If you want a lesson on how to achieve “legendary” status with minimum contrivance, you would do well to follow Greg Wilson’s model. Hailing from New Brighton (a few miles from my hometown of Heswall), he was already an accomplished and respected DJ when he retired from spinning in 1984, still in his early twenties. He then took twenty years out to pursue other projects, some of which are described below. In 2003 he made a triumphant return to the circuit, and started forging a new legacy with a landmark compilation/retrospective, Credit To The Edit, and an instantly classic Essential Mix.
I spoke to Greg just before the relaunch of his pet project, electrofunkroots, and given his reputation for being an affable and generous interviewee, I was prepared for a rewarding half-hour at the most. Two and a half hours later, I’d had a valuable history lesson, received some vital advice, and had a fantastic insight into the mind of a much-loved and revered DJ, and his views on club culture, past, present and future. Make some tea, it’s a nice long chat. Part 2 to follow.
HG: 2011 was another busy year for you: hectic gig schedule, music releases, big one-offs like the Vintage festival, as well as keeping on top of communicating with the people who follow you. Not that you have anything to prove at this stage in your career, but is there anything still on the “to do” list for 2012?
GW: To be honest, I think I have got something to prove. When I stopped DJing for all those years, the reason I stopped in the first place was to move towards production. Although I did do some stuff that I’m really pleased to have been involved with, there’s certainly unfinished business in there. It got to a point around the middle of the 90s where everything ground to a halt and I could no longer really be creative, because to be creative needed finance, which was the way it was: if you wanted to go and record you had to get into a studio. It wasn’t like now where you can just do stuff on your computer. So, that was a difficult time and it seemed that I’d lost all the momentum that I’d built up since I was originally a DJ in the early 80s, and working on some of the first British electronic dance tracks, and then finding my way to Ruthless Rap Assassins, and having a great time there doing two albums which I hold very dear because they also document a moment in time from the black perspective in Manchester during that crucial period. Through those albums, the fact they exist, even though it was a difficult time because a lot of other things had got in the way of the actual music and getting that music out to people. Following on from that, it was a downward spiral, things came to an abrupt end, in a sense, and a lot of work that I’d done never came to fruition. That was one of the hard things, and one of the reasons why I’m all for this principle of sharing, because I’ve been on the other side of that coin. I did a lot of music for a project called Mind, Body & Soul, stuff that I was co-writing, and it never saw the light of day. We spent so much time working on this, getting demos recorded, and nobody got to hear it apart from the people around us. It never got out there and that’s really demoralising, that what you are putting your heart and soul into, it just got stifled at its source, in a sense. So yeah, there’s definitely an aspect of unfinished business there.
And away from the idea of making music, as well, just the things that I’m doing in terms of the documentation. I’m just about to update the website electrofunkroots, which needed updating as it underpins everything that I’ve been about. That brought me back into play, hooked me up with the internet and hooked me up with people initially, got people asking me to DJ again. With the whirlwind that’s happened since to me, it’s always been maintained but not to the level it should. Anyway, this month we’re gonna relaunch that site with loads of new content, a complete redesign. It’s great, to finally be able to get that back up to date and I think that will spur a fresh impetus. One of the things that I’ve realised in these past few months, is that I can fall into the trap of still thinking that I’m new back to this. At this point in time I’ve been deejaying for as long as I did originally, if you see what I mean?
HG: Yes, I was going to come to this actually, I thought it must be sometime around now that you’d hit that benchmark.
GW: Yeah, literally almost to the week. I look at the first period, even though I did a little bit here and there afterwards over time, viewing myself as a professional DJ, somebody who does this for my living…originally that period was December ’75 to December of ’83, and this time around it was December 2003 up to December 2011 you’ve got the same cycle again. So yeah, at this point I’m almost in a third phase, in essence. I’m no longer new back to this, I’ve established what I’m about, I know what I’m doing here and I know my place in things, and I think I know now what I’m good at and what I’m not so good at. You just get a better balance of yourself, maybe some of this comes with age as well. There’s just so much to do – I spend my time wishing I had more time to do the stuff that I want to do, and part of that now is the necessity for some level of delegation, bringing other people in and trusting them to do things that will save you the time and allow you to do what you need to be doing. From the club side, cutting back slightly on the amount of gigs that I’m doing, not massively but just giving myself the breaks that I need to approach other stuff, be it doing remixes or writing or whatever. I’m trying to get everything to a more manageable level that I can fit everything in that I feel is important for what I want to do.
