Gregg Gillis, a.k.a. Girl Talk, talks digital rights, Pittsburgh hip-hop and Rebecca Black's 'Friday'
Are you ready to have your mind blown? Okay, check this out: Gregg Gillis, better known as mashup maestro Girl Talk, didn’t begin using an iPod until last month.
“I was forced to enter the iPod world,” said Gillis, who got his iPod for Christmas three years ago, but only started using it recently, to play music on his tour bus. “I’m not anti-mp3 or anything like that. Obviously I give my music away for free, and the last album wasn’t even available as a CD. But at the same time, I know the way I like to listen to it, and I’ll be doing it that way until I’m forced to exit. Which could be sooner rather than later.”
There may be no musician better qualified to speak on the state of digital media than Gillis. As Girl Talk, he perfected the art of the mashup, blending riffs, synths, beats and lyrics from sources as divergent as Ozzy Osbourne, John Lennon, Rage Against the Machine, Rick Ross, Depeche Mode and Rihanna to create five albums’ worth of sweaty party action.
If that sounds like a novelty, get with the program — Girl Talk is one of the most in-demand live DJs around, headlining wild sets at Coachella and Bonnaroo, and he’s become something of an ambassador for music in the digital age, not unlike how Chuck D was for hip-hop.
On Wednesday, Girl Talk comes to Jannus Live (tickets are $25-$30; click here for details). From his home in Pittsburgh, Gillis talked about digital media, preparing for Bonnaroo and the state of Steel City hip-hop. Here are excerpts.
Do you remember anything about your last show in Tampa?
Yeah, I do remember that show. I remember having a really good time on that run, because I was out with some good friends of mine from Pittsburgh, Grand Buffet, who are some of my best musical friends going back and that was one of our first tours together. So we had kind of a wild time. And I remember playing the first show, maybe in Tallahassee, and then we met some kids who just decided to start following us that week. We ended up putting them on the guest list and hanging out with them every night. And I remember specifically that show in Tampa was the night we learned they had a band, and we decided they should play the final show in Miami. So in the course of that week, these people who were just following us to every city ended up opening that last show.
What’s been the biggest evolution in your live show since then?
Back then I was traveling alone. There’s been many additions, definitely in personnel. I think at this point it’s kind of a multimedia experience, to a certain degree. I have people who come out and engage the crowd with physical things — a homemade toilet-paper-shooting guns, confetti, homemade balloons, various things like that. On this Florida run, we’ll be traveling with a custom-made LED wall. It definitely goes the full gradient between very high tech and very low tech. In general, it’s just a lot more emphasis in making it more of a spectacle this time around.
Are you viewing this tour through Florida as a tune-up for Bonnaroo?
Not necessarily. I think everything’s always a tune-up for the next stage. After doing every one of these runs, we discuss what we can be doing differently or how we can improve. And there’s small little changes, even show to show. Even when we show up at a venue, we’ll decide what will work there and what won’t work there. And we do make these changes all the time. I don’t necessarily look at the Florida run as a specific warmup for Bonnaroo. But the way we operate, everything before Bonnaroo will be a warmup for Bonnaroo.
This is going to be what, your third or fourth time at Bonnaroo? From what I can tell, you’ve gone out and wandered the grounds at Bonnaroo as well. Why do you do that?
I like festivals. That’s what’s fun about it, is just to really get in the mix. I feel like that’s where the show looks best. Even though you can stand side stage and be a little closer to these people, have some sort of VIP access, it doesn’t really mean the show is any better. In my experience, it’s usually the opposite. There’s a reason why thousands and thousands of people flock to these festivals, because it is an amazing experience, and it’s this crazy fun thing. It’s kind of like going to an after party after you play a show, except it’s enormous.
Have you talked about doing any live collaborations there?
