Gilles Peterson Worldwide (Part One)
by T.P. Carter
July 2013. North London, England
Brownswood Road. I’m out of breath. Sweating. Running. We’ve been trying to get this conversation on record for a year, is what I keep telling myself as I race down the block—damn. I passed the house. It is a house, isn’t it? I see a vintage buggy parked backward on the street and know I’m in the right place. I take a breath, knock. Gilles comes to the door quite relaxed for a man who just spent eight days without sleep, curating what could quite possibly be one of the best music festivals on the planet. I however, am not relaxed. This is Gilles Peterson. The world’s most beloved global music DJ, slash programmer slash connoisseur slash…tastemaker. I want to ask him every single question on every single topic in modern music that I can muster. As we head into the world-famous Brownswood Basement, I take my shoes off and remind myself that I am here to interview him. Not write his autobiography.
Gilles makes me a cup of tea. Tells me that Hiatus Kaiyote will be performing in his backyard tomorrow. I almost laugh. His backyard. He says it like I may also have a world-class band performing in my backyard. I wonder how it feels to have the world’s best musicians dying to impress you. Or, to give The Roots their first record deal. I wonder what he feels the moment he falls in love with a tune. If he feels any pressure to stay ahead of the progressive music curve. I jot that question down alongside a hundred others and realize—I need hours, maybe days for this interview. The last time we had a serious conversation it almost lasted that long.
I met Gilles Peterson in 2006 on a rainy weekday in a Soho record shop, with Aaron Jerome aka SBTRKT, waiting to hear cuts from his then unreleased album, Time To Rearrange. We spoke for hours about America, Europe. The influence of jazz, blues, and capitalism on both. I listened, learned and watched as a then-stranger thoughtfully selected records to purchase and tried to figure out why he selected some and discarded others. I was about to ask when—
“You know Gilles?” said Aaron slash SBTRKT.
That’s Gilles Peterson? He looked…different than he had on his album covers. Younger. Yes, I knew who he was. I listened to his radio show. He had no idea how much he inspired me. Or maybe he did. He’s so modest, it’s hard to tell.
“Come to my festival on the South of France,” said Gilles. I remember seeing all the summer festival advertisements posted around the shop and thinking, another one?
Another festival. I’d eat those words a few years later as I danced with my arms outstretched to the sun, in Sete, a coastal boat town south of Paris, west of Cannes, on the Mediterranean sea facing Algeria. I’d perish the thought as I walked its serene canals at sunrise, overjoyed after a magical night of music with Gilles and his handpicked group of headliners—artists from Brooklyn to Brazil. Another one. If I were ever wrong, it was the day I compared Worldwide Festival to any other music experience I’d had in my life.
Come to my festival. Change your life. That’s what he should have said.
While I was prepping for our conversation, I kept losing count of your albums. From Jazz Juiced Street Sounds in 1985 to the Brownswood Remixed album in 2013, you’ve put music on wax ninety seven times. Ninety seven albums. Pirate radio, Radio One, Radio Six, international syndication, Glastonbury, Coachella, Southport, Montreux—Africa, Asia—Cuba, Brazil, your own record labels, your own awards show, you discovered the Roots…man. The Roots. And now you have a group of music progressives losing their minds in a small boat town on the South of France every first week of July. After all you’ve done, why Sete? Why the festival?
GP: I think for me—with regards to where I stand in terms of club culture, it’s really been…a re-interpretation of what I’ve always done. As a DJ you’ve got to work to re-interpret yourself in the “now,” without losing the sense of the “then.” So that’s what I’ve always been very conscious of. Most people go to clubs up until their late twenties early thirties, then get married and that’s it. But I don’t really see things that way. Club culture, especially here in England, has always been an important part of people’s lives—music in general. Back in the day of the old Mod and Northern Soul clubs—belonging to something—to a movement, has always been quite an important part of how I was brought up in music culture. And in a way I’m trying to continue that—re-shaping it—constantly trying to explain to the uninitiated ear, that there is a scene within a scene within a scene. Not that I want to throw that in people’s faces, in an elitist sort of way but I think it’s important to know, and one of the reasons I do the festival.
A lot of people ask what type of festival Worldwide is. Jazz? House? Electronic? It’s difficult explaining that the festival encompasses all of those genres. Mount Kimbie is from London. Omar Souleyman is from Syria. J-Rocc is from LA…
I think that’s what’s good about it, that it’s not explainable to a lot of people. That’s what makes the festival unique. The people who come—get it. What I love about Worldwide is the element of decadence that comes along with it. Many festivals are tidy and neat and corporate, and me… Well I’ve always been a punk, based on the way I was brought up with pirate radio, raves—that [edge] was always a part of my culture, and is very much the fabric of who I am, so I wanted to make sure that the essence of that was represented as well.
