Getty | Getty | Getty There are more than a few musicians who had a plan B.…
- Posted on Nov 16th 2010 5:30PM by Jason Anderson
But the digital revolution's accessibility presents a daunting challenge to remix maestros like Girl Talk, DJ/rupture and DJ Spooky. After all, stunning listeners with rapid-fire juxtapositions of wildly diverse source material was a lot easier back when hip-hop first bust out of the Bronx by offering a glimpse of our mashed-up future. Or when aural pirates like John Oswald and Negativland exploited the then-new sampling technology and baited the music industry (in particular, U2 and Michael Jackson) with creative acts dubbed "plunderphonics"
So how does one impress listeners who have spent a generation traveling Grandmaster Flash's wheels of steel, never mind the countless hours having their synapses rearranged by YouTube, iPod Shuffle and other modern-day diversions?
"People are absolutely used to being bombarded with media," Gregg Gillis, the Pittsburgh-based dynamo known as Girl Talk who released his fifth album this week, tells Spinner. "I even feel like the stuff I was doing five years ago was more intense for people.
"I still love to cram things in and have so many samples going on, but I feel that's less shocking than it's ever been -- not only is that because I've done albums using that concept before, but because people are so exposed to so much of that attention-deficit-style media on the Internet these days."
Another artist renowned for his ability to mix 'n' match musical sources has seen the same increase in terms of listeners' data processing speeds. "There's been a really radical transformation in the space of only a few years," says Jace Clayton, AKA the genre-busting DJ/rupture. "Who knows what direction it's going?"
That's a pressing question indeed if you're not content to suture two or three hit songs together and hope it becomes this week's mash-up sensation. Likewise, creating sample-based music that's as densely packed and frenetically paced as possible is not such a great option, considering the rate of acceleration for both our culture and our technology -- in other words, no matter how fast and crazy you get, someone else is about to get faster and crazier.
Diversifying tactics may be the better way forward. One could hardly accuse Paul D. Miller of being a one-trick pony. Back in the mid-1990s, Miller excelled at a moody, murky brand of sample-based electronica that he released as DJ Spooky, That Subliminal Kid. In his role as a DJ, composer and all-round cultural theorist, he became central to New York's "Illbient" experimental electronica scene. Since then, he's collaborated with everyone from Thurston Moore to Kool Keith to the Kronos Quartet.
More recently, he's taken the leap into the movie world with works like 'Rebirth of a Nation.' In the piece -- which DJ Spooky performs at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto Nov. 16-17 -- he traces the history of racism in America by slicing and dicing D.W. Griffith's 'Birth of a Nation,' a silent-era epic that made heroes out of the Ku Klux Klan's founders.
Miller sees a clear connection between manipulating images to give them new context and what he's always done with sounds. "It's about playing with history," he tells Spinner. "That's exactly what sampling is -- you're always taking small bits of things and shredding them into all different sorts of configurations."
As DJ/rupture, Clayton has been just as effective at branching out from what people think happens when a DJ spins a set. On mix CDs like 'Minesweeper Suite' and 'Solar Life Raft,' he created mesmerizing musical flows that run the gamut from hip-hop and electronica to Arabic, African and Latin styles. By blending techniques of sampling and mixing, he redefined the role of the DJ as a kind of creative curator who highlights previously little-heard connections between the planet's musical genres and traditions.
The remarkable diversity of Clayton's mixes reflects his rapacious musical appetite. Unsurprisingly, his current musical projects are just as varied. DJ/rupture Presents CIAfrica is a showcase for an African hip-hop collective that he describes as the Ivory Coast's equivalent to the Wu-Tang Clan. Out early next year is his would-be soundtrack for an imagined remake of 'The Shining,' a collaboration that matches him with Moroccan musicians he met while living in Barcelona.
But what you won't be hearing anytime soon is another mix CD. The reasons for that are both artistic and financial. In regards to the former, Clayton says that the "melancholy-tinged dubstep" of 'Uproot' and 'Solar Life Raft' didn't accurately reflect what was happening in his DJ performances (he performs sets in Toronto Nov. 19 and Buffalo Nov. 20). Yet, the sound of the discs was in part a product of what he was able to legally license.
