A talk with the man behind the sampled sounds of Girl Talk
You're walking down the street in the dark. You can hear the steps of a beast with many feet behind you. Every second it's getting closer and bigger. One minute it's got the juicy spirit of a young Biggie Smalls and a waterfall piano melody that inspires visions of a tiny dancer. The next, its Ciara-stamped "O" pulses over the metric bump and grind of an Elastica connection. Just when you think you have its ID down, it changes again, shifting sounds and songs at a rate of a dozen a minute. It's tapping you on the shoulder. It's gotten inside your brain. It's Night Ripper, the newest album by Girl Talk.
Gregg Gillis has made three albums under the Girl Talk moniker, but this year's Night Ripper (Illegal Art) is the one that's making that moniker famous — maybe because it's a monster of an album that leaves most mashup ideas and practices in the dust. And to think that the title comes from a simple T-shirt. "There's this shirt I've had for years that shows this skateboarder dude with all these fluorescent colors and skulls everywhere, and it just says 'Night Ripper' on it," Gillis, who lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., explains via phone before a Friday night show. "I wanted an aggressive name [for the album] that also had a party feel."
Night Ripper's 16 tracks add up to a seamless 42-minute burst of manic energy. It's no surprise to learn that Gillis composed the album as one big song. "I built it in three different chunks, so in case I got stuck in one area I could move to another," he says. "Eventually, I had this whole piece." The result possesses the type of megamix acceleration you'd find on the late-night Detroit radio stations that bred the likes of DJ Assault. But Gillis says that while he's heard his share of CeCe Peniston–style techno pop and has nursed a childhood passion for New Jack Swing, neither count as a direct form of inspiration. "In high school I was into John Oswald and People Like Us and Evolution Control Committee and Plunderphonics-y experimentation. I fell into this mode of making megamix-style music through that."
On his first album for Illegal Art, 2002's Secret Diary, Gillis drenched Lil' Romeo and others in static white noise. His flair for harshly comic juxtapositions was already there, present in a track ("What Iff") that — thanks to Big Tymers — changed Joan Osborne's infamous "What if god was one of us?" query into "What if god were a project bitch?" One track on 2004's Unstoppable, his follow-up for the label, the jaw-dropping "Bodies Hit the Floor," forecasted where Gillis was headed. Over frenzied beats, he ricocheted the "you say" verses of two radically different girl pop songs — Kelly Osbourne's "Shut Up" and Lisa Loeb's "Stay" — off each other and threaded Ludacris's "Move Bitch," Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," and a ghostly Bone Thugs ’n' Harmony warrior ode through them.
"I think if you put Secret Diary and Night Ripper together, it's kind of like Unstoppable," Gillis says, his analogy suggesting an incessant urge to combine and fuse material. "I've made an experimental album, then more of an IDMish album, and now a pop record." A berserk record that swallows pop music whole. It's easy to imagine The Simpsons' sometime market researcher and sexual predator Lindsay "be warm — but edgy-cute" Naegle having an aneurysm upon hearing it. Night Ripper is packed with funny split-second moments, such as a transition in which the hooting synth melody of Paula Abdul's "Straight Up" is answered in a birdcall manner by the keyboard hook of Mariah Carey's "It's Like That."
Yet for all its Dirty South meets AOR meets soft rock meets alt-rock meets gangsta meets grunge meets ’80s bubblegum appeal, don't assume Night Ripper is a Frankenstein built only from other people's parts. One of its purest blasts of adrenaline stems from Gillis's own instrumentation, when he adds an accelerating guitar track to the "Girl, shake that laffy taffy!" chorus of D4L's "Laffy Taffy." The factoid masters at Wikipedia have already compiled an extensive list of Night Ripper's samples, nabbing 190 sources. But their efforts can't convey the sheer goofy your-peanut-butter-in-my-chocolate joy of Young Jeezy colliding with Nirvana or a magnified version of Biggie's trademark beat-fucking "uh" sound (from "Hypnotize") giving way to an equally exaggerated bump and grind burst from Billy Squier's onanistic "Stroke."
With Night Ripper, Gillis has built a popular culture landmark somewhere between a Stars on 45 hit and the copyright-flouting 1987 United Kingdom chart attack of the Justified Ancients of Mumu. He uses a Plunderphonics-like practice to create something that might have mass appeal. "I'm making this music that is challenging yet pop," he agrees. "I could have gone over the edge and doubled the number of sources and made it insanely crazy to listen to as an experimental piece or I could have slowed it down and made this easy-to-dance-to sort of record. It was a fine line, and I wanted to make something that was fun but at the same time interesting to listen to as a composition." (Johnny Ray Huston)
For a complete interview with Gregg Gillis, go to Noise at www.sfbg.com/blogs/music .