HG: Will delegating the day-to-day stuff mean you’re free to branch out into some new areas, maybe other media like with the Reels of Steel project?
GW: Reels of Steel is really just coming to fruition now, it’s going to be this year that it jumps up a level. That allows me to bring a visual aspect into it which is a thing in itself, you could take it out to a festival. It’s something I’ve been developing, I’ve tried it out, I know what works and how we need to approach it, so all this is at the finishing stages. I’m looking to plan events throughout the year which I’ll let people know about in due course. I’m really excited about that because at this point I’m trying to see how everything links together, the blog, the DJ work, Reels of Steel, plus hopefully a record label. Actually, I think “record label” is the wrong description, it’s more like a production company because I think that the business has changed so radically now, the way people consume music in this day and age is just a world apart from what it was. A “record label” isn’t really what that is now, it’s just making music and getting it to people and hopefully, people reacting to that. I’m not even looking on it as some big business idea, as I’m content financially from what I make (as a DJ). It’s great, I mean again, having seen it from the other side, I’ve been so skint in my life and so struggling – I’m not one of these people who just wants more and more and more. I think that’s the kind of thing in the world that’s just gone wrong, in terms of what’s bringing the world down; the greed, people just want so much, and they can’t even spend that money. It just becomes a drug in itself. The financial aspect is not my motivation, and never has been. So, if at this time I can afford to put a bit of money towards getting something else going, I’ll do that.
HG: You’ve mentioned the importance of sharing, and you take a lot of care to communicate with the people who follow what you’re doing. It seems important to you that there’s that two-way communication and you also seem keen to give credit where it’s due to the producers and the re-editors who make the edits you play (I’m one of many people whose career has been given a boost by a Greg Wilson endorsement). What’s your thinking behind that supportive role?
GW: Well, it is a community, and that’s what it’s all about. We should respect each other in that way, even though some people don’t agree. When I go back to the time when I was working in the black music scene in the early 80s, and the community of people there, and the politics that go on in that community…I came in for a lot of stick for playing the Electro music in what was previously a Jazz-Funk scene. A lot of the old-school opinion was that the music I was playing was going to corrupt this scene and ruin it. It was difficult for me because I wanted the respect of my peers and a pat on the back, but there were political situations with certain people, which have been documented. We fundamentally disagreed on certain things, but I never disrespected their opinion because I knew that they, just as I did, loved black music. They were thinking that they were doing the right thing, they were only trying to do their best for the overall scene, and that’s what I mean by “community”. Those same people eventually realised that it wasn’t this thing that was going to wreck everything. In fact, what it did was revitalise things and help get it out of the apathy that it was perhaps starting to sink into.
HG: Given how you faced resistance from the Jazz-Funk crowd when you started playing Electro, did you ever find yourself resisting House or any of the later forms that came along?
GW: I was out of the game by the time House came along, I stopped at the end of ’83, and the first proto-House stuff didn’t come along until around ’84, ’85, ’86, just before it really picked up momentum. House music on the black music scene was played almost as another form of Electro, before the term “House”, not just in Manchester but in Nottingham and Birmingham, the big towns and cities across the north and midlands. It was played alongside the Electro and the Street Soul and whatever else was being played at that time. In Manchester, it was the black kids who were the first out of the blocks when it came to House, and it wasn’t like they just discovered this new thing, it was a natural part of the ongoing discovery of black music that had been pioneered back in the 60s with people importing black music from America into this country. When I was at Legend at Wigan Pier in the early 80s, maybe 90% of the records I was playing were American imports that weren’t available in the UK. That’s how upfront the scene was. To get to that level of upfront-ness, you can’t do it on your own, you’re part of a history and a tradition, and this is where the respect comes from.
