WMC 2010: Q&A with UK Legend DJ Greg Wilson, Playing Electric Pickle on Wednesday
Few figures in the international dance music scene can wear the title of legend as aptly as Greg Wilson. The British DJ boasts a career spanning three decades, going back to the birth of house and his early days as a DJ at Manchester's seminal club The Hacienda, and he carries on the authentic mixing art form to a greater degree than any of his contemporaries. To watch him go at it live on the decks is to take a trip back to the early days of garage, disco, and electro-funk, when vinyl records, beat-juggling, and old-school tape delay gave dance music a loose-limbed vitality rare in today's mechanized DJing.
Wilson makes records speak. He still uses his vintage Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine to expand his live sound to epic funky proportions. A mixing pioneer in the UK's clubs, he introduced the early-'80s British generation to the new electronic post-disco sounds coming out of New York. Old-timers might recall his famous 15 minutes on television in 1983 when he became the first DJ to mix live on British TV on The Tube.
The past few years have seen Wilson tour widely across all continents,
including, surprisingly, his first dates in cities such as New York, San
Francisco, and Los Angeles. In January 2009, the release of his widely
acclaimed Essential Mix on BBC Radio 1 revealed his craftsmanship and
imaginative blend of sounds to an eager new generation. Hardly one to
fade away, Wilson has garnered a new relevance in today's dance music
scene that seems timelier than ever.
Miami welcomes him for his
WMC debut and an exclusive performance at the Electric Pickle on
Wednesday, where he'll be leading an all-star lineup including esteemed
Hamburg DJ/producer Vincenzo, Australian tech-house specialist Murat
Kilic, and Brooklyn's No Regular Play. Crossfade caught up with a very
candid, eloquent, and insightful Mr. Wilson to reminisce about three
decades on the decks and the fascinating history of British dance
Greg Wilson at Electric Pickle, with Vincenzo, No
Regular Play, Murat Kilic, Will Renuart, Aaron Dae, DJ Dirty, Jay
Marley, and Lee Mayjahs. Wedsnesday, March 24. Doors open at 8 p.m. 2826
Ave., Miami. Tickets available at www.residentadvisor.net
the full Q&A after the jump.
New Times: How did
you first get into DJing?
Greg Wilson: A school friend
of mine built his own rudimentary mobile disco when he was only 11 --
just 2 old decks housed inside a draw with a switch in the middle so you
could change between them. Later, down the line, his set-up became a
bit more sophisticated and he began picking up regular bookings, some of
which I'd go along to with him. Then, in 1975, when we were 15, he
built his 3rd console and, along with another schoolfriend, I bought his
old one, setting up "Dancin' Machine Mobile Disco", named after the
Jackson 5 track.
No sooner had my mobile career started than I
was offered a Saturday night residency in a popular local nightspot, the
Chelsea Reach in New Brighton (opposite Liverpool on the River Mersey).
"Dancin' Machine" had been booked to play at a function upstairs in the
venue, but when the regular DJ failed to turn up downstairs the manager
asked if one of us could fill in. I jumped at the chance and at the end
of the night was asked if I could do it every week. I was offered a few
more nights at another local club, the Penny Farthing, before I turned
16, so, on leaving school a few months later I embarked on a career as a
professional DJ, working around 5 nights per week and carefully
concealing my age in the process (I was eventually rumbled, but they
allowed me to carry on).
It's worth mentioning that between the
ages of 6 and 13 my parents had run a pub, which included a couple of
functions rooms upstairs where wedding receptions and birthday parties
were booked in pretty much every weekend. Sitting behind the bar with my
Mum, whilst she worked, I'd seen more or less every mobile DJ in the
Merseyside area at one time or another, and with my older brother and
sister buying soul singles on a regular basis, which I would 'inherit', I
was probably destined to become a DJ myself.
What can you
tell us about the legendary early days at The Hacienda and the birth of
dance culture in England?
