Watching Gilles Peterson at his weekly London club residency This! (formerly That’s How It Is) at London’s Bar Rumba nightspot, you’d be forgiven for thinking he’s just another guy rather than a star DJ parading his home turf.
High fives and street talk are not on the agenda. Neither are flash clothes. This unpretentious disposition has served Peterson well: He’s grown from a young teenager looking for an avenue to indulge an awesome passion for music to his current position as a record label boss, BBC National Radio One presenter, internationally renowned club DJand now the creator of his own Epic mix disc, INCredible Sound Of Gilles Peterson.
This is the way things happen with Peterson: It’s an organic business. Relaxed, down-to-earth and friendly, in a famously bitchy industry, it’s impossible to get anyone to say anything bad about Gilles Peterson.
Peterson was born in Switzerland and grew up in South London. His musical education began at 13, when a school friend introduced him to soul music. Together they began scouring record shops and going to hear DJs at daytime soul parties. Peterson became obsessed with the soul scene and its DJs, flip-ping out over records such as Candido’s “Jingo” and being awestruck by the acrobatics on the dance floor. “1979 was my 1988,” Gilles says, with perceptible nostalgia in his voice.
Shortly thereafter, he began honing his DJ skills. Initially his vinyl addiction inspired parental fury, forcing Gilles to hide his new records in the garden until he could sneak them passed his mum and up to his room. At age 15, he took the first step towards emulating his idols by starting a weekly 14-and-under disco at a local Church.
Gilles was shocked to find he could earn more money playing records by jazz-funk artists (Light Of The World, Maze, and Level 42 among them) than from his weekend job on a fruit and vegetable stall. By 1981, Peterson had formed his first sound system with his friend Andrewthe imaginatively titled G&A Discoand begun an initial residency at a local wine bar.
At this point, Gilles Peterson took up another hobby, one that would have an equally important affect on his career. Peterson also idolized radio DJs as well as dance floor DJs, so he set up a DIY studio in his parent’s garden shed where he recorded tapes and transmitted them on the airwaves. Gilles’ parents were now supporting his activities: They’d help him set up the illegal transmitter and then take Gilles and Andrew to the local pub, where they1d tune into their own broadcasts on a portable radio.
A phone box by the pub was used as an on-air office from which to receive phone calls from listeners. “People would call in to make dedications,” says Peterson. “We wanted people from funky soul tribes to call in, but we’d get these calls from weird people!” At the time the pirate radio community in the UK was tiny, and Peterson was soon noticed by Invicta, then the largest pirate soul station in London.
What Gilles calls the “nice little ego boost” of becoming an Invicta DJ obscured the mundane tasks of formal education, and he duly failed college. Meanwhile, he began frequenting a record shop run by a DJ called Paul Murphy, who had built a formidable reputation on London’s jazz dance scene.
“Paul Murphy was the number one DJ,” says Gilles. “He was doing the full-on dance bit, playing mad jazzy shit. Murphy had a record shop stocking all these rare jazz records. He was the only one with the knowledge. I was going into the shop, making a nuisance of myself and being irri-tating. It was by being an irritant that I got myself a gig.”
That gig turned out to be a major break. Paul Murphy gave Gilles his spot when the former was recruited by a more upscale venue…where Murphy’s crowd was soon decimated by an overly restrictive dress code. This left the predominantly Black elite of London’s dance community, such as the IDJ (I Dance Jazz) posse, to return to Murphy’s former haunt to dance to the music of Murphy’s protégé, Gilles Peterson.
Gilles thus found himself at the hub of London’s jazz dance community, playing an ever more inventive and creative mix of musical styles to dancers whoby combining jazz steps with techniques from reggae, hip hop and even balletwere mapping out the future movements of Clubland.
In 1985, Peterson began to release records, inaugurating a series of compilation records called “Jazz Juice” and working with such seminal US labels as Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside. He worked at another pirate radio stations until he moved to BBC Radio London with a show called “Mad On Jazz.” Gilles left Radio London to found his own pirate station, K Jazz, which he later shut down in the face of threats from gangsters at a rival pirate.
In 1986 Peterson started a regular Sunday afternoon club at Dingwalls, a dank corridor of a venue squeezed onto the corner of Camden Lock in north London. This club became his most successful venture to date: It ran for seven years and inspired a succession of records, labels, DJs and bandsincluding New York’s Giant Step, who have now released INCredible Sound Of Gilles Peterson through their deal with Epic Records.
In 1993 Peterson and James Lavelle (head of Mo Wax records) launched a new club, dubbed “That’s How It Is.” One of the club’s first classics was “NuYorican Soul” a/k/a “The Nervous Track,” a bizarre but brilliant mutation of jazz and Latin-inflected house by Masters At Work (actually the duo of “Little” Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez). The success of this re-cording led to a joint effort by Talkin’ Loud in UK and Giant Step Records in US to release the 1997 album NuYorican Soul, which garnered critical acclaim worldwide and appealed as much to house fans as to jazz enthusiasts.
In addition to running his record label, Gilles Peterson’s relentless schedule has included regu-lar club nights throughout Europe and the rest of the world. His Spring 2000 tour of the US drew enthusiastic crowds who were blown away by Gilles’ ability to blend diverse styles of music in a heady, addictive, and emotional groove. His weekly show on BBC Radio One is one of the most popular shows on the internet, and is also broadcast on LA and Philadelphia airwaves. His Talkin’ Loud label has come to represent an alternative side of dance music, offering everything from the more musical side of house (Masters At Work) to drum ‘n’ bass (Roni Size & Reprazent) to two-step (MJ Cole).
Peterson’s ability to move and change with the times continues to earn him wide respect: He’s one of those DJs who can have you constantly wondering “F**k me, where did that come from?” As Felix Buxton of Basement Jaxx said: “A lot of DJs think too safely. Gilles Peterson’s always played amazing music, from all corners of the globe, and he’s always finding the new music.”
Horizon-broad and impossible to pigeon hole, INCredible Sound of Gilles Peterson perfectly captures the intrepid DJ’s spirit of fun and musical mixture, taking listeners on a journey by DJ of the most enthralling kind. Bounding from genre to genre and generation to generation, Gilles Peterson has created a remarkable musical document: a compilation of sounds and moments that display little outward similarity, but, as you’ll discover, share the same soul. INCredible!