Monday, September 8, 2008

Greg Wilson Interview

From the Red Bull Music Academy (Link):

Born and raised across the river Mersey from Liverpool, Greg Wilson is one of the key figures responsible for the development of the early '80s electro-funk scene in clubs across the North of England before it spread throughout the country. Borrowing from formative experiences at an early age in England and continental Europe, Wilson introduced British club audiences to the revolutionary dance music coming out of New York City. Both reviled by traditionalists and praised by those hungry for something new, Greg Wislon helped shepherd the evolution of dance music in the UK from the soul and funk sounds that dominated the '70s to the emergence of house and hip hop in the late '80s. He retired from DJing at an early age in '84, but has returned to DJ work in recent years and received the hero's welcome befitting his role in the history of dance music.

Session Transcript:

Greg Wilson
Red Bull Music Academy, Melbourne 2006

For years Greg Wilson was the headz DJ – the pioneer of the '70s and early '80s dance scene in Northern England, when fresh new styles were developing every six months. Back then, the notion of the club DJ mixing records together seamlessly was practically unheard of, and the art of DJing was strictly in the selection, the programming, and the words on the mic. But as if to prove that all styles move in cycles, Greg has been back behind the decks more recently, as interest in the golden era of electro funk, its resurgent influence has again shifted into the forefront of the public taste. Greg takes us on a time travelling journey, explaining the different scenes, the clubs, the dancers and, of course, the tunes. Get ready for the lesson.

RBMA: »You’ve been a DJ for most of your life?«

Greg Wilson: »I was a DJ from when I was 15 in 1975, then I kept doing it until I was 23 in 1983. Then I took a 20 year break. I started doing it again in 2003.«

RBMA: »What was DJing like in 1975?«

Greg Wilson: »From the UK perspective the main difference was that DJing was microphone-based. You announced records, there was no mixing. That was a New York thing, that was not something we were aware of until around 1977 or ‘78. Then we started getting an awareness of New York culture. We wouldn’t really get a full awareness of it until the early 1980s. In 1975, the dominant kind of dance music being played in clubs was soul and funk and it was also the start of the disco era. Obviously, you had the Philly sound around 1973/'4 but Donna Summer’s hit Love To Love You was at the beginning of 1976 so that kind of ties in with that period. At that point in time disco music wasn’t yet a genre, the term ‘disco’ referred to soul and funk because that was the music played in a discotheque. Later down the line it evolved into its own genre. When I started out I was in my home town called New Brighton which is a small town just across the river Mersey from Liverpool. I was a jobbing, DJ which meant I worked five, six nights a week playing all kinds of music. I always wanted to be a black music specialist, that’s where my heart lay with music.«

RBMA: »Were you playing Northern soul?«

Greg Wilson: »There is a kind of misconception that in the North of England in the mid-'70s it was all Northern soul but that was an underground scene. In Liverpool, the Northern soul scene never took off at all, Liverpool was a much more funk-based city. The kind of music I would be playing was contemporary stuff at the time – maybe Kool & The Gang, Ohio Players, James Brown, Parliament/Funkadelic – that was the music that was popular in Liverpool.«

RBMA: »Can you explain Northern soul to those who don’t know much about it?«

Greg Wilson: »To put it in its context, Northern soul was, at the time in the mid-'70s, a retrospective form of black music, it was derivative of Motown, the people who were into Northern soul they’d never let go of Motown. They loved that music so much they just wanted to dig deeper and deeper and find rarer and rarer records with that kind of Motown feel. Motown was successful in the '60s and at the time there were loads of musicians in Detroit trying to make Motown sounding records, the original musicians on the Motown records were also moonlighting on other people’s music. The Northern soul scene started at a club in Manchester called the Twisted Wheel earlier in the 1960s when they were playing contemporary soul music, but as they moved into the '70s they keep digging deeper for rarer cuts of the same type rather than moving with the times. It was all about finding old record and rare records. The main clubs on that circuit were the Blackpool Mecca and obviously Wigan Casino, also the Torch in Stoke and the Catacombs in Wolverhampton. A huge underground scene developed, but you know, it was a predominantly white audience into black retrospective music, whereas at the same point in time the black kids in the UK were not listening to old music. There was all this great contemporary music like Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, all the funk bands. Northern soul was not actually a scene that black people were much involved with because they were more into the newer black music. Around Liverpool, where I lived, Northern soul was not the dominant force. This is a Northern soul track the original version of Tainted Love by Gloria Jones. As a juxtaposition to that, the sort of stuff we would be playing was this Shack Up by Banbarra.«

