Girl Talk Looks Forward To The Past

July 30, 2008 at 2:08 pm 2 comments

(A fan’s homemade music video for Girl Talk’s “Still Here” including samples of Procol Harum, Kanye West and Ace of Base)

Two years ago, an obscure laptop DJ from Pittsburgh mashed together a collage of popular music samples into something brilliantly distinctive and fresh. Under the name Girl Talk, Greg Gillis produced the hyperactive hip-hop dance masterpiece Night Ripper, an album that has remained on my playlist and my mind ever since. Earlier this summer Girl Talk released his follow-up album Feed the Animals as a Radiohead-style “pay-what-you-like” download on the internet. Last week, he popped up on my radar yet again, this time in the form of a fan’s YouTube remixes. In each instance, I was reminded of why his music perfectly reflects this moment in time and felt compelled to share my thoughts.

Girl Talk arrived on a wave of critical acclaim and controversy, with even the most favorable reviews noting that Night Ripper (his third album, yet first commercial success) was “begging for court drama.” It seems GT had crafted an entire album using, almost exclusively, other people’s music. Of the mind-blowing 167 samples used most were under copyright, including popular singles by everyone from Ludacris and Hall & Oates to Elton John and 2Live Crew. Signed to Illegal Art (the aptly named label that specializes in artists with copyright infringement issues), it was hardly as if GT was unaware of the potential legal dangers of his sampling. Instead, relying on the “Fair Use” law, this biomedical engineer-by-day toured relentlessly with a sweaty, shirtless set even more frenetic than his music. And us kids loved it.

In a quick-hit culture of ringtones and Twitter, Girl Talk’s byte-sized tour de force intuitively appealed to his young listeners. Like VH1’s clever clip show Best Week Ever, Girl Talk’s music stitched together tons of mini pop cultural references, while becoming a full-length talking point in itself. Listening to the samples wizz by on Night Ripper, audiences were engrossed, desperately trying to recall the familiar hits from the past 50 years. The more one recognized, the more cultural cred one claimed. Of course, for those fans left stumped, a page on Wikipedia listed each track’s samples down to second mark. There is no rock left unturned in the 21st century!

But beyond creating mere musical trivia, Girl Talk did what few have done in a digitally-saturated world of endless pop references: he brought context, meaning, and soul to the overload. More than just referential, Night Ripper was also reverential. As Gillis discussed with Pitchfork Media in ’06:

I think it’s promoting the whole history of rap. Throughout hip-hop people have been putting different elements with different types of music. It’s not about who created this source originally, it’s about recontexualizing– creating new music. It’s not a hip-hop record straight up by any means. It’s a celebration of everything top 40, that’s the point.

While GT was obviously not the first artist to “recontextualize” his elders, his mashup contribution carried the art form in a uniquely new direction. By itself the frenetic pacing of his samples (his tracks don’t have two songs mashed together a la Dangermouse’s Grey Album, but rather ten or more songs) was a technically impressive breakthrough. But his ability to dispel the technological tensions of this moment was where he truly separated himself. While digital media has surely opened more doors than it has shut, it has troubled many with questions over authenticity, ownership and individuality. Is downloading an artist’s music illegally immoral? How will artists survive in this free-of-charge world? In the face of all this noise and controversy, how should we as individuals participate in digital culture?

Two years later, Girl Talk still identifies with –and even celebrates– these questions. Dancing my ass off at one of his shows recently, I felt the possibilities of our fast-changing culture more than ever. Remixing pop music’s most memorable moments, Girl Talk allowed the sweaty audience to appreciate his boundary-pushing laptop mashups in the context of the familiar and the nostalgic. In the process, I for one developed a less conflicted relationship with technology, and simply enjoyed the music on my terms, at high capacity and a blistering pace.

— Johnny

Fascinating: Girl Talk remixing an Elvis Costello track…

Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA) talks about Girl Talk and copyright issues on Capitol Hill, March 2007


Entry filed under: Art + Music, People, Technology.

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. JW  |  August 8, 2008 at 2:36 am

    Brilliant post–a good reminder for me to celebrate GT for what it is (the next logical step in the rump-shaking recycling that’s been going on since the beginning of hip-hop, and good clean fun to boot) and not decry it for what it isn’t (pure, legal, cohesive…).

    What’s curious to me is this: Girl Talk’s music embodies evolution, distilling what Johnny calls “our fast-changing culture.” Then why hasn’t his style changed a lick in the two years since Night Ripper? Maybe a classic case of “it ain’t broke”? Or maybe it’s not his job to push things forward–he’s just the collage-artist working with the materials that pop-culture provides, a sonic curator of sorts. Whatever the reason for GT’s stylistic stagnation, maybe it’s best not to plumb the depths on this one. Sometimes fun needs no rationale.

  • […] at Liberty State Park. For those of you unfamiliar with his music, I recently wrote a lengthy post here about how this laptop DJ’s mashup style perfectly reflects this moment in time. As expected, […]


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