Interview: ORIGINALS… Greg Wilson
There’s very little that can be written about Greg Wilson that hasn’t already been said, such is the Merseyside native’s influence on dance culture over a more than four-decade period.
Kicking off his DJ career at the age of just 15, in his hometown of New Brighton, Wilson came into his own during the late 70s and early 80s as a purveyor of quality soul, funk, disco and, in time, electro, at landmark venues such as Wigan Pier and Manchester‘s Legend, as well as introducing the concept of mixing to an audience raised on a diet of microphone-friendly DJs and glitter-festooned backdrops.
Remarkably, at the end of 1983, seemingly at the peak of his powers, Wilson turned his back on DJing, to focus on production, as well as managing Manchester’s Broken Glass and Ruthless Rap Assassins. He would retain a low profile until the early 2000s, when the growth of the internet led him to launch electrofunkroots.co.uk (one of several sites he now curates), which sought to ‘fill in the blanks’ in chronicling the evolution of electronic music culture, and his re-emergence behind the decks.
A popular fixture on the international DJ circuit – generally accompanied by his trusty reel-to-reel – Wilson is a musical alchemist, bringing good vibes and, most importantly, impeccable musical taste to everything he does. And he’s a bloody nice bloke to boot.
For the latest in our ORIGINALS series of interviews, we are proud to introduce a true industry icon… Greg Wilson.
Thanks to the good people at Beatyard for their help in organising the interview.
Q. You are considered one of the first DJs to epitomise the concept of the ‘selector’ – someone who is obsessive about music choice, about mixing, about reading the crowd?
There were a lot of people before me, going right back to the 60s. In London, you had Guy Stevens, at the Scene Club in Soho, a big Mod club, and in Manchester, Roger Eagle at the Twisted Wheel.
That was where Northern Soul scene developed from, when they stared digging out the old records, and the rarity aspect came in to play. Dave Godin [legendary record shop owner and writer] coined the term‘Northern Soul’ after a visit to the Twisted Wheel.
When the Twisted Wheel closed, you had a lot of obsessive record enthusiasts, but I don’t know whether you could call them ‘selectors’ – they were more people that just had great music taste. In terms of the presentation side of things, you had the emergence then of the ‘personality DJ’, where you had to have the gift of the gab.
Right up until the rave era, a lot of DJs were still using the microphone. Whether a DJ was able to mix wasn’t a sticking point for most people.
Q. Growing up in New Brighton, on Merseyside, were there a lot of opportunities for a young DJ?
When I was starting out, there were quite a lot of clubs – these were the days that the pubs closed at 10.30, so if you wanted to go for a drink afterwards, you had to go to a club. I worked from the age of 15, in places like the Golden Guinea and The Penny Farthing.
It was like an apprenticeship, I was learning how to DJ, how to read the crowd. You would have some nights when there was nobody in there, and others when the place would be packed as soon as the doors opened.
For me, DJing was all about having the crowd with you, and developing the reciprocal elements to make the night work. That’s hard work when there are only a few people in there, but you learn how to deal with that situation, and that in turn translates to when you are working at a bigger club with a packed dancefloor.
I was young, and before long I was fairly clued up – I was going to London regularly to meet the record company people, and had been doing so since I was 17 to 18. I was getting promos from pretty much every British record label. I wasn’t buying any UK records actually, only American imports.
When I was at the Golden Guinea, I decided I wanted to be the one to play whatever what was ‘new’, first. Imports were quite expensive in those days, so I was cherry picking them, and by the time I got to Wigan Pier I was spending up to £150 a week, which was quite a lot of money in those days.
There was a guy called Emperor Rosko, who was on Radio 1 in the 1970s, who brought out a book about DJing. Most of it was about broadcasting, but at the back of the book was a list of record companies, and information about how to get promos, details about mailing lists – things like that. That was a big discovery for me.
I used to keep these exercise books filled with all the records I was getting on promo; by the time I was 17, I had something like two and a half thousand records. I was getting disco, pop music, even punk. Anything I didn’t want I was selling to the record shops.
Q. Your residencies at Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester helped establish your reputation in the early 80s, but before that, you travelled quite extensively around Europe. Tell me about that.
