Cracking codes with Girl Talk

Art by Tyler Farmer.

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When you first glimpse the fishing net of balloons tethered to the ceiling of 9:30 Club in DC – as the crowd files in, buys drinks, crushes closer, closer – you can’t help but wonder how Girl Talk will close his set. Which hyperactive pop mash up will soundtrack the inevitable latex blizzard victory lap? “Can I Get A…” x “Tenderness”? Biggie x Elton John? Those fantasies are quickly punctured when the balloons drop approximately 90 seconds into the 90 minute set. It might be a Tuesday, but a Girl Talk show demands full focus. Leave your inhibitions at the office and exorcise the demons you brought with you.

“The goal is to have it be this non-stop thing,” says Girl Talk, AKA Gregg Gillis of Pittsburgh, PA. “I really don’t really plan for many dips. You start at 100 and you try to keep it there for as long as you can go.”

The opening salvo of balloons is soon followed by beach balls, inflatable hot dogs and donuts, 12-foot inflatable palm trees, ribbons of toilet paper flung toward the rafters from streamer guns, enormous pillows mercifully filled with air rather than feathers. Near the show’s final act, an enormous transparent tube filled with air and confetti unfurls over the crowd like a red carpet for aliens or a polyurethane phallus. Short kings rejoice and those over 5’8” beware: zone out for even a moment and you could be unlucky enough to catch an aerated projectile to the skull.  

The chaos isn’t limited to the crowd. The stage itself is swarmed by dancers, some of them Girl Talk’s friends touring with him, others pulled from the audience. Girl Talk (brunette and short-bearded; toned in the way skinny, lanky men who do cardio are toned) bounces energetically behind the DJ booth. He’s wearing a black hoodie over a white tee, both of which he eventually sheds, ending his set shirtless crouched atop the DJ booth in black sweatpants and white sneakers, a bandana tied to a headband keeping the sweat out of his eyes.

Over the decade-plus since Gillis’s last mashup album, 2010’s hyperkinetic All Day, the music industry has shifted dramatically. Billboard began counting streaming numbers, labels figured out new ways to profit off internet microgenres, and instantly recognizable “cheat code samples,” whether in major pop songs or rap songs from Michigan to New York, have proliferated.

“It’s something that has always existed,” says Gillis. “In the early 2000’s, people would tap into some older songs… it’s a bit more blatant now, which is nice to me.”

On one end of the spectrum, the brazen sample-use takes advantage of the ephemeral nature of streaming platforms. If a rapper gets hit with a cease-and-desist, they can just pull the project from streaming before incurring serious legal costs (Despite media hand-wringing over his albums, Girl Talk has never been taken to court over his samples, and maintains that his music falls squarely under fair use). On the other end, a well-known sample leverages nostalgia and intellectual property in much the same way as a Hollywood reboot.

“A lot of younger people grew up with those early 2000’s songs when they were a little kid and vaguely remember it, so hearing those flipped into modern songs works,” says Gillis. “That’s very much aligned with my interests, where it’s fun to take something that people have heard and really recontextualize it and make something new out of it.”

Things have changed for Gillis too, who produced a handful of rap collaborations with artists like Young Nudy and Freeway over the course of the 2010s, culminating in this year’s Full Court Press, a collaborative album with Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T. and Smoke DZA. But even as he’s moved beyond the pop music mashups that propelled him to blog era success, the biggest change for Gillis (and his fans) might be the most inevitable: aging.

“I really wake up hurting. I was attempting to get into shape before the tour, working out a little bit and running, and the first few shows my body was just destroyed. I was having a hard time walking the day after shows,” says Gillis, now 40. “As the tour went on, eventually I found the right conditioning and hit a sweet spot.”

It makes sense: as intense as being in the crowd of a Girl Talk show can be, being on the other side of the CDJs comes with its own challenges. “I spend months preparing the sets and every night I perform live,” says Gillis. “I trigger each sample by hand, but ultimately the set is something that’s highly composed.”

For reference, Girl Talk’s last mashup album covered approximately 373 samples in 71 minutes. Even if his live shows are less dense than his recorded output, he’s the sole conductor, keeping hundreds of samples on the rails as concertgoers groove and writhe.

“I hadn’t done an extended tour like this in a number of years,” Gillis explains.”So I really viewed the set almost like a retrospective of my whole body of work.”

Over the course of the night, I whip my phone out no less than 30 times to record a clip of a mashup I can’t bear to forget. Here, a deep cut from 2010’s All Day; there, a Jersey club remix of Ginuwine’s “Pony.” At one point he plays a rework of Cardi B’s “Up” that forces the entire crowd into an extended rap off, screaming bars in each other’s faces. At another, Jay-Z fades into “I’ll Stop The World to Melt With You” by Modern English. And the entire house melts down for “Absolutely (Story Of A Girl)” by Nine Days, which crescendos before crashing back down into Saweetie’s “Tap In.”