RBMA: »The scenes didn’t mix?«

Greg Wilson: »I personally played more commercial music and then perhaps I would play a tune like this, but the scenes as a whole didn’t really mix. In Liverpool at the time, when I was 16 I went to a club called the Timepiece and it was real education for me. I heard about the club before hand and there was a legend about this DJ - a man called Les Spaine. He was a guy from Liverpool but born in Sierra Leone. He lived in an area called Toxteth, which was one of the main black areas in Liverpool. Liverpool at the time was quite a segregated city and quite a racist city. This club was in the city centre and it was a predominantly black audience. I was taken there by some older DJs that I had got to know and I was from New Brighton, a town which had very few black people. Going into that environment was very unfamiliar to me, I remember feeling, 'Am I going to be alright in here, am I OK?', but the music instantly made me feel at home. I was introduced to the DJ who was playing what we called upfront music, which means imported music that was unreleased in the UK. At the time there weren’t 12” singles so it was a matter of 7” singles or alum tracks. So you know what was happening in there, what I could see was everything I wanted musically. The dancing too was on a different level, people were seriously into it. It was almost at that second in time that I saw the light and thought, ‘This is where I want to be headed.’ Every DJ aspired to be Les and was around his DJ box making notes and trying to read the labels of the music he played.«

RBMA: »He didn’t try to cover up the labels?«

Greg Wilson: »No, he was very open about it. His attitude was it doesn’t matter if you know what I’m playing because next week I will have something different again to play for you. He had that confidence in his ability. He was a wonderful DJ. He went on to work for Motown, when Motown opened up in the UK he went to work for them and he still works in the music business today. I was very fortunate that a few years down the line, in another five or six years, I ended up in Manchester with a very similar audience and a very similar vibe to what I saw that night at the Timepiece. In the meantime I was learning more about building a crowd and trying to fit more tracks in my set like those I heard at the Timepiece. First and foremost, I saw myself as a professional DJ. I did it for a living and this was at a time when if somebody asked: “What do you do for a job?”, and I said: “I am a DJ,” they would say: “No, what do you do for a proper job?” When I started I earned only six pounds a night. I was happy with it. I was earning good money for someone my age, doing five or six nights a week. Eventually, I took over a club called the Golden Guinea in New Brighton and it was a very commercial club, but gradually I started playing a few imports and pretty soon I managed to evolve what might be called a scene.«

RBMA: »Because you played there almost every night you could develop and educate your audience?«

Greg Wilson: »I find that a very high term to use because music is such a subjective thing. As a DJ you bring your personality in terms of music into play, but by saying that you are educating people you are presuming that you are somehow better or at a higher level. But I prefer to see that you are working on a level with your audience, you need them as much as they need your music. I don’t like to play above the heads of the audience, thinking you are really clever by playing them new tunes but actually missing the target completely with it. Actually, it is far better to empathise a bit. For instance, I am playing at the weekend at Revolver – but I have never been to Australia before, I have an idea of what I would like to play but I can’t nail anything down until I am in the venue looking at the audience that is there. That is kind of an old way. When I started, I used to do mobile visits taking a disco to weddings and 21st birthday parties. The rules that you learn within that were exactly the same as when I went to work at Legend in Manchester and worked with a predominantly black audience, who totally know their music and were a totally upfront audience. The same rules apply, you look at your audience and you cut your cloth accordingly to suit who’s there. You have to weigh up each environment and play accordingly. When I went to the Golden Guinea club I had a period of time when I could slowly, bit by bit impose my personality onto the night and gradually the nights I were doing there were regarded throughout the Merseyside area as some of the best places to hear black music. The main magazine that reported on black music in the UK was called Blues & Soul and it was like the DJs bible at the time and it was a great moment for me when they eventually came to my small town club and did a piece about it and recommended it. So that was working on a local level, I loved that scene I knew all the people, it was my hometown and I was working there until 1980. In the meantime I had been to Europe, there were a lot of English DJs working out there. I went to Scandinavia, Denmark and Norway.«