A lot of the driving force in terms of the way I document things is me wanting to look back at the people that opened it up for DJs like myself to be able to do this. They worked and cultivated the roots of this, so my constant battle is to try to draw people’s attention to what actually happened in this country with regard to specialist dance/black music and where it came from and how little that had to do – actually, it didn’t have anything to do – with what happened in Ibiza in ’87, ’88. Ibiza was an important thing for another reason, because it brought a spirit and a drug. Musically, House music, which is so often mistaken as something that comes out of that Ibiza thing, was very much already within the the music scene, albeit in the black music clubs in the north. In the south, less so because there was a different dynamic at the time because the Rare Groove scene had really picked up. Where the early House tracks were being played in the south was probably more on the gay side, but this predates the whole Ibiza thing, and that’s what I’m always trying to say, to know the future, you’ve go to know the past. If the past you know is an incorrect past, you can never know the future. Whereas if you can understand the lineage…if we really want to take this lineage right back you can go back to the fifties, probably even into the forties, with individuals who had a belief and genuine love for black music. Black music was dance music. So yeah, reconnecting with that to find the proper lineage and people can then understand that things are very interconnected.
HG: I think the realisation comes with a certain age, as a dance music fan, that it was actually a more organic progression than perhaps you’ve been led to believe. It was a logical musical progression rather than this big revelatory moment.
GW: The black crowd were already a dance crowd, and for a lot of people, Acid House culture was about coming onto the dancefloor, embracing the dance. They hadn’t done that before, so this “year zero” thing came from from a lot of places. Guys were generally only going on a dancefloor if they wanted to move in on a girl, apart from in specialist scenes. Generally speaking, in your normal clubs up and down the country, this was the way it was. This is a great example that I find myself repeating so often it’s almost a cliché: A Guy Called Gerald’s Voodoo Ray is an absolutely iconic track of that era, and I think that most people assume that this guy called Gerald walks into this club called the Hacienda and hears this amazing House music, goes home, and writes a House track. Whereas the influence is actually the opposite. The influence is Gerald and his contemporaries bringing this music into that club in the first place. If you listen to Voodoo Ray, what you can hear in that is not a conventional House track. You can also hear the Electro influence, the Jazz-Funk influence, certainly, so it’s a fusion track. It’s a track by a guy, previous to ever having gone to the Hacienda, had been into jazz fusion, had been dancing to Electro, had been a DJ for MC Tunes with the Scratch Beatmasters. He was a well-established face on the scene before there ever was a Voodoo Ray. Once you understand this, you can then see how the history unfolds, right back to the fifties and even the forties, starting with when the American GIs started coming over here.
So, the people that reported on the Acid House scene, those same kids who previously weren’t into dance music then became experts in a few weeks, they were starting to write about dance music and their opinions were starting to come to the fore. I started to see how, within that story, the black scene wasn’t mentioned. That wasn’t their scene, they hadn’t been involved. They’d been going to live music venues and watching four-piece indie bands sounding like Joy Division. They had no concept of this history, so they just wrote their own story. The whole Ibiza thing seemed to be the easy starting point for everyone. These DJs went to Ibiza, and they came back, and “Hallelujah! Look what we’ve got now…”.
HG: Speaking of Ibiza, you had a big gig there at Space last summer. How was it playing in that environment?
GW: It was great, this year was a really interesting one. It’s funny with me and Ibiza, I’ve had some good gigs over there, but I’ve also had a few where you’re stuck in a side room and it’s just not the right environment. It’s a hard one because Ibiza is Ibiza – it’s this British holiday destination that’s part of a tradition. I feel it’s like when my parents went to Blackpool when they were younger, and Ibiza is like the modern day Blackpool, where the mainstream crowd goes. There are the places, if you go off the beaten track, where you can still get that Balearic spirit. I was amazed the way that it all went one way with Ibiza. I remember once walking past Cafe Del Mar at about 7 o’clock in the evening. This place is connecting with the whole Balearic thing and the sunset and everything…there was a few people there having coffees outside, and there’s a young DJ just banging it out, boom boom boom, just completely out of context.
HG: That’s a familiar scenario!
