Gilles Peterson is still living the dream. Now in his fifth decade in the music business – in which time he has helped reshape British music culture thanks to his tireless championing of new artists – he remains fully focussed on what comes next. Not even losing his laptop can derail him. “There’s just so much new stuff constantly coming that I don’t have to live off the old stuff,” he tells Emma Warren…
Gilles Peterson has a lot of history. He is behind the decks in the Brownswood Basement, where he’s been variously living, recording and hosting musical royalty for nearly three decades. He’s broadcasting his weekly show for Worldwide FM, the station he founded in 2017, and his guest is another man who has been around the block a few times: Ashley Beedle of Black Science Orchestra and X-Press 2 fame.
They’re reminiscing about shared dancefloors, specifically the Monday night Bar Rumba days between 1993 and 2005 when Peterson ran That’s How It Is with James Lavelle. It was a place, says Peterson, where all the different scenes came together, and where seemingly disparate songs like Josh Wink’s ‘Higher States of Consciousness’ and Masters At Work’s ‘The Nervous Track’ could be big tunes. They laugh about the record shop round the corner which would open up early so that they could tumble out of one basement and into another one. Neither can remember what it was called.
The conversation moves on to an even earlier shared dancefloor, at a night Peterson ran with Chris Bangs at the Cock Tavern in Smithfield Market around 1988 and which moved to Lauderdale House in Highgate, playing acid house and free jazz, with one strobe. It’s where, says Peterson off-mic: “the jazz scene started doing Es”.
It’s not all olden days jibber jabber, though, as evidenced by a spin of the Black Science Orchestra mix of Emma-Jean Thackray’s ‘Venus’, which Ashley Beedle has transformed into a certified dancefloor banger, and a discussion about Peterson going to see new Brownswood signing Secret Night Gang later that evening at Ally Pally, where they’re supporting Khruangbin.
After the show, Peterson drops his wiry frame into a chair and exhales. I should say at this point that I also have a show on Worldwide FM, and therefore understand at least something about the concentration required to do radio. It uses up a lot of energy and he’s briefly in the Gilles Peterson version of a zoned-out micro-slump. But this being Gilles Peterson, a man who buzzes harder than a buzzing fly, it doesn’t last long.
It’s going to be a big year, he says, describing new Brownswood releases from South African vocalist Sibusile Xaba (“very International Anthem, like Irreversible Entanglements done electronically”), an as-yet-unannounced Yussef Dayes album, more music from Daymé Arocena, and Tom Skinner’s ‘Voices of Bishara’ album which will appear in the US via Chicago’s aforementioned International Anthem.
In addition there’s an album with Herbie Hancock’s guitarist Lionel Loueke – unannounced, ‘til now – which began life as DJ edits that Peterson made with friend and producer Alex Patchwork. There are gigs lined up for STR4TA, his brit funk collaboration with Bluey, not to mention his connection to a limited edition, under-the-radar, post punk-styled release.
The unending workload and abundant enthusiasm explains, at least partly, why he’s such an authoritative person in UK music. In terms of broadcast influence, he’s the closest thing the 90s generation have to John Peel, especially since the departure of the differently Peel-ish Andrew Weatherall. Peterson might not yet have the National Treasure status that Peel rightly earned over his lifetime but he’s certainly in the same realms.
He’s probably the UK broadcaster with the longest-standing connections to American hip hop, particularly the soulful strands that developed out of rap’s margins. “Anderson .Paak, I brought him over for his first London trip for the Worldwide Awards where he did a legendary duet with Little Simz,” he tells me later, in a quick phone call while he’s walking to the train station. “People forget. Sa Ra Creative Partners and Jay Electronica coming to the UK. Robert Glasper’s first show in the UK and Kamasi Washington’s first in France… I gave FlyLo his first producer fee in a brown envelope in Old Street for his track on ‘Brownswood Bubblers Volume 1’. The Roots, we had them in and out of the office for the year when they lived in Kentish Town. Madlib. Dilla.”
The index to Dan Charnas’ brilliant new book ‘Dilla Time’ lists Gilles Peterson six times, in sections that describe his early support of the music and which draw from interviews he broadcast. Ross Allen appears too, hiring the artist then known as Jay Dee to remix Spacek’s ‘Eve’ and interviewing him on his NTS show in 2001. DJ and BBE label boss Peter Adarkwah is a more embedded part of the story, but then he’s the person that invested in Dilla as a solo artist, signing him back in 1999 and releasing ‘Welcome 2 Detroit’ two years later. Westwood appears once, in a somewhat disparaging footnote, the interview being ‘somewhat less revelatory on the music side and more about James (Dilla) and his crew’s porn film preferences’.
