And The Melody Still Lingers On (Night In Tunisia)
First off is Chaka Khan. Her voice has been a constant in your career. What do you like about her music?
My god, Chaka Khan! She had that kind of black hippy chick type of thing going down with Rufus. All their records were just amazing. Tracks like "Destiny" and "Stop On By" and "Ain't Nobody"—she's one of the absolute greats. That's a really good version of "Night In Tunisia" because it's got all the greats on it. It's got Herbie Hancock on it.
Dizzy Gillespie, too.
Dizzy on it, yeah. It's just an iconic record. That's like top 20 album of all time, What Cha' Gonna Do For Me. There's about three or four different tracks that are standards in their own right amongst DJs, and the New York classic tracks. But obviously "Night In Tunisia" is just a great version. She can do the soul thing, the gospel thing, the jazz thing. Not a lot can do that.
Who is your favourite interviewee if you had to pick one? You've done so many.
I'm in a position, having been on the radio for so long, that people are quite happy to come and be interviewed by me, so I can almost pick and choose people. I'm not saying I'm going to get them always but I'm in a better position than I've ever been to get good interviews. Last year I got to interview Bobby Womack. We spent a few hours here, and he got his guitar out and started singing.
Roy Ayers is brilliant. I lost my virginity to Roy Ayers. Not with him but to him. Actually more than just my virginity, but I can't go further than that. His album You Send Me. I was about 17 years old and I was going out with a girl in Epsom in Surrey and—it was one of those record players where the needle kept going back to the beginning, so the first one is "You Send Me" then it was "I Wanna Touch You Baby" then it's "Can't You See Me." Obviously in those days you could have sex all night long without worrying about it, where as these days it doesn't last as long [laughs].
So Roy Ayers has got history. He's the coolest dude.
He's got jokes as well.
Pure jokes. He works with everyone. He knows everyone. He'll give you a story on everyone from James Brown to being stuck in Singapore; he's got a story for everything. And he's the coolest guy, so I'd say Roy Ayers every time.
Yeah, that's a good one. I like that record and I like the fact that it was this kind of collaboration between four people that I really admire, from ESKA to Theo to Andrew. And Tony Allen was on it as well, and he's done a remix of it, which I really like, which has just sort of nailed it even better than that version. That's pretty impressive for somebody who has probably been one of the very finest drummers for the last 40 years or so.
Who is, for you, the best drummer of all time? Tony must be up there.
My favourite drummer is Art Blakey. I feel so privileged to have been able to see him perform. Not only at Ronnie Scott's, where I used to go every day when he was there, but I was also there when he performed at the Shaw Theatre on Euston Road. There was a special concert that was put together when he did a thing with the dancers—the jazz dancers from the Electric Ballroom. That was an amazing thing. He's got to be the one. I've got at least 50 Art Blakey records.
So just speaking about Andrew Ashong for a second. Do you think "Flowers" could have been a crossover hit? I know you tried to get it on the BBC 6 Music playlist.
Did I? Yeah maybe. I don't think so in retrospect. I'm a little bit weird like that. I think I get a bit emotionally attached to songs and then run into these meetings. I remember when I was running Talkin' Loud, I remember Galliano did a song called "Twyford Down" back then, and I remember going to see the head of Mercury at the time saying, "You've got to prioritise this record! This is the hugest: it's political and it's now and it's an amazing song!" And he says, "Well, it's alright, you're just getting too emotionally attached to it." And at the time I was so angry that he wasn't taking me seriously, but I listened back to it the other day, and 15 years later I was totally, "How did I ever think that was going to go on the Radio 1 playlist?"
Moving (Breaking Part 2)
It's kind of got all those jazzy elements that are associated with me going back to the days of Pal Joey and "Hot Music" and St. Germain and "Rose Rouge." So there's always been that kind of jazzy style, and I'm not talking about saxophones, I'm just talking more of a jazz approach, more with the drumming, actually. And so with this track—Kyodai, they've definitely got that swing on the drums going off. You've got that nice kick and then you've got that big Roy Ayers rip-off in the middle bit so it ticks all the Gilles boxes.
Do you play much house nowadays?
I think on the radio it's more about developing producers and emerging artists. I always play some house on the radio, but club-wise I play a lot.
