A Win For Mixers and Mashers?

(photo: courtesy of Fanatic Promotion)

While Danger Mouse’s brilliant Jay-Z/Beatles mash-up project, The Grey Album, pushed the debate about fair-use and appropriate sampling clearance in music to a relative fever pitch, and sonic agitators Negativland have made an entire career out of pushing that discussion forward and challenging the current approach, no one on the modern landscape has been a better poster boy for looser copyright laws that Girl Talk.

The one-man “band” of Gregg Gillis — who performs the last show at Northside’s alchemize (at least under current management), a sold-out affair tomorrow (Saturday) night — only uses music made by other people. But his collagistic approach manipulates and mashes together the samples in such a way that they become new songs that stand on their own, different merit. This isn’t like Puff Daddy, who became known for simply swiping a hook from a prior hit and claiming it as his own — Gillis is more like a “found sound” maestro, like an artist who picks up things off the street (a gum wrapper, a shoe, a cigarette butt) and makes something beautiful and new out of it. He takes everything from Jay-Z and Ludacris to Sonic Youth and Seals and Croft and creates a dizzying, party-starting swirl that is incredibly infectious. (Listen to some samples here, including the Internet exclusive, “Knife By Grizzly Bear”; you can also take a peak at the mass of artists sampled on Girl Talk’s latest album, Night Ripper, here.)

Gillis has received some guff about his art — he was kicked off stage 15 minutes into a performance at Graham Civic Auditorium in San Francisco and big online music retailer eMusic.com yanked his recordings from their service — but sites like Amazon still sell his discs, his records have been universally drooled over by critics and Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne recently nominated his Night Ripper CD for The Shortlist Music Prize.

Aided by his reputation for frothy, excitable live shows, Gillis has amassed an ever-growing fanbase. One of his fans is in a position to actually force some change about how sampling in music is looked at. Congressman Mike Doyle (D – PA), who represents Gillis’ homebase of Pittsburgh, recently used Gillis as an example during a hearing on the future of radio and satellite radio. Doyle — who is the Vice Chairman of the Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee — offered up some extremely intelligent insight into why and how Gillis’ music should be considered legal, legitimate art. Doyle related Gillis’ story to the recent busts of mixtape masters like DJ Drama, who was arrested for selling mix CDs (a collection of new and reworked Hip Hop tracks by various artists), despite the fact that even the music industry has accepted the mixtape as an indispensable promotional tool (some record labels even pay producers to put their artists on mixtapes). (You can watch the hearings here.)

After praising Gillis as a hometown boy done good, Doyle then referred to Girl Talk’s many positive reviews and write-ups, quoting the Chicago Tribune‘s assessment that “based on the notion that some sampling of copyrighted material, especially when manipulated and re-contextualized into new art, is legit and deserves to be heard.” Then Doyle offered some historical perspective.

“I hope that everyone involved will take a step back and ask themselves if mashups and mix tapes are really different, or if it’s the same as Paul McCartney admitting he nicked a Chuck Berry bass riff and used it on the Beatles hit ‘I Saw Her Standing There’,” Doyle said. “Maybe it is. And maybe Drama violated some clear bright lines. Or maybe mixtapes are a powerful promotional tool. And maybe mashups are transformative new art that expands the listener’s experience and doesn’t compete with what an artist has made available on iTunes or at a CD store. I don’t think Sir Paul asked permission to borrow that bass line. But every time I listen to that song, I’m a little better off for him having done so.”

Gillis himself has made the argument that, like mixtapes, his mashups introduce people to music they might like that they may not have ever heard otherwise.

“Almost about every day for the last six months, I’ve received at least one e-mail asking about a specific sample on my last album,” Gillis said. ” There are Rock dudes not knowing who Mike Jones is or Hip Hop fans not knowing who Hall and Oates are or young kids not knowing who The Emotions are; people are definitely discovering new music through what I’m doing.”

What do you think? Should an artist have to pay for every tiny sample used on his or her record? Or is there a case to be made that this is its own form of art and that it actually helps the artists being sampled more than it hurts them?

While I generally believe the latter claim, part of me really hopes this isn’t the future of music. If everyone is sampling, who’s left to make new music? It’s kind of like the new world of journalism — if most blogs and even news programs are simply commenting on and offering opinions about news that is actually dug up by others, who will be left to actually find “new news” if newspapers fall by the wayside?

— Mike Breen

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One Comment on “A Win For Mixers and Mashers?”

  1. McKracken Says:

    Sounds to me like he’s just a DJ. I don’t get what the big deal is.


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