Phil Dockerty catches up with veteran DJ Greg Wilson.
As student back in the distant 1980’s a mate of mine copied me a tape. It was recording of a DJ on Piccadilly radio in Manchester. What was special about the tape was that it featured all of the big tunes of the year mixed together into a continuous mix. The tape was called ‘Best of 83’ and to cut a story short it was one of the reasons I caught the DJ bug. Little did I know that the creator of the mix tape I was busy dissecting, was about to hang up his headphones and leave it all behind.
Fast forward to 2003 and I stumble on an interesting looking website www.electrofunkroots.co.uk and realise that it’s the creation of the same guy who had created my beloved mix tape, needless to say I got in touch and finally got to introduce myself to Greg Wilson.
It’s now 10 years since his return to DJing and Greg is a busy man these days, so we were very lucky to grab a snatched conversation with him recently in between DJ sets at the legendary Glastonbury festival and ahead of this year’s Garden Festival in Croatia.
Hi Greg, so you have a little break between gigs?
“You try to factor in breaks, but it gets pretty busy this time of year. I can see where I am until October now. I’m trying to get a better balance so that it makes time for some of the other stuff I want to do.
But I’ve been on the other side of that, I was in a bit of stuck part of my life for quite some time. Trying to hustle a deal, trying not to compromise. But I enjoyed a lot of that time because it meant I could read and spend time researching in a way that didn’t have time to while I was DJing.”
Online has a role to play in promoting new music and rediscovering the classics, but the internet played a part in disrupting the dance music labels, how do you feel about where we are right now?
“There’s so much information out there that you can’t keep up with, there’s just too much. The internet can be great but at the same time you can get drawn in when you should be on task with other things. In the studio, for instance, at one time the sole focus was the project you were working on. Now you see people on their facebook page and their attention keep s going there, who’s left a message, they’re checking their phone. I can suffer from that myself”
Do you think that’s why you write for your blog, do you think you have a role as a kind of curator to help people to find their way around all of the available information online?
“It’s funny that word curator it was something remote from my world, it was something to do with the art world, but more recently it seems to have come to our side of the culture, this idea of curator. I think what is says is that maybe something that was once as frivolous as disco music is now seen as part of the art family it’s not a throwaway thing. I remember certain kids who in the 80’s took an E an discovered dance music, were previously indie kids that hated dance music because it wasn’t made by a proper band, they wouldn’t accept it as being on a par with the type of music they were into, it took them taking ecstasy for them discover the value of it, the rhythm and the groove and of course if you follow the reservoirs back you find that it all comes from the same place from the same streams of Rhythm and Blues and Jazz.”
So it’s about changing attitudes to the history of things?
“I think now these connections include looking at the disco era, It’s starting to be looked on as a golden age, but when I see it from the American perspective you really appreciate the impact of the ‘Disco Sucks’ movement (an anti disco protest movement that was led by rock dj Steve Dahl in the late 70’s) that I’ve understood from going over there quite often in recent years. You see how deep it ran it was the down treading of disco, the throwing in the gutter of American culture and called worthless because of the racist, homophobic under current that had managed to get it’s voice heard and cause enough of an uproar to chance things. The point is it’s never recovered from that, even now large swaths of America consider Disco to be worthless”
So you don’t think they connect the popularity of EDM with the origins in Disco and House music?
“The interesting thing about EDM is a big as house music became in the UK, Europe and other parts of the world, it was never that big in America. It was always a more underground specialist thing. Where here hip hop and house were of a similar level that’s not the case over there. In America house is still considered a specialist underground music whereas Hip Hop (Rap) is a huge juggernaut in comparison. It’s the biggest and most lucrative music of the late 20th century.
I think that is all down to the way that disco was kept underfoot that meant house music was never going to have that kind of opportunity, but as things work out ‘what goes around comes around’ and through a quirk of nature probably to do with the devaluing of American culture by bringing in the worst aspects of British culture like X factor celebrity culture, the fact that One Direction are so big is a sign that America has accepted a British version of what they could turn out 10 a penny at one time.
That’s why it’s wrong to think that there was a American disco culture that we just picked up in the UK, there was already a dance culture that collided with the music coming out of the US that evolved into Northern Soul, Jazz Funk, Electro and then eventually House and Techno but it’s roots were so deep and it’s supporters so obsessive.”
Do you think that this obsession for black music was stronger in the UK because the music had a bigger role in helping people escape at the weekends or do you think there was another reason?
“I think it was because America was still segregated, black music only seeped into American culture because it was on the radio. White kids could hear this authentic rock and roll music for the first time and made up their own mind using their ears.
In the UK it was a different story in that we can almost trace it down to individuals, Dave Godin was someone who wrote for Blues and Soul and approached Motown about setting up the label properly in the UK and Europe. So that when these people came here and played they couldn’t believe the knowledge that existed here, they weren’t used to that.
There is an obsessive nature to this country, people think I’m obsessive because of some of the things I right about on the blog, but compared to a lot of people I’ve come across I’m mild, people can give their whole lives over to it.”
There was a physical dimension with vinyl that’s missing with digital formats as someone who came back to DJing after many years how do you deal with that?
“well on the one hand we’ve lost something that we liked, but then we can’t go back to where we were. It was something that made us feel all was well with the world. At the same there are new opportunities opening up, it’s amazing that we hear a record and hold up our phone to tell us what it is, that we can do that is incredible. So internet is a great tool for knowledge.
It used to be that bands bought themselves onto a tour in order to sell records, now the opposite is true the music is the calling card for the live show or in the case of the DJ the releases lead to the gigs that earn the fees.”
For many of us an interest in music and DJing led us into making music, do you think that there is still a route into making music that starts with learning how to DJ?
