Music fans may love Gregg Gillis’ innovative mash-ups, but the recording industry isn’t buying them.
Gregg Gillis used to lead a double life. By day he was a biomedical engineer from Pittsburgh, but by night he was the mash-up performer known as Girl Talk. While mash-ups—audio recordings composed of two or more sampled songs—have been around for decades, Gillis has taken the genre to a whole new level. The problem, however, is that what Gillis calls art, the recording industry calls illegal.
Girl Talk’s latest album, Night Ripper, is a mash-up masterpiece. Composed of 16 continuous dance tracks featuring 167 artists and dozens of subgenres, the album’s samples are so subtly integrated that they are often difficult to discern. One track seamlessly splices indie rockers Neutral Milk Hotel with rapper Juelz Santana; another fades James Taylor’s “Your Smiling Face” into 50 Cent’s “In Da Club.” Rolling Stone, Spin, and Blender magazines put Girl Talk on the national scene in 2006 when they included Night Ripper on their “best albums of the year” lists. This past summer, Gillis gained enough notoriety to quit his day job and focus on Girl Talk full-time.
But while much of Girl Talk’s success stems from Gillis’ innovative style, his methods have attracted a great deal of controversy. Gillis doesn’t seek permission from any of the artists he samples, and that has made him a prime target for copyright lawyers. While Gillis and his supporters insist that mash-ups are good for all parties involved—they expose Girl Talk fans to artists they might not hear otherwise and potentially expand the sampled artists’ fan base—the record industry doesn’t agree.
The legal case supporting Gillis’ methods dates back to as early as 1841. In Folsom v. Marsh, a Massachusetts circuit court decided that the main concern of copyright infringement is “the degree in which the use may prejudice the sale, or diminish the profits…of the original work.” This standard was codified in Section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976. Known as the Fair Use doctrine, it states that any use of published material “for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching…scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright.”
The first major challenge to this law came in 1989, when the publishing firm Acuff-Rose Music sued rappers 2 Live Crew for mimicking the 1964 Roy Orbison hit “Oh, Pretty Woman” on their album As Clean as They Wanna Be. By 1994, the case had made it all the way to the Supreme Court. In Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, all nine justices ruledin favor of 2 Live Crew, arguing that the group had not broken copyright laws because their song “Pretty Woman” was a commercial parody and protected under the “criticism, comment” provision of U.S. copyright law.
By that point, however, sampling had been dealt a serious blow. In 1991, singer-songwriter Gilbert O’Sullivan successfully sued rapper Biz Markie for sampling his 1972 hit “Alone Again (Naturally).” A federal judge ruled against Biz Markie and forced him to pull all copies of the offending album, I Need a Haircut, from circulation. The judge also recommended that criminal charges be filed against the rapper, whose career subsequently floundered.
The Biz Markie case had a chilling effect on sampling in the 1990s, particularly within the burgeoning industry of hip-hop—a genre largely based on the practice. Big record labels began vetting all samples before releasing an album. Sampling pioneers, including DJ Shadow and The Avalanches, could only innovate at the fringes of the music industry.
But with the rise of file-sharing software like Napster at the turn of the millennium, the industry’s hold on popular music began to slip. In the digital age, anyone with a few hundred dollars can transform a laptop into a recording studio. And anyone, with the right taste and talent, can turn an Internet connection into a distribution network rivaling any big-time record label.
For example, in 2004, Brian Burton, an obscure musician known as Danger Mouse, distributed 3,000 copies of The Grey Album—a mash-up of rap vocals from Jay-Z’s The Black Album and instrumentals from The Beatles’ The White Album. When EMI, the record company owning the rights to The Beatles, issued Burton a cease-and-desist order, the move backfired; fans aggressively promoted the album on the Internet to counter EMI’s strong-arm tactics. The Grey Album became such an online sensation that Entertainment Weekly named it the best album of 2004.
The following year, however, brought an unprecedented blow to sampling. In June 2005, a federal court ruled in favor of Armen Boladian, a copyright mogul responsible for launching nearly 500 suits against 800 artists and their labels. In Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, the judge struck down what’s known as de minimus standard—which says that some intellectual property use is too small to merit concern—and drew a line in the sand: “Get a license or do not sample.”
It was in the wake of that verdict that Illegal Art—Girl Talk’s aptly named label—released Night Ripper. Fortunately for Gillis, he survived 2006 without legal backlash. Even so, to avoid costly litigation, the digital vendor eMusic yanked Girl Talk’s albums from its popular online store. Its top rival, iTunes, eventually followed suit.
In early 2007, the Pittsburgh native met a powerful ally: his congressman, Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA). Luckily for Gillis, Doyle is the vice chairman of the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee and a progressive on copyright issues. Kenneth DeGraff, one of Doyle’s young staffers and a huge fan of Girl Talk, introduced his boss to the mash-up star.
During a memorable hearing, Doyle stumped on the floor of Congress for both his young constituent— “a local guy done good”—and the mash-up genre in general. “[M]ash-ups are transformative new art that expands the listener’s experience,” Doyle told his befuddled colleagues—few of whom had heard of mash-ups, let alone Girl Talk.
Since then, the unlikely duo has garnered a great deal of media attention, including profiles in Newsweek and Rolling Stone online. The latter dubbed the congressman “Girl Talk’s biggest fan,” a title given more weight in September when Doyle attended his first Girl Talk show at the Black Cat in Washington, D.C. “What Gregg did on stage was nothing short of amazing,” recalled the silver-haired statesman, who came dressed in business casual and wielding a camera phone. “You can’t watch him perform and deny the fact that he’s creating something new and different out of the samples stored on his computer.”
In fact, dozens of samples on Night Ripper draw from sampled songs. For instance, on the track “Friday Night,” the sample “Engine, engine, number nine/ On the New York transit line” was sampled from rapper Fatman Scoop, who sampled it from hip-hop duo Black Sheep, who sampled it from a Roger Miller country lyric. Such meta-sampling amplifies one of the album’s strongest statements: All music is influenced by other works, and thus no work can ever be entirely original.
“Friday Night,” Girl Talk, Night Ripper (2006), Illegal Art; Video by “i cut people”
Whether or not companies will ultimately sue Girl Talk into oblivion, Gillis’ star continues to rise. Girl Talk is featured in “Good Copy Bad Copy” and the upcoming “Basement Tapes,” two documentaries that—in the spirit of “open source”—are freely accessible to the public. Musicians such as Beck, Good Charlotte, and the Teddybears have commissioned remixes from the mash-up maestro. Gillis is about to embark on his first international tour, and he is expected to release his next album by year’s end. While Gillis is sure to attract more controversy as his popularity grows, his fans hope the record industry will realize that the benefits of mash-ups far outweigh the costs.