When Gregg Gillis, better known as the mash-up artist Girl Talk, stepped into Philadelphia’s famous Sigma Sound Studios last year, he was already nervous to begin his first collaborative album – and the day only confirmed his worst fears. “It was a little awkward; the first song we recorded, we were having technical issues,” he told Rolling Stone. “I was checking my watch and it wasn’t going right. I was like, ‘Oh man, is this gonna be a disaster, here?'”
Fortunately, his partner, the rapper Freeway, intervened. A native of the city who has made his share of joint albums (with Beanie Sigel, Jake One and others), he nudged Gillis to relocate to a more modest, less storied studio five blocks away. There, the duo recovered their ground. “We probably knocked out three or four records that first night,” Freeway said proudly. “It was a good run.”
The result is Broken Ankles, a bracingly intense yet surprisingly harmonious EP that stuffs Girl Talk’s hyperactive beats under Freeway’s militantly growled rhymes. Recorded over six months, both together in Philly and separately on the road – not counting the year Girl Talk toiled over his beats before nervously pitching Freeway – the EP finds two musicians known for their mercurial styles adapting and thriving off each other.
Here, Girl Talk mindfully harnesses his madcap sampling, offering steadier footing but still scores of blink-and-miss-it references (including slick soundgrabs from Tom Petty, Outkast, Notorious B.I.G., George Russell and Just Ice and KRS-One) and Freeway winds his propulsive flow around them with ease, churning through rhyme patterns almost playfully. Starting with “Tolerated,” the scorched-earth first single that features Waka Flocka Flame (and a comically gruesome music video that is Girl Talk’s first official clip), on through the more emotive “Lived It” – plus a few Young Chris and Jadakiss cameos in between – the EP is a rowdy, affirming surprise, and currently available for free download.
Gillis and Freeway called in to Rolling Stone from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, respectively, to talk about pushing each other in the studio, switching up their styles and ripping off limbs on-camera.
Let’s talk about how you started working together. Greg, you reached out to Freeway, right?
Greg Gillis: Yes. I took some time away from doing shows in early 2013, and I more or less started making beats. Over the course of the year, I compiled a bunch of them together, maybe 80 or so, and I thought it’d be cool to try to reach out to a rapper and do something that would be somewhere in between one of my mixtapes and a more traditional rap mixtape. I was considering a bunch of people and Freeway was at the top of the list. I really wanted someone who was gonna be hungry and ready to do something a little different for this project – and someone who was enthusiastic about it, as opposed to just doing it to do something and get the name out there. Once I talked to Freeway, he seemed on board and we saw eye-to-eye. He seemed like the perfect candidate, ’cause I wanted it to be varied. I wanted the songs to jump around [with] very different-style beats and I wanted someone who sounded good and could keep up with a variety of different style productions. I’ve been a fan of Freeway for a long time and he seemed to really fit the bill.
Freeway, why did you want to work with Girl Talk?
Freeway: I’m definitely a fan of what he does. Once he sent the production over – I think he sent me, like, a hundred beats – I was very impressed. Some of the beats, as soon as they came on, I knew what I was gonna do to them. So once I got the beats I just started vibing out, started coming up with different concepts for different beats. And probably like a week or two after that, we went in the studio and knocked it out. It was just a fun experience.
Freeway, you’ve done many collaborative albums already. Was working on Broken Ankles different?
Freeway: It definitely was a good experience. Like Greg said, the beats varied. There were so many different tempos and different ways for me to freak my flow and come up with different techniques. It was definitely exciting. And once we got in the actual studio, you know, I got a lot of love for Greg because he pushed me to the limit. Like, a couple of the songs I probably did three or four different versions of them and we used the best verse, and I love that. I love working with people that want the best out of the project.
You’re known for not writing down your lyrics. Did you work the same way for this EP?
Freeway: Oh yeah. That’s what I do. I haven’t wrote nothing probably since I’ve been in the game, since when I was a hustler.
It’s an intense EP, on both your parts. What was the working dynamic like in the studio?
Gillis: I think when we started, it was pretty casual, because I don’t think either one of us knew what it was gonna sound like. I had an idea of where I wanted to go and I think where it ended up was different, in a good way. So I think when we first got in there, we basically recorded songs in a traditional way: Here’s the beat and Freeway would come up and knock it out. I think where this differed work process-wise from other projects is that we ended up just recording an overabundance of material, which is how I like to work.
So like Freeway already mentioned, he would record multiple verses. Many songs had six verses and three different hooks at the end of them. And even once I left Philadelphia and we kept in touch, sending stuff back and forth, he’d hit the studio, send stuff over and we’d talk about it – so I think at the end of the project, we were just sitting on a lot of music and that allowed both of us to kind of pick and choose. I was able to kind of treat it like I would one of my normal albums, where I had a whole bunch of source material and I had to go through that and field out what I think is gonna work the best. We would figure out which one of Freeway’s verses were his favorite, and what I thought was working.
Freeway, you said you were pushed in the studio by Gregg. Can you guys expand on that a bit, how you adapted to each other as artists? If you pushed/pulled a bit?
