Gabriel Szatan

Actually really, really nice

Interview: Gilles Peterson


Dimensions (Gabriel Szatan): So okay – was there anything in particular in your upbringing that imbued you with this passion of being hands-on that has informed everything you’ve done in your career?


Gilles Peterson: I didn’t really think I’d be doing anything to do with music. I mean, even when I was 25, I was thinking ‘oh, better get a normal job soon’. It was only when I started Talkin’ Loud records, or maybe when we got the Mercury Prize with Roni Size [New Forms, 1997], did I actually think that I was in the game. Perhaps an element of my longevity is that back in those days it was still kind of a hobby, and we were very much the underdogs, as the industry was controlled by the old-fashioned rock’n’roll world. Bringing dance music to the mainstream through Talkin’ Loud, and very that my first label Acid Jazz, as very unknown to the media – there wasn’t a lot of support for what we were doing. Constantly fighting against the power made us stronger, in a way.  It wasn’t a career; there was no business plan, which everyone seems to have these days, and that’s a bit of a shame.

But to answer, something happened to me when I was 14: I met the right person at the right time, who played me the right record that excited me at the right level, which made me want to be part of the movement, which forced me to buy imported jazz funk records – and hide them behind the tree so my mum didn’t see me bringing them home – and organise under-16 discos to make £20 or £30 here and there to fund the collection, and little by little, build it up. Ultimately I was trying to tell people there was more music out there that they were unable to hear on the radio – that was my challenge in life. As time has gone on I’ve been very fortunate to meet a lot of my heroes and the heritage artists: the world music people like Fela Kuti, to Brazilian legends like Milton Nascimento, to the American jazz heroes…I feel as if I’m quite an important link person between the new generation and the heritage because of my involvement as a DJ. Seeing as I play with everybody from Carl Cox to Addison Groove, I’m so into that new stuff, but equally I’m totally obsessed with making people realise that Sun Ra was a very important person, you know? That was quite long, sorry about that! [Laughs]


GS: No worries! You mentioned that it was ‘a hobby’ back in the day for you, and I believe you said something similar when starting Brownswood in 2005. Seeing as we’re here at the HQ, what was it about this label that made you step up from being a side-endeavour to something you put more time and effort into?


GP: With Brownswood, the record label is just part of everything; you can’t just run a label these days because that’s not enough, unfortunately. I’m very passionate about it, but I also love mentoring artists and the role of the A&R man or the executive producer. I’ve always enjoyed bringing people through, so it’s great to see someone like Ben Westbeech having a huge hit now with Breach after all these years, because we spent a lot of time with him, or Ghostpoet, for example.


Running the label Talkin’ Loud was considerably more stressful for me – it was more political as we were dealing with Universal and people who held their own agendas. Although I probably got paid more back then, for me now it’s great to have a really good team of people who work for me at Brownswood who are learning about publishing, management, or being agents. These days, if you’re running a company in music, you need to have the full spectrum of elements, and experts in each one. It’s been great to have the Boiler Room live from here too, and a lot of people worked for us back in the day: Thristian was my assistant for five years, and Benji B for years, so I’m proud that they’ve gone out to have really great careers. I think that’s half the role for the older people in the industry. I had those people when I was younger who shaped me, and I feel it’s a responsibility; looking back, too many DJs and ‘tastemakers’ fail to take that on and neglect the role of mentoring, and that’s a bit of a shame.


GS: It does seem to me that when you’ve been most enthused in your career, it’s when you have that tight-knit family around you.


GP: You need to have that, it’s important. Everyone inspires everyone else; you go through good and bad times together. When it comes to the Worldwide Festival in July and we all have a brilliant time, or when we organise the Worldwide Awards, or on the radio every week, whatever it is – it’s a very special time at the moment for me.


GS: On that note, do you feel the relationship with your audience has changed at all when you made the shift from Radio 1 to 6 Music?