RBMA: »Why were English DJs popular in Europe?«

Greg Wilson: »It was because of using the microphone. The English language was seen as the language for DJing. What was funny was that the record announcements would be in English but if there was an announcement that someone’s taxi had arrived then that would be in Swedish or whatever. Mixing culture was just starting to have an influence in 1978 but the microphone culture was predominant. When we first heard about mixing, we didn’t have the equipment to do it, we didn’t have turntables that could vary in speed in order to mix together. We couldn’t really get records to run into each other except for maybe a bar it would work. So it didn’t really take off. Initially, a lot of DJs tried it and it was flavour of the month but then people just went back to the microphone. It was seen as an American thing that would never cross over.«

RBMA: »Did you go to New York?«

Greg Wilson: »No, I never went to New York until last year, actually. We would play like three records in a row, most DJs would do like a Motown spot but there wasn’t mixing as such. I remember the first two records I ran on top of each other were both the Jackson Five - ABC, and I Want You Back. At the start of ABC there was a section that was similar to the middle of I Want You Back so I would run them together but I never saw it as mixing. Later down the line, I would do things like switch between Thelma Houston’s version and Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes version of Don’t Leave Me This Way. Probably, if I went back in a time machine, it would sound awful. It wasn’t until I was at Wigan Pier and Legend and I had the right equipment to work with that it all started to make sense from a personal level. I would say from a UK perspective the majority of DJs were not mixing until the back end of the '80s, until house, really. The first time I went to Europe in 1978 I intended to stay but it didn’t work out. I ended up back home and spent a couple more years playing at the Golden Guinea and there was a guy who was more into pop stuff who took the room upstairs. He was in his thirties and he’d been at this club for ten years. I began to see myself in him and thought, ‘I don’t want to be here in ten years time.’ So I decided to try Europe again. I went to Denmark and then I went to Germany. The club I worked at in Germany was the first one to have SL-1200s and there was a club in a nearby town called Essen a club called Librium and it was a really compact club with really great lighting and the DJ there was just constantly mixing. It made a big impression on me. The first guy in England to mix was a guy called Greg James, an American who knew some of the people from New York. I had seen him in the Embassy in London but it didn’t make the same impression as this guy in Essen. I have a feeling it could have been Peter Römer, but I am not sure. He did some work in that club around that period but I’m not sure - I don’t remember the name directly. I had originally gone to Denmark but I crashed my car when I was over there, I had to return to England to change my car and while I was there I re-met a guy I knew from Norway who was now working in a club called the Wigan Pier. This club was absolutely phenomenal for its time. It was the first club in the UK to have a laser system. The DJ box was in this 15 foot fibre glass frog, it had a light controller in the mouth of the frog, the DJ worked at the side, there was a monitor system inside. All of this we’d never seen the like of in the UK. The DJs equipment was usually an afterthought. The look of the bar was more important than the soundsystem. This club was designed around the DJ and it advertised itself as an American-style disco. I thought it was a wonderful club and the same company was just about to open a new club called Legend and Nicky, my friend, was going to be DJing there, so there would be a job opening at Wigan Pier. The owner said: “Why don’t you audition?” Everyone wanted the job at this place. I said: “I have to go to Germany.” I didn’t want to take the risk of not returning to Germany just because of an audition, but I asked him if I could send him a tape. I sent it to him and they got in touch with me in Germany and offered me the job. I was blown away, I actually wept I remember, I couldn’t believe it. This club was a dream club and now I was the four nights a week resident. One of the nights was the specialist black music night based around the jazz/funk scene at the time, the other three nights were more a mixture of the more famous jazz/funk tracks, the futuristic stuff like Human League and Spandau Ballet, the new romantics and at the weekend we played more commercial black music like Shalamar and Michael Jackson. On the jazz/funk night we would play tracks like Donald Byrd - Falling Like Dominoes.«

