Gilles Peterson The Tastemaker
Published Jan 23, 2011British DJ Gilles Peterson is one of the finest examples of the DJ as curator. Unlike hip-hop entrepreneurs who diversify their "brand" with clothing and beverages, Peterson has stuck to musical evangelism, exploring the intersections of jazz, culture and technology from past to present. He came to prominence when jazz was at its most conservative ebb during the mid-'80s, and has helped redefine it as a vital force in club culture. He has an internationally renowned eclectic style of live DJing; has established three well-regarded record labels responsible for five Mercury Prize nominations; he curated dozens of compilations that have helped frame old music for new audiences; and had a long-running association with BBC radio, where his inclusive programming is often compared to the late John Peel. Through all his efforts, Peterson has helped establish and maintain a worldwide network for Afro-diasporic artistry. "I think I've expanded in my tastes ― if I hadn't it would be a bit sad ― but fundamentally my approach hasn't changed a great deal," he observes. "I've always had a carte blanche when it comes to being a club and radio DJ and a record label kind of guy and I've still got that, so I'm really grateful."
1964 to 1984
Peterson is born as Gilles Moehrle in Caen, France to French/Swiss parents. He is raised in South London speaking French at home and English elsewhere ― likely the reason his French name is pronounced in an English fashion (j-eye-alls, not zheel). Peterson starts to explore emerging soul- and jazz-influenced bands from England like Level 42 as well as harder funk and fusion jazz from the U.S. played on pirate radio stations in London. Pirate radio is an important cultural force in England at the time, playing a huge spectrum of music, particularly black music, which is poorly represented on the BBC. He procures a couple of turntables to explore the music he loves, which leads to work in a local pub. But Peterson is entranced by radio, and invests in a small transmitter. He creates mixtapes and drives around his neighbourhood seeking the highest ground to surreptitiously mount his transmitter. He also digs into the music of DJ Paul Murphy at his record shop, and at a club called the Electric Ballroom in the funky Camden Town area of London. Peterson told Resident Advisor "It was the ghetto black club; there were very few white boys. It was very much based around dancing." His success leads to opportunities in other clubs; he refines and strengthens his jazz dance bona fides. Radio Invicta rings up the kid with the transmitter, and Peterson strikes a deal with them: they can use his transmitter if they give him a show. "I would drive my Mini around, putting aerials up on high tower blocks and taking risks," he recalls. "I loved the excitement of pirate radio." By the mid-'80s, Peterson is working in bars three or four nights a week and doing his radio show, first on Radio Invicta, then other pirate stations.
1985 to 1990
In 1985, Peterson's Jazz Juice compilation is released on Street Sounds, a label for hip, club-oriented sounds of the early to mid-'80s. This first collection pairs well-known names like Miles Davis and Art Blakey with artists who had yet to experience international notoriety like Gilberto Gil. He will compile seven more volumes over three years, in addition to putting together several compilations for the BGP label and the groundbreaking collection Blue Bossa for iconic jazz label Blue Note. Around this time, Radio London, a local division of BBC, hires Peterson. He develops a show called Mad On Jazz, which brings the burgeoning jazz dance scene overground. The show features live percussion and spoken word artistry in addition to the jazz dance favourites for which he is renowned. However, a year later, BBC undergoes management changes and Peterson is let go. Returning to the club scene in earnest, he takes up residence at a downscale club called Dingwalls, also in Camden. He starts a Sunday afternoon session called "Talkin' Loud and Saying Something," whose name is adapted from James Brown's 1972 hit. With partner Patrick Forge (who would go on to found Da Lata) he plays hard jazz as before, but the crowd is more cosmopolitan, so Peterson stretches out into hip-hop, early house and impossibly rare funk records termed "rare grooves." Live bands such as jazz saxophonist Courtney Pine and one of the first retro soul bands, the Brand New Heavies, also grace the club.
