“I’ve spent many stressed years worrying about clearing dance floors…”
Some say he can’t even mix. Others say he is the John Peel of our generation. These points are both debatable, however, there is much to be said about the comparison between the two broadcasters. Both do have a lot in common: at the very least, their effort and dedication to championing new music is second to none. Like Peel, Gilles Peterson is more than that. He’s been around longer than most of my mates have been alive, yet, he is responsible for putting out some of the best records ever released in the UK by Soul and Jazz artists. He even had Jamiroquai on his label for a time.
Since the tender age of 16 he’s been DJing on pirate radio stations, was one of the first DJs to travel the world, has ran several pioneering record labels, has his own award ceremony, 17 different radio shows – including his current Radio One Show -and of course his very own Worldwide Festival.
After hearing about Gilles’ Record collection a few years ago, I made it my objective in life to get close to Mr. Peterson. So close that one day,after years of building our relationship, he would unfortunately die. Not because I killed him, but due to natural causes of course, and in his will he would leave all of that vinyl to me. The rumor is that Gilles uses his old house in North London to house his records. Not a record box, or a record shelf or even a record room. An actual record house, used to store his incredible collection of records spanning decades. Of course, I’m joking about my murderous intentions, but the rumors about his record house are quite true. I did eventually get to the Brownswood House – not because I am a stalker, but because I ended up working there one summer for Gilles’ record label, Brownswood Recordings.
Whilst working at Brownswood, I decided to pin Gilles down for a while to talk Quincy Jones, Acid Jazz, Arsenal, James Lavelle and what it feels like to clear 10,000 people off a dance floor. Here’s how it went down:
I hope you don’t mind Gilles but I’m going to have to ask you a bit about the beginning. There are a few things that need to be covered. Where was your musical playground?
Well…the very early days were different. I was from French/English parents and went to a French school very much outside the English culture, and for a while it wasn’t looking like I was going to spend the rest of my life here. Then I changed schools, started going to an English school and met friends who introduced me to a whole new side of music, this tribal club culture side and by 14/15 I was going to Jazz-Funk ‘all-dayers’ with DJs like Steve Walsh playing. One of my mates had a sister who had loads of old soul records like Cameo and Earth Wind and Fire, before we new it, we were going to Kings Road and picked up the whole casual look on the way, soon becoming a soul boy. It’s funny, I was one of only three soul boys in my school and we used to get a bit of a hard time. Fortunately for me, I had a good rep as a footballer so I didn’t get too badly bruised up.
And how did you go from that to your seminal party with James Lavelle, ‘That’s How It Is!’?
At about 16 I managed to get some turntables and with my mate Andrew started to do little events and parties, getting a bit of a rep for doing under 14 parties with the right sort of music. I then bought a transmitter and started broadcasting from my back garden with my next-door neighbour. One day the best pirate at the time called Radio Victor lost their gear, and had heard about this young boy who had a transmitter and a builder that was the same as theirs. The quickly muscled in and asked to use my gear, I agreed on the condition I get a show on their station. By about 17 I had a car, was on all the pirates, and was basically used by all the stations to go and stand on all the tallest building cause I was so mad and enthusiastic. That’s also when I started DJing out at some really important clubs and eventually moved on to Kiss FM, Radio London and Jazz FM.
Jazz FM sacked you, didn’t they?
Yeah, I got sacked from Jazz FM during the First Gulf War for playing certain types of records and getting people to go on the peace march in London. To be fair, it was great for my credibility. Maybe not at the time but I soon moved on to Kiss and then Radio 1.
How did you then get into running your own label Talkin’ Loud with Norman Jay?
I started out by compiling Jazz compilations for other labels like Blue Note, and then set up my own label called BGP that was focused on re-issuing old Jazz records. Then I set up a label called Acid Jazz who had people like Jamiroquai and Brand New Heavies on it. Then I started Talkin’ Loud and brought Norman Jay in to help me out with A+R for people like Omar. James was on work experience at Talkin’ Loud and was just an up-and-coming DJ with a bit of attitude and it felt inevitable that we were going to do a club together. I was chatting to James about it the other day, and we were both saying how important that club was. It came at a time when we were at the forefront of a whole movement. It was Portishead’s first record, Massive Attack’s first record, Mo’Wax, UNKLE, Stüssy and the beginnings of Bape. There was a bit of social revolution going on. I remember seeing people like Bono come down, Björk would be there every week. Bjork even used our ‘jam band’ for her album. Then, James and me grew apart musically, I haven’t seen him for a while but I hear he’s a bit of rock god these days.