GP: For me it’s been amazing, but I didn’t realise initially. I was still in the mindset of assuming Radio 1 to be the no.1 station in the world, but it’s not, things have changed. Being chucked on at 4am on a Wednesday was…well, it was fine, I was obviously pleased to be on the BBC as ever, but the moment they put me on Saturday afternoon I suddenly discovered a whole new audience who were really keen, and wouldn’t listen to Radio 1 anymore. It’s a bit like when I used to be on after John Peel, the follow-through of people who were listening to me was incredible. But the later they put me on at Radio 1, the more it felt as if people were listening to me solely online, on iPlayer. On 6, I have that, plus a brand new live audience. And I’m better at that time, I’m fresher – after a long weekend, it’s hard! Even on Monday you can live off the back of the buzz of the weekend, whereas on Wednesday you really are exhausted! But it’s been amazing, and I’m so pleased to be on that station. I think I have the best music listening figures on the iPlayer across the whole BBC, and I’m playing all this weird stuff, so it tells you something…I don’t know quite what, perhaps people are bored of the predictable stuff?


GS: Have you had any amusing events arise when people discover you and your show outside the normal remit? Like the Kendrick Lamar x TNGHT freestyle, for example, would have brought a whole amount of US listeners who never would have heard of you, right? Have those one-offs brought interest crossovers?


GP: Yeah, I do have that, but I don’t go out to get it. I’m quite lucky with a lot of the Americans, because of my association with The Roots or Erykah Badu, these icons of black American music, they big me up all the time, as well as Pharrell, Q-Tip – GS: Janelle Monae – GP: yeah, yeah. [Adopts faux-NYC drawl] “Oh, you gotta do Guy-elles Peterson!” So I tend to get a bit of that, and it’s good; but of course, I did Kendrick Lamar because I love the record, and I actually hounded the label for that. But someone like Nas came to me, whereas before they might have gone straight to Westwood, which I don’t necessarily think they do anymore. Luckily for me, it’s the music I’m following. It’s like Laura Mvula or James Blake or Mount Kimbie – when a lot of those acts first came along, no-one was championing then; maybe Mary Anne Hobbs, but that’s it. People are so slow, they can’t seem to make their mind up, so in a sense it’s quite easy being where I am now. ‘Oh, is it great or is it not cool? Is it right or wrong?’ – I don’t seem to care! [Laughs] Everyone has got in the habit of overthinking things, and that’s helped me, because I’m quite clear about what I like and where it’s at.


GS: That ties in nicely to the next question I was going to ask you: it seems to me that a lot of my contemporaries seem to be far more open to the role of funk, boogie, soul and jazz in club culture now than two or three years ago, have more reverence and whatnot. I want to get your take on it.


GP: I agree, I agree. I think it’s very important. I was doing something in Leeds recently, amazed by this really young student crowd that were into the disco stuff and vinyl. That’s basically because of people like Pearson Sound, Loefah, and Floating Points – a lot of those guys are obviously much younger than myself, but are very respectful of the traditions of soundsystem culture and club culture, and they’ve made the connections between Larry Levan and themselves, and they’re celebrating it, and it’s amazing. When acid house happened in 1988, the industry that came out of it was so lowest common denominator, and it was so awful for the music that it depressed me for many years. A lot of those DJs that I’d been working with up until that explosion, who I thought were music heads, suddenly became businessmen; I was staggered. They all became millionaires and made a shitload of money out of it, but they didn’t care about the music. It’s just very refreshing in the last few years to see a new generation of producers of DJs – big up Mala, Skream, Benga and people like James Blake, all those guys – who may have gone in different places since then, but they held the torch very well for club culture and soundsystem culture, which hadn’t happened in the country for a while. It’s helped me as a DJ because they’ve referred back to me as a DJ in an indirect way as well, so it’s been good.


GS: Let’s talk briefly then about your role as a club DJ. The day after watching you at XOYO for the Dimensions launch party, I had a string part in my head, and I couldn’t place whether it was the O’Jays original [‘Darlin Darlin Baby’] or the more recent Chesus track [‘Special’], so I was wondering if you do that a lot? You use those original touchstones, and then use the songs that sample then to play off on one another.