Peterson’s music-first connections with various generations of American artists have created strong relationships, he says. He pauses and grins. “Americans are super grateful, then they become massive and don’t answer your call,” he says, clarifying that he means hip hop performers, not the DJ world. “I’m there for the bit on the way up and the bit on the way down, although now I’ve got good numbers on social media they stay with me while they’re up too.” At the time of writing these ‘good numbers’ see him sitting at 197k on Instagram.
It is Gilles Peterson’s deep involvement in multiple aspects of UK music culture that cement his importance. Firstly, there’s the radio. His award-winning BBC shows (1998-2011 on Radio 1 and 2012 to the current day on 6 Music) have been among the broadcasters ‘most listened to’ specialist shows for years, according to his former producer Jesse Howard, who adds that more than half of 6 Music’s most listened to ‘on demand’ shows each year are regularly Gilles Peterson programmes, with the rest usually specials relating to gargantuan figures like Bowie.
“I’m there for the bit on the way up and the bit on the way down, although now I’ve got good numbers on social media they stay with me while they’re up too.”
Peterson’s Club Lockdown shows during the pandemic in 2021 broke previous records for listen again on the station. Further back, of course, there are myriad pirate radio histories, where he learned from the brilliant selectors, presenters and promoters he played alongside.
While he might not run clubs anymore (“I just run festivals now,” he deadpans, citing the annual We Out Here in Cambridge and Worldwide Festival at Sète, France), he has put in the hours over the years. There were the late-80s Cock Happy nights he was discussing with Ashley Beedle, and the aforementioned That’s How It Is, as well as Talking Loud and Saying Something, more generally known as Dingwalls, which he ran on Sundays with Patrick Forge between 1986 and 1991 – and which recently returned with regular and joyful-looking one-offs.
He also ran Tea-Time on monthly-ish Sundays in Paris for five or six years (“Body & Soul-style, 3pm to midnight”) at La Bellevilloise, a building which once hosted the French capital’s first workers’ co-operative. And of course there were, in the recent pre-pandemic times, regular slots in Japan, and the US.
Gilles Peterson’s background is well known to music lovers, especially those in the UK, France and in the US, but it is still worth recapping the label side of his musical life. First, there was Acid Jazz, which he set up in 1987 to release his long-time friend and co-conspirator Rob Gallagher’s first Galliano record. He left Acid Jazz to set up Talkin’ Loud in 1990, with Norman Jay coming onboard to run his own side imprint and to support with A&R, leaving four years later.
The label released heavily influential records by Young Disciples, Omar, Nicolette, 4Hero and Reprazent not to mention MAW’s Nuyorican Soul album and Carl Craig’s Innerzone Orchestra. Plenty of influential people passed through – DJ Paulette was the press officer for a while – and like all endeavours that might superficially appear like solo missions, it was the fruit of multiple labours, with hard-working music heads making all of it a reality behind the scenes.
In 2006, he started Brownswood Recordings with a new team, who help make Gilles’ current visions a reality. People forget about the ‘Brownswood Electric’ compilations, he says, which scooped up early releases from the likes of Joy Orbison and Koreless. The Brownswood Bubblers series ran from 2006 to 2018 and included early or first releases from a long list of high-flyers a handful of which include Flying Lotus, Bullion, The Invisible, Floating Points, Ghostpoet, Zara McFarlane, Hiatus Kyote, Dean Blunt, Emma-Jean Thackray and Wu-Lu.
The philosophy remains with recent signings including Manchester’s Secret Night Gang, south London keyboard player DoomCannon and the ongoing Future Bubblers artist mentoring programme. In short, there’s been a lot of bubbling.
Curation has become more difficult with so much music being released, he says. “It’s much more difficult to be precise, to really be on top of everything from Amapiano to some new thing coming out of Belgium.” There’s a difference, he says, between thinking something is good and having experienced it. “You can’t just throw things together from what people are telling you, you’ve got to experience it and live it. Even when I was DJing a lot, I would still find time to go clubbing.” On a personal note I recall bumping into him in various niche places where I didn’t see many music industry people (a DMZ in the mid-late 2000s or at one of Alabaster dePlume’s Peach events around 2017) and I won’t have been the only one having this experience. “I was DJing every weekend. I was super busy but I made sure, because [going out] is part of it.”
In order to keep going out, he had to make a few decisions. “You get to a point where you have to see how you’re going to navigate the next 20 years, so you can be a good parent and get your shit together. We can see the damage it’s done, the lifestyle. I didn’t want to be a victim of that. I probably am – I am certainly a victim of all that – but there was a moment when I was going to France a lot and there was a decision in my head: are you going to go down the Serge Gainsbourg route?”