Greg Wilson: »They heard of me at Legend because of the success of the Tuesday night at Wigan Pier. Legend had its own jazz/funk night on a Wednesday, which had been going OK. But then the DJ they had there left to run a rival night and it basically wiped it out there. The first night I played there were only about 70 people when the club was designed for about 500. It was looking a bit threadbare. When I went in there was one big difference from Wigan Pier, which was out of those 70 people probably 69 of them were black. It was an audience that weren’t really into a DJ on the microphone making announcements. They weren’t into the verbals of it. It was very much music-based. This was when I put the emphasis on the mixing. I didn’t put the mic aside completely but when I took over at Legend I put the emphasis on mixing. One of the main things about the scene were the ‘all-dayers’, which happened on a Sunday or a bank holiday Monday. You would have all these people coming in from different areas. The ‘all-dayers’ would run from 2 o’clock in the afternoon to midnight. You knew that you were making it as a DJ when you began to get booked for the ‘all-dayers’. When I had been DJing for about six months at Wigan Pier, some of the promoters started to book me to go on the ‘all-dayers’. Originally, I was way down the bill and gradually I came up the bill. When I was at Legend I would use the mic to tell people about events like that. If there was an ‘all-dayer’ at Birmingham, if there was a coach taking people down there, when and where it was leaving, stuff like that. Even though I didn’t announce records any more I was still a great believer in sharing the information about the record which I played. I thought it was important to keep the scene moving on, to keep it pushing forward. When I decided that the mixing was going to take centre stage I was worried that without announcements people would never find out what I was playing so I made an information sheet every week called ‘What’s Going On’. It had a floorfillers chart. It had a new releases chart. It had an information section saying what ‘all-dayers’ were happening. It was handwritten! I had a template for it and just wrote it out each week and had it photocopied. So when people would come up to me and ask me what I was playing I would give them the sheet and they would go straight to their record shops and buy the record. That solved my dilemma. Later down the line I was asked to design a DJ booth and I included a special function. I always thought this would happen in clubs and it never happened – you know one of those LED read-out screens where information goes along, that was part of my booth design. I thought you would type in what you were playing and people would be able to see what you played but it never happened. I thought it was important that this information was shared. Some DJs like to keep it all exclusive but I can’t really see the point. The music doesn’t belong to you – you are a channel. The Northern soul scene was very much about secrecy and gaining an advantage over other DJs by finding a rare record, covering up the label and calling it something else, giving it a completely different title and artist from what it really was. And other DJs were getting caught out because they were putting these records in their charts – and they didn’t even exist. That happened quite a lot. It wasn’t like that in our scene. It was a real love of moving the music forward and sharing it. We wanted more people to get into it. Making this decision to place the emphasis on mixing brought more and more people in and gradually a style of music began to emerge which was more suited to this kind of mixing which was electro funk.«

RBMA: »How would you define electro funk?«

Greg Wilson: »A lot of the stuff being played around 1981 we would now call boogie but back they we called it disco funk. It was still a disco vibe but it had a funk edge. Boogie was a term that derived later on in London. The boogie scene was also retrospective music. With electro funk new tracks were emerging utilising the new technology, drummachines, synths, later samplers. This was underground black music predominantly from New York.«

