POSTCARDS FROM 88… Greg Wilson
There’s no doubt that the summer of 1988 marked a watershed moment in the history of dance, as the house rhythms of Chicago, artistic exuberance of Ibiza, and electronic soundscapes of Detroit surged through club culture.
With this in mind, 909originals presents ‘Postcards from 88’, a series that will see leading DJs, promoters, journalists, club owners, photographers, and of course the clubbers themselves, shed some light on just what went on during those halcyon days, 30 years ago.
This week’s ‘Postcards from 88’ features one of the most influential figures in the UK’s clubbing scene, first as a Disco/Jazz-Funk/ Electro DJ and later as a respected producer, author and industry figurehead. With more than 40 years’ worth of DJ experience behind him, he’s not short on anecdotes, either… Greg Wilson.
Q. Do you remember what you were doing as the Summer of 1988 started?
I’d moved to London in 1987, having stopped DJing a few years before to concentrate on production. Things had been very bumpy, and I was struggling to keep financially afloat, so London had provided a fresh start after three years of instability.
Knowing Kermit from my time managing the breakdance crew, Broken Glass, I agreed to manage and produce the pioneering Manchester hip hop trio, the Ruthless Rap Assassins [pictured below], plus sister crew Kiss AMC, and set about trying to get them signed to a recording deal.
We put out a white label, We Don’t Care/Kiss AMC, which caused a stir. We began to pick up press interest, both from black and rock/indie publications, on the back of this and a couple of radio sessions.
We eventually secured our deal, remarkably with EMI, following a memorable gig at The Haçienda in February ’88. I recall Dave Pearce, then regarded as a hip hop specialist, being brought along by EMI’s A&R representative, Rob Sawyer, for a second opinion.
This was their anything-goes Zumbar night, which the following July would re-brand as Hot, destined to become one of the great acid-house gatherings. Its midweek success was no accident, Legend having set the tone earlier in the decade with its upfront Wednesday sessions.
Q. When or where did you first realise that ‘something different’ was happening with music?
With my nights at Legend and Wigan Pier central to the black music scene in the North, I was heavily involved in the early-‘80s electro era, which was when the music really began to change, its electronic direction paving the way for house and techno, as well as playing a key role in bringing hip hop to the fore.
So, for me and many others on the scene at the time, electro was the great change musically, with house and techno more of a continuation rather than something radically different, as Electro had been. Chicago and Detroit were responding to what had gone on in New York.
On the UK Electro album I worked on in 1984 we were experimenting in a similar way to how many other British dance acts would do subsequently.
We were heavily into sampling early doors, playing them in from the keys on an Emulator, but unlike 1988 our music didn’t have a context – we were pretty much out on our own at the time making it up as we went along. One of the inclusions, which would have made a great house track had we recorded it a few years later: Music by Syncbeat, has just been re-issued via Running Back, 34 years on.
The Haçienda was a beneficiary of this evolution from Electro to House/Techno/Hip Hop, having opened in 1982 (the very same month Afrika Bambaataa & The Soul Sonic Force’s era-defining Planet Rock came in on import) and, following a period of struggle to find its identity had, a few years prior to the rave explosion, begun to attract many of the black dancers at the cusp of the underground, people like Foot Patrol who interpreted early House in a Jazz-Fusion style at clubs like The Playpen before taking it onto the floor at The Haçienda.
The music was all in place and the underground was always responding, but it was that little pill that those guys took over in Ibiza that exploded the whole thing into mainstream consciousness in ’88.
Q. Was there a particular tune from the Summer of 1988 that stood out for you? Why?
Whilst people think of house music when they look at that date, its easy to forget that hip hop was rising parallel with dance music here in the UK, the two very much crossing over in many cases.
If you went to The Haçienda before the whole acid house thing exploded you’d hear hip hop, street soul and even jazz/Latin played alongside the Chicago house music that was beginning to break through. It was much more open musically at that point before DJs began switching to ‘house music all night long’, which was when a lot of the black crowd moved away.
Hip hop had major momentum by ’88, with artists like Boogie Down Productions, Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, Stetsasonic, Jungle Brothers, and NWA, whose Straight Outta Compton brought the West Coast to the fore.
Then there was Public Enemy, of course, who were absolutely huge at that point – their 1987 debut album Yo! Bum Rush The Show was a gamechanger, before ‘88’s It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back took their message global.
Against this backdrop and given the fact I was working with the Rap Assassins, who were obviously big into US hip hop, that’s where the thrust of my attention was.
In the mainstream, this was the time of Stock Aitken & Waterman, churning out production line hits for the likes of Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan and Rick Astley, who topped the US Dance chart twice in the first half of ’88, illustrating how dire things had become for dance music.
Thankfully the British were about to really make their mark with acts like S’Express, Bomb The Bass, Coldcut and Yazz scoring big, following a significant breakthrough for this new UK dance approach via M/A/R/R/S in ’87.
1988 was, in my opinion, apart from the hip hop contributions and the breakthrough of UK dance acts, hardly a vintage year where I’d be spoilt for choice picking a favourite track. In many respects it was the primer of what was to come, the more interesting music hidden away in the undergrowth of acid house, but about to rise to the surface.
With this in mind my choice would have to be an obvious one – a track that was initially released on a small label based, of all places, in my home town of Wallasey, across the River Mersey from Liverpool. This was Rham! Records.
