Though his somewhat hard-to-find mix CDs as producer Girl Talk are a favorite of underground-music foragers, you're more likely to find Gregg Gillis trolling the racks at Best Buy than digging through dusty crates in obscure record-store basements.
“I don't believe in looking for rare samples — I go for the most obvious stuff and recontextualize it,” says Gillis, heading straight for the hip-hop mixtapes at Chicago's Gramaphone Records, where he's doing some shopping before his show in the city that night.
“Mixtape culture is really interesting,” he says. “The line between what's original, what's mainstream and what's underground is always blurred.”
Though Gillis' third release, Night Ripper (Illegal Art, 2006), compiles radio and club hits from the past several decades, his mixes are best understood as pop-culture collages with an emphasis on technical precision rather than danceability. True to that philosophy, Gillis embodies the bedroom-producer stereotype well, from his humble fashion sense to his day job in Pittsburgh as a medical engineer — an appropriate profession considering the near-mathematical methodology required to construct his minutia-crammed production. Dipping in and out of R&B, hip-hop and rock, Night Ripper is typified by succinct, 30-seconds-or-less mash-ups that sound both nostalgiac and relevant at once: think Dem Franchize Boyz' “I Think They Like Me” atop Weezer's “Say It Ain't So” instrumental, or Notorious B.I.G.'s “Juicy” a cappella over Elton John's “Tiny Dancer” melody.
Despite its cross-genre dexterity, Night Ripper's tempo is measured in bass and drum breaks unique to hip-hop music, and Gillis draws heavily on quotable rap lyrics from the past and present. “It's easy to get a hold of [hip-hop a cappellas], so that led me into it,” Gillis admits. “But I've also always been a huge hip-hop fan.” It's not surprising, then, when he pulls a Too $hort mix from the shelf with a sparkle in his eye. “Too $hort — that's what 10-year-old white kids across the entire country listened to. This shit was the anthem in the neighborhood.”
Gillis' labor-intensive production technique requires dissecting a song before rebuilding it with the cannibalized parts of other tracks, and he uses loop-based software to that end. Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro (now Adobe Audition), a program he's worked with for six years, allows him to chop and sample loops, which he then organizes and mixes in real time using AudioMulch, though he's recently been experimenting with newer takes on software technology, such as Ableton Live. He also minimally incorporates original beats and melodies that he structures from singular instrument samples and soft synths. “I don't put too many effects into it,” Gillis says. “I just sample and make music out of other people's material.” That modus operandi is fairly controversial in light of the debate over copyright and download laws, but Gillis has no qualms about his artistic ethos.
“I like to think you can sample anything,” he says. “I don't really have any ethics as far as that goes. My music is blatantly sample-based, and everyone knows that, so it's not like [I'm claiming], ‘Oh, I made this beat.’ It's clear-cut what I do.”
MATTHEW AFRICA & DJ ELEVEN
Dirty Raps: The Best of Too $hort(white-label mixtape)
I like the fact that it's a CD-R and DJ'd live. There are relatively new songs on it and pretty much all of the great old ones, “Blow the Whistle” and whatnot. Too $hort is definitely one of the first rappers I actually listened to way back.
ELLEN ALLIEN AND APPARAT
Orchestra of Bubbles(B Pitch Control)
I haven't heard this, but I've heard her older stuff, and I've always really liked it. I think it's cool pop music; it's something I could just chill out and listen to on my headphones while hanging around the house. In general, I sample Top 40 radio music, but I would potentially sample drum sounds or maybe a melody off this if it were really popular. On my records, I do a bunch of synthesizer stuff anyway, little bits here and there, so that's a boundary ethical thing where I don't want people to think I'm taking credit [for a sound I didn't make].
“Ring the Alarm”(Ear 2 Da Street)
I love her screaming, and that intensity's so high. The beat's simple — it has kind of soft bass drums, and then the snare is so heavy. It's the type of beat where the alarm sound is the melody, so it's something that's nicely mixable cause there's no conflicting melody. So if I were to put some Blue Oyster Cult over the top of it, that guitar wouldn't conflict with anything. With how popular air horns are on the radio in general, I've always thought that someone should tweak that sample a little more — I think I'm going to do it myself if I don't hear someone do it — making an actual melody out of those air horns and siren sounds.
He was kicked out of Bone Thugs cause he was too off the rocker. He has this crazy backstory: He was on America's Most Wanted because he was kidnapped as a young kid. It was like 10 years down the road, and they were trying to find the guy who kidnapped him. Bizzy Bone's weird, some of his stuff's a little soft, and it's hard to take his voice for an entire album. But he's crazy, and I appreciate that. To get kicked out of Bone Thugs, you have to be doing something special.
CHICKS ON SPEED & THE NO HEADS
Press the Space Bar(Chicks on Speed)
I've never been a huge, huge fan, but they've always done interesting stuff. They're rowdy — they put on a really good live show. I like people who walk the line between pop and experimental; it's something that I think I try to do a little bit. I think they do a great job at doing some of the weirdest shit, but it's totally accessible. They have a good style going on overall — their promo pictures, album artwork, their label — it's just a cool aesthetic.
Fresh Produce 10.2(white-label mixtape cassette)
I have no idea what this is, but I like mixtapes that are actual cassettes. In a shop like this, it's cool to pick up local stuff to hear what the hell people are doing. Obviously, it's gonna be a lot different than what guys are doing in Pittsburgh. Also, I drive a Chevrolet Cavalier, and it only has a tape player, so I actually buy a lot of cassettes. Now I'll have new listening material.
Block Music(Disturbing Tha Peace/Def Jam)
The last single — “Gettin' Some” — was amazing, and it was highly underplayed. I've been a big fan since way back 'cause of the Ludacris collabos. I really like raunchy female rappers in general. I love Trina a lot. Shawnna is great, and she's really pretty and awesome.
Smashtime Radio Vol. 2(white-label mixtape CD-R)
Clinton Sparks tapes are always really sweet, and the whole Snakes on a Plane thing should be really ridiculous — there are all these Samuel L. Jackson interludes on here. I saw that at least a quarter of the mixtapes in [Gramaphone] had Snakes on a Plane stuff going on.
Mass Hysteria Presents: Chi-City Beats Vol. 1(whitelabel mixtape CD-R)
This one just seems like a whole bunch of local producers. I'm interested in the overall style of [Chicago hip-hop], what's happening on the production tip and on a mix CD — from more of a research point of view.