RBMA: »The records were designed for DJing?«

Greg Wilson: »It was drummachine-based, so it was much easier for mixing whereas anything with a live drummer has much more scope of going out of time. One of the early tracks, which was like a premonition of electro funk was D-Train - You’re The One For Me. Now a lot of people see this as a disco classic but when this track first came out it sounded different because of the way it uses synth and drummachine. With a lot of the stuff we played only the instrumental mix or the dub mix. There was a real '70s Jamaican influence coming into the remixing. Another pioneering electro funk track was called Time by a group called Stone, which came out on West End. The labels behind this new sound were Prelude, West End and Emergency. One early track called On A Journey was by a band called Electrik Funk. At first we called the music electric funk but then the word electro became popular after a track by Shock called Electrophonic Funk. At that time a lot of specialist black music DJs would play one or two of these records in their set but then one record came out that split the scene in two – everyone went against it and I went for it. I was basically seen as a heretic for playing this record.«

(music: Afrika Bambaataa - Planet Rock)

»This was the record that changed everything. Probably one of the most important records of the popular music era. It was a revelation. Born of pure open-mindedness. Afrika Bambaataa from the Bronx had the vision to be open-minded enough to listen to other styles of music, like Kraftwerk. They started playing it at parties so people who wouldn’t have previously seen that as their kind of music were listening to that early electronic sound. I heard that the English new romantic sound was popular in the Bronx, too. Afrika Bambaataa came with a totally new sound using a TR 808 and Arthur Baker production. Planet Rock was a revolutionary track, straight out of space. Dance music changed completely as a result of that track.«

RBMA: »Your peers did not like Planet Rock?«

Greg Wilson: »They said: “Why you playing that shit? That is not black music, you are polluting this scene by playing that music.” I was 22, I had just arrived on the scene, I had these two great clubs Wigan Pier and Legend. It was going well for me the crowds were coming in. My ego wanted a pat on the back and all of a sudden my peers on the scene were totally critical of the new direction I was taking. They thought it was a one minute wonder and that it would be here and gone and I would look stupid for having played it. The record shop I bought it from, Spinna, the manager was the guy who was most critical. He probably laughed at me walking out of the shop. At first I was really on the defensive. I was into it and what was more important the kids that came to my club were into it. Then it occurred to me properly what was going on. The people who was saying: “It’s not black music!” were white people in their thirties who seemed middle-aged to me at the time. I was like: “Who are you to say what black music is? Ask the black kids what they are into? That is what black music is. Not only is this black music, it is the cutting edge, it is where it’s at.” They thought this was going to kill the scene whereas really it was the music that was going to revive the scene. They were hanging on to the whole soul thing and they were into Luther Vandross and Alexander O’Neal. Great singers, great production, but everything was too perfect, there was a blandness about it. I loved soul music, it was my first love but that was Otis Redding tearing it up. Planet Rock was raw, it had more in common with those early soul records than contemporary soul at the time. It changed things in me and almost put me on the offensive. I became proactive and it was a rocky road for a time, but eventually I was proved right by the fact the whole scene eventually moved in my direction. My two clubs Wigan Pier on a Tuesday and Legend on a Wednesday got voted first and second by Blues & Soul [magazine] in the North West Club category and I got the best DJ award. So it was a clean sweep that all of a sudden I was in a position of power in the scene. What was happening in my clubs was dictating the whole of the scene in the North and the Midlands. You find yourself in these positions - you don’t plan it. I was lucky. I found myself in the right clubs, I made the right decision to move towards mixing, I was doing something that none of the other DJs were doing, so even if they had the music that I had, they couldn’t compete against the whole idea of mixing. At the same time I’d been asked to go on the radio, on Picadilly Radio, Manchester, which was the biggest commercial radio outside London at the time. It was quite a big station. I was putting mixes together for them. I was reaching a wider and wider audience.«

