Greg Wilson needs little introduction. The current disco resurgence owes much to his work in the 80s in clubs like Wigan Pier, Legend and The Hacienda and on radio stations like Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio. He is also accredited as the first DJ to mix live on British TV (The Tube, 1983), made the first UK Re-edit (Paul Haig – Heaven Sent 1983) and also taught Norman Cook aka Fat Boy Slim to scratch. It came as quite a shock when in 1984 he hung up his headphones at the hight of his DJ success to take a back seat role as a producer and band manager for Broken Glass, who’s track ‘Style of the Street’ was much later sampled by UK rave pioneers The Prodigy on ‘Girls’.
His name is now synonymous with the Electro and Disco sounds of the UK scene in the 1980s, and his triumphant return to DJing in 2003 was welcomed by his peers and fans alike. Greg’s articles about dance musics evolution, its roots in British culture and his personal journey are a wonderful insight in to a time many of us lived but experienced so differently, and augment our memories with his own in a vivid tapestry of words and mental images. His essential mix for Pete Tong on UK Radio 1 not only became an instant classic and won him an army of new fans the world over, it was also selected for the shows epic 500th episode special as one of the 10 classic mixes spanning the shows 17 year history.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but this was one acceptation A&R man Simon Huxtable was eager to make.
Hi Greg were so pleased you could find time for an interview with us at Decoded Magazine. Hows your day been so far?
Just wading through email – it’s a daily occurrence, I’m always chasing my tail these days trying to keep up with everything! Especially hectic with all the record label stuff on top of my DJ commitments. The reward for work is more work!
We all know you from your DJing in the 80s. Can you explain what the clubs were like back then. What were hotspots like Wigan Pier like, and were films like Saturday Night Fever a fair representation of the styles and fashions you experienced?
Saturday Night Fever was well received by the club community initially, as here was a film that depicted the new disco culture we were a part of. However, its overwhelming success also commercialised disco in a way we couldn’t have envisaged at the time, taking what was an underground movement squarely into the mainstream, and opening up the genre to all sorts of second-rate cash-in releases. All of a sudden there were disco dance classes opening and people trying to do the moves they saw in the film. It all got pretty cheesy and the original soul, funk and disco crowd moved towards the specialist jazz-funk scene that was evolving, although the more black-based disco releases were still played by the upfront DJ’s.
Could you tell us about your influences growing up. Didn’t your Brother and Sister turn you on to the urban music scene? You were also mad about David Bowie back then we understand…
My brother is 10 years older – he was a scooter riding mod, buying Stax and Atlantic singles like many of his contemporaries. My sister is 6 years older and she was buying mainly Tamla Motown, but also some of the Trojan reggae releases in the late 60’s. This became my musical inheritance from my older siblings, and my first love was very much black music. I was also into the pop music of the time and became a huge Bowie fan following his fabled ‘Starman’ appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1972, when I was 12. It was through Bowie that I started buying albums – I’d picked up the odd LP beforehand, but with Bowie I had to own everything he ever recorded (at least those I could afford – some of his earlier 60’s singles pretty obscure).
Can you explain to us what ‘Electro-Funk’ is and how that became your trademark sound.
Electro-Funk was a term we used to describe a new wave of black music coming out of New York in the early 80’s, utilising the emerging technologies of sequencers, drum machines and samplers. It was the beginnings of electronic dance music as we know it – the missing link that leads from soul, funk and disco to hip hop, house and techno, with groove experimentation the order of the day, leading to dance hybrids a-plenty. I just happened to be the DJ who reacted quickest to this new sound, whilst having, in Legend and Wigan Pier, the perfect environments in which to play it – the purists ignoring this new electronic direction, King Canute style, until it was unavoidable. It was certainly a case of out with the old and in with the new.
From your blog, Ive read many wonderful articles outlining your top 10 tracks for a particular month of a selected year. They make great reading. At the time how did you go about finding records? Were they all sent to you, or did you do a lot of crate digging? and do you think that that experience (crate digging) is lost to this new generation of DJs who regard websites like Beatport as the norm?