No Bells caught up with Girl Talk in early May following his spring tour to talk about touring after lockdown, Full Court Press, sample-based music, the pace of digital life and how dariacore connects to vaporwave.

Vivian Medithi: In some of your interviews from the mid-2010s, when you talk about working with rappers and doing production work, at the time you framed it as stepping into their space. One thing that was really interesting to me in hearing how you talked about making Full Court Press was how you went to these guys and were in the studio and maybe got, one verse here, one verse there, but when it came to putting the album together at the end, you really took all of those pieces back and were just in the lab working on them. Would you say your approach on this album is distinct from your previous work in rap, or is it an evolution of that trend?

Girl Talk: I think it’s an evolution. And definitely there’s an element of getting in there with these artists. It’s not like I’m thinking, “All right, I got to get Wiz on a bunch of Top 40 songs cut up quickly.” Which I could do if I wanted to push it there. But I’m a fan of everyone I’m working with, so I do want to do something that makes sense for them and something that they like. And it’s a very obvious statement, but I think the key to making a good song is for the person you’re working with to like the music they’re working on. I want to push them and do something slightly different and kind of have my own spin on it, but I want it to be something that they’re into.

With this album the big difference is just that it’s an album and not a song, and I do like working on projects more than individual songs. I had a lot more control just because we recorded a lot more and I could sit down and cut out and take these things apart. And with these artists, I’ve known Wiz for 15 years at this point. I’ve known K.R.I.T. for 10 years and I’ve been working with DZA since 2017. So all these guys had some trust in me, whereas some of the other artists I work with, it might be my first time meeting them.

A lot of times when you work with other artists, you might play a number of beats and they pick one out, but with [the Full Court Press] sessions, they literally recorded on every single beat I played them. So there was no skips, whatever I put on, that’s what we recorded on. And I personally loved that, cuz I had picked out beats that were my favorite, things I thought would work for them the best, and that’s what we ended up recording on. Whereas sometimes with other artists you might play them 10 or 15 different things, and they pick one out that might not be the one you were most excited about. So I did feel like I was allowed with this project to steer it, both in how they recorded on whatever I played and also how they gave me the freedom to take it home and really chop it up and do whatever I wanted with it.

Before you did the mashup albums, you did some experimental stuff, some other kinds of mash-up adjacent type things. Have you always had an interest in producing rap music, or music beyond sampling and collage type things?

Not necessarily but there was always like… when I started, the point was just to do a project entirely based around sampling other people’s music. So it was never like I wanted this to be a stepping stone to doing something else. But that being said, there was always a huge hip-hop and rap component in my music, right from the first album, [and] especially my second album Unstoppable, the one before Night Ripper. A lot of that was to me like weird, cut-up instrumental hip-hop made out of samples, which is highly influenced by people like Prefuse 73 and things like that. And then of course in the mash-up albums that I’m known for, on Night Ripper, Feed the Animals and All Day, a real strong basis on all of those is rap music, and it’s more or less me doing beats for rappers that may not have samples.

Doing the project with Freeway and even this, I understand that it’s a different sound but to me, it’s really within the same world. Take a step back, it’s the same thing in terms of me picking out sample-based production that I think is going to work with these particular vocalists. After All Day in 2010, I had done one song with Jim Jones called “Believe In Magic” and I really liked getting in the studio. It was my first time really doing that and I thought it’d be interesting to do something in between my mashup albums and doing more traditional production, which led to the Freeway project. And then from there everything has just been an evolution of just, I don’t want to repeat myself too much. You just keep it moving and try to make something that’s engaging and interesting for me, and hopefully for the fans.

You mentioned “Believe in Magic” with Jim Jones, which people can go see on the old Pitchfork YouTube on Selector. How would you say that things have evolved for you getting in the studio from then to now?

I definitely had no idea what I was doing there, and that program was cool enough to just set it up. It was easy for me. It was like ‘Prepare two beats for Jim Jones and he’ll pick one.’ In my experience in the studio, it can go such a variety of different ways that are never that clear cut, so that made it a little easier, that he was absolutely going to pick one of these and kind of record on spot and they took it.

I’ve had studio sessions where I’ve been in with the artists for two straight days without them recording a single word on the beats. We’re just there playing music or trying different ideas and nothing is sticking. Other times it’s more like Full Court Press where we’re just knocking songs out so easily. It’s really just a matter of getting in there and understanding what the artist wants to do and getting comfortable. And I’ve noticed the more I’ve produced for other people and the more credits you have then you earn a little more trust from the artist. I always want to do something a little different or take it somewhere new, and you really have to have someone trust you in order to do that. But it’s really a time and place thing, and sometimes it doesn’t work well, another time there’s something in the air.

From the early days of Girl Talk to the early shows, there were so many shows where I really crashed and burned or it just did not go well. And you get comfortable with embracing that as an option, where it’s not the worst thing in the world if it doesn’t go well. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to be that time.