RBMA: »Radio was still very powerful then?«

Greg Wilson: »That was the highest ambition of a DJ back then, there were no superstar DJs. It wasn’t about travelling the world, it was about getting on the radio. These mixes I was doing were the first of the type in the UK, it was all new. I was asked to demonstrate mixing on a TV programme called The Tube in 1983 and that was the first time I had been on the TV. At the same time all this electro funk was coming through. It was a combination of all these factors that gave me such power in the scene. But don’t get me wrong, I was always completely realistic about the situation because I knew it was always by the grace of the audience that I had a job. I felt amazing being this young white guy from New Brighton who had grown up with a love of black music and all of a sudden was in a club with a really on-the-ball, hardcore black audience who really knew their stuff. I loved that they loved what I was playing. Skin colour wasn’t a topic from black people to white, but it was the other way round. We were still in very racist times. To put things in a historical context, the year before all this happened in 1981 there were race riots all around England. In Liverpool, in Moss Side in Manchester, all around Houndsworth in Birmingham and St Pauls in Bristol. The generation of kids that were coming to these nights, their parents generation had tried to toe the line and fit into what was going on and they’d just been abused for that. But this generation of kids was different. They were like: “We’re here. We’re staying here. You better get used to it.” Their attitude was different. They weren’t going to take that shit anymore and quite rightly so. That whole generation were really given a bad time, there were laws that allowed the police to just stop people on the street and search them and these laws were used to abuse young black people. A lot of young black people smoked marihuana, there wasn’t a drinking culture, but this meant that it was quite easy for them to get picked up and get in trouble for drugs just for having a little tiny bit on them. They were hard times and these nights allowed them to forget about it all.«

RBMA: »They lived for nightclubbing?«

Greg Wilson: »In a sense yes, it was a hugely important thing. The atmosphere in a club like Legend was intense. It was serious, it was amazing, I will never experience something like that again.«

Greg Wilson: »A new club had opened in May of 1982 called The Hacienda and it wasn’t doing very well. Its audience was mainly white students who were into indie and alternative music. It had a decent Saturday night but for the rest of the week they were struggling. It was held together by a band called New Order, who were behind the club and who were ploughing money into it. They had a vision for the club. They had been over to New York and had seen clubs like Paradise Garage and even more importantly a club called Danceteria.«