I was working in Germany, Denmark, Norway… places like that. I went out there first when I was 18, so I was a little wet between the ears. When I went to Germany, I saw SL 1200s for the first time. You didn’t see them in the UK at all back then.
I didn’t want to be abroad, but DJs didn’t earn a lot of money back then, and I was making something like £15 to £20 a night, which was good money in comparison to other people my age. My friends from back home were doing apprenticeships and going to university – getting their foot on the career ladder – but I was doing something completely different, getting paid to DJ at clubs across Europe.
I remember going to a club on my night off in Essen, called Librium, which really opened my eyes. The soundsystem in that club was incredible, and the lighting system – it was only a small, compact club, but how the DJ was mixing the music was really impressive. I thought, with the right context, I could take this direction with what I was doing.
There were lots of English DJs on the circuit in Europe at that time. They were still doing the ‘microphone thing’; that was the authentic way to DJ back then, announcing and back-announcing records in the English language. I remember driving to a town in Norway called Skien, and there were three other English DJs plying their trade around town.
I was DJing one night, and there was this guy with curly hair – like a big afro – staring at me, like he’s weighing me up. Half an hour later, he’s still there. So eventually, he comes up and introduces himself. His name was Paul Rae and he had been out in Europe for months alongside all these other DJs, one of which was Nicky Flavell.
So he invites me round to hang out, and I get to meet all these guys that are doing the same thing I’m doing. They respected me because I had good musical taste, I think.
Nicky’s club was musically spot on, and I was a bit envious of that, because while I was struggling away trying to play black music in a rock club, he had licence to play disco and funk and everything.
A couple of years later, when I was in Denmark, I rang up Nicky’s home in Hertfordshire, and discovered that he was working at a club called Wigan Pier. So I made up my mind to check it out the next time I was back in the UK, which wasn’t long after that, because I crashed my car and had to come home.
Q. Quite a fortuitous set of circumstances, then?
I was back for a week, and I went to Wigan Pier on the Tuesday. ‘Oh my god’, I said to myself. ‘This is it!’
It was the most amazing place; the soundsystem was incredible, it was the first UK nightclub to have a laser lighting system, and it was fitted out by a company that used to kit out the discotheques then built into Hilton Hotels around the world. The DJ was situated in a giant, 15 foot high fibreglass frog. It was incredible.
Nicky said to me that he was moving to a new club in Manchester called Legend owned by the same people, and that Wigan Pier were holding auditions for the DJ to take over from him. I was due to head back to Germany, on a two month contract, but I was seriously considering not going in order to try my hand at landing the Pier residency.
But after I thought about it, I was on good money in Germany, and there was always the chance I wouldn’t get it, so I couldn’t throw everything up on the hope I’d land a job that almost every DJ in the region coveted.
I sent the manager a cassette tape – that wasn’t done all that often back then – and I think Nicky pushed things along for me, because I got a call when I was in Germany asking would I like to come back and play there.
From the time I was 15 or 16, I had decided that that was going to be my profession, and as such, I thought that if I was going to do this, I was going to have to work out how to step it up to another level.
Now, following Nicky’s call, I had the opportunity to come back home.
Q. That’s how you got started in Wigan Pier, then?
Yeah, and a year on I took over the Wednesday Jazz-Funk night at Legend. As things worked out, Nicky was only there for a short time – he was followed on the Wednesday by John Grant, a big name on the scene, who had then gone to a rival night, taking the bulk of the crowd with him.
Legend had an incredible set up. I can’t emphasise enough how much ahead of the curve this club was. So, Tuesday was the jazz-funk night at Wigan Pier, Wednesday was Legend.
The Tuesdays at Wigan Pier went from strength to strength, with a regular 450 to 500 people coming in from places like Manchester, Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham, Birmingham. Legend began to build bit by bit and would eventually go through the roof, with queues forming early and the night hitting capacity until when I left, at the end of ’83.
I managed to make the night my own, and it won all sorts of awards, including club of the year. Legend really should have won it, I think, but Wigan was more ’neutral’, if you know what I mean.
Legend had a predominantly black crowd, Wigan more a black/white split – this in a place where there was a very minimal black population.
