Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis.

Girl Talk's Gregg Gillis. (Paul Sobota / August 13, 2012)

Miraculously, Girl Talk’s Gregg Gillis has managed to keep his career — mashing up samples of songs by other artists into new, dance-frenzy tracks — going, without having his ass repeatedly sued into submission.

“As far as the legal side goes, there is a doctrine called Fair Use,” Gillis said, by phone from his Pittsburgh, Pa. home. “When you do what I’m doing and you borrow something for a film track, you can do that, but there is a chance someone will have an issue with it. In our case, we’ve just gone ahead and done it. If we are challenged, we’ll deal with it.”

Gillis does what he does, hoping people see eye-to-eye. (Part of his success, one could imagine, has to do with the fact that he gives away a lot of his music for free. You can download All Day, his latest album, in its entirety right here.) After all, creating songs out of samples is an activity he managed to do for six years before more than 500 people knew about it. He had contemporaries who were doing the same thing. He believes it was all Fair Use. And he had no idea it would blow up the way it did, or that it would receive so much attention.


“I think on that 2006 record [Night Ripper], that was the talk, in Rolling Stone and places like that,” Gillis said. He’s met a number of enlightened major label executives over the years, ones who understand the benefits of having a high-profile musician like Gillis mash up their artists’ sounds. “People keep sending me tracks to use,” Gillis said. “It makes perfect sense... Of course, nobody’s not going to buy their song because I’ve sampled it. There’s a huge fan base who loves rap music and don’t know the older music I’ve sampled. People get turned on to a lot different music. A number of my a cappellas [isolated tracks of vocals only] are there because somebody’s manager has hit me up.”

Gillis’ work if you haven’t heard it, imagine the most infectious dance music you’ve heard, created out of bits and pieces of songs you know, like Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Going to Take It” is part of a major cultural shift, what Gillis himself calls “YouTube culture.”

“Every song that comes out is the subject of remixes and fan-made videos,” Gillis said. “People are at their computers every day.” Their first idea when they hear or see something new: I want to manipulate it. “It’s fun to use things. There’s a whole culture around remixing and sharing.” It reaches into corners that usually go unacknowledged; auto-tuning the news and creating animated .gifs are offshoots of sampling. A 1-second .gif of a celebrity changes the context of the original moment and its surroundings. “There’s been a shift in how people think about intellectual property,” Gillis said.

Of course, the inner-workings of the music business are fairly baroque, and the reality is often pretty complicated. Even if an artist is okay with having their music sampled, they probably don’t own the rights (the publisher does). For every new artist looking to get their sounds heard, there’s an established one who wants to get paid. Gillis finds precedent in what he does in the B-sides of early rap records, where you’d find instrumentals (vocals removed) and a cappellas (instrumental tracks removed). “They were fun to listen to, but they weren’t really there for that,” he said. “They were for the DJs to mix it up. It was something that helped get the song out even further. The seed was planted a long time ago and the labels were doing it. They are fully aware of what the remixes can do.”

Gillis hasn’t been completely surprised by the enormity of today’s electronic dance music scene. “I think it was something that was always predicted,” he said. “In the late ’90s all these music publications said [electronic music] is the new revolution. It seemed like the media was trying to convince the youth that it was happening... Now it seems to be happening for real. The electronic music festivals are the largest in the country. All the radio pop and hip-hop have the elements of dubstep... I think it will define this era.”

Although it’s tough to say why. “There was an initial stigma, but people got over it,” Gillis said. “For me it’s bigger than that.” As Gillis talked, I was reminded of the disco era that popped up in the mid-’70s, which assaulted the widespread, hippie-era practice of actually listening to rock music: dissecting it, parsing it, worshipping it, getting high to it, taking it seriously. The Beatles, Love, Bowie, the Who: important, epoch-making stuff, meant to be taken seriously. But then disco emerged, asking you to shake your ass, nothing more, effeminate body music tussling with macho rock and winning, particularly in large urban areas.

Gillis acknowledged my point. And despite his status as a knob-tweaker, he places himself firmly on the hippie/rock side rather than over with the disco/ravers.

“There are waves in pop music,” Gillis said. “Electronic music is hitting from different angles. It’s there when you listen to Rihanna and Lady Gaga. At the same time, there’s dubstep... But [electronic dance music] is also an underground phenomenon. It’s hard to define. In the sixties, you got hippie culture: young people eager to party and ready to go and acting a certain way... It definitely seems like it’s very heavy in the drug culture, and that’s taking a hand in it. I feel like with Girl Talk, I’ve been outside that scene, and I still am to this day. It’s very different than the pop you hear... But there’s always a main thing happening and that splinters off into tangential genres.”

In the ’90s, Gillis was involved in electronic music production. He was listening to Squarepusher and Aphex Twin, and he wasn’t into electronic dance music. “It’s never been my thing,” he said. “So when that initial rave thing was happening, I was like, This stinks.” At the same time, Gillis loved pop. “I was more informed by rap and hip-hop and sampling. [Girl Talk] was more like a weird take on hip-hop production. I’ve never gone to raves. I always wanted to have a vibe that was more like a house party, where someone is playing, as opposed to a rave where everyone is a drugged-up zombie. It’s never been my world, but I mean no disrespect to it.”

Later, in 2006 and 2007, Gillis found that people who were coming out to Girl Talk shows were not ravers. “It was more like a rock-style thing, and it was based around pop music,” he said. “The sound, the scene was way different.” As the latest eruption of electronic dance music has taken place, he’s happily remained on the same path.

“For me, it’s been fascinating to see the whole thing, but I’m not a part of this wave necessarily,” Gillis said. “I’ve also worked to stay outside of it. We’ve been invited to play electronic music festivals but we’ve said no to them for years. I’m not dissing it, but I’d rather play a show where there’s a beginning and an end instead of music that just keeps going and going and people have no idea who’s playing, where it’s more about the environment and the party. For me, I would want them to be into it because they are into it. It’s a bit more traditional compared to what’s going on elsewhere.”

Most of the music Gillis likes requires active listening, and his own music, he said, with all those samples flying by, represents a kind of opposite pole to most EDM. “My thing is more like a weird version of progressive rock,” Gillis said. “I love stuff like King Crimson, where it’s really detailed and fun to dive in and enjoy. Even though my music is dance music, I like it to be detailed. I think Rush is like that: good pop songs and also very detailed.” But he also respects the need for strategic non-thinking. “I’m into stuff like Faust, stoner metal, repetitive riffs, that idea of zoning out.”

Gillis keeps up with pop culture. “I’m just, like, a nerd when it comes to pop culture, so I really love that,” Gillis said. He watches MTV Video Music Awards. Celebrity culture fascinates him. He tries to keep on top of new technology, but not obsessively.

“I don’t think it’s been that important to me,” Gillis said. “The programs are defining the sound for some traditional rave artists. I had a throwback sound for a while. I always wanted to be a cut-and-paster. But still to this day I feel like I can make the music I want to make with the software I was using 10 years ago.”

Girl Talk w/Home Body, Aug. 18, 8 p.m., $25, Calvin Theater, 19 King St., Northampton, Mass., (413) 586-8686,