Arguably the most prominent current practitioner of the "mash-up" arts, Pittsburgh DJ Gregg "Girl Talk" Gillis doesn't turn anonymous found sounds into brand-new music à la '90s turntablist icon DJ Shadow. Nor does he merely weave two familiar pop songs together à la Freelance Hellraiser and other mid-aughts "bootleg" purveyors.
Girl Talk's entirely sample-based music is built on a foundation of pop familiarity, but his "songs" typically comprise elements from 20 or so source tracks, with hardcore rap, "classic" rock, and chart pop among his favorite sources. The usages range from minute-long stretches to momentary drop-ins (the opening beat of Roy Orbison's "Oh Pretty Woman," X-Ray Spex's Poly Styrene counting off, a vocal interjection from Jay-Z's "99 Problems," etc.).
Given how much music is crammed into these records and how little attempt Gillis makes to disguise most of his sources, playing spot-the-sample is an unavoidable part of the appeal. But when he's at his best, that's just a starting point. Rather, it's about isolating the "good parts" of records you know and love, combining elements for purely musical purposes, and letting records comment on each other.
Pleasure-producing two-song juxtapositions are abundant across Girl Talk's records: DJ Kool ("Let Me Clear My Throat") toasting over "Come On Eileen," Public Enemy sparring with Thin Lizzy, Metallica motorvating Lil Mama.
The key is that rather than work these ideas for full three-minute pop-song lengths, Gillis usually lets the contrasts linger only long enough to make their point, then moves onto something new.
The very best pure mash-ups, such as Freelance Hellraiser's Strokes/Christina Aguilera "A Stroke of Genius" and Nirvana/Destiny's Child "Smells Like Booty," could sustain full song lengths, but those are exceptions. Most of them lose their novelty after a little while, and Gillis' short-attention-span pop overcomes that inherent problem.
One of Gillis' favorite gambits is to put hardcore rap vocals over classic-rock instrumentals. When this works, it often serves to heighten the comic directness of rap come-ons while teasing out the somewhat more repressed raunch in his rock selections. His 2008 album Feed the Animals leads with UGK's raw sex talk from "International Players Anthem" lifted skyward by the Spencer Davis Group's "Gimme Some Lovin'."
But what makes Girl Talk's music more than just quick-hitting compendiums of mini-mash-ups is that he often has more than two elements working at a time, with samples from as many as five or six sources spinning at once. It's in these moments of microarchitecture that Gillis comes close to the DJ Shadow notion of forging new music from old.
On All Day, the classic riff from "Sunshine of Your Love" is funked up by organist Jimmy Smith, creating a new track for an old Notorious B.I.G. vocal.
As a listening item — rather than just a concert calling card — the new All Day is overlong — and it's not the case of being too much of a good thing but rather of Gillis padding tracks by letting simple and often only mildly interesting two-song contrasts go on too long, more like traditional mash-ups.
The album's first track opens with swagger, intertwining Black Sabbath's "War Pigs" with Ludacris' "Move Bitch" over a 2Pac beat, and ends with a mash-up of surefire party-starters, Missy Elliott's "Get Ur Freak On" and the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop." But, in between, the track spends 90 increasingly listless seconds on a simple rap and R&B pairing.
Elsewhere, putting Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" under Foxy Brown and then Simon & Garfunkel's "Cecilia" under Lil Jon are oddball pairings that don't work as music or concept. Using Lil Kim's "The Jump Off" over the Jackson Five's "I Want You Back" only proves what lots of hip-hop producers already know: Everything sounds grander over "I Want You Back." His would-be novel deployment of Depeche Mode's "Just Can't Get Enough" is a joke. Freelance Hellraiser beat him by half a decade. And the final track use of John Lennon's "Imagine"? Yeesh.
There's plenty of good on All Day — Fugazi's "Waiting Room" with Rihanna's "Rude Boy" works beautifully, like a more subcultural "Smells Like Booty" — and at least one stretch of genius: laying the vocals from Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" over the music from hardcore rappers' M.O.P.'s pro-robbery "Ante Up," which endorses stealing jewelry from anyone unnecessarily flashing it in your poor 'hood.
But Feed the Animals rarely flags by comparison. It works as music-first, with highpoints plenty.
Mixing Eminem with Yael Naim's "New Soul" and later Ice Cube's "AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted" with Hot Chocolate's "Every 1's a Winner" are good jokes. But lacing "C'Mon n' Ride It" into "96 Tears" is a meeting of world-historic bangers speaking to each other across the decades. And even that might be second to the more unexpected good fun that emerges from pairing Big Country's "In a Big Country" with "Whoomp! (There It Is)," then adding some muscle courtesy of "Planet Rock."
Gillis' densely layered creations reward study, but, ultimately, he's less a deeper thinker than a pop-loving music nerd intent on providing pleasure. And his music functions just as well as simple, prurient party music for kids who don't recognize half the sources. Feed the Animals suggests as much, its title seemingly a reference to Girl Talk's concert crowds, mostly too young and too, well, normal to geek out on his assemblages the way more pop-music-obsessive fans do. He will feed them at Minglewood this week.