Every weekend DJ Gregg Gillis steals music from hundreds of musicians and gets away with it.
Based in Pittsburgh, Gillis performs under the name Girl Talk, releasing frenetic albums of layered, cut-and-pasted pop music samples seamlessly mixed with hip-hop and indie rock, completely changing the feel of the original songs -- a process he calls "attention deficit pop collage."
Legendary stories have circulated about his orgiastic live shows, extreme dance parties where throngs of fans usually join him onstage. Like his fans, Gillis has been known to shed his clothes during concerts (which scored him a non-nude spread in Playgirl magazine).
One thing he keeps secure during shows is his instrument, a laptop computer, since fans have been known to bang into the cords or unplug devices. "I don't ever want the music to stop," Gillis says by phone from Pittsburgh. "But when it does, it's usually a surefire sign that things are going in the right direction."
Gillis, 26, performed more than 100 shows last year while working his day job as a biomedical engineer, which he was able to quit in June. He now typically plays weekend shows around the world and returns home to record new music during the week.
His last album, "Night Ripper" (Illegal Art), was an underground smash, drawing critical raves from Rolling Stone and other major publications. His work was even applauded by his U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania before a subcommittee discussing "mash-ups" in relation to copyright law and intellectual property issues. Girl Talk is well-known among the growing movement of people arguing for less restrictive intellectual property laws for a freer exchange of cultural ideas.
Gillis says he's been lucky in not attracting legal action for his rampant use of other mainstream artists' samples. The worst that has happened so far were two separate CD pressing plants rejecting his work out of fear of lawsuits, as well as iTunes taking down his last album within a month after it began receiving major press coverage.
If he's dragged into court, his legal team has prepared a defense citing the fair use doctrine, which looks at the nature of the work, whether it's transformative enough of the sampled material to be considered a new work and if it encroaches on another artist's sales.
"I have no moral issues with what I'm doing," Gillis says. "With all these elements of viral marketing these days, I think people can look at my albums and see that they're transformative and they exist as their own entity. Nobody would buy them in place of someone else's music."
Sampling from 164 different artists on his last release, Gillis thinks other labels should see his work as a promotional tool to reach younger generations. But as his success grows, it may be more difficult for him to avoid clarifying matters in court. His new album, "Feed the Animals," is nearly done, and Gillis says it will be released on the Web as soon as it's ready. The album will be similar to "Night Ripper," he says, although it may sample multiple parts of the same song (bits of verse and chorus) and build more slowly.
"All my albums are a reflection of the past year's live shows," he says. "On 'Night Ripper' I was trying to walk the line between how crazy I could get sample-wise without becoming an experimental piece. With this one I'm not trying to prove anything although the smaller snippets will be some of the most technically complicated, difficult stuff I've ever done."
While his early work was interested in "digitally mangling music," he says his art is now all about simple copy-and-pasting using bare-bones software such as Adobe Audition, a wav editor, and AudioMulch, "a cheap Australian thing" he uses in concert.
Gillis points out that he has a history in Richmond, thanks to the Cobra Kai guys who put on dance parties here several years ago.
"Those were the first dudes from more of a dance world to be into what I was doing," he says. "They put me on the stage as a featured guest. Around 2005, my biggest following outside of Pittsburgh was Richmond," he says. Gillis says he became interested in more dance-friendly styles here.
"I really think what I'm doing is sort of paying homage to those early days of [hip-hop] sampling," he says. "It's always funny to me when younger people hear my music and think it's a revolutionary idea. It's obviously just another step in a long lineage of sample-based music." S
Girl Talk at Toad's Place