EXTREME SAMPLING: The 16-track Night Ripper amounts to one 42-minute-long song — or 150 30-second songs.
The music that Gregg Gillis creates under the name Girl Talk almost necessitates a new classification. The average mash-up combines two songs, with the vocal track from one laid over guitar riffs and core melodies from the other. Gillis creates mash-ups for the overachiever, cramming elements from as many as 15 songs into three-minute tracks. And over the course of his three-CD career he’s thrived on notoriously raucous live shows. Some call him a DJ, others an electronic-music performer. “People can call me whatever they want and I’m cool with that,” he says over the phone from his home town of Pittsburgh. “I feel like I’m blurring lines right now with what’s original music and what’s just a mix. I’m just making songs out of pop samples.”
Lots of samples. The hook for his third CD for Illegal Art, Night Ripper, is the quantity of music he sampled to create it. And he understands the novelty value of that. “I don’t expect people to get away from the point that there’s 167 songs in 40 minutes. It’s like watching a movie with lots of explosions.”
The liner notes list 16 tracks, but the disc amounts to one 42-minute-long song, or 150 30-second songs, depending on how you prefer to divide it up. Gillis, who plays the Middle East as Girl Talk on January 20, isn’t even sure how many songs he used to create the album. “There are 167 recognizable artists sampled. But some are repeated, and I can’t even remember the source for some beats. It’s probably over 300 songs.”
Listening to Night Ripper can, then, turn into a game of “name that song.” Gillis combines everything from chart-topping pop songs to obscure Japanese noise music to Paul McCartney ballads, with strict attention to the details of each track’s construction. It’s a meticulous album that nonetheless exudes spontaneity in its fast-paced playfulness.
“There’s a smile factor to it,” says Bob Cronin, a/k/a DJ BC, the brains behind Boston’s Mash Ave mash-up DJ project and one of the city’s mash-up experts. The opener, “Once Again,” begins with mere hints of Ciara’s “Goodies” and Boston’s “Foreplay/Long Time” — an unlikely yet well-suited pairing — layered beneath Ludracris’s abrasive rap stylings from “Pimpin’ All over the World.” Stripped down and exposed, Ludacris’s rambling lyrical bravado takes on a new vulnerability. In under a minute, Gillis combines two subpar Top 40 tunes into a swirling, confident product and simultaneously destroys a song generally adored by adolescent boys everywhere.
Or does he? He says there’s not much calculation to his musical combinations beyond listening to the radio frequently and intently and searching for isolated drum riffs or melodies to download, dissect, and proclaim his own. And he’s not alone. If you have a computer and a reliable Internet connection, you can create your own mash-ups. What you might not have is his technical skill.
Philo Farnsworth, the force behind Illegal Art, says that Gillis’s precision is what attracted his interest. “Gregg has a careful, constructed manner and an instinctive sense about how to put together tracks,” he points out over the phone from Pittsburgh. “But you can throw on his music for pure pleasure. A lot of sample-based artists never get to that level.”
Farnsworth launched Gillis’s musical career, which has always been a full-time side project of sorts. It was Illegal Art that discovered him and began releasing Girl Talk albums in 2000, when he was still a student at Case Western Reserve. The CDs consist of material composed for live shows that he put together piece-by-piece on his laptop. “It’s popular because it’s musically egalitarian,” says Cronin. “There’s no snobbiness in his mash-ups. Some of the songs sound better together than they do on their own.”
In a perfect world, this would be the mash-up artist’s goal. Portions of Night Ripper do follow traditional A-B mash-up form, as the Freelance Hellraiser did with their 2001 Christina Aguilera–Strokes infusion “A Stroke of Genie-us.” “Friday Night” pits the Waitresses’ insistent “I Know What Boys Like” against a more perverse line from Chris Brown’s “Run It” — “I know what girls want.” But the result sounds nothing like its source materials. “That’s the whole point,” Gillis says. “You manipulate the material into your own new song.”
His first two Girl Talk albums — Secret Diary and Unstoppable — were less overt in their borrowings. Both have a noisy, experimental quality that evolved from his high-school interest in noise music; both use slices of barely distinguishable song fragments. Night Ripper is bolder in its appropriations and more accessible. “His music has gotten so much tighter over the years,” says Jarrod Weeks, otherwise known as Lord Grunge of the Pittsburgh-based rap duo Grand Buffet, and Gillis’s long-time friend and musical collaborator. “Night Ripper is still raw, but it flows more, and it’s less glitchy and clicky.”