Over at GQ, the excellent Paul Tough* profiles Gregg Gillis, the madcap mixer behind Girl Talk. For those of you who aren’t cool enough to know – and I’m only cool enough because my younger sister is cool enough – Girl Talk is a mash-up artist par excellence. He’s taken the concept of sampling – the act of borrowing a splice of a song – to its logical extreme, so that his own songs are nothing but a collage of different snippets. Here’s Tough dissecting the ingredients of a recent Girl Talk track:
Coming out of his [Gregg Gillis] laptop was an old Wu-Tang Clan song, Raekwon the Chef chanting “And let’s start it like this, son, rollin’ with this one / And that one, pullin’ out gats for fun”. And the weird thing was that Raekwon wasn’t rapping over a regular hip-hop beat but over the bass part from the Boston song “Foreplay/Long Time” mixed with a single repeated inhalation by Ciara, the R&B singer, clipped out of her song “Goodies” and looped into a symphony of rhythmic heavy breathing. And the weirder thing was that the sound emitting from the laptop wasn’t a Ciara song or a Boston song or even a Wu-Tang Clan song, but a Girl Talk song. This is what Gregg Gillis does: he samples, blends, loops, recombines, and reconstitutes the popular music of the past fifty years or so into strange and beautiful new creations. Gillis didn’t invent the mash-up, but he elevated the form into something jubilant and mind-boggling and original (and arguably highly illegal), something that sounds a little like all the artists he samples and, at the same time, nothing like any of them.
That reminds me of the quote (variously attributed to T.S. Eliot or Picasso): “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.” Gillis, I’d argue, is a stealer, which is why the intellectual property law surrounding his work is so infuriating.
But the real point of this post isn’t to make me sound cooler than I am. (I’m afraid my iPod is mostly stuffed with Dylan bootlegs, Bruce Springsteen live shows and the predictable mix of indie rock.) Instead, I’d like to propose that the mash-up song is an apt metaphor for the production of new ideas in working memory. The name is accurate: by keeping information in short-term storage, where it can be consciously contemplated, working memory allows us to “work” with all the sensations and ideas streaming in from the various parts of the brain. Our thoughts get woven together; our senses and memories can mingle on the same mental stage.
Working memory (WM) is an incredibly important mental talent – for starters, WM capacity correlates tightly with g – and is one of the reasons the human frontal cortex has undergone such a vast anatomical expansion. (We needed new brain space to hold all these ideas coming in from elsewhere.) In recent years, neuroscientists have made some important progress uncovering the electrical circuits that make working memory possible. Here’s a tentative model: Let’s say you’re listening to that catchy Wu-Tang song, with the chorus “And let’s start it like this, son, rollin’ with this one / And that one, pullin’ out gats for fun”. Once the acoustic snippet enters working memory, individual neurons in the prefrontal cortex will fire in response to the stimulus – they are the neural representation of the song. Here’s where things get interesting: even when the stimulus disappears – you’ve now started listening to a different song, perhaps that Boston song “Foreplay/Long Time” – those working memory cells continue to fire. They’re still holding on to the Wu-Tang clip, which is why working memory is a type of memory. This echo of activity only lasts for a few seconds, but it’s long enough so that our thoughts get blended together, as seemingly unrelated sensations overlap. (Scientists refer to this as RAM-like activity, since these brain cells are acting just like random access memory in a computer, which is rewritable temporary storage that allows multitasking.) The end result is that prefrontal neurons start to form connections that have never existed before. We can imagine how Wu-Tang and Boston might sound as a mash-up, if only because working memory allows the samples to intersect in the frontal cortex. From the perspective of the brain, such new ideas are merely old thoughts that occur at the exact same time.
*I absolutely loved his book, “Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America“.