April 2, 2009

Blasting Beats at Barton

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The collective boots of Cornell are shaking. This Sunday, the concert crescendo that’s been slowly invading campus all year reaches its climax when Girl Talk comes to town, GZA by his side. What started as a whimper with T-Pain (sorry to all three members of Cornell’s “BUY ME A DRANK!! T-PAIN’S #1 CORNELL FANS” Facebook group) and gained steam with Luda is now going to be, as the immortal Lance Crouther / Pootie Tang once said, a “cama cama leepa-chaiii,” dig? I know this might be a lot to take in all at once, so let’s take it step-by-step.
In the last few years, Girl Talk (Gregg Gillis by day) has made waves bringing his sample-happy beats to college campuses and whipping crowds like us into frenzies, sober or otherwise. His style of music is combining and layering phrases and bars from Sir Mix-A-Lot to Journey, creating mashups that are at worst unique, always catchy, and what The New York Times Magazine called “a lawsuit waiting to happen.” Yet the implications of fair use — Gillis’ reasoning behind taking the samples — has been enough to deter any lawsuit from destroying Girl Talk’s songs.
And the legal issues haven’t stopped him from releasing 2 EPs, a number of wild bootlegs (check out Girl Talk Murders Seattle, and 4 full-length CDs from Illegal Art. His latest, Feed the Animals, was ranked #4 on Time’s Top 10 Albums of 2008, #2 on Blender’s yearly rankings and #24 on Rolling Stone’s Top 50 albums of 2008.
Some listeners have been put off by Girl Talk’s affinity for Top 40 hits. The songs only sometimes mix the rhythm of the prescribed samples, relying instead on the variety of sounds to carry the beat. Yet beyond this structural simplicity lies the wildest part of Girl Talk’s music. By utilizing these songs, the very product of mainstream media’s obsession for simple, catchy hooks, Gillis may be simultaneously mocking and preying on the public’s response to songs from the likes of Dem Franchise Boys and Ciara. As Gillis said in his 2008 interview with The New York Times, “This project has always been about embracing pop.”
But add Feed the Animals to the mix, with its 300 plus samples in tow, and music nerds everywhere have been appeased by samples from Aphex Twin to Warren G to Lady Sovereign. The man has a lot of different music in his tracks — it’s just that the ones on top are there for their qualities of instant recognition and, as we’ll hopefully see Sunday, their ability to get a crowd moving.
The power of Gillis’ music comes from his layering — the combination of tracks he chooses to play at the same time. There, the sampling stops and Gillis’ unique musicality is given a chance to show its face. Sometimes dissonant, and always on time, the actual mashups in Girl Talk’s music cross the borders of both genre and generation.
The secret to Gillis’ success and his wild performances may lie in the ceaseless energy and unfailing accessibility that his music, by its definition, brings to each show. Since no real instruments are played, Gillis has to pump up the crowd by his own devices. If you can get through a Girl Talk show without exuberantly recognizing at least a few of his samples, chances are you’re either six, 66 or you’re my good Rochesterian buddy Greg, who, as we drove through his joyous and sunshiney airport with Girl Talk on the speakers, just kept shaking his head when I told him the concept. “Nope. Nope. Nope.” Goddamnit Greg.
After Gillis’ Colgate show last September, where the stage collapsed due to a case of the rowdies, one audience member described the show as “a rave … but friendlier.” Think about that for a second. Sounds pretty wacky, right? Might need a dash of hip-hop iconicity.
Now let’s bring in the GZA Genius. The man’s done everything from production for Jedi Mind Tricks to a scene with Bill Murray in Jim Jarmusch’s Coffee and Cigarettes. If you want to talk about hip-hop pioneers, GZA, RZA and Ol’ Dirty Bastard are like Lewis, Clark and Sacagawea. For those unfamiliar, GZA started Wu-Tang Clan with his two aforementioned cousins and, after their number grew to nine, released a torrent of viciously produced CDs including 1995’s Liquid Swords, an album still as iconic as it is eloquent.
After Wu-Tang’s mainstream popularity flagged, GZA found new success touring in 2004 and releasing Grandmasters in 2005 with DJ Muggs. He is and has been one of the East Coast’s finest hip-hop products, at least partly responsible for bringing rap as a genre to its current mainstream status, and he’ll be here Sunday performing with one of the most innovative artists of our generation. This may very well be the best show that comes to Cornell this year. All respect, of course, to the Pussycat Dolls and their upcoming re-release, Doll Domination 2.0. Whee!