Freeway: Me being an artist, when I go into the studio, I put my all into everything I do. I would make a song, I would make a verse, two verses or three verses, and I’d be like, “That’s hot, I’m gonna go with that.” Gregg would be like, “Yo man, you probably can do a little better than that. Why don’t you see if you can come up with something different for this, or a different hook for this or that?” So then we’d actually go back to the drawing board and try to come up with something different, and the end result is we came up with a great project. I love the little extra push – it makes me want to be greater!
Gillis: When I normally do one of my albums, it’s something that’s like trial and error. I’m constantly trying out different combinations of material: different vocals, different lyrics over different instrumentals. And it’s something where I’ve just become obsessed with [the idea that] the more you potentially prepare, the more interesting the results that could be there. So when I’m doing my solo stuff, sometimes I’ll have a new verse I like, and I’ll try it out with literally hundreds of songs before I pick one. So I think with this Freeway project, he would knock a song out and it would be good. Everything we recorded, I liked. But to me it was like, what’s the harm in going back and revisiting and trying more and more? Let’s try a different hook, let’s try a different verse. A lot of times we would try different stuff out and it would be that the initial stuff Freeway recorded was the best, and we’d stick with that. But I think with all this, it just felt like, if we’re gonna put out an EP and it’s gonna be a solid body of work, just every second should be tight. We should feel good about every single line, every single transition. There shouldn’t be even five seconds that we’re not feeling.
Your style with Girl Talk is all about compiling many sources into a short amount of time. Did you find yourself having to consciously balance that with the intense rapping that was coming over it?
Gillis: Yeah. For me, I just wanted to provide the tightest instrumentals that I could for Freeway. I consciously had to step out a little bit, because I’m used to switching the beat up every 30 seconds and moving so quickly. When I initially went into the project, I was thinking that’s what it was gonna be like – just gonna be so crazy and the beat was gonna change every 15 seconds. I think as we started recording some of the songs, I started to love some of the songs, and it was like, we don’t need that. I was happy to take a more supporting role and be like, “This is what’s best for this song” and “This is what’s best for Freeway.” I wanted to more or less fit into his world. I didn’t want to take Freeway and just have him throw a bunch of verses over normal Girl Talk production. I wanted this to be me stepping outside of my zone and doing something that would be the best for him and his fanbase. The last thing I would want to do is put out a project with Freeway that his fans weren’t feeling or that his core people who’ve been with him for years weren’t into.
Freeway, did you find yourself having to switch up your style as a response to the production?
Freeway: Like I said, I’m the type of artist that loves different production that makes me wanna challenge my flow and come up with different flow patterns and different concepts, so the different variations of the beats definitely made me switch my style up and do a bunch of different things. But overall, I just did what I normally do, as far as rapping. I didn’t switch the content up or try to dumb it down or anything.
Greg, this is your first extended collaborative project. What it was like to jump into that? Did any challenges arise from it?
Gillis: It was eye-opening because I’m definitely a control freak. On my own projects, I’m just by myself and that’s it, and I’m spending years in the lab just trying to cook it up. This was great. A letting-go of some of that, to a degree, and really trusting someone else and letting them do their thing.
It sounds like you guys had quite an output. There’s five songs and an intro on the EP but how many did you do overall?
Gillis: I think it was like 30 total. Like I said before, a lot of them are like eight-minute-long songs, the way we put it all together. Freeway would record like eight verses or something. So yeah we were sitting on a lot of material and a lot of that stuff I did really like. Some was like a song that I loved but we had a song that had a similar vibe to it on the record already, or maybe the tempo wasn’t right. I really wanted the flow of this record to go in a specific way. So like I said before, I did really treat this like a normal Girl Talk project where that’s the way I work: take 300 songs and make them into 50 minutes. It’s kind of what this is like. We’re sitting on so much music. We could’ve done a full mixtape. We could’ve probably done a full album.
Any plans to tour this together?
Gillis: It’s not official but I do want to do some shows. It’s something we’ve gotta lock down. There’s a very strong chance Freeway could be making some appearances at some festivals. Can’t say anything, but possibly even this weekend at Coachella.
Let’s touch on the video for “Tolerated.” Gregg, in the behind-the-scenes featurette, [director] Alan Cordell said you were the one who wanted a really brutal, violent video.
Gillis: Yeah. Naturally, I wanted it to be funny and fun but I wanted to do that with a straight face and in a way that would be just totally brutal. That’s funny to me. I thought it kinda fit the vibe of the song. Something where it would’ve felt a little forced if we were too self-serious in it, but I didn’t want it to be all jokes or anything. So I wanted to walk that line where it was just a badass, gory, intense video but also had a slight comedic element to it: throwing Grandma through the air, Freeway ripping someone’s arm off.
Freeway, you did look pretty psyched to rip that dude’s arm off.
Freeway: It was amazing. I’ve shot a lot of videos in my lifetime but I definitely think this is the best and most fun video that I did in my whole career.
Gillis: We’re gonna be punching through stomachs in real life soon.
Is that the plan this weekend?
Gillis: Yeah, that’s going down at Coachella. We’ll be murdering people onstage.