GILLES PETERSON - STILL SAYING SOMETHING
DJ, broadcaster, label owner, festival curator and serious record collector Gilles Peterson has been a pivotal figure in underground music for well over 30 years now. In this enlightening interview, Gilles opens up to Stuart Patterson about everything from his initiation as a DJ at Electric Ballroom to those late ‘80s loved up moments, to his support of the fight against racism and how he has navigated lockdown.
Tell us about your influences in your formative years.
Being a young boy born and brought up in Cheam, South London, it would have been tuning into the radio stations as I was too young to go to clubs. Greg Edward’s ‘The Best Disco in Town’ or ‘Live From the Lyceum’ or Robbie Vincent on Radio London and eventually stations like Radio Invicta. They were really the foundations. Then it was the record shops like one in Sutton Market that would have imports and white labels. Eventually it would be pubs in Sutton in Belmont, in Banstead, in my locality. DJs like Barry Stone and Carl Cox would come along to the Drift Bridge I think and Tony Godwin, those sort of names. I’d be that kid that would slip in, 14 years old with my couple of mates and we’d be able to hear Linx ‘You’re Lying’ and be like fuck we need to get that and go to the record shop the next day and they’d all gone and we’d be gutted.
Then what would have been your first Soho or central London experiences?
First of all I remember going to Kingston (South West London), getting the 213 bus on a Saturday and doing the record shops there. It might have been the early days of Beggars Banquet, also a record shop that used to sell Pod shoes and it was about getting your clothes really. I’d go to the King’s Road, go to Jones for my peg leather trousers, then I’d discover shops like Disc Empire at the bottom of King’s Road, I think Tony Monson used to work there. Then of course the West End record shops like City Sounds, Record Shack, Groove Records and Our Price in Leicester Square because they used to have all the cut outs from America. You’d be able to get records like Barbara Carroll ‘From The Beginning'. So record shops were really important for me before I’d go to clubs.
And what were the first club experiences?
I’d grown up in in the suburbs going to Caister (Soul Weekender) when I was 16, 17 moving into the big world and we had our Sutton Soul Patrol, all three of us! I remember going to the all-dayers in Purley, they were really important for me. A memorable moment was The Hudson People doing a PA and they were throwing records from the stage, ‘Trip To Your Mind’ which is a fucking killer! I’ve still got the record I caught.
Can you remember the DJs who were playing ?
It would have probably been more the (soul) mafia lot and I would have felt more inclined to follow the Blues and Soul crew like James Hamilton. Then through the pirates like Radio Invicta I would have been aware of the Funky Fox scene with DJs like Steve Walsh. He was more urban for me, him and the people that followed him at Cat’s Whiskers in Streatham (South London). In my early days I was also going to the Royalty in Southgate, The Goldmine and Caister and all the pubs around my manor. It wasn’t until I was bit older that I discovered that there was a different scene, which I eventually became part of by working at The Electric Ballroom (The Jazz Room in Camden Town).
And how did that come about. Were you a regular in the crowd?
No it definitely wasn’t being a customer, there were no white guys there, well maybe a couple, but it really was a black club then. I think Paul Murphy (resident DJ there) thought he would throw me in at the deep end, I think cos he thought I’d fuck it up because I was such an annoying little runt! I used to go to his record shop, Fusion Records below Record Shack and I was that kid, you know, I’d be there all day annoying him and buy one record and write everything down. I used to do a show on a pirate and asked Paul to give me a top ten that I thought I could maybe get a free record out of, give them a shout out. And him and Dean used to give me a false chart or they’d give me nine records that were actually existent and they’d put one in that never existed, they’d have a lot of fun listening to me mentioning some imaginary Japanese record. They would play with me a little bit but when Paul got the gig at Sol Y Sombra he asked me if I could go and play at The Electric Ballroom. That was what made me as a DJ because funnily enough I failed.
In what way?
The dancers on the first week gave me a chance and thought we’ll try this new kid out and I was just absolutely hopeless and that was the end of my career basically. The second week they didn’t come back as they went to check out Paul at the Sol Y Sombra. But because of the racist door policy I got them all back. The reason I managed to survive was because Jerry Barry from IDJ Dancers lived in Acton and I befriended him and gave him a life home on the first week. He kind of felt sorry for me and after that was a mate. So really I owe him my career because he managed to give me a bit of room to get better and to understand the real extremeness of the dance culture that went on upstairs at The Ballroom.
How did your career evolve from there?