RBMA: »Which was Arthur Baker’s club, right?«

Greg Wilson: »No, Danceteria was… I don’t know.«

RBMA: »Jellybean?«

Greg Wilson: »No, that was The Funhouse. The DJ at Danceteria was a man called Mark Kamins who worked with Madonna early on. I think Madonna did her first ever gig there supporting a Manchester band called A Certain Ratio. The people at The Hacienda wanted to bring a bit of New York to Manchester. They realized what was happening down the road with the black scene and they asked me to come and work with them to launch a Friday night. It was a struggle because it was a membership club, you had to pay a lot of money to become a member, and the kids that came to Legend, the black kids, didn’t have money. A lot of the time people ask what kind of drugs were done on the scene. People had a smoke but you couldn’t really do that within a club environment because it would be smelled, and people didn’t want to get thrown out of there. They would either do it craftily in a corner or not at all. So there wasn’t much of a drug scene, and certainly not alcohol. There wasn’t much alcohol at all. A lot of the time kids only had enough money to pay for their admission in and then they would drink tap water. The drug was the music and the dancing. Something like The Hacienda was set up totally differently. You had to pay a ten pound membership or whatever it was. It was Manchester licensing laws at the time, Legend had found a way of getting around it but The Hacienda hadn’t. The regulars at The Hacienda just didn’t like dance music, they thought it was inferior, they liked bands and thought that that was proper music. They thought dance music was lower. So it was difficult to get anything started at The Hacienda. We had some good nights, but sometimes I would play a Friday and then they would book a band for the next Friday so there was no continuity. It never really took off, but a lot of seeds were planted in that time. One of the main things that happened was in the summer of 1983 breakdance culture started to burst out of the black scene. It had first come through in Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Girls video, which was first shown on British TV the beginning of 1983, although I had a promo of the video in the end of 1982. By this time I had stopped doing four nights a week at Wigan Pier and I was completely working as a black music specialist. I did a night in Huddersfield at a run-down, ramshackle old place called the Stars Bar. It was completely different to Wigan Pier and Legend, which were really state-of-the-art clubs. When I was there they had a video screen and I put on the promo of Buffalo Girls and the first thing that struck me, we now know that there are four elements to hip hop but back then rap was the only one that we’d heard from our side. The other three were in this video: graffiti, scratching and breakdancing. The funny thing was that it was the World Famous Supreme Team scratching on the video and the record they were scratching was a 7" single. We were all asking: “Does it have to be a 7"?” The breakdancing did it, this guy spun on his head and it was bizarre. It couldn’t have been more bizarre if a martian had walked in and announced himself. The first time I took that to the club at Huddersfield there was the usual predominantly black, very hardcore crowd, an unruly, rawkus crowd and I played the video at about 1am, when the club would close at 2am. I understood at that point in time the meaning of the term culture shock because the crowd couldn’t properly take in what they were watching and straight after I played it they wanted it played again. I went to the microphone and asked them to sit down so the people at the back could see and they all sat down on the dancefloor. For the whole last hour I just played the video again and again. There was no point in going back to a normal night because what people had seen had changed everything. It was shown on TV the following month. It wasn’t like everyone was immediately breakdancing, but people were at home practising. They were in the kitchens on the lino, bit by bit, they were getting the moves together. The movement didn’t really start until the next summer. Speaking to some of the guys that did it, one guy said his elbows were just bleeding with trying to get this move, he kept banging himself and banging himself until he eventually got these moves together. So it got to the early summer and a group from Hudderfield were the first to do a breakdance show at the Wigan Pier. As soon as they showed it this Manchester crew came in as well. Another group called Broken Glass in Manchester took to the streets and I got heavily involved with them and ended up in a kind of managerial role for them. They did a lot of the TV. One of the guys was the first guy who was photographed for a national publication spinning on his head in the streets of Manchester. I happened to know a guy called Kermit who was a jazz fusion dancer who became one of the early breakdancers. Later down the line he became a rapper with a band called the Rap Assassins that I managed and further down the line again he took up with Shaun Ryder from the Happy Mondays and formed a band called Black Grape who had a number one album in the '90s. Other people who come from that scene include A Guy Called Gerald, he was one of those people who used to come to that scene at Legend when he was 15. He used to put this big trench coat on so he’d look older. He was a hip hop DJ and a dancer first before he started making dance music. This early hip hop scene was fantastic, the breakdancing was so visual to watch. One of the first things I did with Broken Glass was I arranged this street tour of all shopping centres throughout the North of England often in areas where there weren’t many black people. There were two white guys in Broken Glass and there were about 16 black kids. It was the same thing in London at Covent Garden. The original b-boys were mainly black. I was very aware being white myself of the dynamics of what was going on. The local white lads thought it looked like a gang of black kids were coming into their area – it was a recipe for trouble. Or at least it would have been 12 months earlier but now these kids rolled out this lino and pulled out this ghetto blaster. It must have done so much for race relations, because all of a sudden these young white kids, who had probably never spoken to a black kid before, were coming over saying: “What is this? What is this music?” There was this dialogue that was going on. By the next summer there were breakdancers all over the country. The influence was now felt in all areas, not just black areas. It became like it is today, hip hop culture is everywhere, black culture is everywhere. We don’t notice it anymore, it’s just the way that people dress and the way people talk, it is seen as normal. But at this point in time it was like seeing it happening at its very root. It was a great time. The joy that it brought seeing even old people watching breakdancing and being blown away by it. If we go back to The Hacienda, to the Saturday night, which was the only really happening night at the time, it was a kind of mishmash of everything from rockabilly to dance music but to try to get people into what I was doing on a Friday they got me in to do an hour on the Saturday and I was playing electro funk and stuff. The normal audience wasn’t too much into this kind of stuff but Broken Glass would come and dance on the stage when I was playing so the visual aspect of it impressed everyone. Everyone loved breakdancing, it was the freshest thing about. They became like celebrities at The Hacienda. Their presence there gave the club a credibility, a street credibility with a black audience that it never had before. As it began to move towards the 'Summer of Love' in 1988. We still have five years to go but the house scene would start building up in Manchester and people forget, because it is not very well documented, but that was also a predominantly black crowd. I stopped DJing at the end of 1983, but…«