“Well DJing and production have always been very different things, someone who can present music on stage as a DJ might not always have an easy time in a studio, they get restless from listening to the track over and over again and the process can be a very difficult one for them.
So there are people that don’t have the aptitude to produce music but might be great a playing it. By the same token somebody who’s used to being in a clinical studio environment who is thrown out into a live setting with the thought that people have expectations about the DJ giving them a good time might put the fear of god into them, they are 2 different things.”
I guess that’s why you often get partnerships in the dance world, where you both bring different things to the table.?
Definitely that was the Double Dee and Steinski idea, the DJ and the studio guy working together. I used to spend all my time in studios when I wasn’t DJing and that world is a different world. At the same time these days I realise when I’m working now that the proof is in the pudding really, I’m going to play this out – you need that chance to road test tracks.”
Software like Ableton Live has broken down the barriers to making music, you no longer need an expensive studio to make a track, do you think that’s been a good thing?
“These things are all tools, one of the most stifling things is that we have so many options now. Some of the best parts of classic records often come from happy accidents we seem to have lost a bit of that. I’ve been back DJing for 10 years now and lot of the new tracks I hear now seem to lack that top line, or that emotion that the classics have. It might be a vocal or an instrument part but it seems like there are a lot of tracks that don’t get beyond being groovy backing tracks.”
When you came back to DJing you did quite a few re-edits for your ‘Credit To The Edit’ album, in fact you did one of my tracks that didn’t actually get cleared in time do you remember?
“That’s right, Futureshock ‘Late at Night’ actually that was one of the first edits I did after I came back to Djing. Yea I loved that track it had that futuristic electro sound. It’s interesting around the same time I was playing my first few gigs and I remember playing ‘The Voice of Q’ at a gig in London. What struck me was that what I’d remembered as a really futuristic sounding electronic record, actually when you listen to it now you can hear live bass, live percussion, you realise they were putting together live instruments together with drum machines and electronics.”
Back in the 1980’s making records was an expensive hands on process, it was the era of magnetic tape, mixing consoles and outboard effects processors. Those early remixes were often extended re-balances using the original tapes.
“For me that’s why that early 80’s New York remix period is a golden era, these guys had to work quickly because the budget only gave them a certain amount of time in the studio. So when guys like Tee Scott, Shep Pettibone, Jellybean Benitez, Larry Levan and François Kevorkian were remixing, they were working quickly and putting a dub element into b-sides and extended versions. What was happening was that they might have only had a finite amount of time to vibe with the music in the studio maybe only a day or an overnight session because of the cost. They brought the heart to it and not just the head. They would run sections down to tape adding delays and stuff live and then edit it all together. For me it lost it’s way when remixes became so different they were effectively new tracks. The marketing guys took over and it all went away from that original vibe.”
But the internet has helped us to communicate.
“What’s good now is at least you can get your music out there. We use online to create things, like your blog, and connect with people in a different way. Now it’s about getting people to come out and see live shows. So for me as a DJ that’s where I earn my money.
I remember speaking to you back in 2003 and spoke about wanting to get some information out there that was in danger of being forgotten or misrepresented. Are you driven to inform people with your blog and web site?
“Well that’s underlying mate, without that it would just be shallow, I’d just be a guy playing records. I need to know why I’m doing this and for me it’s connecting with people and linking between the past and the present. People are open to it and they find a way back by googling about online. What I’ve come to realise now is that I’m able to take people down avenues and its up to them to branch off into the side street. I still like to draw attention to music that was at the heart of key cultural shift in Britain.
I think as great as the acid house period was, too many people failed to realise where the ground work had been laid, I don’t think it was anything sinister it was just that it was treated as something new and they didn’t really nod their heads to the people who had been responsible for it’s development over here.”
You’ve spoken before about the famous late 80’s trip to Ibiza by Paul Oakenfold, Trevor Fung et al. You don’t like its place in history as ‘year zero’?
“It’s like the old bounty advert “they came in search of paradise” do you remember that? It was like they found dance music and brought it back home to England. But the music was already in place, house music wasn’t brought back from Ibiza, the Balearic spirit was brought back and that’s great but house was already being played in Manchester, Nottingham, Sheffield and certainly by some DJ’s down in London but they were having a harder time getting the music across because rare groove was massive in London at the time.
If you need proof you can find video on youtube of the black crowd dancing in Moss Side to house music back in 1986 if you look at the way they are dancing you understand why they tended to move away from the scene when the clubs became too crowded the dancing space was invaded when it became “rave central”.
The only person who attempted to put it all together was Tim Lawrence on the Hacienda sleeve notes, he was the first person to really ask “Why the Hacienda?” once you start to consider that you start to make the proper connections.”
So how do you feel when people talk about you educating the crowd you play to?
“I don’t really like that, it’s too subjective, what I’m trying to do at best bring them to my vibe of things. If people like what I play that’s great but it’s about entertainment. I’m a professional DJ in the old school tradition. My first thought is always with regards to the audience, the idea that here are people that have worked hard all week, paid money and come in for good night. They don’t want to be preached to they’re here to have a good time but if, as a by product of that, they pick up on something and learn more for themselves well that’s fantastic”
So on Saturday 17th August your back at in Manchester at 22NQ, What can you tell us about the club?
“It’s great, it’s a new Manchester club. I did New Years Eve there last year so I finished off the year there. It’s always nice to be playing in Manchester. Actually I blogged about my last show there when I looked back at what I’d played on the night I realised that I’d started my set with Moving on Up by Primal Scream and I’d finished with Move on Up by Curtis Mayfield. I didn’t plan to do that but I thought it was a really good omen for the new year.“