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Why Girl Talk's unlikely career is a big deal

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Though it's only been a little more than a year, things were different near the dawn of 2011, the last time pop-sampling party-starter Girl Talk played a public show in the Triangle. At that point, one of the freshest tunes in sole member Gregg Gillis' set was Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You," then fairly new to the pop charts.

With his constantly updated matrix of material, though, Girl Talk will quote much newer top-40 tracks Thursday when he plays at The Longbranch, a former country music dance club that's lately become the area venue of choice for electronic music giants such as The Crystal Method and Skrillex. Almost certainly, the room will swell with dancing, drinking, sweating people. And Gillis, who neither pays for his samples nor charges for his albums, will preside over the whole absurd affair like some modern-day Merry Prankster.

With the announcement of fringe-metal label Hydra Head's demise last week, the musical conversation has again turned to a place it never really leaves anymore: the dilemma of free music culture. If the disjointed premises of David Lowery's anti-file sharing rant of several months ago are true, these must be end times—complete with hemorrhaging records sales and dying labels.

But then there's Gillis, who makes quite a living with free music, making him an exception to the rule. Or perhaps he's simply a pioneer for a new financial model, whereby an artist can remain solvent without ever explicitly selling his albums. It's a system exploited of late by rappers Danny Brown and G-Side (who, before breaking up last week, were scheduled to open the Longbranch show), while plenty of young acts have taken to giving away introductory EPs online to lure audiences to actual concert halls. While that structure certainly has its limitations—what about bands with more touring overhead than a guy with his laptop, or bands that don't want to tour?—it does offer a rather revisionist, punk rock rewrite of the record industry hierarchy. That theme ripples through Gillis' career.

Gillis played confrontational hard-noise with his first band in Pittsburgh. He was lighting fireworks indoors, questioning music's de facto boundaries and emptying venues whenever possible. Still, he loved mainstream music.

"I kind of always was into embracing pop culture," he says. "I remember in high school, going the same week to a Japanese noise show and seeing the Spice Girls at an amphitheater."

After years of feedback and distortion, he felt he'd reached that scene's limitations. Audiences came expecting discomfiting weirdness, and when they got that, many accepted it uncritically, resulting in cyclical comfort between audience and artist although they'd come expecting the opposite. So he tried to shock experimental music aficionados in a way broken Casios and piercing sine waves no longer could: He brought in samples of Britney Spears or Hall and Oates. In this environment, it was really the most punk thing he could do.

"I think the Girl Talk show came from being a little bit tired with the walls I saw with experimental music and the politics of it, and just the idea that people put up that this sort of music is smart and this sort of music is stupid," says Gillis. "I didn't agree with that, and I kind of set out to really challenge people."

Before Girl Talk took off, Gillis worked as a tissue engineer. Now his overstimulating sample collages and live show are a full-time job. His act splits the difference between party-time DJ and hyper-talented sample artist, and he's become one of the most successful electronic musicians in the world, popular enough to headline a private N.C. State event last year at what is now the Red Hat Amphitheater.

So how is Gillis any different from, say, The Ramones here? Where the punk progenitors repurposed '50s or '60s radio pop, Gillis similarly constructs his hyperactive dance mixes of the cast-off chaff of modern top-40 hits. He reprocesses these songs and returns them, earworms first. He's doing something traditionalists angrily claim isn't music—and then making a living off of it, all without charging for his records.

If that's not punk rock, what is?

This article appeared in print with the headline "Mixing systems."

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