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Taking From Hip-Hop and Giving to White Kids: Girl Talk's Music Comes Full Circle

The DJ, whose mixes of rap and pop music crossed some racial and ethical lines, is now making his own hip-hop.
Girl Talk. (Photo: teakwood/Flickr)

Girl Talk. (Photo: teakwood/Flickr)

If you’re between 20 and 29 years old in 2014 and lived in the suburbs or went to college in 2006, there’s a very good chance that, when Girl Talk’s Night Ripper came out, you had a reckoning. A collection of pop and hip-hop samples stitched together into ecstatic bursts of energy that were then shoveled into the framework of songs by a DJ (real name Greg Gillis), Night Ripper, surprisingly, worked best as an album: you put it on, danced, and when it ended, you dealt with the shocking dilemma of needing an actual playlist.

Your reckoning might have been, “I did not know that I liked rap and pop music, but after hearing all of this rap and pop music that I’d never heard before, I now know that I like rap and pop music.” Your reckoning also might have been, “I only listen to rap and pop music when it’s like this.” These are two very different reactions, and, to some extent, they help explain the subsequent career path of Girl Talk.

The second one’s troubling, though, isn’t it? It seems absurd in the abstract, the idea that people would listen to black music only after a white man has recast it. (Except, you could argue, that’s basically the entire history of American popular music.) And I heard that response, or some version of it—people who claimed to have no interest in hip-hop going nuts to Gillis live or recorded—constantly through the first five years of Girl Talk’s prominence, a period that covered Night Ripper, Feed the Animals, and All Day, his massively successful triptych of that hyperkinetic sample-stitching style. This isn’t Girl Talk’s fault: Misinterpretation is a reality of making art. Even though, to paraphrase The Wolf of Wall Street: Was all this legal? Eh, not exactly.

This dovetailed with the fact that the mash-up culture, the people who listened to these songs, seemed to have no regard for the original work. It felt like a cycle of appropriation, not an art form.

But for kids without a learned or deep knowledge of hip-hop, Night Ripper provided a sort of bibliography: Listen to this, this, and this, and you’ll understand this infatuating language better. It sounded great, and it was endlessly danceable, and it more or less exploded the door for mash-ups—DJs taking two or three or 10 songs and melding them together. Gillis also put on a maniac live show involving balloons and people packed like popcorn kernels on a stage; kids who saw him live left evangelists.

Yet, as DJs have since become ascendant, Girl Talk has faded into the background. He just released an EP-length collaboration with Philly rapper Freeway called Broken Ankles that you can download for free on Datpiff. It’s bombastic and fun and refreshingly conventional—it sounds like a producer pairing with a rapper, not a mad DJ Frankensteining popular music. It sounds like everyday hip-hop.

DJS TODAY, LIKE AFROJACK, deadmau5, and Calvin Harris, routinely earn six figures per show in the electronic-music bubble that is Las Vegas. Citing Josh Eells’ story for the New Yorker about the massive fees earned by club DJs, Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen asked Gillis about his relationship with Vegas. "I'm in a weird point because I feel like I'm in that conversation at times, but otherwise I feel so different from that," he said. "I do play Vegas and get offers where the money is good, but I don't know if it's best for the way I want to present this.”

His ambivalence isn’t surprising. The accusations against these Vegas-type EDM DJs are legion: they’re glorified set-up men for selling alcohol; their music is just a manipulative sequence of bass drops and the spaces in between them; and, most of all, that they don’t actually do anything, an argument that came to a head when Avicii, another of these megawatt club-headliners, told GQ’s Jessica Pressler that most of what his performances consisted of is changing the volume and fading one song into another, only to then try to walk back his comments after the fact.

I doubt Gillis’ reluctance about Vegas stems mainly from the reps of these DJs, who, after all, have immense, rabid, worldwide fan bases. But Gillis, despite his straddling genres, doesn’t see and has never seen his music as part of the mash-up culture. Back in 2006, right around the release of Night Ripper, he told Pitchfork: “I think it's promoting the whole history of rap. Throughout hip-hop people have been putting different elements with different types of music. It's not about who created this source originally, it's about recontexualizing—creating new music. It's not a hip-hop record straight up by any means. It's a celebration of everything top 40, that's the point.”

As I became more versed and immersed in hip-hop proper, I had less and less, and eventually zero, interest in mash-ups. They seemed silly; why put two songs together when you could remix a track, or make your own beats? Was the sort of perverse pleasure in hearing two things you recognized married into one really that engaging? This dovetailed with the fact that the mash-up culture, the people who listened to these songs, seemed to have no regard for the original work. It felt like a cycle of appropriation, not an art form.

Gillis, of course, was working in collage, not mash-ups; rather than fusing two parallel parts of two songs into one, he layered dozens of erratic elements from various songs on top of and alongside each other. But I still found myself losing the taste for his music. He seemed like an intelligent, talented dude, but that didn’t change the fact that I’d rather listen to the 35 individual pop and hip-hop songs he’d super-collided into one of his tracks than the resulting alchemy.

Broken Ankles, then, is a total repositioning. This isn’t collage; it’s far closer to the sampling and sound-welding that has long made up the meat of hip-hop production. And it comes along with actual rhymes, lyrics, Freeway’s braggadocio, a Waka Flocka Flame verse—it’s rap music. The original work that made Gillis a star is still a major draw; he did just play a main-stage night-time show at Coachella, as good of a barometer for an artist’s popularity as any other one we have. But with Broken Ankles, he’s shown an artistry that lends nuance to his role in rap music. For a long time, Girl Talk used other rappers’ work to make his own. Now he’s giving back.