“Representing British club culture is an important part of what I’ve always done,” says Radio One DJ Gilles Peterson. “At the moment I play almost 90% new music on the radio, but I think it’s also really important to remember our heritage and where the music comes from.”
If anyone knows where dance music comes from, it’s London DJ/ producer/record label owner Gilles Peterson. He was there at the beginning, in the mid-1980s, as a teenager, sneaking into soul and funk clubs and running his own pirate radio station K Jazz.
He started at Kiss FM in 1990, after being spectacularly sacked from Jazz FM, during the first Gulf War, for doing an impromptu “four-hour songs of peace session” inciting people to “take their radios to Hyde Park and join the peace march”. He’s been doing his Radio One ‘Worldwide’ show for the past 10 years. And all this while simultaneously doing a&r stints at Acid Jazz (working with Jamiroquai and The Brand New Heavies), then Talkin’ Loud and, currently, his own Brownswood Records.
In his a&r role at Talkin’ Loud, a subsidiary of Mercury, it was Gilles who ushered Roni Size’s Reprazent project into existence. And without Gilles, the Masters At Work ‘Nuyorican Soul’ album would never have happened. That record, when it came out in 1997, was perhaps the first-ever album project released in the UK to authentically fuse traditional jazz, soul and Latin music with underground dance music.
“The ‘Nuyorican Soul’ album was a highlight for me,” agrees Gilles.
“It was a combo of all my elements — club culture, world music, jazz and New York.”
When MAW’s Louie Vega came over to London late last year to DJ at one of Gilles’ events at Electric, in London, the pair were reminiscing about the launch of ‘Nuyorican Soul’.
“I remember at the party we were all wearing suits and I was, at one point, standing next to [salsa legends] Tito Puente, Eddie Palmieri, India and Louie and Kenny Dope. It was so good.”
When it comes to what’s good, Gilles is the man who knows. Finding music to play on his weekly Radio One show, he says, is “like doing homework”. His task, every time, is to find the most interesting new music to play.
“In terms of the UK, SBTRKT has been amazing this year,” he says. “I think, in a way, what he does is like a modern day Nuyorican Soul, Acid Jazz-style record. His album is a soulful, melodic, well-written electronic record. It really works. Some people might call it coffee-table dubstep, but I don’t think that’s a negative thing. I think it’s good to see an artist like that coming out of the underground and appealing to a wider audience without losing any of the honesty.”
Unearthing underground sonic-gold nuggets for a wider audience is what Gilles does best; whether he’s DJing in clubs, playing music on the radio or finding new material for Brownswood Records. If the phrase ‘fingers in pies’ had to apply to just one person in dance music, it’d be him. He’s the only DJ who, on his radio show or any one of his DJ sets, will play a new Adele demo next door to a previously-unheard of dubstep artist.
“I think that’s where I’m lucky in a way,” says Gilles. “DJs do still tend to get pigeonholed and then people expect a certain thing from them. You get that with d&b DJs, for example. Or Pete Tong, people always expect him to play a particular kind of music. But with me, if I want to play the brand new Loefah track right next to the latest tune by black folk singer Michael Kiwanuka, for example, I can do that.”
This month Gilles will release ‘Havana Cultura: The Search Continues’, through his own Brownswood label. It’s a project that he recorded recently in Cuba, with help from dubstep producer Mala.
“There’s a really underground dance scene in Cuba and me and Mala put on the very first dubstep party while we were out there last year,” says Gilles. “Most Cubans don’t even have the internet, so it’s really hard to get new music. I take loads of stuff out there on iTunes when I DJ and they all love it.”
Gilles DJs all over the world every weekend but, he says, it’s the music that he hears back in the UK that really keeps him on his toes.
“It can be frustrating living in England sometimes, but in the end, there’s nowhere like it in terms of music,” he says. “British dance music keeps reinventing itself and that’s what keeps it fresh.”
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