I think I disappoint people sometimes because people don't ever quite know what they're going to get from me. I've got the young lot who want to hear me play more electronic, dubby, trappy type stuff and I've got the generation before who want to hear me play more drum & bassy stuff, and I've the lot who want to hear me play just fucking weird jazz records. Then I've got the people who discovered me through my Cuban record who think I'm going to come and do a salsa set, and then there's people who just want to hear me play sambas. That's why I ended up having to play five, six hour sets—when I'm really fully satisfied I can really just do the whole thing, and I can go all the way from the latest house that I really like through to all the old stuff. There's a lot of music to take into account, basically.
Mad Mats who runs Local Talk used to go to Dingwalls back in the day. Have you known him since then?
I didn't know he used to come to Dingwalls, but everyone says they come to Dingwalls—it's like everybody used to say they used to go to the Wigan Casino.
What I was trying to get at was how much music comes from people you know, like Matts, and how much comes from stuff you're digging for?
It's a build-up, you know. On one hand it's Joey Negro sending me a couple of edits he's just done that I'm going to play and love. Then it's Sinbad or Lefto or Mad Mats or Alex Barck or Carl Craig or Louie Vega or Kenny Dope just saying, "You're going to like this." Everyone's just sending me stuff. My producer at the radio as well, David O'Donnell. It's just a combination of those people. Lots of swaps. I know a lot of people!
On the other hand, I've never spent so much money on records; I've gone mental the last couple of years. The digitalization has just made us all want to get vinyl as well. People like Kieran Hebden and Floating Points or Pearson Sound and all that lot—they're all so on the renaissance of vinyl as well, and there's little labels that are just doing vinyl.
You seem to be more of a promoter of music rather than someone who is trying to keep it hidden.
I think back in the day it was a lot more exclusive because I used to cut everything on acetate. I remember Bar Rumba on a Monday. You could only hear certain records in Bar Rumba. So if you wanted to hear "Strangers" by Portishead when it came out or you wanted to hear "Duality" from DJ Krush and Shadow, you could only hear it at Bar Rumba. If you wanted to hear the brand new Reprazent or "Brown Paper Bag" you had to go to Bar Rumba. So in those days it was quite amazing. That was proper exclusivity and people knew that it was exciting.
I Wanna Go (Turn Back)
How did you discover footwork? It can be quite polarizing.
You know what? Roska tweeted me after my set at Dimensions and he wrote, "Gilles Peterson, he plays what he wants" like the football chant, "He scores when he wants." In a way I've got to appreciate that I get away with murder. I get away with probably more than any DJ, I think. In a way people have got to be ready for the unexpected, but as a result I can play DJ Rashad tracks next to Art Blakey.
I find that too many DJs are controlled by the beat, and so there's not enough DJs taking risks. And I almost push it out so far—I almost fuck it up on purpose—I push it to that very limit because it's kind of going, "Look it doesn't all have to be at 128 BPM." I'm not into just throwing stuff in just to shock people, either. I like to have a flow and to be able to build something beautiful with my music, in a way. I think there is an art. It's not just about chucking it out there and being eclectic and cool. I don't agree with that theory. I think that it's about having finesse and refinement about how you create a DJ set. I can find a connection between Lonnie Liston Smith's live version of "Welcome To My New World" and DJ Rashad cutting up some old Roy Ayers bits. It's all joining the dots, basically.
In a way, if you listen to "Shiftless Shuffle" by Herbie Hancock then you've got footwork right there.
I was about to ask you about that, because it seems like footwork dancing is very similar to the jazz dance that used to go on at The Ballroom in the '80s, where you were a resident. Am I reading too much into that?
No, it's true. The one thing I kind of regret in the last 15 years is that I never really took hold of the jazz dance scene as a raw movement that existed in the UK. It's one of the most exciting scenes that ever came out of UK club culture, because there was nowhere in the world where people were playing Cecil McBee tracks and Terumasa Hino in a little room upstairs in Camden to 200 mainly black dancers from the working classes. They had created their own entire movement and style and clothing to this sort of music. It was so completely random—mental—that I feel bad that we never developed it. I didn't develop it more so it's become more of a historical thing.
