Mash-ups existed 10 years ago, but in 2006, no one was releasing mash-ups with the same exuberant finesse as Gregg Gillis, better known as the producer Girl Talk. When his third album, Night Ripper, was released in the summer of 2006, Gillis, then working a lab job in Pittsburgh, introduced a new form of DJ set.
The full-length was based around splicing dozens of rap, rock, pop and R&B songs into single entities, hooks stacked upon disproportionate hooks in a way that made both sound better. Wait, was that a Van Halen riff tossed in behind a Big Boi verse, leading up to a Britney Spears-led bridge? Yes, yes it was. Night Ripper was hailed as groundbreaking, garnered rave reviews and a few (threatened) lawsuits, and turned Girl Talk from a bedroom project into a festival headliner.
“Night Ripper was my third album, and [the 10th anniversary] has kind of been creeping up,” Gillis tells Fuse. “Night Ripper was clearly the album that took off for me and definitely changed my life. I’m still basically touring around and doing stuff related to it, to a degree.”
For Fuse’s Class of 2006 Week, Gillis spoke about the ordinary life he enjoyed before Night Ripper took off, his parents’ reactions to the mash-ups, and his favorite moments from his breakthrough LP.
FUSE: Is Night Ripper the album that the most people come up to you to talk about?
GILLIS: It’s funny, because it was definitely the biggest jump. Prior to that, I had been doing Girl Talk for six years, and it was on the extreme underground level. I toured around and play to 10 people in most cities. So when it happened, it was this thing that took it to a new level, and I ended up quitting my job and everything. I think it still resonates with people, and when I play shows I fade in and out of [the album], occasionally referencing it. Most shows, I’ll drop at least something from it, and I still feel like it generates a big response, even 10 years later.
Talking to fans and people online, though, there are different perspectives, because I do think each album got progressively bigger after that, or at least more widespread. I do talk to people now who are like, “Man, I’ve been a fan the whole time since Night Ripper!” Those are the old-school heads now. There are people I meet who are also like, “I’ve been following since all the way back to [2008’s] Feed the Animals!” I feel like, for people who know what I do and all that I’ve done, Night Ripper was this important album for them, and me.
You mentioned quitting your job after this album broke. I feel like there’s a certain amount of folklore associated with Night Ripper, and what it did for you.
I was working as a biomedical engineer in Pittsburgh—I graduated college in 2004 and got the job a few months after. I was working for a sleep research-related company, so I was hooking electrodes up to people’s heads and doing experiments. The whole time I was doing Girl Talk, in college and after college, I never intended it to be a profession. I didn’t really think that there was a possibility that it could be, but it was something I loved working on when I had free time. I’d always tour during summer and winter breaks during college. So I had the day job prior to Night Ripper, but I had a small little cult following in certain cities. I would drive out on the weekend and play shows in New York, or Cincinnati, and play to a few people.
I put out the album, but I didn’t tell my coworkers about it, because in that era, I would be playing to 15 people and jumping in people’s faces and ripping my shirt off. It was a crazy thing that I didn’t necessarily want my coworkers to know about. When I started working there, I didn’t think it would ever be something that they’d ever find out about. And then when Night Ripper came out in the summer of 2006, it went everywhere. I was friends with the local music writer, and asked him when they made reference to me in the Pittsburgh paper to not use my name—just refer to me as Girl Talk. I had one promo pic where I was wearing sunglasses and some headgear, where you couldn’t see my face so well. I asked them to use that photo. At the end of that year in 2006, I was on the cover of that section of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, but it didn’t have my name and it had that photo. So no one knew!
When Night Ripper hit, it definitely was a huge overnight thing for me, but at the same time, it wasn’t like I was playing shows to 3,000 people immediately. The overnight success to me was playing to 300 people at a sold-out show. I never thought that would happen.
At what point did you realize you could do this full-time?
