DJ, radio presenter, label boss and record collector Gilles Peterson has made one of the most significant contributions to music in current times. His unrelenting dedication, over three decades, to uncovering new, boundary pushing music has been recognised in countless awards, including an MBE.
Gilles provides an almost steady stream of access into the world of music he buries himself in
With a very public platform on BBC Radio 6 Music, as well as a global network for more intrepid musical explorers via his online radio station Worldwide FM, Gilles provides an almost steady stream of access into the world of music he buries himself in, which includes experimental dance music, world-influenced music, hip hop and jazz.
Gilles Peterson has also brought us influential record labels including Acid Jazz and Talkin’ Loud, as well as his current focus Brownswood Recordings, which has delivered some the past few years’ crucial releases, such as Swindle’s No More Normal and the We Out Here compilation featuring Ezra Collective, Nubya Garcia, Hutchings, Maisha, Moses Boyd, Theon Cross and more.
It was his Talkin’ Loud imprint that released Roni Size and Reprazent’s Mercury-award winning, landscape-changing album New Forms in 1997; although Gilles Peterson’s history with Bristol music ventures much deeper than that, he tells us when we talk with him before he was due to play Anson Rooms this weekend. Due to some unforeseen circumstances, the show has now been rescheduled for March 2020 at Thekla – but a DJ set from the living, breathing record collection himself is usually worth the wait.
Although Gilles Peterson’s affiliated sounds are more broad, his most enduring relationship is with jazz. From acid to orchestral, it’s never strayed too far from the core of what he’s been doing since day one.
his most enduring relationship is with jazz
The UK’s new jazz scene has exploded in the last few years, with a new generation of super-talented artists storming London’s underground and spreading outwards, arguably filtering into every facet of music that’s popular today.
Many of these artists – Nubya Garcia, Shabaka Hutchings, Moses Boyd, Theon Cross – have been championed by Gilles, if not mentored or released by him. In this way, Gilles represents both the chicken and the egg. He’s certainly bringing these artists to new ears, doing more for the scene than anyone else in the industry, though Gilles plays down his part in it all:
In this way, Gilles represents both the chicken and the egg
‘I just do what I like doing’ he says. ‘The funny thing is that I’ve been through at least six cycles of being in and being out and being in and being out. It’s always brilliant, but there are moments when there’s just a little bit more light on us.
‘For me, it’s always been about how I can incorporate this jazz within the fabric of everything else going on, because that’s when it has the most impact. That’s when people listen to it equally, without making a preconceived judgment before they’ve even heard the music.’
Until a few years ago, jazz in popular music had been largely the domain of crossover producers like Bonobo, who reference jazz through club-oriented samples. Today, it’s the brilliant sax players, keys players, jazz drummers and trombonists marching to the forefront, with jazz group Sons of Kemet up for the Mercury Prize last year.
there’s so much energy coming from the craft of performing live
‘At the moment, there’s so much energy coming from the craft of performing live. In a way, maybe DJ culture got to a point where you don’t quite know what’s authentic. Are they just pressing a button and it’s all done for them? So I think live music in general has benefited from a kind of reaction to algorithms and to technology.
I think live music in general has benefited from a kind of reaction to algorithms and to technology
‘I also think that it’s been a case of a new generation taking the music for themselves and not feeling that they owe it to anybody. I compare it a little bit to when Odd Future came along from L.A., I remember being on the radio in England and thinking, how come I don’t know about this?
‘It felt like the first wave of movements using the internet to target their fans. If you’re not in that immediate network, it takes a while for you to find out about it and, by then, it’s already become quite a big thing.
‘I think that this jazz generation, for want of a better word, learned how to use social media to bring attention to what they’re doing, to create their community, and they fuse that with the DIY aspect of putting on parties, mastering records, cutting records, running their own record labels; all of that stuff wasn’t happening with the generation previous to them.
all of that stuff wasn’t happening with the generation previous to them
‘That’s what has made it really active and exciting. And the more people get involved, the more people want to make the music, the more new groups come through, the more you get positive rivalries, which creates more creativity.’
Gilles Peterson is omnipotently looked to for new, boundary-pushing music and it’s rare to read a paragraph about him without the word tastemaker attached. Three decades of proven expertise brings with it a clout that means when Gilles Peterson backs something, we open our ears to it.
Gilles Peterson is omnipotently looked to for new, boundary-pushing music
We also frequently look to Gilles for musical education; with his programming – whether that’s a radio show or festival lineup – he champions new music within the context of those foundational artists who got the music to where it is today. To many, this would be a big responsibility to shoulder.
‘If you overthink it, you get caught up in this, that or the other. For me, it’s just about waking up, being excited about music and what I do. I still look forward to playing at a festival or getting on the M4 and going to Bristol to play a party, or going to Jamaica to record musicians, or whatever it is – that’s what drives me.
‘It really isn’t money or anything else, because I don’t think you could last in this game if you have any other agenda. I think people are very clued up to see whether people are bluffing or not. The moment I don’t enjoy it or I feel that there’s no room for me, I’ll get out.
