Mashup Artist Explains His Craft

Gregg Gillis is proof that you can quit your day job and do something you love. The 27-year-old biomedical engineering alumnus and Pittsburgh native struck out on his own a year and a half ago to focus on creating music under the name Girl Talk. His songs, called mashups, borrow heavily from other artists, making Gillis something of a music outlaw. He says he’s simply misunderstood.

Gregg Gillis composes his tunes

Alumnus Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) composes his musical mashups. Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Corbis

What is a mashup? It’s pop music that’s been "chopped up" with a computer and collaged back together to make new music out of old. Gillis uses anything from hip-hop vocals from T.I. and Lil Wayne to music from Fleetwood Mac and Hall and Oates, and puts them together in the same song.

Is it legal? This issue is debatable, and, indeed, music sampling—using portions of other artists’ songs without permission— has been the subject of numerous lawsuits. But Gillis cites the doctrine of fair use, which allows limited use of copyrighted material without permission. "What I do is a reference to the past, and I don’t try to disguise that sampling. The final output is very different music that’s not creating competition for the source material," he says.

But isn’t it cheating a little bit? That depends on what you think it means to make music. "The thing is, you can’t make music without influences," Gillis says. "Everything has to be based on something, whether it’s art, science, anything. It’s all about taking an idea and putting a new spin on it to give it new meaning."

So does a mashup artist need formal musical training? If Gillis is any indication, no. A high school interest in experimental electronic music ultimately turned into a deeper and more dedicated focus. "It seemed like something anyone could do," he says.

What keeps fans interested? Sampling isn’t new. It’s been around at least since 1961, when James Tenney created Collage #1 (Blue Suede) from samples of Elvis Presley’s Blue Suede Shoes.

But Gillis says you don’t have to be a fan of samples to get into his music. "It’s exciting to hear someone manipulate a song they’ve heard over and over into something new."