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Girl Talk: Cataloging Samples 'All Day'

Download Girl Talk's All Day at Illegal Art.

Two years ago when his album Feed the Animals burst onto the mainstream music scene, Gregg Gillis was a biomedical engineer. By day, he studied human tissue. By night, he was breaking his favorite music down on the cellular level as a mash-up artist called Girl Talk.

In "This Is the Remix," half a dozen samples are crammed into the first five seconds -- everyone from jazz icon Herbie Hancock to '80s pop hit-maker Bananarama and Miami rapper Rick Ross. The track comes from his free, downloadable album All Day.

Gillis says he was one of those kids who always had a boombox on his shoulder.

"I was really into a lot of hip-hop, so I would record the local rap station and [hold] the boombox up to the TV for the music videos, and also for In Living Color, [which] always had the new hot hip-hop act out at the time," Gillis says in an interview with NPR's Audie Cornish. "I used to have these cassettes that would cut in and out halfway through songs. You would hear the buzz of the TV, but you would get to know them. They would have their own character in a certain way."

Throughout high school, Gillis played in many experimental electronic groups. He says that much of it was a "bratty take on a lot of that music." For him, it was about "smashing TVs and trying to drive the audience out."

Quitting The Day Job

At some point, Gillis says his double life became too much.

"There's never any motivation behind this project to really make money or make a living off of it," Gillis says. "I think when things really started to bubble up for me around 2006, I kind of got into a habit of going to work Monday through Friday. And then Friday, running to the airport, jumping on a plane, doing shows Friday and Saturday, then coming back home. One of those weekends, I flew to London on Friday and opened up for Beck on Saturday, flew back home, and went back to work on Monday. It was just getting a little bit insane."

He started to make enough money from shows to quit his day job as a biomedical engineer.

Cataloging The Sound

So how does Gillis put together this music? He says he has his own cataloging system.

"I have many folders detailing the music, whether it's a melody or a beat or percussion. I kind of have a running list of things where they fit in by tempo, so if I have that bit of Drake or that bit of Willow Smith vocals, and it's at a particular tempo, I can go into this text document and look at it and say, 'Oh, here's the list of melodies that go well here.' On the album, I like to keep it as diverse as possible, so if there was an '80s pop song before this piece, something like The Rolling Stones would be nice now."

It's a process of trial and error. Gillis will play some of the combinations only play once at a show, because they either didn't work the way he wanted them to or the mash-up doesn't connect with the audience.

Deciphering The Samples

The audience does love guessing everything Gillis packs into a track. The day a new Girl Talk album hits, people start entering the samples in Wikipedia right away. In fact, someone's even gone so far as display the All Day samples in real time.

Gillis doesn't clear any of the samples he uses, and he gives much of his music away for free.

"In United States copyright law, there's a doctrine called fair use," Gillis says. "It allows you to sample audio, visual -- all sorts of media -- to make something new out of it without asking permission from the source material if the new work is transformative; if it doesn't create competition for the potential sales of the artist you're sampling. I truly believe that at this point, no one's going to download my music or buy a CD instead of someone else's. I feel like there are a lot of people being turned on to the music that I'm sampling."

Some of the artists Girl Talk has sampled say they're excited to be included, like Big Boi and the '90s alternative rock band Toadies.

It might be easy to label Girl Talk as a novelty, but Gillis says that in a weird way, he takes that as a compliment.

"With a lot of music, it's about creating a new way to look at it," Gillis says. "Like Night Ripper, from 2006, which got a lot of people paying attention to what I was doing, I do think it was a novel approach to that style of music. But I think when new genres come out, when new styles of music come out, when hip-hop comes around, when punk rock comes out -- all of those, I think at those times, people are saying, 'Oh, it's a novelty. It will never last. It will be over with.' ... If this is a novelty, then it's a novelty that I've spent 10 years really developing. Like, Weird Al [Yankovic] is a novelty, but it doesn't mean he's not a genius."

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Transcript

(Soundbite of song "On and On")

Unidentified Man #1 (Singer): (Singing) I go on and on and on.

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

You may not believe this, but you've heard this song before - or at least you've probably heard many of the 30 different artists sampled. It's off the album called "All Day" from the act Girl Talk. That's the stage name of Pittsburgh mash-up artist Gregg Gillis.

Two years ago, when his album "Feed the Animals" burst onto the mainstream music scene, Gillis was a biomedical engineer. By day, he studied human tissue. By night, he was breaking his favorite music down on the cellular level.