Acid house, which marries sharper, synthetic sounds to the post-disco music emerging from Chicago, is starting to catch on in Britain. It causes a shift in night life from DJs who spin eclectic nights of soulful sounds at small pubs to a smoothly beat-mixed electronic dance experience for thousands of people in warehouses, open fields and a new generation of super clubs. Peterson finds himself as the sidestage yang to the big-room yin at emerging events called raves. "It was around a time when this youth culture thing was just bubbling," Peterson says today. "When rave and acid house started happening [in 1986-'87] I already had seven or eight years of a career before then. [But] I was still young enough to be regarded as the new generation. I was good friends with the DJs who were really blowing up, like Paul Oakenfold, Danny Rampling and Pete Tong. I was doing a lot of clubs with them, but I was always the weirdo in the other room playing strange music."
Peterson's friend Chris Bangs coins the term "acid jazz" one night while on the mic. "I hated it immediately, but it was a good laugh for six months. [It was] a bit of a joke because I was doing all these acid house parties and I was thinking 'Fuck it, I want to play my shit,' so I'll mix a bit of acid house with Charles Mingus and shout down the microphone." Soon, Peterson partners with Northern Soul DJ Eddie Piller to form Acid Jazz Records in 1988. Both are neophytes at running a record label. Acid Jazz's first releases are compilations. The following year sees the first instalment of the Totally Wired series. Its sleeves feature pictures of the intense jazz dancers at Dingwalls, while the music is a grab bag of neo-lounge, funk, Latin- and Brazilian-oriented hybrids and usually a rare groove track or two licensed for new audiences. These compilations trickle out of England to discerning record shops in Canada, the U.S. and Japan, where they inspire like-minded Djs.
Peterson begins to chafe at the limitations of the increasingly retro-centric implications of the term acid jazz. "The acid jazz scene got kidnapped by people who saw it as a way to market their entire jazz catalogues or a bunch of mods who decided that was how they were going to reinvent themselves." Blue Note would turn the sensibility behind Blue Bossa into a long-running series of compilations lasting well into the '90s. Peterson renews his radio career with a show called Worldwide at the newly licensed Jazz FM, one of the first in a wave of pirate radio stations to be given official assent. In 1989, he is approached by Mercury/Phonogram with an offer to set up his own label. He leaves Acid Jazz before the Brand New Heavies break out, and before the label puts out the first record by Jamiroquai.
1990 to 1995
Talkin' Loud Records is born in 1990. Peterson and partner DJ Norman Jay are tiny fish in Mercury's major label pond, and the new enterprise gets off to a slow start. "There were loads of difficult people and difficult situations to work with," he says. "It was still a very conservative record company that was putting out records by Elton John and Metallica, and I was in that machine." Talkin' Loud releases its first compilation that same year. Gradually Peterson starts to assemble a team within the label that helps him achieve a grander version of club culture promotion than he ever could have fathomed at Acid Jazz. A key early release is the debut by the Young Disciples, fronted by Carleen Anderson, daughter of James Brown mainstays Bobby Byrd and Vicki Anderson. It is nominated for the inaugural Mercury Prize in 1992. Peterson's growing international reputation as a groove music guru continues to grow, and connects him to scenes in Germany (in the early days of the Jazzanova family), Japan and jazz-oriented New York hip-hop by the likes of A Tribe Called Quest and Gang Starr. With Peterson's leverage at a major label and his radio show, these communities receive a wider global platform. By 1994, the label has managed a steady release schedule and is putting out consistently groundbreaking records. MC Solaar, from France, releases Prose Combat, one of the first critically acclaimed releases for non-English hip-hop. The debut of United Future Organization from Japan features Jon Hendricks of '50s jazz bestsellers Lambert Hendricks and Ross. Peterson's Brazilica! compilation brings together recordings from the '60 and '70s to a much larger audience than ever before.