At Wigan Pier and Legend, though, you were talking state-of-the-art venues and the crowd really created something special.
Q. Did your emergence at venues like Wigan Pier and Legend cause a bit of resentment among the more ‘established’ DJs on the circuit?
I wasn’t part of the establishment. You couldn’t just walk in and declare ‘I’m here, and this is what I’m doing!’ You had to earn your spurs, and the fact that I had a busy night at Wigan Pier certainly helped.
Q. You were becoming quite adept at mixing by this stage?
In terms of mixing, I think that James Hamilton, who wrote for Record Mirror, was the first to really champion it, talking about what was happening in New York and things like that. It would have been very rudimentary at the time, because the records weren’t designed for it. You didn’t have those long intros that we have now.
When I first tried mixing, it was very basic stuff – maybe three records in a row, and bits and bobs here or there. I remember I would take two copies of Don’t Leave Me This Way, the Thelma Houston version and the Harold Melvin version, and would switch between them on the ‘ahhhHHHH’ bit, which probably sounded awful, thinking about it.
There were a few DJs that started to look seriously at mixing, such as Froggy from the Soul Mafia in London – he had been to New York and seen Larry Levan at the Paradise Garage, and it was an epiphany for him. He bought a pair of 1200s and designed the Matamp mixer, which turned out to be the same mixer I used on The Tube.
Q. You were an early champion of electro back then. From what I’ve heard, a lot of people didn’t like it at first?
Yeah, we lost some of the crowd, but they were replaced with a new crowd. With every new type of music, there’s always resistance.
It was the same when mixing came in – most DJs were happy with the status quo, and they were making their living off it. And then some kid comes along with different ideas!
Q. Any stand out tracks you remember from that ‘proto-electro period?
I think the first one I remember was D Train You’re The One For Me, the Francois Kevorkian mix, which was mainly instrumental. Then you had the Tee Scott mix of Northend’s Happy Days, Tee’s Happy – an early Arthur Baker production, back before anyone knew who he was. Peech Boys Don’t Make Me Wait was another real landmark one for me; it had these fierce electro handclaps. Also Sinnamon Thanks to You, the Shep Pettibone remix.
This was still very underground at this stage, but would soon filter into the mainstream scene. And then Planet Rock came along and all of a sudden, you had a radical new musical movement.
The tracks started to come thick and fast at this stage, and half the crowd weren’t sure what was going on, while the young black kids were absolutely loving it.
It started off as a very gradual evolution, but then became more and more of a dam burst.
Q. You went on to dub that new sound ‘electro funk’ at the time. How would you define electro funk?
It was a whole spectrum of different approaches; kids were getting their hands on new technology for the first time, and twisting it and working it to create new musical styles – it could range from 98bpm to 130bpm.
It was the same with house music in Chicago, and techno in Detroit – take a piece of technology and do things with it that nobody has thought of doing before. I used to call it the ‘mother of necessity’.
It’s like when Grand Wizard Theodore decided to scratch with a needle on a record and thought ‘this could be something special’.
Q. It took a while longer to convince the establishment, though, right?
As time went on, I started to get some stick in Blues & Soul magazine for playing this stuff – there was a journalist, called Frank Elson, that wouldn’t even print the word ‘electro’. He’d asterisk it, like a swear word.
That was hard to take, because I was a young guy with a big ego. I expected a pat on the back because I was doing so well, but I was told I was polluting the scene.
For a lot of people, their perspective of what was good music at the time was very different – when they were talking about soul music, they were talking about Luther Vandross and Alexander O’Neal. Great artists, yes, but plush production. It wasn’t the same as Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding.
People were saying things like ‘the machines make the music, there’s no soul there’, and it took perhaps Marvin Gaye using an Roland 808 on Sexual Healing, or Herbie Hancock bringing out Rockit to change their mind. Eventually, the resistance died down.
I remember reading, in reference to the crowd I had at Legend, that I was “leading them astray”. From where I was standing, these kids were the new leaders – they were the ones reacting to what I was doing. I was able to plug into that energy and bring them the music they wanted.
