Girl Talk (Gregg Michael Gillis) has more pressing things to do when I call him on a recent afternoon. "Uh… can you, can you call me back in ten minutes?" he asks, sounding a little stressed out. I wait 15 minutes and try again. This time he picks up almost immediately. "Hey, sorry!" He sounds chirpier. "I had to take my dog to the vet."
It's the little things like this that make up Gillis' day-to-day life in Pittsburgh, where he has lived for almost all his life. Although he's headlining this weekend's Escape Music Festival in New York City, there's no doubt that Gillis' touring schedule is far less busy compared to five or six years ago—when the frenzy over his sample-based mash-ups were at their peak. Now, without a recent album to promote and no announced projects for the future, Gillis gets to spend more in his city's music scene—which he has no complaints about. "I really love it, that's one of the reasons why I still live here," he says. (The love is reciprocal; the city even named December 7, 2010 'Gregg Gillis Day.')
As one of Pittsburgh's few big-name electronic musicians—the city is known more for rappers like Mac Miller and Wiz Khalifa—Gillis admits it was "weird" when he broke out in 2006 with Night Ripper, the album that put him on everyone's map. With the flood of press and bookings that came in its wake, Gillis was no longer the kid who hung around local shows all the time. He was muthafuckin' Girl Talk, the guy who blew apart the notion of a mash-up by cramping everything from Dirty South to Top 40s to 80s pop to grunge into the space of a single song. Music blogs marveled at the ease with each he packed hundreds of samples into an album. Fans reveled in singing along to songs they knew and loved, repacked into delightfully unexpected ways. Grad students eagerly dug into his distinctly post-modern approach to music. Soon, Night Ripper and Girl Talk's two follow-ups, Feed the Animals (2008) and All Day (2010), was the soundtracks to every dorm room party, and Gillis became such a household name that he's even used as an adjective on national news (and confusing the hell out of right-wing bloggers in the process.)
People have gotten used to it," he says about his standing in Pittsburgh. "Everyone knows I'm on my path. I'm not treated differently." I get the sense that he prefers it that way—that he feels more comfortable on the margins than in the mainstream. After all, despite his cultish popularity, Girl Talk never broke out into the superstar league, never signed to a major label, and still releases his music under Creative Commons licenses either under a pay-what-you-want model, or for free. He doesn't even have a SoundCloud account.
"I've never been concerned with sustaining the project with popularity. If it's not engaging to me, I won't do it." he admits. This laissez-faire attitude is what allowed Gillis to release his Broken Ankles EP in April this year. A collaborative project with the Philly rapper Freeway, the release also featured guest verses from Waka Flocka Flame, Jadakiss and Young Chris. It was a marked departure from the mash-ups he'd become known for—and was the first time Gillis had tried his hand at original, solo productions. The video for "Tolerated" featured a cannibalistic Wacka Flocka Flame and is one of the funniest music videos of the year.
"That stuff was exciting and liberating. It was fun to get out of the box and do something different," Gillis says. He reveals that he made 80 beats for Freeway, of which 10 were used on the EP. He plans to use the remaining 70, which are "far from throwaway" on future collaborations—with Freeway, and whoever else crosses his path.
But that doesn't mean he's abandoning his signature, sample-based sound completely. To Gillis, Girl Talk has always been about breaking boundaries as much as it has been about making people dance. "I like posing that question of, can you do a truly original project that is based entirely on other people's music? That's always been in the cards for me, defining what I do."
By positioning himself as a trailblazer for the free culture movement, Girl Talk's music has always functioned as a political statement, whether he frames it that way or not. Questions of ownership and authorship have become even more relevant since Night Ripper first came out, as the internet has made it ever-easier for producers to create music out of samples snagged from YouTube and the like—often without permission from the original artist. In an effort to monetize, platforms like SoundCloud that once seemed like refuges for free music have started teaming up with major labels. The future of the music industry hangs in the balance, and Gillis knows which way he wants it to go.
"As far as corporate control over music, the masses will have the upper hand in one way or another. Moving into the future, appropriation will become even more commonplace," he says. More artists are reaching out to him to ask for remixes than ever before, and Gillis wholeheartedly believes that what he's doing doesn't hurt the sales of the artists he appropriates from. In fact, the arguments swirling around the music industry about intellectual property rights don't seem to bother him too much. "It will be comical in the future that people were scared of it," he concludes.
Michelle Lhooq is the Features Editor of THUMP - @MichelleLhooq