He knew loads of what he describes as “out of shape chain-smoking savants”, which he admits had a certain charm. “I thought fuck it, I’ll keep being that bloke. Or, I’ll have to get my shit together. A lot of the people who were that person aren’t here anymore.”
“I think a lot of people who are addicts of some sort or another, we have to make sure we go for the more wholesome addictions in life. For me, certainly, since my late-30s, running was my saving grace.”
Having said that, he says, there are always exceptions. Like 95-year-old Marshall Allen, who played with Sun Ra and now leads the Arkestra, and who he brought to the Worldwide Awards that he’s been running as a live event since 2004. “After soundcheck he’s smoking away, looking for some Courvoisier. He’s 95. He was in the Second World War. It’s different strokes for different folks, isn’t it?”
Part of the way he manages things is by running between eight and thirteen miles weekly, as well as swimming regularly. He’s done marathons in London and New York, DJing after one in a fundraiser for the Steve Reid Foundation where he agreed to play for the same duration as his run (4hrs, 17mins) and where he was joined by Louis Vega and François Kevorkian.
More recently he got into bikes. “I became one of those wankers in lycra, joined a gang of blokes who’d ride to Essex from east London on a Sunday morning. They were quite good, going down blind hills, and I was like: ‘Mate, I’m too old to be falling off’.” Now he’s into “the trails thing” and is aiming to do the Trail du Mont Blanc, which involves running 160km over six days. Constant motion remains an important part of his life. “I think a lot of people who are addicts of some sort or another, we have to make sure we go for the more wholesome addictions in life,” he says. “For me, certainly, since my late-30s, running was my saving grace.”
Is it a counterbalance to the intensely social part of music culture? “Yes. I’m regarded as someone who’s very social.
I connect people, and I like it. A lot of DJs are socially inept, or they were insecure socially at one stage – I certainly was – so that’s probably why I enjoyed the DJ role, ‘cause you could be in it but not be in it.” Just before the pandemic he tried to get into meditation. “People were like: ‘Gilles…’ Maybe I was being more volatile mood-wise than I had been and people were saying this would be good for me.” He pauses. “I don’t think I suffer from ADHD,” he says, “but some people might say I do.”
It’s funny, loads of people are currently seeking an ADHD diagnosis, but not Gilles. “Evidently, people think I’m quite hyper, but I’ve always been like this. I think life’s interesting that way. I think you get to a stage where it’s dangerous to do things that aren’t good for you. We all want to sleep better, eat better, rest better, exercise. If then I’m still nuts… [trails off]. Before self-analysing myself I wanted to get myself in order.”
There’s an intergenerational aspect to Peterson which is an important part of his success, and his ability to remain interesting and relevant. Partly this is to do with the long view that comes with decades being immersed in a rich musical universe. His interviewees and the artists whose music he shares give him an extended perspective, into that of people born in the 1920s like Marshall Allen, and into the generation born in the late 1990s and early 2000s, like Londoners Muva of Earth or Jelly Cleaver, who recently featured on his shows.
He tells a story about Warp and Rephlex artist Leila Arab. “She’s a friend of mine but she’s maybe eight years younger than me,” he says. “I’d been doing Talkin’ Loud, I remember going to her house. I’m probably 29 at the time. She was saying to me: ‘You old cunt, you’re fucking out of touch, I don’t want to sign to you because you don’t know what’s going on in Sheffield or whatever, you’re just in your thing’. It really hit me hard. She really meant it. That’s how she is, super brutal and straight-forward, but it was good for me because it made me realise, even though I was under 30, that it’s a young person’s game, the music industry. It struck a chord with me deep down, to look at what was coming next. Fortunately for me, as a DJ, that’s a great way to maintain a connection with people.”
The intergenerational aspect might seem obvious now, but it wasn’t when he started. Until at least the early-2000s many aspects of British youth culture still revolved around sticking up two fingers at family, or at what had come before. Diaspora communities with a more respectful attitude to elders have changed this. Peterson was born in Normandy to a Swiss parent and a French parent and therefore came with a culturally specific perspective of his own.
“It’s true,” he says. “Someone like Leila I related to, she’s Iranian, it’s a strong family unit. I grew up around Lebanese and French. Family was important. I remember being a bit surprised by my friends and how little they visited their parents.”
His parents returned to continental Europe along with his older siblings when he was in his late teens. “The only reason I stayed was because I had two decks and I could just about make it work, so it was fine by me. Before I knew it, they’d gone.” Having parents abroad meant that he absorbed radio from elsewhere. “I’d go to France a lot. I was very inspired by Radio Libre. My main influences were Radio Nova in Paris, pirate radio, and the specialist shows you’d have in the UK. That helped me find my sound.”
