Gregg Gillis is a bona fide rock star with hit albums, sold-out shows, a documentary about his music, and even a day named after him: Dec. 7, 2010, was dubbed "Gregg Gillis Day" in his home city of Pittsburgh.
This level of success is an achievement for anyone, but particularly for a man who doesn't play any instruments and whose stated musical goals are rooted in pissing people off.
And it all started by being broke.
"If I'd had money to buy a guitar, I would have," said Gillis. "But I didn't."
Instead Gillis--who was fascinated by experimental and noise artists--collected old electronics and toy keyboards cheaply from flea markets and thrift stores, squeezing as many alien sounds out of them as possible until their inevitable and often deliberate demise. Gillis was fond of smashing old computers on stage and shooting fireworks at audiences in a blatant attempt to shake up what he saw as a stuffy, pretentious music scene with a near-infinite supply of boring performers. Sometimes he brought out dancers to bump and grind to music that was the opposite of danceable. He didn't want to entertain the audience so much as spit in its face.
"I liked stuff that was challenging what music could be, maybe not to the world, but to my 15-year-old mind," Gillis said.
When Gillis went to college, he upgraded to a laptop computer and decided to take a new tack with his assault on the audience's pretensions: pop. So he crammed his music full of so much sugary-sweetness it would give people's ears diabetes.
"A lot of time, there was a division like, 'we're doing smart music and the music on the radio is stupid,' or something. That was kind of the mentality," said Gillis. "So I really liked the idea of performing in those settings, in those art galleries, those spaces in the experimental electronic music community and embracing pop, and sampling pop openly."
Gillis began isolating passages of pop songs and layering them together to create complex and nuanced artistic collaborations. On one track, for example, Ludacris raps over Black Sabbath, which runs into a Ramone's turbo-charged version of Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, which bleeds into bits and pieces from U2, Peter Gabriel, Sir Mix-a-Lot, Rihanna, Spacehog and more. Gillis mashes up every song you might belt out when driving solo on the freeway but never admit to liking publicly--and sets it all to a furiously danceable beat. Though it may be difficult to see all the action on-stage, Gillis actually cuts, pastes and mixes his samples live, choosing from more than 25,000 clips of audio stored on his computer. He even picked a name that he thought would embarrass other acts to share a bill with: Girl Talk.
"There would be a flyer for the show and it would look like someone misbooked, like a Disney group got on the bill by accident," said Gillis.
But the epic dance parties Gillis now commands didn't immediately ensue.
"A lot of [performances] were more confrontational than most shows I've ever seen," said Gillis. "People were unplugging things, or people getting on stage, or fights. This would upset people."
For Gillis--whose shows are now so dance-packed that he often leaves the stage bruised and bloodied--it's a huge and fascinating shift.
"The majority of people can't really imagine what those first five years were like, what world this came out of," said Gillis. "To me, that's the most fascinating part."
But some of the reason Gillis finds those beginnings so fascinating is that so few others do. Instead they have a tendency to focus on the myriad questions about law, politics, philosophy and the nature of art that Girl Talk's mash-ups beg.
"That would be a great exam question for a copyright law class," said Marybeth Peters, register of copyrights for the United States of America, after listening to one of Gillis' Frankentunes as part of an interview in the documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto, which used Girl Talk's music as the launching point to examine copyright issues in the digital age.
The reason it's a great question is because Gillis doesn't cut first and ask permission later, he just doesn't ask. There are hundreds of samples on his most recent album, All Day, with total estimated licensing fees in excess of $4 million, fees he has no plans of paying,
"2006 was the first album I put out that kind of got national recognition," said Gillis. "And with that album, it felt like all press was like, 'Here's this fun album with samples, and by the way, this guy is probably going to be sued by 300 artists.'"
Gillis doesn't see copyright as an issue for him, and not just because he believes that his sampling of other artists falls within fair use laws. Gillis views samples the way most musicians view notes or chords.
"As we're moving into the future of music, the majority of music is going to be electronic, and the majority of those sounds are preexisting," said Gillis. "And whether it's a drum machine sample or someone was in a studio and recorded a kick drum, that's the same thing to me.
"To me, it's always been at the foundation of all art and music to borrow, to build--not even just art and music: science, everything. I don't think original content has ever existed."
And for now, the industry seems to agree. Gillis has yet to be sued and said that when he meets artists he's sampled, he receives nothing but positive feedback. But Gillis is also quick to note that the world is rapidly changing its stance on sampling.
"In the last six years since that record came out, the world has become such a remixed place, even compared to five years ago--the amount of unsolicited remixes. Everything is a fanmade video made into an animated gif," said Gillis. Even though Gillis admitted sampling isn't as revolutionary as it once was, he has no intention of stopping. He likes the confrontation too much.
"I'm invited sometimes into this world of things that are critically well respected, and I'm embracing all these things they've shit on for their whole career," he added, chuckling.[ Video is no longer available. ]