Sound Check: Girl Talk

Richa Agarwal

Girl Talk, alias for Gregg Gillis, a 25-year-old native of Pittsburgh, creates musical remixes from an incredibly diverse selection sample music. His most recent album, Night Ripper (2006, Illegal Art), samples approximately 170 different artists, including the likes of 50 Cent, Better Than Ezra, Black Eyed Peas and the Beatles, and he put it all together on his laptop. None of the source material is his own.

Sampling as many major-label artists as he has might get expensive if one pays off all the clearances to use the copyrighted works; however Gillis didn’t bother to ask permission. He has been selling albums, performing live shows (he will be coming to Colgate April 14), and everything else an artist chooses to do with his own art. Aside from thanking all of the sampled artists in the album’s liner notes, he has bravely ignored the messy legal situation that his work could get him into. His label is prepared to use a fair amount of defense.

Luckily, thus far, none of the artists have complained, and that may be a sign that people are realizing genuine new works can be created from a mix of old ones. The term “mash-up” refers to just that, and understanding it as an art form is important for copyright law to continue respecting all types of artists.

Gillis has certainly taken mash-up to the next level, sampling over 10 artists in each two to three-minute track. For the indie rocker, this means catching onto a clip of Neutral Milk Hotel’s “Holland, 1945” interspersed with Missy Elliott, or Pavement layered over 2 Live Crew. For those of us who grew up in the ’80’s, this means immediately recognizing a two-second sample at the end of “That’s My DJ” as well as Paula Abdul’s “Straight Up.” But the production and execution is so smooth that in most cases you won’t be able to recognize individual samples, or even to realize that you’re listening to more than one sample at once. Girl Talk’s use of top 40 artists turns otherwise obscure work into club-like hits that ought to be danced to.

Not all DJs and mash-up artists have avoided legal trouble, however. You might recall DJ Danger Mouse’s (now one half of Gnarls Barkley) The Grey Album, a mix of the Beatles’ The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album, and the cease and desist letters that ensued. Though the legal scope of it was more restricted, given that Danger Mouse was only mixing two artists, it is also a much less ambitious project that is more likely to be questioned as a derivative work.

A derivative work, to be protected under copyright, must be more than just the sum of its parts. Listen to one track off Night Ripper, and it is clear that Gillis is doing something new and original. The Grey Album treads murkier waters, since the original works can be clearly and easily identified.

More recently the arrest of DJ Drama on January 16, has proven once again that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is not only out to punish consumers, but also creators that they deem to be making ‘counterfeit’ products as well. DJ Drama is known in the hip hop community for his mixtapes. Though unregulated, the making of mixtapes is a common practice and serves as a valuable promotion tool. It is unclear whether the RIAA will go after Gillis next, but listen to Night Ripper and you will hope not.