I was on three scenes during that little period which I think created a platform to have a longer career maybe. I was playing on the soul circuit, Nicky Holloway and Special Branch or Bournemouth Soul Weekenders with Bangsy (Chris Bangs) and Bob Masters or the weeks in Corfu, Doo’s at the Zoo. I was also on that more Inner London scene playing the Ballroom with Paul Anderson and Tosca and George Power and of course being involved in the pirate stations like Radio Invicta which was again different from the soul scene. Another key thing was meeting Chris Sullivan and being invited into the Wag Club and being part of that growing new fashion with the The Face, I-D Mag, the whole Soho scene.
When Acid House seemed to take over the world, did you have an ‘oh shit what am I gonna do now’ moment?
No because me and my gang we were always very into the music, into the culture but there was a big moment of ‘am I going to take an E or not?’ That was the question at the time, because it was such a transformative moment and we’d always slightly been the rebels, always been the backroom boys who smoked the weed and got in trouble with Nicky Holloway, they drank the beer we smoked the puff. We kind of represented that stoner thing, it was only when Johnny Walker and that lot suddenly became transformed, I was immediately like no we’re the natural gang, it was a kind of political statement. As Rob (Gallagher) always says to me ‘if you had taken an E when they took an E we would have been making some very interesting Acid House records’.
How long did it take for you to catch up?
About nine months or a year. Funnily enough the first time was after a party at Fulham football club that I did with Bangsy, our Cock Happy party. After there was a Boy’s Own in Windsor so we got in the car and that’s when I remember taking one. I think that was my transformative moment. The next day I had to go from there, obviously not having slept and DJ at Dingwalls, which was incredible, everything sounded so much better. Actually maybe it was a couple of years after ’87, ’89 or even ’90. We were more likely to take acid or mushrooms before, it was kind of a political thing then.
You’ve been involved in many seminal events, is there one that gives you the most satisfaction?
It’s pretty much a year ago I was sitting at the back of Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy’s tent (at Gilles We Out Here festival) while she was playing and I thought ‘I’ve peaked this is what I’ve always wanted to do’. To bring in all the elements, to really have a very positive, incredible experience festival which can be as inspirational to a sixteen year old in the Lemon Lounge tent to Colin Curtis DJing or to Gary Bartz live or to Shy One dropping some broken beat or Theo. That was my greatest achievement, that I’m proudest of, in pulling off a festival that can really connect everything together.
What about club wise?
One that I really thought had a big impact and we haven’t revived it or done the reunion parties is That’s How It Is with James (Lavelle) because that was a ten year period, an incredible moment. You had everyone from Portishead to Massive Attack to DJ Krust to Shadow to The Roots to Roni Size and Peshay. So we had drum n bass, trip hop, electronica, fashion, the designers, the early days of celebrities coming to clubs quietly in the background, whether that was Bono or Bjork, they’d be there but no one cared, it was so dark in there and it was a Monday night. The reason we did it on a Monday was because it’s a bit like Shoreditch now, we can’t DJ there at the weekends because there’s not enough deep people.
And as a guest DJ across the UK, got any favourite venues or parties?
It’s interesting right now as club culture is getting a lot of attention. Suddenly everyone’s going ‘ shit there’s a lot of people involved in this and there’s no way it’s going to come back and saying ‘ wow club culture what does it mean?’. To me it means so much. It’s the foundation of a lot of success that’s come out of the UK and people are realizing that. So it’s made me think a lot about where I’ve been. Funnily enough the last club I played before lockdown was the first club I ever played at outside of London was in Bristol at The Thekla. Another club I’ve been thinking about a lot and a club I’ve played at throughout the whole of my career is The Sub Club in Glasgow. A lot of DJs from Theo to Weatherall have been in there and appreciated the love, the goodness and what it’s all about, so I’d always give props to The Sub Club.
Is there a particular part of the world you always enjoy going back to play?
As any DJ will tell you it’s always great to go to Japan on every level but in recent years I’ve really enjoyed going to Australia. That’s been absolutely fantastic. A good live scene, a great DJ scene, Crown Ruler doing a really good job of bringing the right DJs with the right attitude. You get your rotary mixers, really good sound and incredible audience who are super sophisticated with their taste and they party well. Melbourne is a really great place. In Europe, the last fifteen years I had a residency in Paris and it was really good to get the French thing going again because France has been a brilliant clubbing country but you’ve got to be at the right place.
You’re an avid record collector with a huge collection. Which shops do you visit when you can in London and further afield?
In London I have spent some good days in Love Vinyl, actually yesterday I was in Sounds Of The Universe, still love it in there, recently I was at Yo-Yo records which used to be Cosmos, a shop called Yellow that I really like in Hackney. Abroad, in Paris I will spend time in Superfly, in New York I go to Human Head. In Tokyo there’s a new Jazzy Sport shop, Disk Union, HMV. Then in Melbourne Northside Records.