RBMA: »Why?«

Greg Wilson: »Breakdancing had something to do with it. At first it was fantastic but pretty soon people were fed up that as soon as anything remotely electro was played then there was just a ring of people around the dancefloor watching a challenge going on. Especially the girls weren’t happy because all of a sudden there was no dancing space and it had become quite a macho situation. So I could see that there was a split going to happen there. It was the start of the hip hop scene emerging on the one side and on the other side there was a bit of a retrospective move towards street soul and eventually the house thing came through there. There was never a separation between types of music at that time, all the best black music was played together on the same night, when I was playing electro funk I was still playing jazz breaks and disco or boogie-type tracks and even funk. The tempos ranged from downbeat to uptempo and every mood inbetween.«

RBMA: »The opposite happened with the emergence of house music?«

Greg Wilson: »When the first DJ International house music tracks were played they would fit inbetween hip hop and electro tracks in a set. The freestyle thing had started. The Miami bass thing had started. Before The Hacienda played house in Manchester there were already several other clubs playing house: The Playpen, The Gallery, the Berlin, Legend after I had gone, all Manchester clubs. Mike Pickering and Laurent Garnier, who was a DJ at The Hacienda before the rave scene, he worked there before it all exploded. Then he went back to France to do national service. Before he went he said the house crowd was mainly a black crowd, when he came back it was mainly a white crowd.«

RBMA: »Why did you start DJing again?«

Greg Wilson: »During the '90s I just felt lost. I felt older than I do now because a lot of things were changing. The original house explosion was amazing and in 1988 the Hacienda would play hip hop and downtempo records – it was still a good mix. Then it all started to close down to just these four beats and I couldn’t understand. I remember speaking to a DJ at that time and I asked them about a certain downtempo track and he said he never played it because it was too slow. We used to vary the tempo, perhaps slow it right down suddenly to create a real impact moment and all that had kind of gone and it got into the straight 4/4 beat. Then there were all kinds of different types of house but in tiny subdivisions. One DJ would play happy house and another would play dark house, whereas before we would mix all the moods together. The reason was the drug taking in the scene. In many respects the music was no longer leading, the drug was leading. From my point of view I couldn’t grasp what was happening in the '90s. I was also struggling financially and on a personal level and my friends could see this and they said: “Get back into DJing, you can make big money, trade on your reputation, your past, you will do alright.” It sounded great until they said: “You just have to figure out what style of house you want to play.” I didn’t want to play house. I couldn’t do it and I am so glad I didn’t do it because it would have been soul-destroying for me. It was against everything I believed in. I was always involved with musical projects. Rap Assasins was a great time, we did two albums for EMI but it was a very up-and-down life. Sometimes things were going well and sometimes they were really hard, smoking too much dope in the meantime. I was just living by my wits in many respects. I would still walk into studios with my reel to reel and look like a DJ fossil. I would record a lot of sounds on tape and as I was spinning I would be putting sounds over the records and adding textures to it. I still do that in DJing.«

RBMA: »Are you using it for edits still?«

Greg Wilson: »No, I use digital now. But at the time I was a real technophobe. Younger people were coming along it was second nature for them to use new tools. Whereas I just felt really behind the times. I would think to myself, ‘I was doing alright at one time, what happened?’ I think I just lost the plot. Where did it all go wrong?«

RBMA: »What makes a good edit?«

Greg Wilson: »Knowing when to stop. I don’t know. I only edit for what I feel and I like. It is subjective. Take out part of a track, whatever you get off on or extend something for the dancefloor. I will play an edit from before I started DJing again. I put this out on an independent last year. It sold well, a lot of the DJs I’ve met in New York had a copy, which surprised me. I made this at home. Once I made this move and decided to use the computer, I made these sketches and everything was loop-based in what I did. This friend said to me: “I’ve seen this programme that is you.” It was a programme called Acid, a loop-based system. I am not a musician, my work is very much editing-based. I like to work with musicians sometimes. This programme Acid allowed me to sit on my own and make my own tracks. Whereas before I needed an engineer and a singer, I could do this on my own. I called this I Was A Teenage DJ.«

No comments:

Post a Comment