For instance, half a dozen samples are crammed into the first five seconds of this next song, from jazz icon Herbie Hancock to '80s pop bands Bananarama and Miami rapper Rick Ross.

(Soundbite of song "This Is The Remix")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Yeah. This is the remix. Come on, now.

CORNISH: To find out how it's done, we're talking to the man behind Girl Talk, Gregg Gillis.

Gregg, welcome to the program.

Mr. GREGG GILLIS (Girl Talk): Hey. How are you doing?

CORNISH: So we're talking to you in your apartment in Pittsburgh where you grew up. And I have to ask if you were one of those kids who grew up with like a little boombox on their shoulder, because I was one of those kids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: And I didn't end up doing what you're doing, but I picture you doing something like that as a kid.

Mr. GILLIS: Yes. I mean, I definitely have fond memories of kind of first getting into music. And I did have a boombox. And I was really into a lot of hip-hop. So I would record the local rap station and I remember holding the boombox as well up to the TV...

CORNISH: Yeah. That's how you do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIS: Yeah. That was like...

CORNISH: You have to wait for the commercial, like, to end.

Mr. GILLIS: Yeah. For the videos and also for "In Living Color," always had like the new - like, hot hip-hop act at the time. So I used to have these cassettes that would cut in and out halfway through songs. You would hear the buzz of the TV.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIS: But you would get to know them. You know, they would have their own character in a certain way. But I was really into music from a young age. So throughout high school, I was really in a, you know, bunch of bands and just fooling around and doing a lot of experimental style music.

CORNISH: And I was actually reading about some of these bands, which had excellent names. I just have to remark on this. Like, Static Probe Pioneers...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: ...and Joysticks Battle the Clip-On, Expressway to Your Skull.

Mr. GILLIS: Right.

CORNISH: Can you describe what kind of sound you were going after?

Mr. GILLIS: Yeah. I mean, it was very - I mean, I was - it was a funny thing because it was a mixture of, you know, a lot of experimental electronic music. I mean, kind of, you know, a little bit chin-strokey, sometimes borderline academic and things like that.

So I was interested in a lot of that music. But we were young, and it was pretty - a pretty bratty take on a lot of that music. So the stuff with those bands, in all honesty, was really about like showing up at a venue and smashing TVs and trying to drive the audience out and, you know...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIS: ...even from back then and even on to now, I was kind of always interested in pushing the identity of music. What can be considered, you know, music? What can be considered performance? And when you're 16, oftentimes, that involves, like, lighting off fireworks at the audience.

CORNISH: And I also read that as you were starting Girl Talk, you were actually a biomedical engineer. You had a day job. And I'm wondering at what point did you say to yourself, I need to quit my day job.

Mr. GILLIS: So I think when things really started to bubble up for me, around 2006. I kind of got into a habit around then of, you know, going to work Monday through Friday, and then Friday running to the airport, jumping on a plane doing shows Friday, Saturday, coming back home.

One of those weekends, I flew to London on Friday and opened up for Beck on Saturday and flew back home and went back to work on Monday. So it was just getting a little bit insane. And I started to make enough money doing the shows where I said, wow, I - this is crazy, but I can actually quit the day job.

CORNISH: Did you tell anyone at work what you did as a side gig?

Mr. GILLIS: No. I kind of, you know, didn't tell them when I initially started working there. So when it actually started to get very popular, I was in too deep with the work to, like, all of a sudden break it out and say, oh, by the way, I have this weird project called Girl Talk where I do this thing that's hard to explain.

CORNISH: So Gregg, I'm going to have you walk us through step by step the process of how you put a song together. And we'll do it with a track, which is a favorite of mine, which is called "Triple Double."

(Soundbite of song, "Triple Double")

DRAKE (Rapper): (Singing) Hey, hey, hey.

Ms. WILLOW SMITH (Singer): (Singing) I whip my hair back and forth.

DRAKE: (Singing) Yeah. Uh-huh. Black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow, black and yellow.

CORNISH: All right. So I hear snippets of the rapper Drake, I hear a snippet of Willow Smith, who - I mean, I think she's got exactly one song to her name at this point. And then I hear The Rolling Stones.

How do you decide, though, what goes well together? Do you have any kind of system?

Mr. GILLIS: Yeah. I kind of came up with my own cataloging system. I have many folders kind of detailing the music, whether it's a melody or a beat or percussion. And then I kind of have a running list of things where they fit in by tempo. So if I have that bit of Drake or that bit of Willow Smith vocals and it's at a particular tempo, I can go into this kind of just text document and look at it and say, oh, here's the list of melodies that go well here.