It is. Laura Mvula was amazing. But even she had to bring her A game. Worldwide has an educated but very passionate crowd.
I don’t think there’s a festival quite like it in terms of the kind of people who come to it and the passion they bring, and the type of understanding of the music they have.
Your first show was run out of your pop’s shed on pirate radio as a teenager. What the heck were you playing on the radio at sixteen?
[laughs] Herbie Hancock.
Get out of here.
At that time in Britan, there was a jazz-funk movement, and there were a lot of DJs doing what I do in Sete—the proper weekenders and holiday camps, where people come from all over the country to hear the bands. The ones that I grew up on were in Caistor and—
Which was the mecca for music in England at the time. When I was sixteen, seventeen I would get the train up there with my little crew from Sutton in South London and we’d spend three days at a holiday camp. DJs like Chris Hill and Bob Jones—Bob was a jazz guy who used to play in the jazz room. That’s where I first heard “Giant Steps” by John Coltrane. I was seventeen, in Caistor, in a room with like thirty black kids and a couple of white kids dancing to that music.
They were playing jazz at the club?
That’s how I got into it. It was Bob Jones. A very important DJ to me. Then there were parties in London that I’d go to where they’d play jazz and fusion. In the main rooms they’d play disco and boogie and all that, but I discovered the weird room—the back room where they were playing jazz and Latin. Proper hard core shit.
And who were you at the club back then? On the dance floor? At the bar vibing?
I was the kid on the side with the little note pad going up to the DJ. [laughs] It wasn’t just clubs at the time in Britan, there were bands groups like Second Image, Hi Tension, and Level 42. They were called “jazz-funk” bands or “Brit-funk” bands and they were inspired by American funk bands like Earth Wind and Fire, Cameo, Slade, Maze…
Parliament and Funkadelic…
Like Incognito before they got signed by me twenty years later. The Brit funk bands were inspired by all that amazing American music, did their own twist on that sort of sound and I was the kid who would go all around the country following Level 42—a four piece funk band with Mark King on bass. They crossed over eventually, but when they were making their first album, I was the sad kid waiting outside of the changing room to meet Mark. [laughs]
Where’d your taste in music come from? Did your parents listen to jazz in the house?
No. Actually, I was listening to Harvest by Neil Young in the house the other day—my brother was into all that shit. Quality music, but not Giant Steps. My sister was into Simon and Garfunkel.
You’re the youngest?
Yeah, I’m the youngest. My mom listened to French radio and my father listened to classical music. The closest we got to jazz in the house was Frank Zappa. Or some cool heavy metal or progressive rock.
So this is just who you are. It’s who you’re supposed to be.
When I was thirteen, fourteen, I heard jazz funk and that was it. I knew what I wanted to do. Even though I didn’t know what it would eventually get me in the end, I heard [jazz] and it completely took my focus.
Do your kids get who you are? Do they know you’re Gilles Peterson?
No. I mean my little one, he’s quite happy with me, he listens to my records, but funny enough my older one… [laughs] The last thing a kid wants is to have a dad that’s cool.
Do they think you’re cool?
It’s…difficult for them. When we did the Boiler Room the other day, my oldest was like, “Dad, you were in the Boiler Room today,” and I said, “Yes.” And he said, “All my mates were watching you—you’ve got to stop dancing and shaking your bum in the Boiler Room because you look like a complete idiot, and it’s really embarrassing for me.” [laughs] It’s a very weird situation we have. I mean amongst the Black community, it’s okay. You see the grandmother dancing to hip-hop with the grandchildren but you don’t see that amongst… [laughs]
Speaking of…you’re one of the few tastemakers that I’ve heard use the term “Black music.”
I think that using any kind of reference race, religion, or culture—references to color even here in England can be rough. I mean, is it even worth saying nowadays? We have to be politically correct on every level. But I play a lot of music of Black origin. It’s all music of Black origin fundamentally, you know? James Blake’s is music of Black origin—it’s coming from sound system culture. Sound system culture comes from Jamaica and the Caribbean, which all go back to the blues and Africa, so you can’t really lose by saying certain music is Black music. I think people generally know what I mean.