Radio was there right at the start of Gilles Peterson’s musical excursions. He got his first decks aged 15 and within a few years teamed up with his next door neighbour, Ross. They gave themselves radio names, meaning that Ross Tinsely became Ross Travone and Gilles Moehrle (his first name pronounced the French way, to rhyme with ‘heel’) became Gilles Peterson. They’d record 45 minutes each onto cassette, and then Mr Moehrle Senior would drive the pair to the uplands of Epson Downs.
“I bought a transmitter from a local engineer bloke who did pirate rigs,” says Peterson, explaining that they’d put the aerial up a tree, connect it to the transmitter, connect that to a car battery and to the cassette player, and press play. They called it Civic Radio and the Civic Radio phone line led to the phone box by the nearest pub. “My dad would drive up, help us with all of that shenanigans, and we’d get a phone call in the phone box. One phone call. But that was enough, right?”
Civic acted as a calling card to get shows on established pirates including Solar and Horizon before joining pirate-era Kiss FM, making it the Year Zero of Peterson as an internationally-renowned champion of new music. It also gave him his first experience of being busted.
“Other pirate firms would want to know where the signal came from,” he says. “I was busted by Jeremy Vine of Radio 2. I bumped into him in the lift at the BBC a few years ago. He goes: ‘Gilles Peterson? I know you, I busted you in 1982 or whatever’.” It turns out that Jeremy Vine had a little pirate set-up himself. “It was a bit of fun,” he explains. “It’s what people did, back in the time of CB Radios. They’d track you and go: ‘hello! caught you!’. What you didn’t want was to get tracked down by the DTI.” He pauses. “We’re doing history here, aren’t we?”
It’s hard not to ‘do history’ with Peterson, because as we’ve already established, he has a lot of it. A more recent experience involved losing his laptop whilst interviewing legendary American drummer Norman Connors at the Southport Weekender. He’d found the hotel Connors was staying at and went to locate him and interview him before heading on site to DJ.
“It was like being 17, doing pirate radio. I’d got a bag of my Norman Connors albums, I went into reception, then I heard American voices down a corridor and he was there, finishing off a hamburger with Dexter Wansel (producer of the jazz funk classic ‘Life On Mars’). I put my records and laptop on the table and next thing I’m interviewing him. Then I’m like: ‘Fucking hell, I’m on in half-an-hour’.” His attempts to scarper up the road were foiled by the fact that his laptop had disappeared from the hotel table, along with the USB containing all his music.
“There’s 1,500 people and they’ve not been out for two years, because it’s a certain demographic,” he says. “They’re really excited. It’s Friday night. Rich Medina’s on, he finishes his set with ‘Southern Freez’ and he does the big introduction. I’m in pieces.” He played 90 minutes with Norman Connors records and a small pile of vinyl he happened to have with him. “I was so stressed out,” he says. “Then I saw Rainer Trüby, and I said: ‘Got a cigarette?’ I hadn’t smoked for two years. That’s how bad it was.”
In case you’re wondering, his laptop wasn’t backed up. “I hate the cloud. It sucks up your music then the quality of file is shit, so you end up with crap files. I switch all that off.” Lockdown meant he’d got out of the habit of regularly backing up his files, which meant he lost everything including “all the new albums I’ve been doing”. He’s breezy about it, though. “It’s a whole new start. Musically, there’s just so much new stuff constantly coming that I don’t have to live off the old stuff.”
His recent Boiler Room set at Sounds of the Universe as part of Technics’ 50th birthday is an example of not living off the old stuff, and is also a lens through which to see some of the complications that surround his work. His son had pointed out that the set had got a lot of views (at that point, 20,000; currently tripled) and that it had attracted some opinion. The vast majority of the 130-plus comments are various iterations of ‘we love you, Gilles’, but the first three were negative, including one which stated: ‘This guy is one horrid ego-maniac’ and this was the comment he saw.
He mimes deflation. “I’ve got such an amazingly blessed life. I wake up, I’m excited. [But] I’m aware that people have had a shit time of late. You read that comment and you think: ‘Fucking hell, I shouldn’t be doing Boiler Room’. I’m finding it difficult to navigate in some ways.”
Navigating music culture has changed since George Floyd’s murder. The global response to this particular incident necessitated an update of awareness and actions in relation to what academic Reebee Garofolo called ‘Black roots, white fruits’. The ‘Lockdown FM’ book that Gilles published last year reflects something of his individual response and that of his station, Worldwide FM.