Weirdly enough, I did Pearson Sound's vinyl-only night up in Leeds on a Wednesday, something that he does called Acetate. I turned up there and, to be honest with you, I didn't really get my shit together in time to get a load of new music on vinyl. So I literally thought, "I'm just going to go up there and give them a jazz Electric Ballroom DJ set." So I turned up on a Wednesday and literally it was sold out—400 or 500 people packed into this little night. I think they were expecting it to be a typical dubstep set, and I turned up with just mental jazz-fusion tracks and sort of Afro-Cuban, and I think I shocked them. That's the great thing about vinyl as well. If you ain't got it, you can't play anything else. With these computers if it's all going a bit pear-shaped you've probably got something deep in your computer that will get you out of trouble.
I wanted to speak about The Electric Ballroom a bit. It's a legendary club. Not loads of people know about it, but going there as a white guy from a middleclass background must have been pretty scary.
It was scary. I was pretty freaked out. Paul Murphy threw me in there; he thought I wouldn't be able to deal with it. Paul [the original DJ at The Ballroom] got offered a job at The Sol Y Sombra, which was in Charlotte Street at the time. That first week that I was there the jazz dancers checked me out. They all stayed for me because they thought, "We'll check this new kid out." I was terrible so the following week they all fucked off. But they all went to Paul Murphy's club but they couldn't get in because the security wouldn't let the black kids in. So they got really pissed off about that. So the following week they came back to my club and by then there was one dancer called Gerry from IDJ [I Dance Jazz]—the troupe—and I'd managed to get him to like me because I used to give him a lift back down to Acton so he basically felt like he had to support me. So the following week he got the dancers to be patient with me. It took me about six weeks to build up my collection of the classic tracks that I needed to drop there in the right sort of order. From that point on it was alright but yeah, it took me a while.
Merry Go Round
Patrick Forge said this was the quintessential acid jazz record. Would you agree?
I suppose it is. Acid jazz was a very misunderstood term by the media and by club culture in general. It kind of got kidnapped a little bit by the mods. We weren't mods, we were casuals coming out of the soul scene. We basically merged that backroom of the soul scene that we were playing at—people like Chris Bangs and myself—we merged that with the new acid house culture that Danny Rampling had gone off and created. Because I was doing those events with all those guys anyway, so the whole concept of acid jazz was really the madness and decadence and hedonism of the acid house culture/scene but with a different soundtrack and incorporating elements of acid tracks.
Unfortunately it got kidnapped by Acid Jazz the record label, which I created, but I left within a year to create another label. But by the time I'd done that the record industry in general had basically gone, "Oh fuck we've got a massive old archive of jazz records, let's use this acid jazz thing to sell it back in." So it kind of got lost and groups like Us3 turned up and started making music and it was like, "Oh my god, this is so horrible." So we were running away from acid jazz the moment we created it. So taking it back to Terumasa Hino, I would say that would've been an archetypal acid jazz record but it never really became one because it was already something else by the time— and tracks like "Bug In The Bass Bin"—that's an archetypal acid jazz record, fundamentally.
Do The Jazz
This is pretty "having it." How important is it for you to have these energetic grimy records at your disposal?
It always has been. That's what keeps me going. When Mala sent me the Swindle record he said, "I think you're going to like this one." It's got elements of old school dubstep and it doesn't really fit into any category at the moment. There's not really anything like it. It's just a great record and he's a brilliant character. Even to get him in to collaborate with Lonnie Liston Smith here at Brownswood was amazing.
So how did the conversation go with Lonnie and Swindle? Did they rehearse or did they just go straight into it?
No they did a bit of swapping online. It was actually my assistant, Sarah's, idea. She's not even 24 and she's already thinking about Lonnie Liston Smith and Swindle. So I will not take credit for that. I had to tell Lonnie, "Trust me, this kid's good. It's worth it," and you know, a new audience and all that. So he was open minded. I mean, the guy's played with everyone. He's played with Roland Kirk, Pharaoh Sanders, the whole crew. He's amazing. So yeah, it was brilliant.
Deep as. That's such a good record. Nowadays when you look at people like J.Rocc and Egon from Stones Throw, they've discovered that music. So they've put the price of all this rare stuff up, but luckily for me I was there ten years before them so we got it all in the first place. Joe Davis was the man for all that stuff.
Joe Davis is the record dealer?
