Night Ripper Turns 10
In many ways, there was nothing new about Girl Talk. Back in 2006, though, there was something bizarre and exciting in hearing the work of Greg Gillis, the Pittsburgh native behind the project. His breakthrough Night Ripper is, somehow, turning 10 years old today, and a decade removed it lives on as a definitive document of cultural shifts that occurred over the course of the ’00s.
At the time, Girl Talk was an object of fervent blog fascination. Night Ripper was a well-received album that appeared on some big end-of-year lists, but even in those positive reviews, writers often added some caveat about the likely disposability of this. Gillis, as an artist, existed as he did purely because of the nature of the internet era, the same as the music writers who were his age or a little younger. As we were somewhat aware back then, something like Girl Talk’s Night Ripper could be seen as a symbol of various movements in the music landscape at the time — poptimism laying groundwork for an eventual genre-agnosticism, blurry or not-so-blurry illegality through the decline of record sales, the debris-collage of the internet as roadmap through contemporary life. Because of this, it would’ve been easy for Girl Talk to be a thing that happened, provoked analysis, and then faded away rather quickly. But also because of this, he became a strangely popular phenomenon, rapidly ascending from the niche of encouraging music nerds to digitally crate-dig through his work while sitting in their dorm rooms to a guy whose shows became raucous parties for the free-for-all era of music fandom.
Gillis did not invent mashups, and he wasn’t the first guy to get famous because of them. Two years before Night Ripper, Danger Mouse released The Grey Album, a high-ish concept project that laid Jay Z’s raps from The Black Album over samples from the Beatles’ self-titled “White Album” to a good deal of interest and controversy. (This was still a rockist world, and there was still some sacrilege in mixing Jay Z with something as hallowed as the Beatles.) And, of course, before this trend of collapsing genres together in mashup form, there were already a few generations in the hip-hop tradition who had mined the past for samples. There were albums like DJ Shadow’s Endtroducing…, built almost entirely on samples in an effort to craft an entirely different work than the source material. Mashups were different. They were (often) a novelty driven by jokily slamming two songs together. That was the extent of the newness. But what was new and weird and exciting about Girl Talk was that Gillis was very, very good at this, and had the ability to elevate the form: there was an intricacy to his mashups because of the sheer range and amount of samples he used, but there was also an unstoppable flow that both made this effective party music and made it feel more important than Gillis’ peers for how it captured the way we as listeners were beginning to conceive of and consume music.
Night Ripper was one of the earlier representations of the attention span of the times, prefiguring the era of reading articles on our phones and getting our news in Twitter-sized bites. Dozens and dozens of fragments fly by, blend together, overlap in unexpected ways. Though it’s split up into discrete tracks, the borders are essentially meaningless; Gillis composed the album as one complete work, and it still makes the most sense that way. On one hand, the frenetic nature of Night Ripper feels like our more ADD way of consuming things. There is such a constant flurry of information and media on a daily basis that Gillis’ tendency to give you a barrage of beloved songs you know and songs you might not know parallels the feeling of never being able to give your attention too fully to any one thing for too long. On the other hand, there is also the opportunity for immersion. If you take Night Ripper as one long piece instead of individual tracks, it’s a wild, unpredictable ride through pop history — for us in 2016, that means the various pasts Gillis was drawing from now set alongside the once-contemporary backdrop of the mid-’00s pop and rap that drove much of the album.
Listening to this album now, as it was then, is the aural equivalent of falling down Wikipedia and YouTube rabbit holes, following one link to another to the point where you can’t trace the breadcrumbs back. Maybe everyone doesn’t go foraging in record stores to find some interesting and obscure thing anymore, but we have this: an abstracted and, more importantly, limitless version where everything is at your fingertips at any moment. In the same way that sampling in hip-hop and electronic music always had the potential to lead you to some interesting or beautiful song you’d never come across before, Girl Talk could walk you down over a hundred pathways, if you wanted that flip side immersion alongside the sugar-rush experience of hearing the fragments pile-up and morph. One thing that made Gillis stand out was the density of his specific patchwork, but also the obviousness of it — these were pop songs mixed together in unfamiliar ways that still kept them recognizable. It sounds like a friend made you a playlist that somehow got chopped up and stitched back together. That curated chaos is part of what makes something like Night Ripper engaging at first, but it’s also part of what’s made it feel like a “moment in time” kind of listen.