A chapter begins with text on a black square in reference to the Blackout Tuesday online protest and features photographs by Dobie from the London BLM protests. Gilles contributes ‘songs of resistance, protest and freedom’ and there’s a piece by Talkin’ Loud co-pilot Paul Martin describing the unquantifiable benefits that Black music and culture brought to his ‘white, suburban’ beginnings.
There’s a transcript of breakfast DJ Erica McKoy’s powerful introduction to her show on June 10, 2020, and on the following page, a piece where she describes having removed herself temporarily from her role on the station: ‘in protest and to remove my presence as a Black person... I needed the station I love to recognise the voices of their Black presenters and DJs and to move even more mindfully than before through topics of Blackness, as music of Black origin is at the heart of the station.’
“I was busted by Jeremy Vine of Radio 2. I bumped into him in the lift at the BBC a few years ago. He goes: ‘Gilles Peterson, I busted you in 1982’... It was a bit of fun. It’s what people did, back in the time of CB Radios”
I ask him: How did you, individually, and with the entities you’ve got around you, navigate the Black Lives Matter question? “I went through it, in terms of myself, inside,” he says, before stopping and starting again. “George Floyd was murdered; I was on the radio that weekend and I did a thing then. I didn’t talk about it, I played relevant music. Then the following week, my friend, a Black friend from Brixton who I’ve known for years, called me up. She says: ‘Gilles, well done for doing what you did last weekend, but you need to do more’. I felt like I couldn’t just hide behind playing some tunes. That following Saturday I made a statement over the top of Bukem’s ‘Horizons’ during my opening link. It was explaining who I am, a white guy, we’ve got to make a difference. I was in a conversation.”
I pause and he carries on speaking, perhaps aware of the weight of his words and the sensitivities of the subject. “There are Black people who are basically beginning to question what my role is, so I had to respond to it. I was talking to a lot of people at the time, just to find my place. I was suddenly like: ‘Fucking hell, I’ve spent 30 years of my life playing Black music, I’d better give my whole record collection to SOAS [London’s School of Oriental and African Studies] or whatever’. Those were the sort of thoughts I was having. And spending a lot of time talking about it and getting criticised.”
Some of those conversations circled close to home, which is unsurprising given his proximity to many great British artists who experience racism first-hand. He’s known Cleveland Watkiss for decades, including releasing the ‘Kamikaze’ 12-inch on Talkin’ Loud in 1997. In spring last year, Gilles posted a question on social media, as presenters often do, to get listeners involved in the radio show. “I said: ‘I’ve spent the last 25-30 years trying to find a sentence to describe my show. I need a sentence’.
There was a massive response: ‘eclectic goodness’, loads of stuff. Then Cleveland wrote: ‘It’s Black Music!!!’ Then someone screenshot it and it became people questioning my role. It turned into a thing.” In response, Gilles invited Cleveland Watkiss onto his 6 Music show to extend the conversation outwards. “You can’t in any way avoid the subject,” he says. “You can’t hide or be quiet. It’s changed everything.” Like the rest of us who benefit from Black music without experiencing racism, he doesn’t have all the answers.
One thing that hasn’t changed is Peterson’s immersion in music. The Brownswood release of STR4TA’s first album ‘Aspects’ and a follow-up this autumn reunited him with someone who’s been intermittently present throughout the decades: Incognito’s Bluey. “He’s the first person who accepted an invite to be interviewed when I was running my imaginary pirate radio station in my garden shed,” says Peterson. “He came all the way down from Tottenham.” They connected again when Talkin’ Loud released Incognito albums in the early 1990s.
The idea for STR4TA, though, came from an unexpected source: Tyler, The Creator. Peterson read an interview with him, where he said that he ‘owed everything to brit funk’. I thought: ‘Fucking hell, I’d better do that brit funk record with Bluey’.” Sometime later, he asked the rapper about it. “I said: ‘Hey, man, I didn’t realise you were into Freez and Hi-Tension and all that stuff’. He then said: ‘No, I didn’t mean that. I meant Brand New Heavies, Galliano, Jamiroquai. He meant acid jazz; he didn’t mean brit funk – but by then I’d done the STR4TA record.”
We’re finishing up and we circle back to an earlier question about what he’s carried with him to this point, from these decades deep in music culture. “This is what I would be doing if I was 17,” he says. “I’m living the dream, still. Seeing Kokoroko at The Fridge where we used to do all our Talkin’ Loud parties back in the day, seeing them capture the essence of Aswad, King Sunny Adé, Soul II Soul, Galliano – in that room. They were really good. I was like: ‘This is it. This is the band that is so London, they are on another level.’ It was the most brilliant full circle.”