Sunday, December 15, 2019

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Article Index

4. Girl Talk

Girl Talk, whose real name is Gregg Gillis, is a Pittsburgh-based former biomedical engineer whose recent rise to prominence, and distinct lack of legal troubles, has raised questions about how the copyright regime treats artists according to race and socioeconomic status. Gillis specializes in creating mash-ups, a blend of two or more samples usually taken from contrasting musical styles. Examples of Gillis's product include layering Juicy by the Notorious B.I.G. over Elton John's Tiny Dancer, or combining Kraftwerk with Lil Wayne. While Gillis's work is largely pop-centered and party-friendly, he views his music as a reinvention and reinterpretation of widely known sources that transcends the mixings of a party DJ. Gillis locates his work within hip-hop's history of recontextualizing existing sources, and has stated: [O]ne of my favorite things about Girl Talk is just how far it's pushed people to think, What is original music and what's not?

And yet, while Gillis focuses on sampling mainstream artists ranging from Aerosmith to OutKast, he has to date received not one cease and desist letter from a major record label nor been the subject of any civil or criminal investigation for infringement. Rather, his mainstream popularity continues to rise and his legitimacy as an artist has been lauded on the floor of Congress by his own representative. In contrast to the minority DJs and producers facing harsh sanctions for working in the grey area of the law, Gillis's sampling efforts have yet to be condemned or even threatened.

Such a disparity demonstrates how, in the context of digital sampling, technological usage and cultural production receive unequal treatment by the dominant legal system. One commentator has suggested that Gillis had avoided legal trouble because, as an educated middle-class white male, his socioeconomic status fits what the mainstream wants to see when it talks about this issue. As opposed to the criminal piracy of artists like DJ Drama, Gillis's story presents a squeaky clean image of American innovation and a model for how fair use should grant artists (or at least some artists) the autonomy to borrow and reinvent. Posit the editors of Copycense: Why hasn't Gregg Gillis been forced to post bail yet? . . . If Biz Markie cannot steal, why can Girl Talk?

Such a query is especially puzzling in light of the sources Gillis draws from. In some ways, Gillis's work reflects what Professor K.J. Greene has called a pattern of creation by Black artists, followed by imitation and distortion by white performers. In what Greene labels the Minstrel Show pattern, white performers water[] down the vitality of Black music to make it more palatable for white audiences . . . . This could arguably be applied to Gillis, whose music is significantly tamer and more mainstream than much of the hardcore rap exhibited on compilations by DJ Drama and others. It could be argued that Gillis's mainstream success is in large part attributable to his use of pop music sources readily known by white, middle-to-upper class audiences. The fact that Gillis samples more from well-known pop sources, but has received less scrutiny than DJs such as Drama who sample from lesser-known artists, is both intriguing and worrisome.

Lastly, the extensive media coverage of Gillis's work and his status as a fair use martyr echo the sentiments of jazz musician T.S. Monk, who noted that just as the drug problem was not recognized until it moved from African-American neighborhoods to white communities, so did the sampling debate only become a mainstream concern once it affected white artists. If positive treatment of Gillis has a silver lining, perhaps it is to draw attention to the original samplers whose work has not yet been legitimized by mainstream legal institutions.

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