Britain has its own unique dance
culture, which dates right back to the early 60's. In London, you had
the mods, who were obsessed with rhythm and blues, and subsequently soul
(the mods later became a national movement, my brother becoming a
scooter riding affiliate). At the same time you had the Merseybeat scene
in Liverpool, from which The Beatles emerged, with black music
dominant. The British obsession with black music is something that has
never been fully appreciated -- it was the British, of course, who
re-introduced the blues back to America via the 'British Invasion' of
the mid-60's, changing the course of popular culture in the process.
wasn't until the latter part of the '70s and early '80s that US disco
culture began to merge into the British lineage, which was already
highly evolved, as you'd imagine, after such a long germination, laying
the foundations for the rave explosion of the late '80s. The main
adaptation from a British perspective had little to do with the music
played (DJs had been buying the latest records on import for a long
time), but the way in which they were played -- US-style mixing
gradually replacing the microphone, which was the main tool of the trade
for the UK DJ.
The Hacienda, during my time there in 1983, was a
club struggling to find direction (and customers). I was already a
successful black music specialist hosting the two main nights in the
north, at Legend in Manchester and Wigan Pier, playing to a
predominantly black audience. It was on the back of this that The
Hacienda approached me to do their Friday nights. Their regular crowd
were mainly students and indie kids, the majority of whom hated dance
music, so it was a bumpy road for me -- the black crowd not regarding
The Hacienda as their type of club at the time. The DJ booth was also in
a terrible location, in a room down some stairs to the side of the
stage - all you could see was people's legs through a slit in the wall.
club was much more geared to live bands, but the management, having
seen what was happening in New York clubs like Danceteria, The Funhouse
and Paradise Garage, when they'd been over with touring Factory bands
like New Order, A Certain Ratio, and Quando Quango, wanted to attract a
more dance-based audience. Legend was the great Manchester club of the
period, but although I was only at The Hacienda for a relatively short
time, seeds were sown, and a few years down the line, with Mike
Pickering now DJ on Fridays (he was the promotions manager at the club
during my time there) and the DJ booth moved to pride of place on the
balcony, the dance direction well and truly gained momentum, with the
black crowd leading the way.
Thanks to the wonders of YouTube,
many of us are now familiar with your by now classic 1983 clip on
The Tube, when you became the first DJ to mix live on British TV.
How did this appearance come about?
The Tube, which was a
hugely popular music show of the time, broadcast nationally on Friday
evenings, were doing a dance music special and had booked David Joseph,
the former singer of Brit-funk band Hi-Tension, who was about to release
his debut single "You Can't Hide (Your Love From Me)". Wanting to catch
him perform, ahead of his appearance on the programme, some of the
researchers came down to Legend, where he was making a personal
appearance to promote the forthcoming single. At the time I was known
for doubling-up (sometimes trebling-up) -- playing two copies of the
same record to create a live mix, running one behind the other to repeat
sections, etc. -- and, obviously impressed by this, they approached me
to see if I'd do it live in their Newcastle studio, before they switched
to an outside broadcast from London, where David Joseph would be on
It would prove to be fantastic exposure for David Joseph,
and the springboard for the record to become a big hit. Larry Levan
would later remix it and it's now viewed as something of a cult classic.
It would also, of course, be a major moment in my own career, as pretty
much every DJ worth their salt, the length and breadth of the UK, would
have been tuned in. It certainly confirmed my status as a British
You still use the same modus operandi on the
decks as in the early days, including a reel-to-reel tape machine for
effects. What is the impetus for working this way? Do you frown on
contemporary DJing technologies/techniques?
Not at all. I
respect a DJ's choice to play music whichever way suits them, be it
vinyl or Ableton Live. My own set-up combines past and present - on the
one hand I use antiquated technology, the Revox B77 reel-to-reel, whilst
on the other I employ contemporary technology, in the form of a laptop
and the PCDJ program I work from. It's this balance between 'now and
then' that defines my approach. This is reflected by the music I play,
which draws from the past, particularly my original period as a DJ
('75-'84), but with a contemporary twist via re-edits and the inclusion
of current artists who draw their inspiration from this era.
a career spanning three decades you've seen a lot of changes in the
dance music scene and dance culture. What would you say some of these
changes have been? What remains the same?
obviously became big business, which eventually, in my opinion, had a
negative effect. Thankfully the underground is strong again, so all's
well with the world -- the underground being the lifeblood of the scene.