It would go on to become a UK hit in 1989, having blown up big time on the underground, thanks most notably to plays at the ecstasy-ignited Haçienda, and from Stu Allan on Manchester radio. Stu had inadvertently given Gerald his full moniker – on leaving a cassette for him at the station, saying he was Gerald from Hulme, Stu would announce it as by ‘a guy called Gerald from Hulme’, and the name stuck.
Further to the personal synchronicity of the record label address, Gerald was someone I knew as a friend of a friend. He’d been an underage regular on my Wednesday nights at Legend, and he was now a big mate of Carson Hinds from the Rap Assassins. Before either of them released any records they’d regularly jam together, Gerald more hip hop-geared at the time, teaming up with another Mancunian who’d later make his mark, MC Tunes, as the Scratch Beatmasters.
In the 1991 Rap Assassins track Hard And Direct, which documents Manchester’s early hip hop development, Gerald gets props; “Gerald and Tunes were a menacing pair, back to attack, so all suckers beware, we’d go around and make music ’til late, with a mixer, a deck and his 808. The Attic Studios is what Ged’s was called, music so dope it was shakin’ the walls.”
Because of the Rap Assassin connection I got to hear Voodoo Ray pretty early, and I immediately recommended it to EMI, but they didn’t bite. It was straight out of left field and certainly not guaranteed to be the big commercial favourite it was destined to become, subsequently just falling short of the UK top 10 – not bad for an esoteric indie single on a small Merseyside label, that was called Voodoo Ray because Gerald didn’t have enough sample time for “voodoo rage”, plundered from the unlikely source of Derek & Clive, the g cutting off!
There’s pure history in this record – Voodoo Ray isn’t an orthodox house track, but a culmination of Gerald’s influences to that point, born from long nights dancing to Jazz-Funk and Electro – he’d written it with an eye on Foot Patrol and the way they applied their Jazz-Fusion style to House.
As I’ve previously stated, A Guy Called Gerald provides the perfect analogy for what happened in Manchester. Most people would assume that he went to The Haçienda, heard this incredible House music for the first time, had an epiphany, and then went home and set to work on this era defining single. The reality, of course, is that Gerald and his contemporaries were those very kids from Hulme and Moss Side, who brought house music into The Haçienda in the first place.
So, all in all, a unique-sounding Manchester track by a Manchester lad, which became the anthem of a Manchester club that would soon garner global attention.
That’s when things are at their best, when it all emerges from the ground upwards, mushrooming into popular consciousness – music made with the local community in mind that transcended its origins, finding universal appeal and, in the process, affording Gerald his place in dance history.
Q. Why do you think that people are still so interested in the origins of the dance scene, old school and everything that goes with it?
Because the foundations are always vital to a full understanding and, as I’m always blurting out, to know the future first you must know the past – things work in cycles and the patterns are often there to see with hindsight, this rich history providing a constant well of discovery and inspiration.
Q. If the ‘you’ from 1988 could give the ‘you’ from 2018 a piece of music-related advice, what would it be?
I think it would be to do with remaining open-minded and spontaneous in my approach, which I’ve always tried to adhere to. You never know what’s around the corner and, as I’ve previously outlined, just as dance music looked like it was entering something of a cul-de-sac, the whole rave era burst forth and announced the dawn of global dance culture as we now know it.
It’s always wise to keep on your toes to one degree or another, safeguarding yourself from drifting into complacency – many a musician/DJ/artist has fallen into this trap, losing relevancy quickly as a consequence. Guarding against this is a constant undertaking.
Take into account that when the Rave era exploded, a whole generation of DJs who’d worked in clubs for years became dinosaurs seemingly overnight, unable to keep up with the changes, not least the fact that mixing finally made the microphone obsolete for the majority of DJs at this point, with this original UK approach relegated to the world of mobile discos, and many previously successful DJs hanging up their headphones as a result.
That said, its necessary to be a lot more measured than the 1988 version, who was a whirlwind of on the hop ideas and schemes. It was unrestrained energy during those times, generated by pure belief in what I was doing and in those I worked with, adapting day to day to situations thrown up via our unfolding EMI deal.
All this takes its toll, especially when it ends, and following five years working with the Assassins, and two album releases, we came away with heaps of acclaim, and a place in British Rap history, but nothing to show for it on a financial level, sales had never matched the expectation suggested by the reviews. I was still struggling to make ends meet.
So, personally, ’88 represents a year of hope and expectation as the possibilities began to open up for myself and the Rap Assassins in parallel with the emergence of acid house – the Assassins very much a part of that whole Madchester thing, all the bands and crews from the city supportive of each other, projecting a real spirit of being in it together.
Kermit would later hook up with Shaun Ryder, following the demise of the Happy Mondays, to form Black Grape – their 1995 album, It’s Great When You’re Straight…Yeah topping the UK chart, which went some way to endorsing all our previous efforts, as was the case when Brian Cannon, who’d cut his teeth doing the crew’s artwork, following his now widely-known record sleeves for Oasis and The Verve.
Whilst for many, 1988 is the year of Acid House, for me it was a hip hop trip laced with acid ripples.
This was reflected in later Assassins recordings, the Killer Album (1990) projecting the colour and vitality of those heady days, but, most importantly, providing context from a black perspective – providing an important document, as did the following year’s LP Th!nk – It Ain’t Illegal Yet, to both the black British experience, and a culturally vibrant city at the height of its glory, and on into its early-‘90s demise.
[Thanks to Greg for this week’s interview. Photos of Greg Wilson by 1) Nick Mizen and 2) Brian Cannon. Postcards from 88 continues next week. Check out the other interviews in the series by clicking here]