Being involved in an upfront scene, which revolved around playing music ahead of other DJ’s, meant that there were only a handful of record shops in the country that supplied the latest imports, which was your stock-in-trade. Spin-Inn in Manchester was pretty much the only shop in the North to buy your tunes from if you had aspirations of being a black music specialist. I’d also make regular trips to London to see what was in shops like City Sounds and Groove. I received pretty much all the new UK releases direct from the record companies, who all had DJ Mailing lists, but, apart from the occasional British acts who fit the bill, the records by US artists were already tracks I d acquired on import.
I still think there are plenty of DJ’s digging out tunes beneath the surface – it’s just that they might not be travelling to record shops now, but trawling the internet. It’s just the way things are – we can’t go back to what was. It would also be wrong to think that all DJ’s back then were digging deep – the majority would be similar to the Beatport generation, just buying the latest chart singles from their local record shop, and never venturing further afield in search of the tunes that might set them apart from their contemporaries. The upfront DJ’s were very much in the minority, but their influence was vast and the majority would often be playing the tunes they’d broken in their venues, only a few months later down the line (after they’d been given a UK release).
The clip of you on ‘80s Youth Culture show ‘The Tube’ shows you mixing two records together, and using a reel to reel tape machine to create an echo effect. Aside from just how ground breaking that appearance was, what gave you the idea to incorporate effects into your DJ sets?
It was my radio mixes for Manchester’s Piccadilly Radio that brought the reel-to-reel into play, and set me on my editing adventure – the Revox B77, which I still use today, first came to my attention as a portable unit used by radio stations for outside broadcasts. My original radio mixes were recorded as live in 1982, during the daytime, at Legend, onto a B77 the station had supplied. With regards to editing and fx, I was pretty much making it up as I went along – there was nobody to show me what to do. I later came to understand that there was a rich history of DJ’s manipulating music via the use of tape, most notably with the rise of dub in Jamaica.
Whats your set up like now with the advent of DJ technology? Are you still a vinyl purest, or do you play by other means?
I use CDJ2000’s these days. My take on things is that it’s what’s coming out of the speakers, rather than the format the music is played on, that’s the important thing.
Do you think the art of DJing has changed now because of the use of computers? Was it something that was inevitable?
Technically things have changed, of course. DJ’s are able to be a lot more seamless in their presentation of music than they once were, but the main principle remains exactly the same, and that’s the ability to read an audience and make the right selections. Too much emphasis can be placed on the technical, whilst I maintain that the primary skill that sets the best DJ’s apart isn’t necessarily their mixing ability, but their programming nous. A combination of both is obviously the ideal.
Did the shifting sands of the DJ world play any part in your decision to stop back in 1984?
The move towards turntablism was definitely a factor, although by no means exclusively. This was something I’d embraced – I think my Piccadilly mixes included the first examples of scratching by a British DJ (although my technique was extremely primitive to say the least). However, I was well aware that, to get really good at this, I’d need to be constantly practicing at home, and given my fascination with editing and new ambitions to become a remixer / producer, I began to look more towards the studio than the club for my next steps.
How was it working behind the scenes with a band after experiencing the highs of being in front of the crowd as a DJ?
I originally come from an era where the DJ was, more often than not, hidden away in some dark corner. That suited me fine, I’ve never been comfortable with being on display as such, preferring to let the music talk for me. Even at Legend, which had an impressive DJ booth, which was very much a focal point, it wasn’t like now, where all eyes can be on the DJ – people were too busy giving it up on the dance floor. It was much more reciprocal back then between DJ and audience, you very much fed from the people on the dance floor, and that informed your selections.
I can quite happily work in a more background role, which was the case when I was managing bands / running labels. I’m not one of those people that needs to be centre of attention, and I can honestly say that during my 2 decade hiatus I didn’t have any real pangs to be back behind the decks. When I did come back to it, it all happened very organically – it was for the right reasons.