So I have that same approach to the studio now, where it’s exciting and it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t go well. You really should just try to do what you’re really believing in. You want to go to the artists and work with them, but you also don’t want to compromise your vision too much. You have to make something that you really believe in and if they’re on board, I’m on board. If they’re not, then find someone else.

Have you ever heard of dariacore?

I do feel like I’ve heard of that. It’s referencing the T.V. show? So I like Daria the show, and I feel like I have heard of that. What is it exactly?

So dariacore is this SoundCloud sub-genre, it’s like hyperpop adjacent—if I’m throwing out too many Zoomer buzzwords, let me know. Basically, it uses samples, but it’s definitely lofi, buzzed out. What’s interesting to me, it’s almost a post-Tumblr collage aesthetic in a lot of ways, very digitally derived… When you look at rap songs that use samples—like historically, not necessarily right now—it’s the idea of loops and the way that the physical technology of CDJs or whatever is involved in the song structure. Versus now the way everybody can just hop into Audacity or whatever [DAW] on the laptop and move waveforms around. That kind of intertextual [dialogue], or the way that [sonic] texture functions is much more akin to looking at somebody’s Tumblr in 2014. I was curious cuz [dariacore] seems like the type of thing you would be interested in, given your background in both experimental [music] and then your focus on using samples in general.

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard my first album Secret Diary. It’s a difficult listen, but I always felt like that album—and I wasn’t the only one doing that at the time, it was 2002, there was other people touching similar things – but I always thought there was some connection from that [album] to vaporwave in fact. Just in terms of exploring [a space where] your technical ability didn’t matter.

Some of those very successful vaporwave songs are just basic loops slowed down. So for me [my] earliest stuff was just completely digitally mangling these songs, and like you were saying, at the time in the 90s it would be like DJ Shadow and people like that. I like that stuff, but I was never a big vinyl guy, so that was never my aesthetic.

I did like the digital stuff more and I did come more from a background of like, IDM or glitch. Things where you’re just completely massacring a song on a computer through processing and things like that. Vaporwave was always like a little bit more of a smooth listen, but I don’t know how to describe it. Just that sometimes the simplicity of them, where it wasn’t about having super technical skills, it was about making interesting edits and decisions on a computer. I thought there was a parallel there to some degree, and the way you’re describing Dariacore connects to that a little bit. Is the name kind of random or is there some connection to Daria?

So there was this artist dltzk (Ed. note: dltzk now goes by Jane Remover) who also posts music under the alias leroy who would just use pictures of Daria. And it’s also kind of weird because SoundCloud, especially right now, there’s such a proliferation of hashtags, like Robloxcore or these other mini-subgenres that aren’t even real. It’s like ‘what is vamp slime? Who knows?’ But somebody hashtagged it, so it exists.

Yeah, I love that stuff. All that stuff feels like I would have been fully, fully engaged at 20. Obviously I’m older and slightly more out of the loop on stuff like that but hearing about it gets me like… it sounds cool and I love just abusing technology or coming up with your own genre name. We used to do related things that were having a million different projects etcetera. Whatever is happening at this moment, really this tangential response to these very immediate things is really cool. And I love that, especially for young people messing around with digital music.

How do you feel the pace of online, or maybe like technological constraints, [affects the content produced on these platforms]? The pace going to TikTok is going to be faster than what you might mix in one of your old mashup records or even what you might do in person. I’m curious if you think that kind of digital pacing has bled into the music people are making.

When Night Ripper came out, some people weren’t into it cuz it was too breakneck speed. You know what I mean? It was like, “why are things moving on so quickly?” And obviously I didn’t invent that, for me what influenced it was ‘80s and ‘90s rap records. If you listen to Public Enemy or Bomb Squad, the production’s really detailed and quickly moving. But also for me, big influence from [the] electronics realm of like Squarepusher, Aphex Twin, where that stuff is just hyper detailed.

So those were the influences to me, like “keep it moving.” And now I feel like that all channels into the current pace of online life, which is more ADD and it’s quick and you get so groomed into wanting everything so fast. Whereas I felt like 20 years ago, I never thought of it as an ADD thing, it was more like, “this is just an aesthetic decision to keep it moving quickly” and there was an energy to it. Whereas now it’s more about holding people’s attention online.

But it is interesting, with TikTok and things moving so quickly and these little bits and pieces that really connect a lot of those energies or aesthetics that I was influenced by 25 years ago. Just looking at things moving that fast, like you’re saying, kind of connects a bit to something like Night Ripper.

I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing; I’m not necessarily happy we’re there. But I fully understand it. And you know, even when I click on TikTok, it’s overwhelming, the immediacy of it. I have two kids now so it’s like even a four-year-old—it’s just like, bait for them, you know what I mean? The speed of it is just exactly what they want.

It’s kind of scary, but it feels like people have been tapping into these energies for a long time and now it makes sense just in terms of people’s attention spans and what is the most efficient way to present information or entertainment these days.

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