One of my main criticisms during the '90s was that DJs stopped playing a
spectrum of dance music, with varying mood and tempo, concentrating on
ever narrower genres and sub-genres. This was alien to me -- variety
very much being the spice of life in my book. Many DJs began to place
mixing ahead of programming in terms of priority, selecting what they
played not because it was the best record, but because it mixed out of
the previous record seamlessly. This was putting the cart before the
horse as far as I'm concerned. I'm all for mixing, but programming is
the most important skill a DJ possesses and, in comparison to the DJs of
the past, I think that this was an area that suffered.
began to believe their own myth, thinking they were somehow above the
audience they were playing to. For some it became a massive ego trip as
they soaked up the adulation. I found this very unsavoury as I'd always
regarded it as a reciprocal relationship on an equal footing -- the DJ
feeding from the crowd and able to adapt to their mood in a spontaneous
manner. When I realized that DJs were playing pre-arranged 'sets', which
had been rehearsed ahead of the gig so that every record mixed
perfectly into the next one, I felt that this completely negated the
spirit of DJs as I'd known it, which was to read a crowd and play your
tunes accordingly. Being locked into a rigid set doesn't allow this --
there's no room for exchange, it's all about the DJ knowing best and if
the crowd doesn't 'get it', it's their problem.
At the bottom
line, now as always, the DJ is an entertainer. People pay their money to
go into a club, wanting a release from the stresses and strains of
their day to day, and it's the DJ's role to take them out of themselves
via the music they play. Some DJs like to feel that they're educators,
but I find this to be highly conceited -- music is subjective and what
one person likes another might not, so to think that you hold the moral
high ground when it comes to what is or isn't good music is somewhat
deluded. It's great to be able to introduce people to new music, and a
good DJ will certainly be skilled at this, but there's always going to
be those you'll never connect with, not because they don't have any
'taste', but because they vibrate in a different way. The way I see it
is that you're expressing your personality via the music you play and
hoping that other people tune into this, sharing the same wavelength --
not that you're some sort of all-knowing musical shaman who demands
adoration from his/her minions, as some DJs seem to believe.
contemporary artists/music knock your socks off these days? What have
you been playing live most recently and are there any classics that have
never left your crate?
Not having a crate these days, I'm
not limited to the music I carry with me. This is one of the major
benefits of modern technology. There are a lot of younger DJs currently
doing great re-edits of older tunes. There are also, of course, many
poor or pointless ones -- as with anything, it's a matter of sorting out
the wheat from the chaff. People including The Revenge, Todd Terje and
the Situation crew have enhanced my playlist over recent years, along
with edits labels like Disco Deviance, Redux and Duff Disco. Then you
have a global community of artists who've been making their own music,
connecting past to present -- for example, here in the US you have
people like 40 Thieves, Escort, Gary Davis and Nick Chacona &
Anthony Mansfield, all of whom had tracks included on my recent
compilation Credit To The Edit Vol. 2.
In the last few
years you've toured extensively across the world and performed for
diverse audiences. Any especially memorable cities or parties you've
Too many to name. It's been incredible for me to
come back after a two-decade gap and be so well received wherever I go.
Back in the early '80s the furthest I traveled to DJ were places like
Birmingham, Nottingham and Sheffield, which seemed really exotic then.
So to find myself in Tokyo, São Paulo, or Miami is pretty nuts!
are you up to next?
By the time I play in Miami I'll have
been touring for a month, taking in Japan, Australia and the US. Miami
is the final date before I head back to the UK -- we scheduled things so
I'd end up at the WMC. Once I'm home I have a few dates in London and
Liverpool before heading over to Austria for Snowbombing, which kicks
off the festival season in Europe, the majority of events taking place
throughout the summer months. So, between now and October, it'll be a
mixture of UK and European dates, interspersed with the festivals. I'm
also going to have to find time in between to do the various remixes and
edits that make up the other side of my work.
excited to hear you spin at the Electric Pickle on March 24. What can
Miami expect during this performance?
It's my first time in
Miami, and a fitting conclusion to the tour. I'm very much looking
forward to playing at Electric Pickle -- it's going to be 4 hours, so
it's a good length of time. As ever, I just do my thing -- having never
been there I'll obviously weigh things up on the night and proceed
accordingly. Miami, for me, evokes the Sunshine Sound of TK Records in
the '70s, so I'd hope to play a few tunes from that era. One of the
first edits to take off for me, following my comeback, was the cut-up of
KC & The Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man" a.k.a. "I Was A
Teenage DJ Pt. 1", so I'll have to remember to play that one.
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