Which is another reason we go to the festival. Your crowd is a pretty smart one musically, yet they go to Worldwide to get “put on” by you. Your lineup from two, three years ago is just really popping up at other festivals.
Well, the festival a reflection of what I do on the radio. The reason I do the festival, the reason I do the Worldwide Awards, is to explain to the people that I work for; the BBC, the magazines, the sponsors, the corporate clients—that this is what I’m about. Because my show is the only one on the BBC that isn’t specific to one type of music—it’s unique; and most people, just jumping on this vibe musically, may not get it. For example, a lot of the artists I play fall between the lines musically and need that initial kick—SBTRKT and Mount Kimbie being a good example. They didn’t just jump into electronic music. Electronic music didn’t get them at first. It takes a Worldwide to break them and say, “Hey, this is really good.” And that’s why Mount Kimbie wanted to come back to the festival this year, even though they’re now becoming like Radiohead. It’s why Thom Yorke or Flying Lotus turn up at Worldwide Awards. To me, it’s really important that I have a festival that can help encourage the artists, the DJs, to do what they do. No one else is going to do this for us. We have to do it ourselves.
Sete was on fire this year. Thundercat. J-Rocc. Marcos Valle. Omar. Bonobo. Mount Kimbie. Chris Dave. Cashmere Cat. Hiatus Kaiyote. Scream. Omar Souleyman—
That was one of my indulgences, getting [Omar Souleyman] in. He couldn’t get to Sete for his Thursday night performance due to visa issues. We finally got him in on Sunday after having to drive him through Holland, Amsterdam…Paris. Finally got him to Sete and still had issues. Thing was, I wanted him to perform. I was determined. Even if it was just for myself. Plus, he’s got an album coming out—
The one with Four Tet?
Yeah. We went through hell trying to get him onstage. Me, by that time I’m on no sleep. My partner—no sleep. His manager—a fierce Serbian woman, elegant but fierce—no sleep. We finally get him onstage and the keyboardist can’t figure the keyboard so we still don’t know, after all that if he’s going to be able to perform. When I heard that Arabic music and I could announce, “Omar Souleyman from Syria!” and the crowd went off…that was it for me.
That’s what we love about you. No one is going to fight that hard to get an artist onstage who doesn’t have a platinum album. You fight because you love the artist and you know what their music can do for the culture. You’re our caretaker in that sense.
Some people hated him, by the way.
I hated Fink when I first heard him. But now I love him. You bring us the vibe, and we’re able to grow as listeners, as people because of it. I was on the beach talking to Thundercat who said it best, “The entire world trusts this guy.” You’re a true curator.
[thinks] Even the poster—the artist’s lineup for the festival, is like a painting to me. [On the poster] There’s a balance… everyone has a reason for being there. I need J-Rocc to balance Kutmah. Omar Souleyman to counter Scream. This year we probably had our best one in terms of balance. We may have even done too much at times. I’ve done every festival from Coachella to Glastonbury—I’ve done it all as a DJ. No one seems to get it right. You turn up [to the festival], and you don’t see the organizers, the sound is all wrong, the engineer is an arse-hole, there’s no one to pick you up at the station… I wanted to get it right.
Well, we trust you. We’re already re-booking for next year. It’s the place where the world’s artists come to vibe. I’ve run into artists whose music changed my life—hanging on the beach. I bumped into Thundercat in the water. Last year, I bumped into Ma Dukes on the sand.
I saw Dee Dee Bridgewater’s daughter in the crowd. She came in from Paris.
Are you going to continue your compilation series, Brownswood Bubblers?
The industry’s hard, man.
We need that, though.
I need an Adele. [laughs] We’ll keep putting the records out.
Your legacy is already here. You don’t have to wait for it.
[we sit on that for a moment]
I’m just thinking about who I want to get out to the festival next year. Bonobo wants to bring Erykah over…
Yeah, they’re expensive. [laughs] I want the Roots.
You put their first EP out. That should be easy.
Their new record has gone all free jazz, avant-garde anyway. So it fits. [pauses] For me, it was never just about hip-hop or broken beat or acid jazz or nu-jazz, or minimal or Latin or electro, I was never just that one thing. I think Worldwide…the awards, the festival, the movement… represents that.
You can visit bestselling novelist T. P. Carter at www.tpcarterbooks.com or contact Kensington Books for info on her latest novel Lovestoned.
Tom Morgan is a photographer, videographer and DJ who specializes in documenting music events. More of his work can be found at www.tomdmorgan.com.