Words by Dom Servini Photos by Eilon Paz
ver the past 25 years, the name Gilles Peterson has gradually become synonymous with his self-styled ‘worldwide’ sound and his eternal quest for the perfect beat. Coming from French-Swiss parentage in South London, Gilles worked his way up the greasy pole of the music industry, taking on lowly jobs at record labels and setting up his own pirate radio station, to eventually become one of the most revered tastemakers in the UK and beyond. His emergence during the ‘acid jazz’ years combined with his own Talkin’ Loud and Brownswood labels, legendary DJ sets, and globally popular radio shows have made Gilles a leader in his field. How to describe the music in that field was always the rub, though. Bass heavy, soulful, cutting-edge, often tropical, and always with a jazz flavor doesn’t read easily as a genre type and yet he’s managed to create an underground swell of broad, diverse music that has come to embody the man himself.
Having known Gilles personally for the best part of two decades, it was with a combination of familiarity, excitement, and trepidation that I entered the fabled Brownswood Recordings’ basement one morning in the summer of 2013. Familiarity because I’d visited a number of times before, be it to deliver him some new releases from my label or to have a cup of tea and a chat about the Arsenal; excitement because during all those visits, I’d never had the time, or to be more precise, Gilles had never had the time to sit down and go through his favorite, significant and most rare and interesting records; and finally trepidation because I knew only too well how disorganized the man’s record collection could get and how bad he is at looking after even his most treasured vinyl. But that’s Gilles!
Pitching up at Brownswood on that Monday morning in June, I had already forgiven him his tardiness and the fact that some of the important records we were to discuss would be lost, missing, or at his ‘other place.’ Even though I’d discussed music with the man more times than I can remember, I was overwhelmingly excited to hear the stories behind the records that in turn tell the story of Gilles Peterson, a living legend of musical eclecticism.
What was the first album in your collection?
It’s probably Caravan’s In the Land of Grey and Pink. It’s not really the first record I ever bought but it’s the first record I ever stole! I ‘borrowed’ it from my older brother’s bedroom and never gave it back. This was in Sutton, South London in 1973 and I would have been nine years old. It was the moment I realized I loved music and I needed music in my life, because I had to get home from school as fast as I could and listen to this record in full every day.
I guess your brother was a huge influence on you then, musically?
All my siblings were. My sister was into singer-songwriters. She loved The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and so on. My brother was into prog rock—Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Caravan, Camel, and all those interesting groups. He even touched on the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Miles’ Bitches Brew at times so there was definitely an influence there. He was quite a sophisticated person and I do owe him a lot.
Do you feel like you pushed the envelope of what your brother was into even further?
In a way, but I suddenly switched when I heard jazz-funk. I was learning about the fundamentals of music through my family. My dad was into classical music. I’m not sure I enjoyed it but I liked the atmosphere, the smell of his cigar, and so on. My mum is French and we listened to a lot of French radio at home so the chanson thing was always happening. And when French artists came to London, we would go and see them.
So when did the big switch to jazz-funk happen?
It was when I was about 11 years old and I moved from a French to an English school. This was a very big deal and the big change in my life. Both my brother and sister had gone through the French system and so, even though we lived in England, we hadn’t interacted so much with English people. We were in a French social circle until then.
So when I went to my first English school, I found myself in a very different situation with music and fashion and very quickly realized that I had to find my people and the movement that I would follow. You had to be part of a scene, be it punk, mod, heavy metal, and so on. Unlike the French school, now that we had uniforms, people had to show what scene they were into.
Did American jazz-funk or Brit funk hit you first?
It was the American music first. I went to my new friend Andrew Crossley’s house and met his sister who, it turned out, was something of a soul girl. She had lots of great records by artists like Bobby Caldwell, Earth, Wind & Fire, Leroy Hutson, and Maze’s Live in New Orleans—amazing records! I was immediately inspired by her record collection.
Earth, Wind & Fire – All ‘n All. “One of the first American soul records that I was exposed to.”
Did you manage to encourage many of your classmates to get into jazz-funk?
When I was 15 years old, I discovered an awesome record by Tony Rallo & The Midnite Band called “Holdin’ On.” It was a crossover hit and I’d heard that he was going to be performing it live on Top Of The Pops one Thursday, so I told the whole school. When he came on the television, not only was he a terrible singer, it was one of the campest performances any of us had ever seen! Needless to say, the next day I got completely battered by my classmates. He only made one more record after that, thankfully.
So, we’ve talked about the US side of jazz-funk, but who was the first artist you heard on the British side of things that really struck you?
That was without a doubt Level 42. The first record that struck me was the 12-inch of “Sandstorm.” It was released on Elite, which is my favorite Brit-funk label. This 12-inch was also the first promo I ever got sent as a DJ, when I was just 16 years old.