GP: [Chuckling] Oh yeah, I do that a lot. I did a thing the next day where I did a Q-Tip party in London, and just played a set of links, all the samples and originals; I didn’t mix them in particularly well, but it was really good fun! These days, you can do anything as a DJ, as long as you’re up for it and enjoying it. I think too many DJs are safe – everyone does what they do, but I hear some people, and it’s literally the same shit they’re playing six months ago, in the same order, and that’s not really fair to a degree. But you’re getting away with it because you’re hype at the moment, so good. But again, going back to the Loefahs and those guys, they’re so into the culture of it – Thristian and Benji too. They’re learning their craft; it’s the opposite of doing 40-odd minutes off the back of a couple of 12”s. I say that to everyone, it’s the making of a great DJ.


I mean, I still have bad nights, but it’s taken me thirty years to get the point where I can feel I can play in any club in the world for six hours, and make it work. I probably wouldn’t get away with it in a mental post-trance club in Goa, but for me DJing is about playing six or seven hour sets, whether in Tokyo or Tel Aviv. I’ve been a DJ who has been on the road since the mid-80s, out there pushing British youth-based culture to the Germans, Italians, Spanish and Japanese well before they had their own scenes, so to see how club culture has grown into this global network, it’s gratifying. I’ve worked hard at my bit of that. I can almost retire now, is how I feel about it. I’m getting to that point – it’s really good, and I’ve achieved what I’ve wanted to achieve, in that sense.


GS: But, given the extensive amount of work you’ve done, you can use your vaunted position as a figurehead of sorts to positively reach out, I suppose. Do you want to give an explanation of what the Steve Reid Foundation is, and how that’s linked into Beat ‘N Trail?


GP: Yeah, my role is about celebrating those people’s lives in a way, so they don’t get forgotten about. Steve Reid was one of those guys who was in the shadows, but everyone in the scene knew and love him. He was an inspiration for all of us, because of his positivity and risk-taking when making music, and that rubbed off on people; Four Tet especially. That generation didn’t just talk about Africa – “oh, African heritage, big up, big up” – they went there and spent six months living on the street. They lived life, and that’s the one lesson we can all learn from those people. So basically the Steve Reid Foundation is something I formed a few years ago on his passing, as a good place to start organising events to bring in money that can then be distributed to musicians in need. At the moment we’re working with the Musicians Benevolent Fund, but on specifics projects: for example, during Hurricane Sandy last year there were musicians that needed support, so we sent money to them there; right now, a great American saxophone player – and a good friend of Steve Reid’s – Arthur Blythe is gravely ill, so we’re putting money towards his treatment now. To see the way Steve had been let down by the American healthcare system was just…unsatisfactory. I was shocked; it was very upsetting. We’re constantly doing different events to get money in, like a Theo Parrish workshop; a drumathon here in the office; I’m going to run another marathon. We’re all getting stuck in! For Beat ‘N Trail, two of the people who work here at Brownswood, Sarah and Tom, are doing a bike ride – Dalston to Dimensions in two weeks, which is incredible. I’m going to get there a day early to ride in with them while they do all the hard work and yeah, hopefully they can raise some money. Again, it’s another reason we do this. It’s not just a funky party! [Heavy laughter from both]


GS: Alright thanks so much for speaking to us, just one thing more – who are you personally looking forward to seeing at Dimensions?


GP: The line-up is massive, it’s probably the best one out there! There’s the special event with Bonobo in the Amphitheatre, that’ll be great. The best gig I’ve seen recently has been Mount Kimbie, I thought they were absolutely out of this world; they’ve stepped up so hard. Almost too many good names – I’m a bit nervous actually. You never know, it’s always difficult when there are loads of serious DJs there, isn’t it? “Oh shit, so-and-so’s watching…I have to make sure I don’t screw this up!” [Laughs]

The full transcription of my print only Gilles Peterson interview, published 05/09/13 in Crack Magazine‘s programme for Dimensions Festival 2013


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