"That's an enormous amount of work," he says. "With my previous releases, I would kind of explain to everybody and get verbal permissions from the underground and independent artists, and not even bother with Missy Elliott or any of the major label stuff. But the legal climate for that type of thing has changed -- at least when you're releasing commercial CDs with uncleared tracks on it. It just doesn't make sense to do it anymore. So I don't know what my next mix-CD will be like -- it might just be an online mix available for free. Then I could say, 'If I had a CD for sale, this is what it would be.' But if I did try, it would probably cost me $70,000 because I couldn't get The-Dream to sign off on a cappella or whatever."
Matters of copyright continue to be a big consideration for any musical artist whose work relies upon samples. But despite his flamboyant repurposing of nearly every hit song from the last 40 years, Gillis has yet to be sued over a Girl Talk song. Indeed, his music demonstrates just how much latitude a contemporary artist has thanks to the legal notion of fair use. (Contrast that with what happened to John Oswald in 1990, when copies of his disc 'Plunderphonics' were destroyed on the orders of the Canadian Recording Industry Association because of his "repurposed" cover image and samples from Michael Jackson's 'Bad.')
More than any artist working in sample or mix-based music today, Gillis exploits the thrill of recognition that a listener feels upon hearing a snippet of music in a fresh context. But one of the ironies when it comes to Girl Talk is that so many listeners may not recognize what they're hearing.
"I can really relate to that," says Gillis. "Being a fan of hip-hop as a kid and listening to a Public Enemy record or a Beastie Boys record and not really knowing almost any of their samples, I could still feel a certain energy that comes from knowing someone has taken a record or a sample, flipped it, and done something else with it."
Gillis says that is always something exciting for him to experiment with at shows. "There are certain songs that I know people are going to know, songs that I love and like to remix, and that you hear all the time," he says. "I would guess that 90 percent of people who have an iPod would know these songs, like Journey's 'Don't Stop Believin'' or bar staples like that. Those obviously get a certain reaction. I still feel like people like to hear those songs, but they also want to hear what I'm going to do with it -- or at least that's the way I'd like to imagine it. But, then, at the same time, there are certain samples that may not be obscure, like an Aphex Twin song from the '90s. But there are a lot of young kids who come to the shows, and who I wouldn't necessarily expect to be familiar with that material, and yet that might generate an equal or greater reaction than the sample that everyone knows."
Gillis says the greatest compliments come from people who say they hate his source material but still enjoy his albums. He also notes the challenge in trying to provide new thrills for listeners now that so many musicians have taken to imitating his approach. (It's also hard not to feel like there are too many mash-up specialists eager to exploit the vogue for all things '80s. DJ Spooky is certainly no fan of that trend. "The '80s was the era of Ronald Reagan," he says. "It's not something to be nostalgic about.")
On the just-released 'All Day,' Gillis continues to keep up a blistering pace yet he's also moved away from the more-is-more aesthetic that defined earlier records like 2006's 'Night Ripper.' "On that album, I really wanted to walk the line between almost being annoying in terms of it being so much and still being a pop record," he says. "I think people who don't listen to electronic music or have any of the reference points can still like it -- that was definitely the goal."
Now, he says, he's concentrating on other aspects of the music. "While I could definitely go in the direction of cramming in more samples or making it denser, but I wanted to make it more dynamic. I wanted it to have elements that were more dense, but others that were more relaxed, and go in both directions simultaneously."
Gillis says he'd never describe 'All Day' as "relaxed" -- after all, it contains a whopping 373 samples in 71 minutes. But he does believe that it marks another evolutionary step for the Girl Talk sound. "The way I wanted to grow was to not necessarily make everything slower but make it have more variation."
Indeed, more variation may be the key for any sample or mix-based composer, DJ or mash-up maker who wants to create music with staying power -- trying to find an original take can't hurt, either.
"Over the past few years, I've definitely heard people doing music in a similar style to some of the records I've done," says Gillis. "Sometimes it's a real one-dimensional take on it, like the more samples the better. And you listen to it and it just doesn't sound good. That's not the case for me. When you get down to it, it's about music, it's just about what is the most interesting sound."
DJ Spooky's 'Rebirth of a Nation' is at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto Nov. 16-17. DJ/rupture performs at the Music Gallery in Toronto Nov. 19, and Nov. 20 at Big Orbit's Soundlab in Buffalo. Girl Talk's 'All Day' is out now.