I had written to the Level 42 fan club (I used to write to all the fan clubs!) and they sent me what was my first ever ‘free record.’
I also wrote to Bluey from Incognito asking him to do an interview with me at my own little pirate radio station. I’d set up my own station in the back garden of our house and my dad used to help me put the aerials up. Incognito had just put out their album Jazz Funk and I loved it. Bluey was living in Tottenham and he came all the way to Sutton to be interviewed by this 16-year-old kid. Amazingly and happily, 15 years later, when I set up my Talkin’ Loud record label, the first act I signed was Incognito, and not only that, they turned out to be my most successful signing!
“My mum didn’t understand it. She was distraught by my vinyl addiction, so much so that I used to have to hide records from her. But my dad saw that there was no turning back. He got it.”
Incognito – “Parisian Girl” 12-inch.
Were you going to live gigs at this point?
I’ve seen Level 42 innumerable times. I was their biggest fan. I used to go and see them everywhere I could, and I’d be backstage at every gig, waiting to see Mark King when he came out. He was my hero. They were a brilliant live band in the early days, before they became a stadium rock act.
Brit-funk was really important to me and it was a really interesting time. You had an underground club scene based on US funk, soul, and disco, and then the British bands began to copy that, creating their own sound—bands like Light of The World, Hi Tension, and Hudson People were incredibly important.
Hudson People’s A Trip To Your Mind was the first record I ever received at a gig. I was at the Purley All-Dayer and I was about 16 years old. The place was full of amazing dancers, but I never danced and instead used to stand at the side watching them all. When Hudson People were on stage doing a PA of “A Trip To Your Mind,” they threw a record out into the audience and I caught it! It’s another prized record of mine and it still sounds good today. I can play this now and the kids will dig it.
“England has always been a rock & roll country, and things were kind of dark in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Thatcher was in power and the punk movement was strong. There was a lot of violence, much more than you see today, so for me to find music that was uplifting, and had positive messages and melodies was incredible!”
So why jazz-funk rather than another style or more popular music scene?
The tunes were jazzy but still had that disco thing going on. It was also more interesting to me because black people and girls would be at the parties. There was a kind of sexiness to it, and dancing (even though I was rubbish at it) was important. For me it was like I’d found my own piece of heaven. I’d found the place I belonged.
Were you exposed to the gay side of the disco scene as well?
Early on I used to play at a gay night in a club in Croydon. It was every Sunday night, and I used to tell my mum I was going to see friends. The crowd loved me there. I looked very young—sweet and innocent—and I was perfect for them. I’d play only gay disco music like Carol Jiani’s “Hit ‘N Run Lover”—it was kind of the other side of “Y.M.C.A.”
Was the jazz-funk scene a central London or more suburban one?
The soul and jazz-funk scene was largely a suburban scene. There wasn’t a lot going on in the West End of London. There were clubs like The Lyceum and Crackers, but the outer London scene was where it was really happening. We would go to clubs like The Cat’s Whiskers in Streatham, Bogarts in Harrow, The Goldmine in Canvey Island, or The Royalty in Southgate. You would have to drive to these places, though, and I was good at mobilizing people. So to help pay for my vinyl addiction, I’d bring a busload of people to an event where I was DJing. We were called The Sutton Soul Patrol. This would, of course, please the venue and not only would they pay me for DJing, but they’d rebook me.
“That’s how I got known. Not because I was a good DJ (I wasn’t), but because what I could do was bring the crowds. The music is important, but the way to become popular is to bring people to you. It’s about being enthusiastic and having a good network. I knew this was how I would become a better-known name.”
What was your first big DJ break?
When did you start playing dancefloor jazz?
What I was listening to, which was jazz-funk, was essentially jazz with a disco beat. The record that led me from that into jazz for the dance floor was George Duke’s A Brazilian Love Affair. George Duke going to Brazil meant that I discovered Milton Nascimento, Flora Purim, and so on. It was a hugely important record for me and opened the floodgates.
Another important record was Herbie Hancock’s Mr. Hands. Herbie is my all-time favorite musician.
“When I was about 19 years old I was DJing regularly at the Electric Ballroom in Camden. I used to get there at the start of the night, but I was always hungry, as it was a long way on the bus from Sutton to Camden. So I’d always put on Art Blakey’s “A Night In Tunisia” and then go round the corner to KFC. I’d buy my dinner, eat it, come back and it’d still be playing! It was 17 minutes long. This was my weekly routine.”
What was your best ‘toilet break record?’
More recently I did a gig on the beach in Antalya, Turkey. It was the end of my set and I put on “Springtime” by Eric Dolphy. It’s the most incredible song, and more importantly, about 14 minutes long. I put it on, jumped in the sea, had a swim, got out, and then played A Tribe Called Quest’s “Excursions!”
I just want to clear up the story of acid jazz and how the term came about?