GW: It’s lost some of its true essence, but going there this year was really interesting. I was aware I’d be there on the terrace at Space, with a big crowd who weren’t really used to the kind of tempo I play, put it that way. I knew I was going to drop it down, that’s what I do, I can’t be something I’m not. The people who put me on at that time put me on for a reason, so I do my thing. I think when I first came on, maybe there was a slight sense of “ooooh…are we alright with going a bit slower now?”, but people went with it and it was a really great vibe. In fact, Mark who does We Love.. had it down as one of his gigs of the whole season, he was absolutely raving about it. It shows us that we’re at a slightly different point in time, and I think things in general now are changing. The music is slowing down a little bit and people are realising it doesn’t have to be 100 miles an hour all the time. I remember talking to a DJ in the early nineties, there was a really great downtempo track around, I’m not sure what it was, maybe something like Loaded by Primal Scream. I asked him if he was playing it, and he said he couldn’t because it was too slow. I’m thinking, “That’s crazy because that is a great great groove track”, and by that token, if you want to say that, you can wipe out most of James Brown’s catalogue of dance music classics, which a lot of contemporary music is built on. I think people started latching onto the beats rather than the grooves, and the faster it was, the safer they felt within that. Slow it down a bit and it gets a bit wobbly, and I think “Am I alright here?”, and I think that’s changing. It’s a necessary change, sometimes tempos and vibes need to change, not just in music but in life in general.
HG: You cover a lot of tempos in your sets, starting somewhere around 100 bpm and reaching up to 126 or higher – I would imagine some younger DJs are learning a thing or two from you about building a crowd, especially if you can do that from such a downtempo starting point. People will get taken away with it eventually, won’t they?
GW: That’s it. Sometimes you get people coming up (and asking for faster music), but it’s like, “stay with it, it’ll go there”. That is what it’s about, and people get it: I go all over the world and don’t change my style, and you get the same vibe. I go downbeat and bring it up, and people get it. It’s great, and that’s what it was always about. Going back, you used to do that a number of times during a night. You didn’t start downtempo and keep building all night to a peak, you actually finished the night off on a more groove-based vibe. It wasn’t like with Rave where you bang it till you gonna explode and then it’s over. It even goes back to when I was playing in “normal” clubs in my hometown, you always finished with slowies, because the guys got together with the girls. You did that twice in the night, say if the club was open till two, you did one around one o’clock to give people a chance to meet each other and maybe buy a drink. This was the way it was in clubs, and then at the end you did it a second time to finish off the night. I always think of David Mancuso and his whole philosophy and his re-entry thing at the end. The re-entry thing was all about calming them down – let’s get people all mad and crazy, but let’s put them back on the street in a state which is more calm and more fulfilled, rather than throw them out when they’re at their peak and their bouncing down the street!
For us it was a natural thing, people went to clubs as a social thing, and back then that whole boy-girl thing was more pronounced. That’s another “old” thing that people notice with the way I work, it’s an old-school way – playing for the girls, because the girls would go on the dancefloor first and the guys followed. If you didn’t have girls in a club, there’d be no guys. So if you could get the girls, that would bring the whole thing together. Maybe there’s still a part of me doing that, and, things like vocal tracks, which girls seem to enjoy. That’s a generalisation, but even with the House thing, there was a lot of instrumental stuff and you could see the split where there was a more male-dominated side of it, and the girls liked the more vocal aspects of it. Plus, I like those aspects too! What I’m doing is really just bringing the old way up to date.
HG: Occasionally you slip in some relatively recent tracks. How far into the last twenty years are you willing to delve?
GW: I’ll play anything, I don’t care when it’s from, as long as it fits into the vibe of what I’m doing. I’d love to play more contemporary tracks but it’s got to be right. Somebody sent me something the other day, it’s a really good track and I know loads of other DJs will play it, but I just know that it doesn’t quite fit in with what I’m doing. It’s hard to explain what that criteria is, it’s a feel thing. Sometimes I’ll play things that people are quite surprised that I picked up on. It doesn’t matter if it was released two years ago or thirty years ago, if it works for me and it’s right for me, I’ll do it. It’s like that Paula Cole track, Feelin’ Love, the Psychemagik version. They just did a great job and I think the original’s a really nice track but they’ve just taken it somewhere else, and it’s fantastic.