Gilles Peterson is an incredible human being. Not only is he one of the last living music gurus but his smart and humble dedication to music research is helping to keep local/world music and the less money-driven sub-genres alive, spreading the word through platforms that would never usually showcase such independent talents (new and old). Thanks to him, they are represented and very much alive.
I had the pleasure to chat to Gilles a few weeks after his latest show in Milan – at Magazzini Generali, where we met and portrayed him – about some of the things that I have always wondered myself about music, research and the evolution of it all across the last three to four decades. A lot has changed in that time and I have grown old alongside it all. There was so much more I wanted to ask but we didn’t have much time together. He’s one of those people that I’d kill to spend an entire afternoon with, absorbing knowledge and listening to records from around the world but I’m very happy with what came out of our conversation and I hope you are too.
Since your music spans all genres, I wanted to ask how your research has changed across the last three to four decades. How different is it looking for music nowadays compared to the time before Spotify, mp3s, and even the internet? Is it better today?
I think it certainly suits people like me much better now, because, in a way, there’s so much information being found and so many people making music. Everything is being multiplied. It makes it more difficult because there’s just that much more to grab hold of but, on the other hand – and because I’ve had such a long period of building up my music intelligence – things are more comfortable for me now. I can dig or go down certain alleyways, whereas before maybe it would have been very difficult to get into (for example) zouk, then jazz funk, and again into disco.
Now that I’ve had so many experiences with lots of different kinds of music and all quite real experiences: going to those countries, visiting those clubs, meeting the producers. For example, if someone sends me a record from Mogadishu, I’ve already got some knowledge in my head about that music, so it’s easier to make the connection. In that sense, it’s an amazing period for me. Just before you called me, I was looking at some tracks – people send me bare tracks and playlists – and I noticed that a DJ in London was playing a song by John Lucien called Black Flower. Since I’m a massive John Lucien fan, I was like: “Black Flower, I don’t know that one, what’s that one?”. So I checked it out on Discogs and realised it was an extra track that was on a compilation from 1999; I had found a track by John Lucien that was previously unreleased. It was on a CD that only came out in America, so my John Lucien story becomes more complex and interesting.
You know, I’m in an amazing position because I’m a true fan of music and it’s like being in dreamland. Because of what I’ve done, whether discovering old music or appreciating new stuff, I can go and spend time with Gary Bartz, Archie Shepp and Enrico Rava, but I am also inspired by the new producers who are making incredible music for their community.
Today everything has become more exaggerated, and with that exaggeration often comes better quality.
I wanted to talk about that as well. You’ve been making radio since forever, of course, but this is the era of the streaming platforms. With all this fragmentation of delivering and streaming music, how has your approach to that changed?
I think, again, it’s difficult to compare the times, because… Well it’s not difficult, actually. These days, the benefits are that there’s a lot more traffic; on the other hand, there’s a lot less places that have big influence, so the big platforms, such as the BBC, are losing the power they used to have 15-20 years ago. Once I could play a track on the BBC and that record would sell a lot of copies the next day. It had a big influence. Nowadays, you have to do a lot more! That’s the big difference as a broadcaster. But the main thing is: how can you find a new audience? The key for me is always finding a new way to reach new people. The big problem with the Internet is that once you find your community, that’s your community and it’s very singular. That’s great, but it doesn’t really change: you can almost live your entire life without meeting any other communities.
For me, as a DJ, tastemaker and a broadcaster, it’s always great to reach new ears. This is why I like to DJ in different places and not just play in the safe clubs or the places I know will be good for me. Same for the radio: being on the BBC on a Saturday afternoon it’s important, but also being able to do great shows on Worldwide FM or have tracks on Spotify. It’s all about maintaining different approaches and being able to connect to different audiences. That’s one of the most important things for me.
Yes, I agree. Another thing that you could put on your CV is that you coined the name for a new genre, which is really something. I feel that’s a lot more difficult now. There’s so much fragmentation of genres that I wonder if it’s still worth coining names. Do you think it’s still possible?
I mean, yes, although it probably won’t be me doing it! I’m sure there will be new trends and moods. But as you say, these days there’s less focus on one thing, so it’s hard to really go above everything and beyond everything, influencing the world of music in general. It’s probably a lot more difficult, but we’ll see. The person who does it will probably be Four Tet or one of those guys. They are going to come up with a new term, I’m sure.
Yeah, true. That’s enough nostalgia for now! I listen to a lot of your work but I rarely hear any Italian music in your mixes, playlists or sets. Is there any reason for that?