When buzz surrounded Girl Talk, there was a lot of commentary on the exact kind of music he was crashing together in that broken playlist of an album. A major reason a record like Night Ripper remains important is that it captures a moment in pop music history, where it still wasn’t OK for indie and rap and electronic to mix, but also when there were artists who were beginning to erode those barriers for a generation who was listening more indiscriminately. For a generation who could stumble on whatever ’70s funk song and whatever ’80s new wave song and whatever ’90s rap song and not know that there were supposed to be rules and walls between these musical worlds. Fleetwood Mac and Smashing Pumpkins and Three 6 Mafia all mingle on “Overtime.” At one point, “My Humps” follows Elastica. There are moments where pop polarities collapse together, where the profane and sublime find themselves sitting next to each other; Night Ripper is an album where you can hear the Ying Yang Twins murmuring “Wait till you see my dick” over the celestial strings of the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” Some mornings you just want to listen to Elton John and you also want to listen to Biggie, and Girl Talk was music built from and for a generation beginning to consume and perceive art on perpetual shuffle.
In other hands, it’d probably still come off as a joke: “Listen to this beloved ballad underpinning vulgar rap lyrics!” And there was definitely still an opening to interpret Gillis’ intentions as such. The context was different then. Hall & Oates’ “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” is a great song that I hear constantly in public these days. But when it appeared on Night Ripper, was it still something of a piss take? There were still a lot of taste politics at play in the mid-’00s, and Girl Talk was of a group of artists helping to dismantle that, but maybe while also still working within old definitions and frameworks. It’s fitting that both M.I.A. and LCD Soundsystem appear on Night Ripper; these, too, were artists who were forcing genres to collide in order to get at something new. Gillis’ approach was different, and for his part he seemed invested in all sorts of music. In an old interview, Pitchfork asked Gillis about the perception that he might be using indie rock to “legitimize” hip-hop. He responds by calling the album a “celebration of everything top 40.” It’s meant to be a fun listen, and it is, but you get the sense this was more of a conceptual and technical experiment for Gillis. The end results, though, were not dissimilar from the way LCD Soundsystem crammed punk and dance together, or the way Gorillaz was a globalized kaleidoscope of genres and voices, or how M.I.A.’s politicized multi-cultural sound traced multiple continents. These were artists where we could still see the borders between musical worlds, so there was something assertive in how they were making us listen to them woven together. They changed the way we thought of the landscape.
This is what can make Night Ripper feel transgressive and/or transformative. What Gillis was doing here was messing with notions of genre-segregation and helping pave the way for the genre-agnosticism that soon defined the music landscape. Today, the kids who were listening to Girl Talk in 2006 have their own bands, and today there are artists you can’t pinpoint with any one descriptor. Genre-agnosticism yielded to an overall blur that is the logical endpoint for a generation raised on mashups, YouTube, and file-sharing rather than having to spend all of their allowance each time they wanted a record. There are no rules in the music world. Artists can draw on anything. In that sense, Night Ripper feels like one foundational text for my generation. It was music like this that first captured the feeling of having access to everything at once, offered some broad recap of the past, and then implied: Take all of this, use it, see what happens next.
Again, this is also what makes Night Ripper feel so specifically of its time. Because you can also look back at the ensuing 10 years, and poptimism, and that erosion of genre, and Night Ripper can come across as quaint. Like, “Oh, so it was so revolutionary to throw a bunch of lionized classic rock into the same mix as contemporary rap?” It’s becoming easier to forget that the borders between various musical worlds were still very strict at one point in our lifetime. Today, there is music out there that goes so far beyond the genre twists that people were playing with 10 years ago that it’s tempting to not give them the credit they deserve for tapping into that zeitgeist-y way of consuming and presenting art in the ’00s. True, because of the specific nature of Night Ripper as a mashup album, it may remain more interesting now for what it represents than as a listening experience. Maybe that’s alright. Maybe Girl Talk as a project was always destined to become another piece of digital detritus, a loose end remembered by some as this one formative moment in our youth, but that foundational text that got outmoded by what came later. In a way, that would be a fitting legacy for a project that spoke in that language so fluently, so early on, that sounded like scrambled 21st century life. In a way, becoming another piece of musical backlog in the ether of our online experience might be the fate for which Girl Talk was always destined.