Although the show is carefully choreographed, Gillis is cognizant of the need for spontaneity for the thrill of the unexpected, even for those who’ve seen the show several times. Many of his fans first heard his work on one of his five albums available as free downloads through his label’s (Illegal Art) website. But listening to the albums and watching him perform are two very different experiences.
“The shows resemble the album,” he said. “I reproduce elements from the album, but there’s a slightly different pace to it. There are some details that I just can’t execute in real life … I love dense detail in music—hip hop and rock—but those details don’t translate well live.”
The albums are largely a product of the left-brained, hyper-detail oriented engineering Gillis, his “dominant side in real life.” What he soon realized, however, is that although his densely detailed juxtapositions of rap songs with (mostly) rock music worked well over headphones in his room, on stage he needed to amp everything up—a lot. As he put it, “The performance side of me is a concept I developed early on—this is what I’d like to see out of a performance. This is what I think is the coolest performance I could do.”
But he’s also influenced by the crowd’s reaction to a particular mix, like the one that opens his most recent album, All Day. It begins with Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” juxtaposed with Ludacris’ “Move Bitch.” It’s an inspired combination of two tracks separated by about 40 years, and yet sounding as if they were created together, much like the original Run DMC/Aerosmith mash-up that brought some much-needed energy to MTV’s anodyne programming during that era.
The five-minute long opening mix moves rapidly through 17 more samples, including decades-straddling combinations such as Dorrough’s “Ice Cream Paint Job” over The Brothers Johnson’s “Strawberry Letter #23,” Slick Rick and Doug E. Fresh rhyming over The Doors’ “Waiting For The Sun,” and a manic mix of Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On” with The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” The shifts from one to another, sometimes two or three at once, flash by at a blinding pace that rewards repeated listening.
It’s not only that his minutely sequenced, tightly timed mixes are almost impossible to replicate live. More to the point, said Gillis, is that they’d be lost live.
“Live I can be more transparent with the samples,” he said. “On record, I don’t want to hide it, but I do want to keep it moving, keep it complicated, whereas in a live setting it can be more effective to reveal my hand. It‘s a slightly different art form, even though the sound is related.”
It’s an open question as to how he’s managed to avoid what The New York Times called “a lawsuit waiting to happen” in its review of his 2008 album, Feed The Animals. One attorney, Peter Friedman, suggested that Gillis has a strong “fair use” defense: “Gillis’s argument that he has transformed the copyrighted materials sufficiently that his work constitutes non-infringing fair use is just too good,” he wrote in a blog.
In an ideal world, Girl Talk’s “reconceptualizations,” would be sufficient to shield him from litigation. But according to Gillis, it’s a moot point. Big record company reps and artist’s agents have been seeking him out for the past couple of years offering him tracks because they’ve recognized that he introduces diverse new audiences to artists they’d never otherwise hear.
“It was never a goal of mine to sell these artists, but I am a fan,” he said. “If anyone gets turned on to something new through what I do, I think that’s great.”
Whether they are or not, one thing’s for sure—it’s a hell of a ride.
Richard Winham is the host and producer of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.