Yeah, nothing concrete yet. I’m considering reaching out to some people. I think an MC would work well with what I do. And I have had that go down with some friends, some people jump onto the mic at the end of a set. And there is a decent chunk of rappers actually playing Bonnaroo this year. It’s a matter of finding out who’s hanging around, who’s just enjoying the festival, who would be open to doing that sort of thing. I’ve never done that, but I know it’s kind of a big thing in the spirit of Bonnaroo, and it’s something that I’m not opposed.
I know your Pittsburgh cohort Wiz Khalifa is on the bill, too. What is up with Pittsburgh these days? You’ve got Wiz and Mac Miller and yourself — it’s kind of the hottest hip-hop city in the nation now. How did that happen?
Yeah, it’s a crazy thing. It’s funny, just ’cause for years, the talk was always, “Why is there no famous hip-hop that comes out of Pittsburgh? Why is there no scene here?” I think it’s been bubbling up for a while. Wiz definitely broke down those walls and put the city on the map in terms of rap music. And now there’s a lot of young guys, and people that have been doing it for a while, that are getting a little bit more shine now. It’s exciting, because I feel like Pittsburgh has always been an exciting music town, from Don Caballero to Donny Iris to Black Moth Super Rainbow to Wiz Khalifa. Like any city, there’s always something happening there; it’s just a matter of putting the spotlight on it for people to realize it.
And you go back a little with Wiz, right? I don’t know if you run in the same circles, but you’ve known him, right?
Yeah, I’m not tight with him or anything like that, but we’ve played some shows together and I’ve been following his stuff for a while. I remember when his first single that I heard on the radio was a song called Damn Thing, circa ’05. It was one of the first times I heard a local guy getting played a lot on the radio. He was really young at this point, maybe 18, 19, and I started going to his shows, picking up mixtapes. I’ve been following his journey the whole way, and even offered to put him on shows and things like that, and attending the shows that I can. I’m a fan. When someone like him’s blowing up, I feel like it helps me out, and gives Pittsburgh a little bit more credit. When there can be some sort of contemporaries rising up at the same time, it benefits both people.
Yeah. And Mac Miller, who’s kind of the new kid on the block. Is he for real?
Yeah, I just met him once. I think he’s totally legit. He exists in a definitely different scene than Wiz Khalifa. He’s doing his thing — it’s something specific, but it kind of fills a void. He’s a legit rapper, but he’s not necessarily rapping about selling drugs or anything like that. He’s not presenting an image that’s not true in any way. He’s pretty upfront about what he’s about, and his lifestyle. He’s a talented guy. Form what I understand, he’s multi-instrumentalist who produces and stuff, and he’s very charismatic. It’s funny, there’s been white rappers out for a long time, from Beastie Boys to Eminem, but it seems like it’s really broken through to where there’s less of a discussion about race or even the backstory. There’s rappers from all walks of life. You don’t have to be gangsta, you don’t have to be this, you don’t have to be that if you want to be a rapper. I think he’s just doing him, and it’s working out.
Here’s a segue for you: Speaking of white rappers, Eminem’s one of the headliners at Bonnaroo. I know you sampled him on Feed the Animals. Do you know if he knows that?
Not personally. I’m curious about stuff like that, because I’ve heard from certain artists, and heard stories. I don’t want to name-drop, because I never know what’s true. I don’t know anyone associated with Eminem, and I get the impression he keeps himself pretty isolated from anyting in the pop world, so I can definitely see him not hearing anything I’ve done. But I’m definitely a fan. He’s a pioneer, definitely one of the greatest MCs of all time. I’ve never seen him live, so that’s actually a guy that I’m pretty psyched to see at Bonnaroo.
Have you been following his Universal lawsuit?
Not much. What were the details of that?
He claimed that he was owed more royalties from digital downloads, and they ruled in his favor, so that could open up the door for billions in royalty payments from Universal and possibly other labels as well. Is that something that could potentially impact what you do, or is it completely separate?
