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How 'mashups' married old music with the new – PBS NewsHour


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For the last 20 some years, Gregg Gillis, better known as Girl Talk, has been creating mashups, or musical reimaginations of contemporary and classic songs. Streaming services have made hearing those mashups easier, but now for the first time, Gillis is releasing an album with fully licensed samples. Christopher Booker reports.
Geoff Bennett:
Well, before Spotify or Pandora, there was Napster. It’s been more than 20 years since the creation of that file sharing program. And the arrival of peer to peer music sharing not only kicked off the streaming revolution, but opened a world of possibilities for music producers to rework or remix digitized music. Special Correspondent Christopher Booker reports on how one of the pioneers of this musical mashup genre is taking his music in a new direction.
Christopher Booker:
The musical world created by Gregg Gillis better known as Girl Talk is a world of compliments and contradictions. His tracks, often called mashups are musical the imaginations of contemporary and classic songs.
Gregg Gillis, Girl Talk:
Doing remixes and mashups, you’re taking pieces that shouldn’t go together and making them seem like they have always existed there.
Christopher Booker:
Using a disparate collection of samples and compiling them together into one cohesive track. His work can be a hyper marriage of the most unlikely parents, rapper Jay-Z rhyming over modern English’s I Melt With You. Or Biggie Smalls back by Elton John’s Tiny Dancer.
Gregg Gillis:
I want people to hear the remix and when they hear the original have the original sound like not the original version. You know, that’s the goal. That’s like an impossible thing to get to. But that’s kind of like where you want to go, like you want your version to sound more natural than the original.
Christopher Booker:
Gillis’ musical journey started in high school. Loving hip hop in Nirvana. He spent his teen years playing an experimental bands. In college, he studied biomedical engineering, and spent his nights starting to mash up samples on his laptop.
Gregg Gillis:
I started doing Girl Talk, it wasn’t like this is going to be my career. This is going to be a 20 year thing. It was really like, oh, it’d be cool to do experimental electronic music based on pop music and have this very pop oriented name called Girl Talk.
Christopher Booker:
After college, he returned to his native Pittsburgh, working full time as an engineer and playing mashups and small empty clubs. But slowly, his mixes started getting more and more attention online. And by the end of the decade, Girl Talk had become a huge draw and musical festivals, a regular fixture at Lollapalooza in Chicago and Tennessee’s Bonaero.
From the beginning, the samples used on his mixes were used without permission from the original artists, Gillis arguing his work was covered by fair use copyright law. But earlier this month, the 40 year old did something he hasn’t done before, release an album with fully licensed samples, working in collaboration with rappers Wiz Khalifa, Big K.R.I.T., Smoke DZA, full court press is for all intensive purposes. Girl Talk’s first, full length legally cleared offering.
How much of a departure is this from your previous work?
Gregg Gillis:
In certain ways, it’s totally different than the old elms, just the pacing of it and kind of the overall just kind of energy of it. But in a lot of ways, it’s very similar in that the idea with the older albums is finding music and finding vocals that fit on top of that, and I make those decisions in terms of these vocal sounds interesting to me on this music and I like that. And that’s exactly what the new album is.
Christopher Booker:
Gillis had recorded with each of the rappers individually through the years and was inspired by the work. So he slowly started assembling versus, taking the vocal tracks back to his office in Pittsburgh.
Gregg Gillis:
I took all of it home, made decisions, what to keep what the cut, changed beats did all that which I would normally do on my albums. And I think that this old albums to me, I always had this vision of wanting it to be this very colorful thing where it’s constantly changing. And each moment has a unique vibe and feel like everything is very distinct while still being cohesive. And I think that’s still the goal with this too. It’s just more nuanced.
Christopher Booker:
Did you find yourself fighting some of your instincts?
Gregg Gillis:
Yeah, yeah, I think you know it because that’s the thing and I think too, it’s you know, what people know me for a certain breakneck pace with the music and I was like, oh, maybe on this song, I should have 10 beat changes in or like, maybe I should cut this up. I should do all these crazy things. But also just a good song is a good song.
Christopher Booker:
Did you need this creatively?
Gregg Gillis:
Yeah, I mean, this for me, it feels like, you know, I don’t want to say I’m starting over anything, but it’s just more like this is all under the same umbrella. I never stopped doing remixes and mashups and kind of the sound I’m known for on those albums. I have continued to work on stuff like that over the years and fine tune that. This is kind of like the beginning of this set. So it’s like each —
Christopher Booker:
Gillis spent three months prepping for his current tour. In addition to his daily duties as a father, he spent each day meticulously working over his 90 minutes set, reworking transitions, beats hand claps every single second.
Gregg Gillis:
Here’s the Oregon sample and then the bass sample. So I was going to turn off the Oregon.
I love people liking it on different levels. I love people liking it on a very superficial level. That’s awesome. Like I never thought it’d be able to make anything, especially coming from the underground experimental music. I never thought I’d be able to make anything that like more than 10 people enjoy.
I think with doing remixes and mashups, I think once you have some success and it’s working out, it’s not like I grew tired of it because I’ve continued to make stuff like that and continue to tour, but it’s almost like this worked out. It almost feels like I did it. Let’s see what else we can do.
Christopher Booker:
For “PBS News Weekend” I’m Christopher Booker.
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By Geoff Bennett, Frank Carlson, Claire Mufson

Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
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