How has the pandemic affected you and how do you see the future of the scene ?
Well I had done a lot of my DJ travels already thankfully at the start of the year. I was actually in the studio with Bluey (Incognito), we’d just managed to make a record that’s coming out as Str4ta and I’d finished a record with another producer. I was also able to do some A+R work, getting the Zara McFarlane album done, doing a Tino Contreras record (on Arc Records). Then during the four months I was fully focused on the radio, so I managed to do eighty shows, including a lot on the BBC which included a special show called Club Lockdown which was really popular. I managed to incorporate club culture with radio so I kinda created this imaginary club where you could go round the different rooms, and in these I would make sure there were MC’s jumping on tracks, they did all these special unique versions of tracks and I think people really got the sense that they were going into a club. So it takes me back to the whole thing about club culture and getting that narrative out there and to show how important it is to come back.
How long do you think that will take?
I think it will take a while obviously but I think [it was important] doing things like playing for Luke Unabomber in Manchester (Escape to Freight Island) and to see how much the community wants to be together. But I don’t want to spin that there’s going to a positive out of this because fundamentally in the short term, in the next eighteen months it’s going to obliterate an industry. I already see some clubs up for sale but inevitably it’s going to be dramatic. A whole heap of new generation DJ stars are going to come out of the illegal rave scene that’s happening right now just like it happened in ’88. So in a way there’s an opening but for the more traditional people who have got funds, careers in the industry it’s going to very, very hard. I’ve been watching the football and the thing in my head is when they fill the stadiums back up then I think we’ll probably be allowed to go back in the clubs. But I don’t even know if that’s going to happen! There will be a lot of illegality going on, people are still going to join up, dance and have fun and records will break out of this, movements will break out of this, this is Britain, this is what we do.
You’ve been very pro active in your support of anti-racism. How do think as an industry that actions taken now can have a lasting legacy?
I think that we mustn’t allow the breaks to come on we have to keep being aware and proactive. This is the first time [this has happened] since Rock Against Racism. Back then Dennis Bovell and Public Image and The Clash, that era of British music and culture was really powerful for me and a lot of us. We were going to jazz-funk clubs, we were going to Clapham Common or going up to the South African embassy to protest all night long. That is part of what we did and it was important and I feel that this is really an amazing time for that activity again. From my point of view it was a very intense period especially being on the radio right at the peak of it all and getting the right message and the right tone. The key is that what we’ve been about, whether you're talking about Faith or the DJs I’ve looked up to and the whole aspect of club culture being this questioning, diverse scene, that’s picked up a lot of pace, that’s a really good thing.
What do you think will come out of it?
I think there will be positive change but we can’t settle back into our comfort zone, the comfort zone has gone. My generation had a run of very smooth times [despite] the potential of nuclear war during the Cold War in the 70’s and the worry of catching AIDS. [But] I feel that the culture over the last ten, fifteen years people have been slightly neutralized through drugs. That was one of the questions about club culture that was beginning to concern me.
In what way?
I was going to Ibiza a lot and I kind of got really disillusioned by it because it became too much of an industry and it’s almost like feeding people neutrality and so lackluster and it was like hang on where has the fire gone? That’s why I love people like Andrew Weatherall, I’ll really miss people like him because this sort of subversiveness that is all part of club culture for me. It was sucked a way for a while, I even felt myself going for the easier option and I’m pleased this has pulled me back into hang on a minute why are you here what are you doing. So it’s not the time to retire now, it’s the time, this is the final, for my generation, it’s the most important part of what we are. This is the bit where we become great mentors and we can direct and support and do the best we can to help get the message across.
You mention retirement, would you have ever imagined at 25 you would be so deep and so active in every aspect of the scene as you are today?
I never thought I’d get such a beautiful amount of career out of this. More than anything really it’s the people you meet and how I’ve become interested in art and culture and stuff. When I was eighteen I was just basically into football and girls and I’ve got to learn things that I didn’t learn in school. It’s brought a lot to me. I remember thinking there’s no way I’m going to DJ after 40, it was like that is way too old! I’m celebrating my 40th anniversary of DJing this September. The first gig I did was an under fifteen’s at St Andrew’s church in Belmont - the power of music !
Ok finally, you’ve mentioned a few things that are in the pipeline or will be out there by the time this comes out but what else is coming up in the future?
We’ve just done a record for Brownswood in South Africa, a new Kokoroko album coming in the New Year. I’m doing a book called “The 80 Shows of Lockdown’ hopefully out before the end of the year and beginning to hope that we can put on the festivals next year.
Portrait photograph: Chris Tang