We can agree, certainly, that Missy Elliott’s “Work It” stands among the single best pieces of music in the history of Western civilization. (Or, as Missy would put it, noitazilivic nretseW fo yrotsih ehT.) Same deal with Nu Shooz’s ecstatic ’80s-synth-pop classic “I Can’t Wait.” The provocative question posed by Gregg Gillis, the Pittsburgh mashup artíste known professionally as Girl Talk, was whether one could double that ecstasy by cramming the two songs together, as he did with typical cheeseball aplomb on his fourth and best album, 2008’s Feed the Animals. The answer, of course, is no. But for a time, there was a goofy and infectious sort of joy in the act of even asking.
In the mid-2000s, Girl Talk sought to own mashups as thoroughly, and as gleefully, as “Weird Al” Yankovic owns parody songs. First released via pay-what-you-want digital download on June 19, 2008, Feed the Animals jammed more than 300 samples, many of them instantly recognizable to even the most passive pop-music consumer, into its 14-track, 53-minute, continuous-mix runtime. Dig this lovely and bewildering Wired chart of just one track, “What It’s All About,” and the 35 beloved songs powering it, from Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” to Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait” to the Jackson 5’s “ABC” to Vanilla Ice’s beatboxing goof “Havin’ a Roni.”
Yes, “Havin’ a Roni” is beloved, if only just by me. The whole point was to elevate the clichéd rock-critic From ! to !! to !!! to !!!! equation to a place of overwhelming delight, mixing the shock of recognition—holy shit, it’s “Woo Hah!! Got You All in Check”!—with the audacity of devil’s-advocate reinvention. (Holy shit, he mixed it with “Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic”!) But for a record that raids more than three decades of bulletproof pop-music history, the finished product feels very 2008, which is neither good nor bad so much as it’s just profoundly odd.
Musically, as in every other respect, the mid-2000s were a simpler time that did not, at all, feel like a simpler time in the moment. It was the post-Napster but pre-streaming era, when pretty much every piece of music ever was readily available for free—just not, y’know, legally. (Shout-out to the god-level BitTorrent site Oink’s Pink Palace, shut down in 2007 and soon thereafter wistfully described by Trent Reznor as “the world’s greatest record store.”)
As for the records themselves, earlier in the aughts, thanks primarily to New York City and Detroit, stylishly scruffy malcontents had allegedly reinvented rock music. Meanwhile, thanks primarily to Atlanta, Houston, and Memphis, bombastic Southern hedonists had definitely reinvented rap music. Back when single-download MP3 blogs were all the rage, one of the better ones was named Teaching the Indie Kids to Dance Again, which suggested that the indie kids knew enough to at least pretend to try. Boundaries of genre were wobbling; boundaries of taste, too.
It was the perfect atmosphere for something like Night Ripper, Girl Talk’s 2006 breakthrough album, which first introduced his omnivorous maximalism to a wider audience. “Wait till you see my dick,” the Ying Yang Twins whisper with lascivious menace, amid the melancholic splendor of the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony.” But that record had rough edges, and jarring bursts of discordant noise, and an overall mission to celebrate the notion of “ripping” music for the violent and defiant (and music-biz-demolishing) act that it was. Gillis started out as a young DJ and electronic-music agitator with a taste for confrontation: Talking to Pitchfork in 2008, he cited a scabrous Kid606 remix of N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” as a “pivotal moment, as far as making me want to start doing music,” adding that in his old high school band, “My role was mainly smashing things, and kind of tearing apart children’s toys.”
But soon, Girl Talk’s live shows were world famous for their pure, unsullied knucklehead delight, all traces of antagonism replaced with a sort of pan-genre euphoria. Elated fans crowded onstage right alongside Gillis, inches away, everyone sweating profusely and reveling in the transformative power of “Whoomp! (There It Is).”