I feel like it’s completely separate. Oftentimes I get asked about downloading. It’s connected — I don’t think you can be in the music business and not have an opinion on that. But to me, even royalties being paid for certain things on iTunes versus people giving the music away for free, it definitely is an isolated issue versus sampling. Ultimately, what I do is about creating something. I think you could be anti- or pro downloading, or you could feel either way about the Eminem case, or you could be pro-Gril Talk or anti-Girl Talk in terms of the copyright discussion.
What do you think is the No. 1 issue artists should be concerned about as it relates to the Internet and digital rights?
It’s different for each person. It’s really easy to look out for yourself, but sometimes you have to look at the biggest picture, what’s best for the state of music. It does really relate to politics, being conservative or liberal, how you feel about how people should be taxed. Some people are really set on the way things work, and some people are really set that you should be able to make X amount of dollars from CD sales, or you should make Y amount of dollars from this or that.
The way music was was great to me. I still buy CDs. I love the idea of someone being able to be a millionaire off of record sales. The classic system is great. I’m happy that it existed that way. But I feel like if you look at any important music, things are always moving, and music reflects what’s happening in the world. So to me, the downfall of the physical music industry, things exploding and record companies not really having power anymore — it’s exciting. I don’t want anyone to necessarily lose their job, but ultimately, all of this change is going to result in new and interesting perspectives from a younger generation. Music existed before physical products were sold. Music existed before vinyl, before the wax cylinder. Music existed forever. It’s never going to die. We lived through this very brief period where you could sell it on these physical mediums and make a lot of money off it. Now, that’s kind of over. There’s still money to be made right now; who knows, in 100 years, 1,000 years, where it will be.
You said you still buy CDs. What’s the last CD you bought?
Well, I went to see Big K.R.I.T. and Freddie Gibbs last week, so I picked up the Freddie Gibbs CD at the store. I’m looking down right now — I picked up the new Foo Fighters CD last week, the Gucci Mane CD last week, and the Jim Jones CD last week. I don’t really listen to music on my computer. At any given moment, I have like 50 mp3s on there. Typically, I wake up and I throw in a CD. I like taking the whole album to the head. I get in the shower, and there’s a boombox in the bathroom, and I listen to a whole CD. That’s just kind of the way I enjoy doing it.
At this point, what is the Internet doing for you, careerwise? Do you mostly benefit from social networking, or getting your music out there?
For me, the No. 1 thing is word of mouth. That goes from the album releases to the shows to everything. I’ve put zero dollars into marketing myself the past year or two. Maybe 5 years ago when I was putting out albums, I’d place some ads in a magazine or something like that. I haven’t had to do that, because it’s all on the Internet. Mainly, I completely distribute all of my music through the Internet. The last album was only available through the Internet. The release of that album really resulted in a spike in ticket sales and show sizes. The Internet is pretty much every level of promotion for what I’m doing anymore. When I’m at a large festival and it goes well, immediately people are tweeting about it or it’s on Facebook and more people look into it. Today, people are just hearing about Girl Talk this week, after doing this for 10 years. It’s that constant chatter on the Internet that spreads it to the more casual music fans. Those are the people who really determine who’s on the Billboard charts, not necessarily the people who are checking blogs every hour of every day to find out the new bands.
What goes through your mind when you see a music video go viral, like the Bed Intruder Song or Friday by Rebecca Black? Are you just not that interested in novelty?
I never want to work with those songs, necessarily. For me, with Girl Talk, I really am almost paying respect to pop music and everything it stands for. So if one of those songs came through that was less of a joke, I would be open to it. Typically, I think with Rebecca Black or the Bed Intruder Song, it’s more comedy-based first, which is all good. I’m down with it. It’s just something I don’t know whether I would want to incorporate into what I’m doing. If it’s Miley Cyrus or Kelly Clarkson or pop music that a lot of people might s--- talk, I am a fan of that stuff. I love to balance it out and make sure it has that Fugazi in addition to Miley Cyrus. The people who really dive into the album, I think you can hear the sincerity to it.