1996 to 2000
By 1996, Peterson uses his cultural capital to facilitate the label's most ambitious project thus far. Masters At Work are a well established production duo in New York who rule the world of house music. They are both prolific and musically experimental, with hip-hop, jazz and Latin music influences colouring their work. In 1993 they had released a track for Nervous Records under the name of "Nu Yorican Soul" ― Nu Yorican being slang for Puerto Ricans in New York ― and Peterson had been knocked out by it. For three years, he urges them to develop a full length project, and they eventually come up big. "NuYorican Soul was probably my most satisfying production at the label," Peterson declares. "The experience we had doing that ― working with [jazz legends] Eddie Palmieri, George Benson, Roy Ayers, and [vocalist] La India ― I'm really proud of." The album is celebrated as both an instant classic and cultural manifesto, and accelerates a wave of interest in New York-based Latin music of the past and present. Incredibly, it isn't even the most acclaimed release on the roster, as the label racks up a jaw dropping four Mercury Prize nominations in five years: Courtney Pine's Modern Day Stories (1996), 4 Hero's Two Pages (1998), MJ Cole's Sincere (2000) and 1997 winner Roni Size's New Forms which, like Nu Yorican Soul for Latin sounds, has the feel of a manifesto for drum and bass.
With the label's increasing success, Peterson finds himself courted by BBC Radio once again, this time on a national level. Worldwide had been axed by Jazz FM in 1990 in the wake of anti-war comments and music Peterson had made, and had moved to rival Kiss FM in the ensuing years. In 1998, he jumps at the chance to host his own radio show on Radio 1. "That was my big ambition I'd worked towards. To get a job on Radio 1, presenting after John Peel, I couldn't have had a better introduction to the most influential radio station in the world." Even for the indefatigable Peterson, hosting a show on BBC proves to be too much. "It was too big a stress to be running a record label and doing Radio 1," he says "I never stopped DJing in clubs. There was a period in my life where I was doing a radio show, DJing five nights a week and running a record label. Looking back on it, I don't know how I survived." By the turn of the decade, Peterson has eased out of Talkin' Loud. The label winds down a couple of years later.
2000 to 2006
Peterson finds his second round with BBC to be immensely satisfying. "To be able to go to Maida Vaile studio to record all my favourite groups in the world," ― superbly collected on Gilles Peterson Presents The BBC Sessions (Ether, 2005) ― "that was definitely what made me leave Talkin' Loud. I've been quite lucky with the development of digital radio and the BBC being at the cutting edge of that. People are listening to this show all over the world. Now I have a much wider scope of listenership. People rely on the BBC, so you're going to get all the advantages of it. I believe in it, especially when you travel around and you seen how commercialism kills everything creatively. It's important that there are places like the BBC." With these tools at his disposal, Peterson is able to amplify his Worldwide message. Among the last releases on Talkin' Loud are Gilles Peterson Worldwide collections (2002, 2003) composed of show favourites. He begins compiling his yearly "Worldwide Winners" with the inception of his BBC show, but by 2004 this year-end list turns into an awards show held in increasingly bigger London clubs. Peterson is able to indulge compilation ideas that would have seemed marginal years ago like Impressed By Gilles Peterson (2002), which celebrates British jazz of the '50s and '60s, a heritage that had been historically dismissed by jazz's America-centric history. Another notable compilation during this time is Gilles Peterson Digs America, which appears on simpatico U.S, West coast label Luv 'N' Haight. This collection finds him outflanking the deepest American collectors with selections drawn from his massive library of records stored in a house on Brownswood Road in North London. He had once lived there but his ever-expanding collection forced him and his family out. Brownswood becomes his HQ for assembling the syndicated version of Worldwide, as well as his workshop for compilations. Every three months or so he plays a special edition of Worldwide called "Brownswood Basement Sessions" dedicated to old vinyl. Although the compilations keep coming and the radio show is thriving (to be syndicated on 17 radio stations around the world), once again, there is a musical itch to scratch. "After a few years I got frustrated again, I missed putting records out. I missed that aspect of being in the background, encouraging new artists to come though the industry," he says.