You two must have been pretty big party heads?
Well, it was a pretty cool time but I was working an awful lot, too. I was travelling around the world with the whole Acid Jazz thing before most DJs were even playing abroad. It wouldn’t have happened if we had have just relied on the UK and places like Japan really took to it. So, we didn’t really get chance, you know? I’ve been doing this for like 30 years now, which is frightening, I wouldn’t be still standing here if I’d been partying all the time.
The question is, when are you going to retire, and what are you going to do with your records?
I really don’t know. I said 40 but I still feel really young, so…we’ll see. I mean, I still love it and still get a buzz. Also, a lot has changed now and I feel privileged to be still doing this. I’m lucky though; I’m part of the original crew of DJs and can sort of still live off my reputation. Everyone’s a DJ now, remember, and if you’re not putting out records it’s difficult to get gigs…
I suppose Brownswood Recordings is your new focus.
The label was never meant to be a Talkin’ Loud, it’s very much a labour of love for me. It’s quite nice sometimes to be behind the scenes working on nurturing artists, especially talented artists like José James and Ghostpoet (the newest recruit).
You must have met most of your heroes by now, have you ever been embarrassingly star struck?
Not really with artists. I get really star struck with footballers, I saw Arsène Wenger the other day in Heathrow and I couldn’t even go over and shake his hand. Probably the most famous person I ever saw was Quincy Jones and I ended up spending a bit of time with him. I was hosting a room at a festival he was curating in the U.S. It was funny actually, one night the queue for our room was massive and the main room was dead. Quincy calls me over and he has a bottle of champagne in his hand and two beautiful women on his arms. He’s all, “what’s this Acid Jazz shit?” Let’s just say, Quincy brilliantly sucked every piece of information out of me and taught me a lot about keeping information close to your chest. A few months later he was pioneering what he called ‘Jazz-Rap‘.
If you could re-do or re-live one of your previous gigs, which would it be?
I dunno man, I can’t really think on that level. At the moment, I’m really lacking a good gig in England. I’ve had some good nights but I haven’t had a ridiculously good gig in England for a while. The scene has changed a lot, music’s become a bit secondary to fashion and trends. On the one hand it’s good, I can meet a 17 year old and he can talk about people like Richie Hawtin and Miles Davis in the same sentence which probably wouldn’t have happened 20 years ago, but what’s lacking now is that tribal identity – that feeling of belonging to a tribe, all listening to the same music and dressing a certain way without being dictated to by fashion magazines.
Alright then, so what about as a punter? If you could create one club with one DJ for one night only, which would it be?
Hands down, I’d choose Yellow in Tokyo, even though it’s closed down now it is by far the best club in the world. And to DJ? Anyone who is serious really. I saw Joe Clausell last time I was there and he had so much passion. He’s not really my favorite DJ in terms of selection but you just can’t beat an American House DJ. I suppose it’s just cause their in it, there, living, breathing house music. Or, Laurent Garnier, who sort of does what I do but to a massive audience. I mean, I’ve done my share of headline sets at most festivals but this guy does it to like 50,000 people regularly. I get wobbly after about 1000 and have died on stage quite a lot, especially in the early days when people didn’t really know what Acid Jazz was, cause I’d go on to like 10,000 people after some hard house DJ and pretty much clear the place with my Jazz-Funk and Rare-Groove records. I’d literally see warehouses empty in front of me.
Last question: 5 albums, 1 desert island. What would you take?
It changes everyday but it would probably be:
- In Rainbows – Radiohead
- Song in The Key of Life – Stevie Wonder
- A Love Supreme – John Coltrane
- Curtis Mayfield Live – Curtis Mayfield
- Black Renaissance – Harry Whitaker