Here’s the story. Chris Bangs and myself used to DJ in clubs as The Baptist Brothers. We were playing after Paul Oakenfold one night at the Brentford Arts Centre circa 1987. All the DJs used to be soul boys, but suddenly they’d changed to headband-wearing ravers playing very different music. So Chris Bangs and I felt under a little pressure, as we were always the more radical ones in that scene, and the soul boys were more straight and conservative. But suddenly after discovering ecstasy, Ibiza, and acid house, they were more mad than us, and so we were really worried about what we were going to play.
At the time, the rare groove scene was emerging, so Chris Bangs went on and played “Iron Leg” by Mickey & the Soul Generation, which is a funk record. He vary sped the guitar intro on the front, got on the microphone, and said, “Fuck acid house, this is acid jazz!” and that was it. He coined the phrase.
What do you think the biggest regret of your career has been so far?
When I first started working for StreetSounds, the label that released the Electro albums, the Jazz Juice compilations, and so on, there was a guy working there called Andros Georgiou, who, it turned out, was the cousin of George Michael. He asked me to set up a little record label with him, through StreetSounds, which became Hardback Records. We released three singles, but none of them sold particularly well at all. StreetSounds removed their backing of this failing imprint, but Andros told me that his famous cousin was interested in releasing a single with us, under another name, and that all we had to do was invest £5,000 each into the release. I refused, as George Michael wasn’t ‘cool’ in my eyes, so Andros released it himself without my involvement. The record was a cover of the Bee Gees “Jive Talkin’” and it went to number one all across the globe! It was the first of many mistakes I’ve made in the music industry.
Is there a record that you’re proud to have ‘broken’ in the jazz scene?
After StreetSounds I started working for Ace Records, which specialized in compilations. The owner of Ace, Roger Armstrong, had bought the catalogue of California labels Prestige, Fantasy, and Milestone and brought me in to put compilations together for them with Bazz Fe Jazz. The sub-label was called BGP (“Beats Go Public,” or, “Bazz & Gilles Peterson,” if you will).
I was then told by Roger that there was loads more music in a warehouse in Berkeley, California and he wanted me to go over and take a look at it. I’d never been to the US before. This was about 1985 and I’d never even been on a long-haul flight! I had a friend who worked at the airport and he upgraded me to business class.
Start as you mean to go on!
Exactly. I never knew what economy was like!
I spent a week at their warehouse and on that trip I discovered a record that is still one of my favorite records of all time—Latin Soul by the Latin Jazz Quintet. This was a really interesting, stunning record. It had never officially come out, and there were only five copies of it in Ace’s library. The reason it was never officially released was because there was a fault with the lacquers. I have one of only a handful of original copies of this record. In the end we re-released it on BGP, but the original is exceptionally rare. And my copy needs some love, as it’s really battered. I pretty much broke this tune.
People like Paul Murphy discovered thousands of jazz-dance and fusion records that might have only have come out in Poland for example, but that destroy the dance floor. So he deserves a lot of respect. He was way ahead of the game. He discovered a big base of what I ended up playing as a jazz DJ. People like Paul were the generation before me. They were the guys that sadly didn’t manage to survive in the business.
“DJs make a name for themselves by breaking a tune. I was never massively good at that—it was more the collectors who did that.”
What is the rarest record in your collection?
It’s another that I should be treating with much more respect, but this is my Picasso. This is the record that I will always treasure. This is the original version of What Color Is Love by Terry Callier, who tragically died last year.
Terry was signed to the Cadet label in Chicago, and when he played the record to the label bosses, rather than playing them a recording on a cassette, which would have been the norm, he had the record cut specially to acetate! And this is it—a double album acetate version of What Color Is Love. The label loved the record, but wanted Terry to condense it into a single album. So this double album became a combination of his following album, I Just Can’t Help Myself and What Color Is Love. That’s definitely the rarest thing I’ve got. It’s the only copy in existence. It should be in a museum.
What’s your most unusual record, with perhaps the most unusual story behind it?
Sarah Vaughan’s The Planet Is Alive… Let It Live! is quite a wild one. It’s an amazing record! It was funded by Alfa Romeo cars for Pope John Paul II, and it has an amazing lineup of musicians on it, including Sarah Vaughan and Francy Boland. The lyrics were taken from poems written by the Pope himself.
Not long after I’d got this record, I was traveling to do a gig in Cologne, Germany. When I arrived, there was no one to pick me up from the airport, and I ended up hungry, lost, and simply didn’t know where I was going. Suddenly, as I was walking past a restaurant, I heard “Gilles! Gilles!” It was a restaurant called Gigi’s, and the people who had recognized me invited me in to eat with them. The guy who had called me turned out to be Christian Kellersmann who ran Universal Jazz in Germany. So, during dinner I was telling him about this Pope John Paul II record and he said to me, “Do you realize what restaurant you’re in here? This is Gigi’s! That’s Gigi Campi who produced that record!” He was also not only the guy behind SABA and MPS, but was also a chef and this was his restaurant! So Gigi comes over to me and tells me he has the original program from the Sarah Vaughan show for the album… in the restaurant! He ended up giving it to me and even signing it, writing “Just in time!” It was an amazing coincidence and it’s an incredible album.