Let’s move on to the here and now. Could you tell us about your new album Super Weird Substance?
It’s a compilation of the 8 singles released to date (plus a further 6 bonus versions) on the first CD, with an additional CD containing a continuous mix of these tracks, which I’ve put together. Having been involved with a few edits labels during recent years, some people might still be under the impression that this is something similar, but Super Weird Substance has been set up as a proper label in the old school sense, with a pool of singers and musicians working on their own projects, as well as helping with other peoples’. It’s the same from the live side, where we have a house band providing the backing, with the various vocalists take their turn at the front, whilst also backing up the other performers.
For someone who’s worked extensively with samples since my first production project, back in 1984, one of the decisions on starting the label was not to use samples, but to place the emphasis on quality musicianship and programming. It helps, of course, when you have vocalists like The Reynolds, Kermit Leveridge and Cleve Freckleton, but our intention was always to record songs as opposed to tracks.
The record label this album shares its name with is pretty special. Genre defiant and leading the way with multi format ‘happenings’… tell us more!
Again, I go back to a time when there weren’t such narrow genres and sub-genres and dance music was a wide church, DJ’s playing a full spectrum of grooves from downtempo to right up there. This is what I want in a label, with one track disco flavoured, the next with a reggae vibe, a third more hip hop based. It’s more interesting for me like this – when everything goes the same way I get bored. I need diversity in music, for me this is one of its great joys.
The Happenings have a similar ethos. Rather than just DJ’s, or even DJ’s and bands, which is the norm at most events, we feature interviews, incorporate spoken word, inviting poets and writers to contribute, as well as encouraging live artists to do their thing. These are multi-media events, which tip their hat to the spontaneous 60’s art ‘Happenings’. At the bottom line I suppose that we adhere to the principle ‘variety is the spice of life’ – the intention to introduce people to stuff they might not normally come across in a festival or club space (at least not all together), and to re-connect these various artistic approaches, whilst rounding things off with a good old party vibe.
You’re still in the game after all these years, whats the secret to longevity in this industry?
On a personal level, I’m not qualified to do anything else, but work within a music related capacity. I became fully aware of this during my wilderness period in the 90’s, when I was desperately in need of money, but with no means of acquiring it. I was a club DJ from the age of 15, so I never knew anything else. I’m also highly passionate about music and popular culture, and its impact on individuals as well as society as a whole, so there’s a drive to get these stories out there, to connect the dots.
I’ve quit once before, so i know that’s within me. The secret, if there is one, is knowing why I’m doing this – having a greater reason. If it was just a case of making money I’d find the whole thing spiritually empty – this wouldn’t sustain me. When I came back to DJing it was as a result of raising my online presence, having written a couple of pieces relating to the history of UK dance culture to help fill in gaps that weren’t to be found inmost of the documentation I was coming across, which was all very Ibizacentric. It was as if Rave had happened in a vacuum, rather than being the result of over 20 years of DJ’s playing the latest dance records in British club venues, something you can trace back to Guy Stevens and James Hamilton at The Scene in London, and Roger Eagle at Manchester’s Twisted Wheel, back in the early 60’s.
More recently, having been back a decade, I felt a need to challenge myself again, and this is what led me to setting up Super Weird Substance. I can’t allow myself to get stuck in my ways, it’s a case of continually setting myself aims and objectives.
Well Greg, its been an immense honour and a true pleasure to share some time chatting with you. If I could ask one final question… How do you see the development of the dance scene going in the next, say, 10 years?
I think that the stems format is a really interesting development, enabling DJ’s to do their own live remixes. This seems to be the direction we’ve taken, the DJ bringing the studio into the club. There’s also the whole Boiler Room phenomenon, which, if you take to its logical conclusion, will lead to DJ’s playing in one place, whilst the party is beamed and streamed, via giant screens and sound systems, into someone’s home, or other club spaces. In this way DJ’s will be able to work remotely, perhaps setting up their own studios where they broadcast these live sessions globally.