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Dance to 167 bands at once

Cutting, cramming and meticulously layering between 200 and 250 samples from 167 contemporary and classic artists, Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) has taken the notion of a “mashup” way beyond the next level. By Steven Leckart
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Pop heavyweights Elton John, Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney all contributed to one of last year’s most audacious, instantly classic albums. And, chances are, they’ve yet to hear it; or if they have, they surely have no clue it was produced by a 25-year-old biomedical engineer in Pittsburgh, Penn.    

By day, laptop wunderkind Gregg Gillis (aka Girl Talk) labors in a cubicle crunching research and development data at a medical instrumentation company. He won’t reveal the name of the operation, because — get this — his employers still don’t know why he cuts out early on Fridays (hint: to play sweat-inducing weekend gigs all across the country and as far as Australia).

In addition to his wild on-stage persona (he often strips down to his boxer shorts), Gillis’ conservative co-workers have no clue about “Night Ripper” (Illegal Art), his third CD since 2002, but the first to resonate with a broader audience due to the accessibility of his “source material.” More than a continuous mix tape of pop hits and booty-shaking beats, “Night Ripper” is a staggering exercise in technical mastery and determination. Cutting, cramming and meticulously layering between 200 and 250 samples from 167 contemporary and classic artists (everyone from Madonna and Black Eyed Peas to Nirvana), Gillis has taken the notion of a “mashup” way beyond the next level.

When Danger Mouse (half of Grammy-nominated duo Gnarls Barkley) released “The Grey Album” in 2004, listeners and critics alike were blown away by the artful combination of bits from The Beatles’ “White Album” and Jay-Z’s “Black Album.” Yet, as impressive as “The Grey Album” still is, the sheer scope of “Night Ripper” is all the more extraordinary (just ask Beck, who contracted Gillis to do a remix late last year).

Gillis juggles 167 artists — not two — on 16 tracks, which means you’re hearing roughly a dozen artists (sometimes six at once) all in the span of a couple minutes. The raw, often thrashing results can be a bit jarring to the virgin ear. Then again, rocking out to “Night Ripper” is not unlike being serenaded by the chaotic, fast-paced cacophony of a city street: cell phones, car stereos and nearby TVs all blast fragments of tunes ad nauseum. 

“We’re living in A.D.D. times. At mainstream clubs, it may not be as extreme as my album, but they only play like a minute of each song,” says Gillis, “But I’ve never considered myself a DJ and ‘Night Ripper’ really wasn’t a conscious decision to comment on all that. The idea from day one was to recontextualize familiar pop music and twist it into new weird forms. To a lot of people it’s probably kitschy, but I take the music very seriously.”

That’s a good thing, too. Ever since 2 Live Crew caused a stir by appropriating Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” sampling little bits has been getting artists into big trouble. Somehow, though, Gillis remains decidedly undaunted by the intellectual property can of worms ‘Night Ripper’ could become if even just one artist throws a legal conniption fit (it probably won’t be 2 Live Crew).

“We haven’t had any problems so far, which is a good sign. If anything my album’s a promotional tool. I probably get five to 10 emails a day asking about specific samples,” he explains, “My perspective is no one’s picking up my album rather than someone else’s album I sample, so it’s not hurting the artists. This has always been an artistic pursuit rather than a financial one. You know, I do have a day job.”

Once upon a time, musicians had to ditch their steady gigs and start from scratch to pursue their musical dreams full-time. Today, Gillis is proof that a persistent weekend warrior with a passion for experimentation — and a load of “source material” — need not quit either.

And, chances are, we’ll be seeing a lot more like him.

“This remix culture where everything is recycled is a sign of the times,” says Gillis, “Every kid uses Photoshop and every kid downloads images to manipulate them. Pretty soon audio mixing programs are going to become a lot more user-friendly and with every song that comes out there’s going to be fifth graders remixing it for fun. And that’s cool.”

For more information on Girl Talk, visit: http://www.girl-talk.net/.