Joe Davis is the man who opened up Brazil to the entire DJ culture around the world. There's no one else. Until Joe Davis went to Brazil, all the people knew from Brazilian music was the odd Milton Nascimento record and a little bit of George Duke & Flora Purim. But he was the one that went to Brazil and he pulled out the Pedro Santos, Krishnandas and all that. Those Holy Grail records. He had those all first. I just wish I'd got them all then when he was flogging them for nothing. But no one realised because, you know, you mature don't you? You start off and you're getting your little Sambolanço Trio records and your Milton Banana Trio records. And that was what everyone was into at the beginning of the Brazilian stuff. And then you get more sophisticated taste. Then you started discovering the northern music and people like José. And that's the music now that is the most in demand. People like Floating Points, it's crazy—I was with him in Brazil recently. He spent most of the time at the record dealers' house.
He's got an amazing collection.
I know, he's incredible. Yeah he's on another level. He respects my generation of DJs who unearthed a lot that music but he's taken it. The research those guys get on, there's stuff they pull out I've never heard of.
Do you have a favourite Brazilian artist?
Probably someone like Airto Moreira because Airto was the most connected to what I've done as a DJ because he's a drummer/percussionist. He played with Miles Davis. All his solo records that he did were incredible. "Identity" by Airto, "Fingers" by Airto. Obviously he did "Celebration Suite," "Tombo In 7/4." Obviously all those records he did with his wife Flora Purim were incredible. They are the royal couple of Brazilian music and I've seen them so many times. But he's not very well at the moment so I hope he gets through it.
When did you start getting into these really spiritual jazz records?
Well, it goes back to pre-Dingwalls. I was a big fan of a singer called Mark Murphy, in the early days he used to do great songs and great music—vocal jazz versions of a lot of stuff. So I remember him doing things like "Stolen Moments" by Oliver Nelson and stuff like that. I remember at Dingwalls with Patrick we used to play waltzes and modal tracks like "Dorian" by Roy Haynes and "My Favourite Things" by John Coltrane. That's the ultimate sort of jazz waltz in a way. When we were playing "Half And Half" by Jimmy Garrison, Elvin Jones. Records like that, they're just completely mad. They're just beautiful pieces of music. "Brother John" by Yusef Lateef, that was a standard record. So these records, they were standard classic records at Dingwalls in 1986, before acid jazz. Discovering Sun Ra and groups like The Pyramids and spiritual jazz—to be honest with you it's my favourite music. At the end of the day, the best hip-hop samples come from there. It's the music from John Coltrane. It's revolutionary music. It's world music. It's experimental music. It's emotional music.
I loved the interview you did with Idris Ackamoor. Could you just relay a couple of high points from it? His story was amazing.
I think you forget that a lot of these guys had to really go on their own personal journey to discover—you couldn't read it online. You had to go to Africa and discover Africa. He went and they ended up travelling all around the world.
If you're an artist or an author you have to experience life. You've got to experience the ups and the downs. The artists that are the most expressive and keep having great ideas and great music are the ones who've had the most interesting lives. Look at Ginger Baker. He went to Africa—the next thing you know he's in Algeria jamming with Fela Kuti. This white ginger guy playing with Africa 70. Incredible! You can't beat stories like that. I think that's the lesson from groups like The Pyramids who are still around. When you see those people playing, and the spirit and the energy they've got, it's not about making money: it's just about the joy of the art and music and communication and the collective uplift.
That's an expensive record nowadays, if you want an original. What's the most you've ever paid for one?
I don't know, but I'll tell you what I did find the other day. The most incredible find. When I was in Tokyo last week I went to this record shop and they had a copy of "The Bottom End," which is the archetypal Electric Ballroom record.
The Bottom End (Get Off The Ground)
Is this the one that Paul Murphy found? It was like a test-pressing?
I thought none of these ever existed?
The only other person who has an original one is Snowboy, who got my other copy. It was a record that was made for a hi-fi set-up. With the system you got a record and this was it. Paul Murphy managed to get it because he was the most incredible of diggers. He found every single jazz dance floor classic, more or less. And then this record was the record that—when I played this at Electric Ballroom—suddenly I was accepted as a bonafide DJ and the reason I managed to play was because Paul Murphy gave me his copy. He was so sick of playing that music by then that he just gave a lot of those records to me. I was grateful. You've got 12 minutes of beats and drums and it finishes off with this amazing vocal.
It sounds like a DJ Krust record—just 20 years before.
I'm in the record shop in Tokyo last week and they had this. I was like, "I can't believe it!" It was only like 15 quid! That's a two grand record. Bang!