The moment I don’t enjoy it or I feel that there’s no room for me, I’ll get out
‘I’m always very aware that I’ve got a platform with the BBC that allows me to play music to people who wouldn’t normally hear of a lot of the artists I’m playing, so I always think about the balance of bringing people through, but also, as you say, clearly remembering who our heroes are and trying to make those connections musically and culturally.
‘I need new music in my life, I need to hear new music. I was always a bit of an A&R guy with all the record labels I’ve done. I enjoy the aspect of hearing something when it’s very young. It’s great to be able to see people’s journeys and be more in the shadows – I really enjoy that side of it.’
I need new music in my life
Though Gilles is known for his part in Bristol music history in signing Reprazent’s New Forms, his musical links to Bristol go much further back than that and it’s still a city he finds musical inspiration in. Kayla Painter graduated his Future Bubblers talent development programme in 2018 and he rates a lot of artists coming out of Bristol, including Batu and Addison Groove, he tells us.
Reprazent was one of the most amazing stories of my life in music
‘Bristol and I go back a long way. Reprazent was one of the most amazing stories of my life in music, but of course, I was very, very upset that I never got a sniff on Portishead. They invited me to their launch the first time they did the Dummy album. The DJ part of me thought, oh my God, this is the best thing ever, and the record label and music industry guy was really pissed off. Of course, Massive Attack, as well. I’ve known Grant for a long time, I remember DJing with him in Bristol before Massive Attack existed.
‘Ben Westbeech was one of the first records we put out on Brownswood. That was a record that came a little bit too soon for both him and for Brownswood – he was so talented. Another was Tammy Payne, who I did stuff with on Talkin’ Loud, and of course KRUST is one of the greatest of all time. He’s unbelievable.
‘I’ve loved what Bristol has brought us and today, whether it’s people like Addison Groove, Appleblim or Batu, Bristol has had a very special, distinctive relationship with bass music. You can’t mess with Bristol, it’s my second favourite city in Britain.’
Bristol has had a very special, distinctive relationship with bass music
After jazz, a style of music that’s as deeply tied to the Gilles Peterson name is world-influenced music. He hosts Worldwide-branded events around the world and launched his Worldwide FM radio station in 2016 (expanding his Grand Theft Auto V radio station into the real world), which acts as both a steady stream and a valuable archive of underground music from around the globe.
With internet culture and accessibility of music – his own internet radio station playing a part in that – musical influences and reference points are bound to spread farther than they could have years ago. But in terms of whether the globalisation of music is a good thing, Gilles thinks that, for the UK at least, the outlook is positive.
A newer generation (…) don’t see music in such vivid boxes as we did
‘A newer generation and the generations to come don’t see music in such vivid boxes as we did. A lot of it is down to the really big artists that everybody looks towards, whether that’s people like Beyonce or Solange or Björk or Anderson Paak., a lot of those artists are so broad in their music and they’re so successful with it that it’s only going to make people more curious about it – about the music or samples and where it’s coming from. I think that people are distinguishing less about what they should or shouldn’t be into. If it sounds good and if it works for them, they’ll go and investigate further.
people are distinguishing less about what they should or shouldn’t be into
‘On the other hand, that’s for those people who want to get deeper into music. If you’re that person who’s just going through life, then I think it’s harder to get into music now, because they’re just getting the lowest common denominator thrown at them. It’s like fast food, being chucked at people in a really convenient way and that music is quite bland – maybe blander than it’s ever been.
‘On a global scale, I don’t know if it’s such a positive outlook, but I think from the UK perspective, because this country has got such a deep relationship with club culture and with pirate radio and the music media; people are genuinely quite sophisticated in the UK for music.
this country has got such a deep relationship with club culture and with pirate radio and the music media
‘As a DJ I’m certainly sensing it. In the 80s, this country was still very much dominated by the white rock and roll media. That infiltrated radio, infiltrated everything. If you were doing anything that wasn’t within that area, it was very difficult to get exposed, which made it difficult for me back in the days of Talkin’ Loud and all that stuff. These days it’s a lot more open in terms of the media, the blogs, the radio and people seemingly are much more open minded for new sounds. So I’d say it’s very good here in the UK at the moment, but maybe a different picture if you’re living in Dallas.’
With one of the biggest record collections in the world, at over 30,000 items, it means that you’ll never get the same set twice from Gilles Peterson. We’ve seen completely different sets from him within the same summer, so we asked the record collector and DJ how he goes about packing his record bag for a show.
it might take a little while for me to get going, for me to catch the moment
‘In terms of preparation, my mindset changes every time. I’m certainly not the DJ that knocks out the same set you heard me play three months ago. I very much play off instinct, so sometimes it might take a little while for me to get going, for me to catch the moment, so it’s swings and roundabouts.
‘I still treat DJing like I’ve always treated it. I turn up and play on instinct – what’s in my bag, what I’m feeling at the time. I mean, I literally turn up and there’ll be 5000 people in front of me and 10 seconds before, I still don’t know where I’m starting, and that’s really fun.’
10 seconds before, I still don’t know where I’m starting, and that’s really fun
Photos by Benjamin Teo