2006 to 2011
In 2006, he starts Brownswood Recordings. This indie label experience is much different than his first go with Acid Jazz. By this time, Peterson's jazz/soul/electronics ethos, as well as his personal brand, is truly global. He's still not the DJ in the big room, but the network for his kind of music has built up over 20 years. The label's first release is by Japan's Soil and Pimp Sessions. The label keeps up a steady release schedule, although few projects have made the same kind of impact as those on Talkin' Loud. In the past year, however, the label released one of its best records in José James' Black Magic, produced in part by Flying Lotus. For Peterson, it doesn't have to be a spectacular success to be worthwhile. "We've had our moments, our ups and downs but at the moment it's looking quite good. I mean, my whole aspect of running a record label is just to break even."
In 2007, the Worldwide Festival is established. It aims to create an event in Peterson's musical image in the south of France. The festival expands to another location the following year ― Shanghai, before moving to Singapore the year after that. Dingwall's spiritual descendants are everywhere. After decades of musical activity, Peterson finally dips his toe into music creation with a remix of "Saona" by Noro Morales for his compilation of legendary Latin label Fania in 2008. More substantially, he is tapped by Havana Club rum to travel to Cuba and explore the new and classic sounds of the island. "I had this opportunity to go to Cuba and I had the good fortune to be with somebody [pianist Roberto Fonseca] who gave me a four-day, fast-track introduction to the new generation of Cuban music. That's how we managed to make an album in four days: to do something I never thought I'd achieve, in a country I've never been to before." The project becomes Havana Cultura, released in 2009 then promptly remixed by old friends Little Louie Vega (from Masters At Work), 4 Hero and others. Peterson takes it on the road with Fonseca, Cuban rappers Ogguere, and vocalist Danay Suarez in 2010. It's his first appearance onstage as an artist instead of a DJ ."I had to figure out something to do on stage!" he quips. Peterson's most recent project involves yet another new sideline: books, specifically album cover compilations. His first volume Freedom, Rhythm and Sound comes out in 2009, while the follow-up Bossa Nova (both published by Soul Jazz), is his biggest project in the first 60 days of 2011.
If Peterson is a celebrity DJ, he wears it well. For 30 years has surfed the changeable tides of mass market appeal and been tested by generations of rival DJs eager to take him down a peg. Hell, he's had his haters ever since the Electric Ballroom days when he was dismissed as a callow youth. "I've been in and out of style so many times; in the end you'll be a hit somewhere," he admits. "I can't think that way. I just go with what I like. If I start making music that I think people are going to want me to be releasing, then I've gone wrong somewhere."
Essential Gilles Peterson Compilations
Brazilica (Talkin' Loud, 1994)
Released at a time when fatuous world fusions were all too common, this collection of lean, hard-hitting grooves and deft jazz funk was more urgent than Blue Note's bossa nova comps and much more cosmopolitan than the emerging Putumayo aesthetic. Brazilica! was the most three dimensional representation of vintage Brazilian pop released up to that time. Its curation style anticipates labels like Soundway.
Giles Peterson Digs America (Luv N' Haight/Ubiquity 2005)
Twenty years removed from his first compilations, Peterson had been getting more and more static from armchair DJs questioning his taste, motivations, and depth, but this comp just killed it and gave him more shine in America. This collection was largely responsible in reintroducing aging Bay Area soul impresario Darondo to a new audience.
Gilles Peterson & Patrick Forge: Sunday Afternoon At Dingwalls (Ether 2006)
Twenty years later, some of the less convincing "cod-soul" aspects of the Totally Wired compilations are best passed over in favour of this walloping jazz dance experience, which more successfully recreates the vibe of the day. The musical juxtapositions are insane: Jean Luc Ponty butts up against Soul II Soul, the outside jazz of Pharoah Sanders meets the relaxed swing of Leroy Hutson. This is a breakneck journey between time, technology and cultural admixture.