I don’t know actually, that’s an interesting one. You know, I play Daniele Baldelli, Clap Clap, DJ Khalab or Nu Guinea. I play all these groups, I’m just thinking of the last couple of years. Of course, when it comes to old Italian music…
I was talking more about old Italian music. I’ve heard you play more recent tracks, the very few good things that have come out recently. Good stuff from Italy is rare. However, we have a lot of great older stuff that is still relevant but I haven’t heard much of that.
I think Italian music is incredible, and the history of the Italian influence on the world of club culture and jazz is huge. I’m a big fan of Italian jazz and of the great Italian composers, from Morricone to Piero Piccioni. I have a lot of that stuff: I play it whenever I can. I also love the fact that there’s this whole world of music – like the disco sound, the cosmic disco type stuff – that came out of Italy and was really important. There are also groups like Change and so many other weird obscure disco records. I’ve always got some Italian stuff, maybe I should do an Italian special!
Do it! We need someone like you to spread the word. Sometimes, I think Italy’s contribution to the music scene is highly underrated. I’m not a huge fan of Italian music myself but we have made some very good stuff, especially in the past, and I feel as though even we forget that sometimes.
Yeah, maybe. But are you aware of what I do? I’ve been doing a festival called Ricci in Sicily for the last two years now and half the programming is Italian. It’s very interesting. Quite a lot of Sicilian music and local scene stuff. I certainly think whenever I do anything with regards to curating in a country other than the UK, I am always very interested in finding out and discovering more music from that region, and I do feel the energy. For me, Italy is a very interesting place at the moment. Whether I’m playing in Puglia, in Rome or Sicily. Of course, playing in places like Milan and the north of Italy is amazing. Italy is one of my favourite places to play because of the response – people have got music in their soul. It’s very natural. I much prefer playing in Italy to Northern Europe. It’s one of my three favorite places along with France and the UK. Maybe Portugal as well. They have a bit of a vibe… But I love Italy.
I’ve read some stuff about you citing Brazilian music – which I love – and I wondered whether this passion came from a particular Brazilian record or song that resonated with you when you were younger. Where did your love for Brazilian music come from?
I do find this quite curious actually. There’s a real fascination with Brazil in England, and I think it all goes back to the football. We all grew up around football, it had this huge cultural effect on what was going on in the UK, not just in terms of the game, but ultimately in terms of community and fashion. Back in the 70s and 80s, football was quite connected to music. A lot of the British teams who played in Europe would buy things like tracksuits by Sergio Tacchini or adidas. They would buy casual clothing and bring it back to the UK where it became part of the uniform that people would wear in the clubs that I went to.
And, of course, football introduced us to the beauty of Brazilian music, and with that you got this whole Copacabana Samba thing. Suddenly, we were all hearing that music and we wanted to be there. For me, as a DJ – actually even before I was DJing – I could go into clubs in England and DJs would be playing Batucadas or other big Sambas. So I’m very grateful to my DJ teachers who were playing that kind of music in the clubs back then.
For me, the most important record when it comes to my own Brazilian love affair was A Brazilian Love Affair by George Duke, which came out in 1978 or 1979. It was a kind of disco record – like a crossover hit record on the radio in England – but I bought the album thinking it was the single and found a lot of real Brazilian music on there. That’s where I discovered Milton Nascimento and Flora Purim and songs like Cravo e Canela. When I heard that, I found a whole other world; that was the true catalyst album that introduced me to Edu Lobo, Marcos Valle and so on. Even though I couldn’t speak Portuguese, I didn’t need to know the language, because I was just carried away by the songs, the melodies and the rhythms. And also, as a DJ, whenever I played Brazilian records, all the girls would go crazy. Girls go crazy to Brazilian music, so that’s a big part of it too.
Are there any new Brazilian acts that you recommend?
Oh, there’s loads. For me, one of the records of the year was by an artist called Sessa. He’s in Sao Paolo. And I love that group, Bixiga 70 – they are really great. Brazil has a very strong new music scene at the moment. The new Luca Santana album is very interesting. These are more traditional sounding live music records, but of course there’s always crazy stuff going on in the favelas – with all the versions of baile funk and electronic music. It’s crazy and very raw – lyrically raw. Some would say it’s not politically correct music, but it’s got mad energy.
In terms of the newest bands, there’s a lot going on. I brought a great singer from Brazil to Ricci Festival. Her name is Luiza Brina and she’s got a great album out as well. She’s from Rio de Janeiro, which is where Milton Nascimento comes from too. There’s a lot going on in Brazil, it’s one of the most active producers of music in the world at the moment.