It was just doing the basic math of how much was coming in with the shows, really. With all the shows selling out, it was so overwhelming. But my whole life, I was always such a music fanatic, and I always dreamed of being able to tour and live off of it. When I quit the job … It didn’t necessarily seem like a risk, but it was throwing something away. My parents were open to it, but I don’t think a lot of people were excited about it, because they didn’t think it was something that was guaranteed to be something that would turn into my entire life the way it did.
When you were first showing your parents and friends your music, did you have to offer any type of explanation of, “This is what I do, I mash up a dozen songs into one song?”
With my parents, prior to doing Girl Talk, I was in a straight-up noise band in high school—no melodies, just completely abstract electronics and circuit-bending toys. My parents are open-minded, but they’re not necessarily into anything weird like that. They were always cool enough to let it fly, and looking back, I could imagine it being overwhelming, and I think it was at times. I mean, we used to smash TVs onstage, and play shows that would last 30 seconds before we just started breaking a bunch of stuff. My parents were used to that, so I don’t think they got what [Girl Talk] was, exactly, but they’d still go to shows. By the time Night Ripper came around, that was extremely accessible compared to what they had previously heard. My mom used to run to Night Ripper!
I was in college when Night Ripper came out, and I remember running around my campus exclusively to that album for months. Do you ever exercise to your music?
I haven’t done it personally, but it’s probably the thing I hear most on social media, aside from “When are you gonna release another album?” And second to exercising is doing stuff to it, like cleaning the house—more long-term tasks, something that’s continually flowing.
Night Ripper was a hit, but there were also a lot of threatened legal action. How prepared were you to deal with that in 2006, when the Internet was a different animal than it is today?
I definitely wasn’t ignorant to it. The label that puts out my stuff, Illegal Art, is based on releasing sample-based music. … I was aware that, even when you do fringe music, there could be a case for it, and someone could discover it if it had some sort of effect. I definitely don’t think anyone, Illegal Art or myself, was prepared for the level of press that Night Ripper would generate. That was different, and an obvious focal point to go along with it was the potential legal aspect of it. That became the focus of almost every article written.
In doing this style of music, I definitely believe in the idea of fair use and that, no matter how big it gets, I believe that I should be able to release the music the way that I was releasing it. But at the same time, based on the world that I was from, you just assume that it won’t catch anyone’s eye or ear. You think it’s going to float below the radar, you know? When it came out, it was this overwhelming thing, where you have this success and you’re happy with it, but then everyone’s super concerned because every article you read is at least a quarter about the legal aspect of it. It was slightly intimidating, where you can’t fully celebrate the success, but I believed in what I was doing and was ready to battle if we had to.
One of the things I loved about Night Ripper was how much you clearly enjoyed mid-2000’s hip-hop. Do you miss that era?
Absolutely. I love modern hip-hop, and the sets I do now are constantly remixing new music, but to be in that era, I do feel fortunate. If you look back at all the five-year chunks, going back the past 25 years, that era definitely had some fun party-related rap music that happened to coincide with when I was putting out Night Ripper. To this day, there are people at my shows who are 40, and there are teenagers at the shows, and they’re both nostalgic for that type of music—the Missy Elliott, Ludacris, the Ying-Yang Twins. It still pops. For me, it attaches to a special time and place, but it’s interesting that, as time has gone on and I focus on newer music, there are certain songs that never go out of my set completely. That Night Ripper stuff always connects with an audience.
Do you have a favorite movement on Night Ripper?
I think the signature moment to a lot of people is the “Tiny Dancer”/Biggie part [on “Smash Your Head”]. At the beginning, that was kind of treated as a single, and that’s something that I haven’t played in a while, but that jumps out. I don’t know, I’d have to run through it honestly. I go back to bits and pieces of it, and certain things work better live than others, but that doesn’t necessarily reflect how much I like them. In the middle, the Elastica/Ludacris part I still love, and I guess another obvious answer is the intro. I could do shows that are entirely new material, but I like to treat my albums are original pieces of music, that are mine. …That intro is very descriptive, even with just the looping Ciara drum. I feel like people immediately connect.