This pivot to a more inclusive and celebratory approach was good business: Your live show had better be great when your music relies on skirting copyright law and saying the words “fair use” as often as possible, making the “pay-what-you-want” digital-release model more of a practical than an altruistic decision. (Girl Talk’s label, Illegal Art, did release Feed the Animals on CD later in 2008.) But that inclusive euphoria is palpable even when you revisit the record on your streaming service of choice 10 years later, with nobody sweating on you at all. Feed the Animals is a funeral pyre for the very notion of musical elitism. “At this point I feel like I’ve graduated beyond guilty pleasures,” Gillis told Pitchfork. “I sample everything on this because I like it.”
His bet was that 2008 listeners secretly or not-so-secretly liked Birdman and Ace of Bass and Yo La Tengo and Bubba Sparxxx and Styx just as much. And on the surface, there’s no reason 2018 listeners would be any different. Feed the Animals sounds like a 200-car pileup of Spotify algorithms, and Gillis’s taste is often immaculate: The album is bracketed by lavish samples from UGK’s timeless 2007 monster “Int’l Player’s Anthem (I Choose You),” a best-case scenario as rap songs from that era go. Meanwhile, whether Sinéad O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” actually mixes well with Birdman and Lil Wayne’s “Stuntin’ Like My Daddy” hardly matters: If you’re appalled, you only have a few seconds to wince before the next unlikely pairing hits, and many of those pairings were genuinely inspired, or at least genuine in their audacity.
To wit, a few of the harsher combos—Metallica’s “One” ramming into Lil Mama’s 2007 pop-R&B hit “Lip Gloss,” or late Atlanta rapper Dolla’s “Who the Fuck Is That?” mixing uneasily with Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”—practically invented Sleigh Bells’ hardcore-bubblegum aesthetic. Ice Cube sounds incredible snarling out “AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted” over the godlike bubble-funk guitar riff to Hot Chocolate’s “Every 1’s a Winner.” And things get better when Gillis gets even a little calmer. Laying Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love” over the arena-rock piano riff to the Guess Who’s “These Eyes” is yet another cheap stunt that sounds like a revelation, breathtaking in its willingness to let things breathe, if only for a few extra seconds.
Mashup and sample culture started out as a moderately higher-art concern. Canadian artist John Oswald coined the term Plunderphonics (“or, Audio Piracy as a Compositional Prerogative”) in 1985 as a pretext for radicalizing Michael Jackson; Bay Area pranksters Negativland spoofed U2 in 1991 and nearly went bankrupt as a result. But by the dawn of the 21st century, such antics were regarded as a more populist notion, an explicit way of arguing that all great music could be pop, and much of pop music could be great. (See Danger Mouse’s career-making and critic-electrifying 2004 Jay-Z/Beatles mashup The Grey Album.) One of the big guerilla hits of 2001 was U.K. musician the Freelance Hellraiser’s “A Stroke of Genie-us,” a peppy mashup of Christina Aguilera’s “Genie in a Bottle” and the Strokes’ “Hard to Explain” that set Napster aflame. The true roots of Girl Talk start there: the whole of pop music as a talented misanthrope’s playground, and the delivery system as a crucial element of the music being delivered.
Which is to say that Feed the Animals will always sound best as a free download, and even with Gillis’s label’s blessing, preferably an illicit one, just to add a moral transgression to all the delightful musical transgressions. It’s a collection of classic songs jumbled together with more 2008-specific songs that sure sounded like classics at the time, and if a few of those didn’t pan out (sorry, Mims), then that just makes it all the more transgressive. Girl Talk made one more album, 2010’s All Day, and has since distanced himself from mashup culture and pivoted to more conventional rap production. (See his 2014 Broken Ankles EP with Freeway or an April one-off single with Erick the Architect, both of which nicely soundtrack his 2016 Pigeons and Planes interview with the headline, “Are Mash-Ups a Thing of the Past?”) But you can hardly blame him, either financially or artistically. If his old records sound a little dated now, it’s only because we take his no-guilty-pleasures argument as a given. He won. Mashups might be a thing of the past, but they proved to be a vital component of the future. To definitively prove that no one could possibly improve on “Work It,” someone had to be willing to try.