Levy: Politics and Hip-Hop Are Doing a Mash-Up

Here's your chance, said Rep. Mike Doyle, a Democrat whose district includes Pittsburgh. "You always hear about big powerful interests coming to Washington and writing legislation behind the scenes. How would you design a bill?" The question was directed to the congressman's lunch companion—Gregg Gillis, who under the nom de laptop Girl Talk creates digital hip-hop tunes that mash up hundreds of songs. Gillis, 25, has been gaining fame for his feverishly inventive creations. But while his last CD made the best-of-year list in Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, he can't sell it on iTunes and lives in fear of a ruinous copyright lawsuit by a label representing one of the dozens of performers he's sampled without permission.

I had brought the two together (at a local hot-dog joint called the Franktuary) because Mike Doyle had taken the audacious step of wondering if his constituent, instead of being dismissed as a Pittsburgh pirate, should be recognized as an artist—and that Congress should explore ways that his work could be legally sanctioned. In a March hearing of the House Telecom Subcommittee, Doyle lauded Gillis and his work, in which snippets from disparate artists fade into and out of a witty collage powered by hip-hop rhythms and rap lyrics. "Mr. Chairman," said Doyle, "he blended Elton John, Notorious B.I.G. and Destiny's Child, all in the span of 30 seconds!" Doyle asked whether what Gillis does is any different from Paul McCartney's nicking a Chuck Berry bass line in a Beatles song. "Maybe mash-ups are a transformative new art," he said. In a Congress that reflexively goes overboard on granting rights to content owners, it was a rare recognition that there may be other ways of dealing with digitally enabled creativity besides outlawing it.

The shout-out brought attention to Gillis, not all of it welcome. Soon thereafter, iTunes pulled his songs (Apple says a record label complained about inadequate rights clearances). He also lost his access to eMusic and other services. Gillis, who does DJ performances to sold-out audiences, is now doing well enough to quit his day job as a biomedical engineer. But the legal shadow haunts him. "The existing system means [he] can't create," says cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig.

I had brought the two together (at a local hot-dog joint called the Franktuary) because Mike Doyle had taken the audacious step of wondering if his constituent, instead of being dismissed as a Pittsburgh pirate, should be recognized as an artist—and that Congress should explore ways that his work could be legally sanctioned. In a March hearing of the House Telecom Subcommittee, Doyle lauded Gillis and his work, in which snippets from disparate artists fade into and out of a witty collage powered by hip-hop rhythms and rap lyrics. "Mr. Chairman," said Doyle, "he blended Elton John, Notorious B.I.G. and Destiny's Child, all in the span of 30 seconds!" Doyle asked whether what Gillis does is any different from Paul McCartney's nicking a Chuck Berry bass line in a Beatles song. "Maybe mash-ups are a transformative new art," he said. In a Congress that reflexively goes overboard on granting rights to content owners, it was a rare recognition that there may be other ways of dealing with digitally enabled creativity besides outlawing it.

The shout-out brought attention to Gillis, not all of it welcome. Soon thereafter, iTunes pulled his songs (Apple says a record label complained about inadequate rights clearances). He also lost his access to eMusic and other services. Gillis, who does DJ performances to sold-out audiences, is now doing well enough to quit his day job as a biomedical engineer. But the legal shadow haunts him. "The existing system means [he] can't create," says cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig.

He was especially interested when Gillis explained that part of his source material comes from a cappella versions of hip-hop songs included on the flip side of the musical versions—making them easier to mash. He's also been commissioned to make custom remixes of songs by popular artists. In other words, record labels are happy to get the attention that comes from mixes and mash-ups, but won't stand up for their legal right to exist.

The lunch's climactic moment came when the congressman asked how one could write a law "that would somehow square up with the 167 artists you've used and allow you to get on store shelves." Gillis said that he'd try to find a middle ground where some samples were OK because of fair-use provisions in the law and others paid for by a reasonable fee. The congressman listened, but admitted the odds were long for a Mash-Up Relief bill. "Some members don't even want to understand it," he said. "They just get a call from the industry saying, 'Bad'." On the other hand, Mike Doyle said he might catch one of Gillis's Girl Talk shows soon.