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THERE ARE SOME THINGS YOU CAN’T COVER UP WITH FISH STICKS AND CHOWDER

All eyes are on Girl Talk, a Pittsburgh DJ named Gregg Gillis, who just released his fourth album, titled Feed the Animals. It’s available on a “pay-what-you-will” basis at illegalart.net. Go get it right now, I’ll wait. And do be a sport and throw the guy a couple bucks. Don’t be a freetard. It’s worth it.

OK, be prepared to be amazed. Put it on and turn it up. See?

Girl Talk’s thing is sprawling dance tracks composed entirely of snippits, generally several at once, of recognizable hit songs. Lots of people have been doing this, and you can find thousands of mash-ups on the Internet. Most mash-ups involve just a couple of songs, often the vocals from one song superimposed on the instrumental tracks of another. Hey, who knew “You Light Up My Life” and “Enter Sandman” fit together so well! The archytype of this was Danger Mouse’s 2004 masterpiece The Grey Album, which combined vocal tracks from Jay-Z’s Black Album dropped atop looped instrumental tracks nicked off the Beatles’ White Album. And of course the grandmasters of this are the guys in Negativland.

Feed the Animals may set the gold standard for appropriated musical works. The tracks are not the simple mash-ups built on one or two ideas, but elaborate constructions, using dozens of samples in a single track. They’re incredible, cohesive works that stand on their own. What makes Girl Talk different from the rest is Gillis’s taste and his wonderfully broad reach of source material (a typical track, “Still Here”, includes recognizable samples from Procol Harum, Kanye West, the Band, Yung Joc, Ace of Base, Salt ’N Pepa, Kenny Loggins, and about a dozen others) and his wickedly goofy sense of humor. Gillis isn’t making a point or delivering a punch line; like a good club DJ, he just wants to keep the party going, and have fun doing it. Feed the Animals is a kaleidoscope of endless surprises, one of the happiest albums I’ve ever heard. And if I knew anything about hip-hop, which provides the lion’s share of the vocalizing, I’d probably like it twice as much. If that’s possible.

Girl Talk hasn’t gotten permission for any of the samples of other people’s recordings on Feed the Animals. The law, the way record companies want it to work, would render Feed the Animals an impossibility. There are hundreds of samples on the album, and each would require two licenses: one from the record company and another from the publishing company. Each company would likely demand to hear the context in which the sample is used. Many would then simply deny permission, or not respond at all; the rest would charge thousands of dollars for the usage. FTA would be DOA.

So, the big question is: Will Gillis get sued into oblivion? On one hand, he’s been doing this without interference since 2002; Feed the Animals has been out for two weeks. On the other hand, he’s getting a ton of attention; Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and pretty much the entire music media is raving about Feed the Animals. He’s got to be moving hundreds of thousands of tracks.

Feed the Animals is the work that sits squarely in the middle of a collision of murky legal principles and conflicting court decisions. A very bad decision out of a Tennessee federal court a couple years ago said that any sampling of a sound recording was infringement, no matter how small, and even when the use was unrecognizable. As this decision has not been adopted in any other federal court circuits, I’m guessing think that if Girl Talk’s gonna get sued, it’ll be in Tennessee. On the other hand, there’s been an increasing recognition by courts, particularly in cases involving the visual arts, that appropriating existing copyright material for a new work is OK if the new work is transformative. And Feed the Animals is nothing if not wildly transformative of the works it borrows. I mean right now I’m hearing Ahmad rapping “Back in the Day” over a groove from Rod Stewart’s “Young Turks” and in a few seconds it’ll move seamlessly on to something else. If that’s not transformative then I’m Rick Astley.

If the “music industry”, hobbling and decrepit as it is, comes out of its spider hole and goes after Girl Talk, watch out. After high profile gigs at major festivals and increasing large venues around the world, Gillis has millions of die-hard fans, most of whom I’d guess understand, to some degree, the legalities involved here. The push-back from this legion of happy lunatics if Girl Talk is sued will be immediate and probably devastating. And Gillis doesn’t need to worry about representation, either. If he gets served with a complaint, dozens, even hundreds of legal organizations and free range attorneys—including me—will be lining up to help defend him for free.

It would be that important.

—Paul Rapp


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