sent audiences into a tizzy by pumping his fist, dancing outrageously and taking off his clothes, all while flipping furiously through a bonanza of recognizable hits.
His appearances here seemed to coincide with a transformation in the city's club culture – at least among Midtown rock venues like MJQ – as DJs finally moved away from the dance-rock formula that subsisted on the Strokes and old Clash records. But if the indie club scene was marching toward a perilously mainstream mix of ultracommercial rap, pop and electro records, then at least Girl Talk demonstrated how it could also be subversive and fun.
"I try to kill the barrier between the performer and the audience," says Greg Gillis. A 25-year-old biomedical engineer from Baltimore, Md., he played shows on the weekends until quitting his job three months ago. As for all the success he's recently had, from playing major festivals such as Coachella to selling out nightclubs worldwide, he says, "I don't really get it."
In the wake of Night Ripper, critics opined that Girl Talk was following in the footsteps of mashup DJs like Diplo and Soulwax. But if Diplo is the prototypical hipster who travels around the globe, soaking up obscure sounds and collecting rare vinyl and then presenting his findings to the world, then Gillis is the computer geek who obsesses over his MP3 collection, devising clever ways to transform it into something strange and wonderful.
"My background is not really in the DJ world. It's influenced by the laptop and experimental music world," says Gillis. In particular, Gillis is influenced by Kid606, the enfant terrible of IDM whose underground remixes of pop songs, serrated with walls of noise and pummeling booty-bass beats, made a huge impact on him. "A main inspiration ... was hearing his 'Straight Outta Compton' remix. That blew my mind," he says. "It got me very interested in taking apart pop music and rearranging it."
In 2002, Gillis issued his first Girl Talk CD, Secret Diary, on Illegal Art, a small imprint whose releases often challenge pre-existing copyright laws. The Girl Talk name alludes to the pop sounds Gillis edits and reassembles until they're just recognizable enough to trigger a sense of familiarity.
Like many kids his age, Gillis grew up listening to rap and hip-hop. "What I'm doing now is very related" to hip-hop, he says. "Hip-hop music is mostly based in a collage of sounds." Public Enemy's seminal It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, for example, used more than 100 different music samples. One of history's great anomalies, it couldn't be made at a major label today because the cost of "clearing" (getting usage rights) the samples would be too expensive.
Girl Talk used to be part of a burgeoning underground of digital pirates who, protected by obscurity and technological savvy, recklessly built on Public Enemy's achievement. But that changed when Night Ripper drew praise from glossy magazines such as Newsweek and Playgirl. With all the media acclaim, Gillis fears he'll be sued over the unlicensed samples he used to make Night Ripper. Record companies haven't come after him yet, although his album was pulled off iTunes. "I think they read a few things about it, and was worried to be attached to such a product," he says.
"I'm in a much different place than I was for the past six years," he continues. "For future releases, [copyright law] is something we absolutely have to take into consideration. It's going to be a lot higher profile than the other records I've done."
For now, Gillis has formed a group with Frank Musarra (aka Hearts of Darknesses), another refugee from the IDM world. As Trey Told 'Em, the duo is working on remixes for Of Montreal, Tokyo Police Club, Simian Mobile Disco and others.
With DJs rapidly abandoning turntables for expensive MacBooks and software such as Serato, Girl Talk is a prime example of the creative rewards available to those who embrace this relatively new technology. But few DJs have exploited it as successfully as he has.
"I never considered myself a DJ. I consider myself more of a producer," Gillis says. "When I play live, I don't play any one song in an unaltered form. I'm creating my own material. ... I'm just manipulating an instrument [sound] that someone else made."
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