And, you know, on the album, I like to keep it as diverse as possible. So if there was maybe an '80s pop song before this piece, you know, something like The Rolling Stones would be nice now because it's, you know, something a bit older and something rock and roll.

And, you know, a lot of the combinations are things I come up with and I might play once at a show and say, oh, that really - didn't really connect with the audience. So I have more misses than hits as far as the, you know, trial and error process go.

CORNISH: So I'm going to play another song, and this is track nine. It's called "Make Me Wanna."

(Soundbite of song, "Make Me Wanna."

Unidentified Group (Music Group): (Singing) Now, wait a minute. You know you make wanna...

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Stop, stop, stop, stop those (unintelligible). Stop, stop, stop, stop those (unintelligible).

Unidentified Group: (Singing) You know you make wanna...

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Stop, stop, stop, stop those (unintelligible). Stop, stop, stop, stop those (unintelligible).

CORNISH: So that's a song that has a - there's a Van Halen clip, there's a Radiohead clip, there's an Isley Brothers clip. I mean, I notice online there has become a sort of game of name that clip. And does it make people obsessive? Are you obsessive?

Mr. GILLIS: I'm extremely obsessive about this stuff. So seeing people, you know, the day the album's released go on Wikipedia and start entering the samples and people recognizing that, you know, five-second clip from Van Halen's "Eruption" and things like that gets me excited because, you know, I do put in a lot of time into it.

(Soundbite of song, "Make Me Wanna")

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Hey, hey, hey. Hey, hey, hey, hey.

CORNISH: I'm talking with Gregg Gillis. He's the mash-up artist behind Girl Talk and his new album "All Day" was just released as a free download.

So Gregg, let's talk about that - released for free. And you have borrowed clips from well over, I guess, 350 different artists for this album?

Mr. GILLIS: Mm-hmm.

CORNISH: So, I'm sure, obviously, the big question is, how do you pay for it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: And if you don't, why don't you think you need to?

Mr. GILLIS: I do not clear any of the samples. You know, I believe that the music should be legal to be allowed to release. In United States copyright law, there's a doctrine called fair use. And it allows you to sample audio, visual, all sort of media to make something new out of it without asking permission from the source material if the new work is something that's transformative, if it is something that doesn't create competition for the potential sales of the artist that you're sampling.

And, you know, I truly believe that at this point, no one's going to download my music or buy a CD instead of someone else's. You know, I feel like there's a lot of people being turned on to the music that I'm sampling.

And I think the idea of doing unsolicited remixes was something that was radical maybe, you know, 10 or 20 years ago. But anymore - I'm hearing from more and more of the artists I sample and people are excited to be included on the record.

CORNISH: I read that your brother-in-law is an intellectual property attorney. Is that true?

Mr. GILLIS: Mm-hmm. Yes. That's true.

CORNISH: And how was that Thanksgiving?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GILLIS: He - you know, it's - you know, I think oftentimes, a lot of people involved with the intellectual property world are, you know, interested in this sort of thing. And he's a fan of a lot of these, you know, academics and legal types who are kind of behind the more fair use movement and people involved with Creative Commons. So ultimately, I think he would like to represent me if it ever, you know, went to court. I can't say that a hundred percent, but you know, I definitely get that impression.

(Soundbite of song "That's Right")

Mr. PETER GABRIEL (Singer): (Singing) In your eyes...

CORNISH: What do you say to people who have criticized the music as essentially a novelty?

Mr. GILLIS: You know, I can take that as a compliment in a weird way, just because for me, it's always - with a lot of music, it's, you know, it's about creating a new way to look at it. So I think, you know, when hip-hop comes around, when punk rock comes out, when all of that, you know, I think at those times, people were saying, oh, it's a novelty. This will never last. You know, it will be over with. And then from there, it grows.

And, you know, if this is a novelty, you know, it's a novelty that I've basically spent 10 years really developing. And stuff like, to me, like Weird Al is a novelty but it doesn't mean he's not a genius at what he does and you know, not a true artist.

CORNISH: Gregg Gillis, the mash-up artist behind Girl Talk. His new album "All Day" was just released as a free download. He joined us from his home in Pittsburg

Gregg Gillis, thanks for talking with us.

Mr. GILLIS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "That's Right")

Ms. BEYONCE KNOWLES (Singer): (Singing) Decided to dip and now you wanna trip 'cause another brother noticed me. I'm up all him, he up on me don't pay him any attention. Just cried my tears for three good years you can't be mad at me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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