Early in the days of the mashup, it was probably viewed as a novelty too. Maybe you’ve been called a novelty to your face. Did you have to go through that early in the day?
Definitely. And I still get it now from time to time. It’s the sort of thing where it’ s like, I’m fine if people don’t like what I’m doing, or they don’t think it sounds good, or they don’t like it conceptually. But the novelty thing is something that I would take offense to. I’ve dedicated 11 years to doing this, and I’ve done five albums that to me are very different, from the beginning to the next to what it could be in the future. In my eyes, what I’m doing is very much connected to a lot of the ’80s and ’90s hip hop records that were very sample-based, from Public Enemy to Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique, to Daft Punk or J Dilla or whoever. So many people do sample-based music. I’m a part of that; it’s just that I have my specific world.
It was funny, because when I broke into the national scene in 2006, I had already been doing this for 6 years, and I had been performing and putting a lot of time into this. This was a project that was conceptual first and fully realized later. And at that point, that was definitely very common, where it was like, “Oh, this is a novelty.” Even at that point, when I was playing at Coachella, people were like, “Oh, we’ll never see this guy again in a year.” That was definitely motivation for me. I knew I could grow, and I didn’t think I was at the limits creatively of what could be reached with the project.
It’s like when punk rock comes around, or hip hop, or electronic music — when anything comes around, people are going to use the novelty label at some point and say, “This is going nowhere.” At some point, there’ll be mutations to what I’m doing. This particular sound will sound dated in 10 years, but it will go on to be something else, just like rap music 10 years ago sounds different than today. But it still has an impact.
It would be interesting if in, like, 30 years, someone makes a movie that was set in 2006, and they decide to score it using mash-ups to set the mood of what the era was like.
Right, right. It’s funny, because things come and go in waves. I first started doing mash-ups in the year 2000. I had been listening to sample-based music for a long time, but by the time I even started doing more traditional mashups, I feel like people were already saying mash-ups were played out in 2002? In 2006, mash-ups were played out. And in 2011, it’s like that. I feel like the albums that are being released in 2011 are very different than 2002. That’s why it does exist, because it’s not just replicating the same exact idea.
Have you ever broken down why you think a mash-up works? Why does it make people smile and feel good and want to put their hands in the air?
For me, it relates to a lot of the hip hop I grew up liking, and recognizing a sample. I feel like in all music, you hear people borrowing and being influenced by music that is innovative and enjoyable. A lot of music that’s critically acclaimed references the past, but at the same time kind of puts a new spin on it. You hear Arcade Fire, and you’re like, “I get this.” This melody sounds like U2, but the production style is this, or there’s a female vocalist on it, singing on 80s synthesizers. I think that’s at the heart of most music, and mash-ups do it in a very physical way. Hip hop is doing it in a very physical way.
I read a couple of months ago, the city of Pittsburgh declared Gregg Gillis Day. How did you celebrate?
I actually didn’t know that was happening until the day of. That they reached out to me, the city council, and asked if I wanted to be recognized by the city of Pittsburgh. I said yes, I went there, and I just thought I was going to be getting a tour or something. Then they showed me into a room, and all of a sudden there’s TV cameras everywhere. I was like, what? No one ever mentioned it to me until that second. And before I knew it, I was in front of a microphone, giving a speech that I did not plan on giving. It was crazy. And all of a sudden, I was calling up my mom and telling her it was Gregg Gillis Day. I did not know until that day.
Did you think you were being punked or something?
Right, right, right. And they said it so casually. It was cool, because I talk about Pittsburgh a lot, and it’s where I grew up, and I love the city, so it was very nice of them to do this. But I don’t know if they realized how big of a splash it was going to have. As soon as they said it was going down, I was like, “Oh, man, the Internet’s going to have a field day with this.” They didn’t understand how entertaining that would be for the rest of the world.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Paul Subota.