Girl Talk on How He Avoided Getting Sued for Sampling: 'We Believed in What We Were Doing'

Girl Talk
Joey Kennedy

Girl Talk

With production credits for T-Pain and Wiz Khalifa, Gregg Gillis is much more than a mash-up artist -- but that doesn't mean he's hung up the crown.

In February, when we all took going outside for granted, Girl Talk announced his first club tour in eight years. It was to be a grand celebration of sweat and cross-generational sound, a return to roots for the celebrated producer and mash-up artist who got his start causing havoc in hot-box venues across the nation.

All that changed a month later. Because of COVID-19, we won't be slam dancing to Black Sabbath riffs mixed with Jay-Z rhymes, as Girl Talk was forced to cancel the tour amidst the pandemic. Before all the madness, Billboard Dance spoke with Gregg Gillis, the brain behind Girl Talk.

While there is yet no news of rescheduled dates Tuesday (April 28), on what would have been the first day of Girl Talk's spring 2020 tour, we get inside Gillis' creative process, his work as a hip-hop producer and his thoughts on why he never got sued for using all those samples.

You did a bunch of festivals last year, but this is your first proper tour in eight years.

We've discussed a tour for the past five years. I developed a lot of new stuff and liked where it was heading. I wasn't sure what people would think. It was framed like a comeback tour, which was weird to me, because I didn't necessarily go anywhere. It is different on a tour. I'm prepping a lot of new stuff. It does seem like a big deal to me.

There's a difference between a festival and playing a theater or club. Girl Talk tours are one of the craziest energies you can feel -- everyone's up on stage. It's chaotic, but in this joyful way.

I was doing this for six or seven years before I played any real festivals. For maybe six years, I was in an extremely underground level, playing to 50 or less people at DIY spaces, art galleries or even house parties. At those shows, you're playing on the floor, and if you're on a stage, I might be three inches off the ground. I played a lot of house parties where the only place I could play was in the middle of the floor or in the corner surrounded by people. There's no reason [the shows] shouldn't have the same feeling.

I don't exactly remember the origins of people on stage. It started slowly, pulling a couple people up. Maybe it was photos or reputation, because around 2006 when things started to build up, it became what people knew -- you jump up there and it's a free-for-all. That was exciting and fun. It was partially by design, but it also organically evolved. I wanted the show to feel different, to have that raw, house party energy. A lot of [the early shows] ended prematurely or cords got unplugged. It was very raw and out of control. After that, it was a matter of not doing that exact thing, trying to channel that energy into a bigger setting.

What precautions do you take knowing s--t will hit the fan as soon as you start playing?

Those early years, I went through a lot of laptops, and I was not making that much money. I started covering my laptops in plastic wrap [before] every show. It takes like, 30 minutes to do two laptops. They're completely covered. I just use Scotch tape and plastic wrap. That way, if there's sweat or alcohol or blood or puke, it's not going to kill the computer -- and you can wipe it off very easily.

It's a very physical show. I started my first jog of the year, because you gotta get into shape. This show runs you down. You've got to stretch and be limber. Shows go different ways, and that's part of the excitement. It's a roll of the dice depending on the audience and people who get on stage.

Do you give bouncers a chat before it starts?

We would always ask for no barricade, allow it to be a free-for-all and tell bouncers we want this to happen. If they see actual issues with people's safety, obviously they should stop it. At some point, the show incorporated enough production where it was kinda like, “OK, we have to do this in a more organized fashion.” We need a barricade, and we're open to people getting up there, but we'll pull some people in advance.

Over the years, I brought more people on the road and made it more of a production. My tour manager still briefs security as if it was 2006. It's a very different show now, but things have the potential to get out of control. It happens, but it's a lot more organized from our end.

There was something about the late 2000s. Now, people are a bit more trained to stare at the lights and wave their hands.

Especially with people coming out to my shows. Some were people who would go to actual nightclubs. Other people would never set foot in a nightclub. There's a lot of people who didn't like the stuffiness of the club and felt more into crowd surfing or sweating like crazy. You don't have to look cool. It has an energy of a rock show where you just lose your mind, as opposed to sit there and casually dance. It changes and evolves over the years, but the heart is still in a similar place.

You're the king of mash-ups. How did you not get sued? I think everybody's kind of shocked like, “Did he make money off this music?”

It's a very good question. There is an aspect of copyright law called “fair use.” You can sample things without asking permission if it falls under a certain criteria. It looks at the motivation behind the work -- if it's transformative. You don't know whether your work falls under fair use or not until you're taken to court.

We believed in what we were doing, that this music deserves to exist and should be allowed. I think part of the reason we didn't have issues was the warm response from fans and critics. I always thought, “This isn't causing any damage to anyone.” I still hear people like, “I never heard of so-and-so artists until I heard that sample.” I never thought of it as competition. No one's going to be listening to this instead of the artist. If anything, people are learning about new artists.

After your 2010 LP All Day, you switched gears and produced original beats for rappers. What prompted that, and how did you get into this hip hop world?

Night Ripper came out in 2006, but I did two albums prior to that. It was more taking samples and making beats. Girl Talk wasn't exclusively this mash up thing. I wanted it to be sample based. You can do a lot of different things with samples. It can be hip-hop. It can be Daft Punk. Doing my albums, it was like an alternative way of making beats.

I really like making sample-based beats for people. It might not sound exactly like these mash-up albums, but it's in the same world. The people I produced for are people I've reached out to or am fans of. I wanted to keep evolving. People might not make that connection to some of my other work, but it's something that would be in my show, just in a different context.

I was listening to “Getcha Roll On,” and the way the handclaps are positioned, I'm like, “yeah, that's Girl Talk.”

I am a control freak, and when I work with other people, you have to let go of that a little bit. That's been liberating. I would never put out anything I don't feel 100 percent about, but it takes a bit to get there. If this is my song, we could have done four beat changes, but sometimes that's not the best look for the song. Sometimes, I have these ideas of what I would like to do with this artist, then you sit down and work on stuff, and they're excited about a different aspect. You have to find that middle ground. When I started, I was outside my comfort zone. Now, it's something I do on a regular basis. It's healthy for me, creatively, to do that stuff.

[On tour] I want to play old stuff, new stuff, some of the production I've been working on and make it all work. That's always been the goal: to have a really diverse collection of music that sounds like it could be a total mess, but is ultimately cohesive when put together the right way.

Do you hear a song and immediately think about manipulating it to fit another?

It's hard to not think about that stuff sometimes. When I'm driving alone, I can really hear stuff. When I'm listening to music with my friends, not as much, but It's very rare for a day to go by where I don't mess with music. If I listen to older songs on the radio, it's hard to hear a song I haven't used. A lot of times it's revisiting older ideas, hearing a song I sampled in 2009, used in 10 shows that year and forgot about. I'm hearing it differently based on the style I'm working on. It's hard to turn it off, but I like it. I'm excited every day to try to catch that perfect wave and get that perfect sample.

Will you ever release another mash-up album?

I would never say “no.” It's about context. Am I really excited about this? Should this exist as an album? Should this exist in the show? Should this exist as something I play for my friends? Should no one ever hear this? I'm really focused on the context being the live arena.

That being said, I have years worth of stuff I'm proud of. It's a matter of feeling like “this would be a great time.” I haven't been working towards that. It's not a Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy situation. It could hit a point where I say, “I want this to be an album,” but that's not really the focus. I'm putting it together more in the context of the show.