Sarah Vaughan – The Planet Is Alive… Let It Live! “Contains the gorgeous ‘The Mystery Of Man.’”
What’s the record that you’ve spent the most money on?
That would be Ebo Taylor & Uhuru Yenzu, the album with “Love and Death” on it. I was in Tokyo, Japan and went into a record shop in Shibuya. The guys who work in the shop always know when I’m there, and they often start showing off by playing rare records. One of them put on this record and I started freaking out about how amazing it was and how I’d never heard a record like it before. It was like the Fela Kuti track he never made! So I asked the guy how much it was and he told me that it wasn’t for sale—it was his personal copy. I couldn’t believe it. So I went back to my hotel room and went on eBay. I’d never ever used eBay before, but it was on there for about £300 and I bought it straightaway.
That’s quite a reasonable amount for your most expensive purchase!
Yep, I’ve never bought a record for £1,000 or anything, but I have sold a record for £2,500. It was the original pressing of the album by Ricardo Marrero & The Group with “Feel Like Making Love” on it.
Is there a ‘holy grail’ record that you’re still unable to find?
Not really, but there are a couple of records I’ve given away to people that I’ve never been able to find again, which I’m really annoyed about. Like Sabu Martinez’s Sorcery! album, featuring the killer track “Sol,” and Bobby Matos’ My Latin Soul on Philips, which I just can’t find again.
So do you still consider yourself a digger? Do you still have the time, energy, and passion to go digging for records today?
Hell yeah! But what I do now, due to time constraints, is arrange meetings with dealers when I’m in various countries. My favorite person at the moment is Victor Kiswell in Paris. When I do my regular Sunday gig in the city, I stay over on the Monday and spend the day with him in his beautiful apartment.
And is there a record you’ve found that’s really surprised you when you’ve been with these dealers?
I bought a record from Victor by Eberhard Schoener called Flashback, which features vocals by our very own Sting. In fact, it features all three members of The Police. It’s quite an obvious record in some ways, but I just didn’t know it. It’s absolutely killer!
Do you have a favorite place in the world to go and dig vinyl?
I find that I’m very relaxed when I’m digging in Japan.
“Digging is always about where you’re headed, and whenever I’m in Japan I’m always happy to be there.”
When you made the Digs America albums, what gems did you discover whilst compiling them in the US?
When I did the second volume of Digs America, I went to Ubiquity Records where Mike, the owner, told me he’d just bought a record collection off of some guy and he had all the boxes scattered about in his room upstairs. I was lucky enough to be the first person to have a dig through them. I got loads of stuff from that collection, including an album from the Bethlehem Progressive Ensemble called Mod Lit. It contains an amazing track entitled “Call To Worship.”
What is your comfort record—the one that calms you down and makes you feel good?
That’s Arthur Blythe’s Basic Blythe. It’s just the most stunning jazz record featuring a string quartet. It’s a very reflective album and one of those records I always go back to because it’s less obvious than Wayne Shorter or Miles or Coltrane but equally effective. Arthur Blythe was a super-underrated artist. I have three copies of this record. I get through with this one!
Arthur Blythe – Basic Blythe “My ‘comfort record’ for a sleepy Sunday morning.”
It’s fair to say you’re a DJ who likes to take risks. Do you have a safety net record that gets you out of trouble?
Something like Cerrone’s “Hooked On You” usually works, but it depends. The dance floors are ever changing. Another great live album that has gotten me out of trouble a few times is by Les Amazones de Guinée. The track “Samba” is a 1980s afro-house monster. I got this again from Victor. I love playing these old records in a big club.
How many records do you have in your collection?
I’ve got about 30,000 albums.
Amongst all those records, is there an artist you’re particularly fanatical about?
I have to say Sun Ra. He was a painter as well as a musician and used to create the artwork for his own album covers. I’m a Sun Ra nut! Most of his records should be up in an art gallery.
Are you trying to complete your Sun Ra collection?
No. That’s impossible. When I started collecting his records in the 1980s they were easy to find; now original copies of his albums are out of everyone’s league. It’s like collecting art now. I met a collector in L.A. the other day who had a most amazing hand-painted original—priceless!
What would you like to happen to your collection when you’re gone?
I think my second son, Luke, is going to be really up for it. At least I hope he’ll be really up for it!
Gilles Peterson official website
Gilles on BBC Radio 6
Gilles and many other vinyl collectors are featured on the Dust & Grooves: Adventures in Record Collecting book.
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