Girl Talk learns to Feed the Animals, Andy Warhol-style
We're knee-deep in the age of re-appropriation.
Call it a passion for post-modern pastiche, or a rebellious DIY culture-jamming reaction to a diet so heavy in processed media junk that we need a multimedia form of Lipitor.
But from the hilarious YouTube "Shreds" videos – in which rock legends are expertly overdubbed to sound like hacks – to breathless hit-popping mash-up artists like Girl Talk, there's a whole generation of musicians, dabblers and goofs slicing and dicing without benefit of a Ronco cooking utensil.
Hailing from Pittsburgh, Pa., Girl Talk creator Greg Gillis is one of America's best known mash-up musicians thanks to 2006's sensational third album, Night Ripper. Full of adventurous, incongruous combinations (Lil' Wayne's "Go DJ" backed by Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4," Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg's "Nuthin' But a G Thang" crossed with Billy Squier's "The Stroke"), it's a head-spinning tour-de-force that ignited on the music blogs like napalm and spread from there.
Now he's back with the follow-up, Feed the Animals (out Oct. 21) which ups the ante further on his populist sound.
"I wasn't planning on doing another album loosely in the style of Night Ripper," says Gillis from his Pittsburgh home. But when he went on tour, he found the audience responded best to the Night Ripper tracks they already knew. Anxious to continue adding new bits to the live show, he gravitated to even bigger hits. "It's like if I want to match the familiarity of Night Ripper, I'm going to have to use music that's even closer to people."
That led Gillis to plunge deeper into classic rock waters for musical beds to merge with his modern-day hip-hop and pop vocal tracks: Feed The Animals' "Still Here" unites Kenny Loggins' "Footloose," Procol Harum's "A Whiter Shade of Pale," and the Band's "The Weight" with Kanye's "Good Life," BLACKstreet's "No Diggity," and Fergie's "London Bridge," among its 24 samples. "No Pause" weds Missy Elliot's "Ching-a-Ling" to Cheap Trick's "I Want You to Want Me," while "Give Me a Beat" uses Styx's "Renegade" as a bed for Dr. Dre's "Bitches Ain't Shit," punctuated by yelps from E-40's "Turf Drop."
Feed the Animals cuts the manic intensity of Night Ripper, producing something a bit more listenable. It luxuriates in its tracks, sustaining samples longer and revisiting other moments in the source material. So while it features more, denser samples, it doesn't feel as frenetic.
"The rate of change is bigger and things are constantly moving," says Gillis. "It's just that instead of jumping from source A to source B, it's jumping from part 1 of source A to part 2 of source A to part 3."
Gillis originally became fascinated with noisy electronica (Autechre, Squarepusher, Prefuse 73) while attending Case Western University in Cleveland. His first impulse was to be challenging, and his debut, 2002's Secret Diary, reflects that. "Growing up the vibe was," Gillis says, "if you're not pushing the limits and clearing a few people out of the room, then you're probably doing something really weak."
But by the time of 2004's Unstoppable, he'd changed his tune as he grew disenchanted with IDM's increasing insularity and pretension, and went in the other direction.
"The way to really push the limits for me was Top 40," Gillis says. "It was about getting people to push their ideas of barriers like underground vs. the mainstream and this genre vs. that genre. I was like, let's have an open mind toward everything."
Night Ripper's popularity and extensive use of uncleared samples raised both legal and musical questions that harken back to the advent of hip-hop. Like the controversy over rap's appropriation of other artists' beats and music, some DJs question whether Gillis is a peer, despite the similarity of their process.
Yes, it's sampling, but is it art? Depends on whom you ask.
"The sampling artist will take a sample and use it for his purpose, transforming it, through whatever the music program is. You're not taking the essence of the original performance, you're just taking parts of it, echoes of it," argues electronic artist and blip-hop producer Deadelus. "A mash-up, is really mining that cliché territory a sample possesses... it's a series of eureka moments where they're I know this, and I know that... One of them is trying to find its own personality and the other is simply using that personality."
Gillis counters, "Just because it's recognizable doesn't mean it can't be transformative. It's like Jay-Z sampling the Annie theme music on %22Hard Knock Life%22. He did something new with it. With me it's similar. A lot of these people aren't listening to Argent or Spencer Davis Group; or on the flipside, my parents aren't listening to UGK, but in the context of this album, it puts them into a new light."
While not trying to put himself on the same level, Gillis sees a connection between what he's doing and the spirit of another Pittsburgh artist, Andy Warhol.
"I'm following in that tradition to some degree, creating and using popular imagery and things that we're kind of surrounded and bombarded by in the media and making new objects out of it," Gillis says. "Every idea is processed from the past, whether you're physically using it or mentally using it. You can't make music without influences."
As the world grows ever more interconnected, why shouldn't the music?