To this day, I think I carry some scars from that moment, now that I think about it. It wasn’t for many years after that I had the same conversations with some of these people and they were lovely about it; they admitted they got it wrong.
Q. What you were doing went on to influence others as well, didn’t it?
Colin Curtis, who was a big name at the time, from the Northern Soul days and Blackpool Mecca, took the template of what I was doing and brought it to Nottingham, for the Rock City venue, and soon Nottingham and Birmingham had also turned into electro strongholds.
There’s a link there to the Hacienda, actually, because Paul Mason, who was the manager of Rock City, was brought to the Hacienda in the mid-80s, and he brought along an up-and-coming DJ called Graeme Park.
Q. I’ve heard you say in the past that Legend was a high point for your career, and the fact that you never hit those heights afterwards was a reason for you to quit DJing a couple of years later. But in between, you were at The Hacienda. What was that like?
I went to the Hacienda in August of 1983, and took over their Friday nights, as well as playing for an hour on the Saturday. For me, it never really worked out. The sound system wasn’t good enough, the club was struggling, the DJ booth was ridiculous. Everything that was great about Legend pretty much fell down at the Hacienda.
People say to me ‘wow, you played the Hacienda, that must have been the greatest thing!’ But when I was there, to be honest, it wasn’t very good.
It was largely being run by Mike Pickering – he wasn’t a DJ yet, he was the bookings manger. He and Rob Gretton had a vision for the place, but the timing wasn’t right. It wouldn’t be right for about three or four years.
People talk a lot about Tony Wilson’s influence but when I was there, he didn’t know anything about dance music.
What Tony did do, though, was go with the flow – he was the face of the club, and he was on TV, and he had a swagger about him, and a panache.
Q. Do you think there’s something different about how music developed in the North of England, compared to the South?
There’s a different lineage in the North and the South, because there wasn’t the rare groove scene in the North, it was very much a London thing. Rare groove was almost like Northern Soul in terms of looking back, about a retrospective viewpoint. In the North, hip-hop and house music entwined for so long – even Mike Pickering will say the best times at The Hacienda were just before it went house music all night long.
There was jazz-funk, there was disco, there was straight-out jazz fusion – all these different aspects. It wasn’t just one BPM, one style; it changed around, almost with every few tracks.
Actually, what really created the atmosphere at The Hacienda the early years was when the black kids used to come in. There was a real dancing culture – they had all the moves – and because the place wasn’t that busy, they had enough space to dance. Over time, when the rave crowd arrived on the scene, the black crowd kind of retreated.
That’s partly down to the music as well; the black crowd liked house music, but they didn’t want to listen to it all night. They also wanted hip hop, funk, a mixture of styles. A lot of that groove was lost with the acid house ‘explosion’.
Q. In 1983, having ‘retired’ from DJing, you produced the Street Sounds UK Electro album, which was one of the first albums to feature sampling. How did that come about?
Actually, one of the reasons I broke away from the scene, was because I felt the golden era of electro funk was gone. Now that everyone was into it, the clubs were taken over by breakdancing crews squaring off against each other.
It was very visual and exciting at first, but when it was happening week after week, it became this testosterone-fuelled fervour, and the girls were getting pissed off because there was nowhere for them to dance.
That’s when the turntablism aspect of it really got started, and while I knew what scratching and cutting was, I realised that in order to get into it, you had to be really serious about it. Other DJs, like Chad Jackson [producer of Hear the Drummer (Get Wicked)] had the time to develop it as a craft. But I didn’t really see it as a direction I could go. I was doing mixes for the radio at the time, and I decided to go in a more studio-based direction.
For the production of Street Sounds, it was a case of make it up as you go along. I made the album with Martin Jackson of Magazine and Andy Connell of A Certain Ratio, so they were coming from a more alternative sort of place.
In the end, we just did that album and nothing else. Sometimes you’re too ahead of the curve on things, and I think we were two or three years too soon. When M/A/R/R/S, S-Express, Bomb The Bass and Coldcut came along, they had the context.
It fell between two stools in a way – it was too weird and experimental for the black crowd and too ‘black’ for the white crowd. But when the internet came along a few years later, people rediscovered it and revered it – I’ve been told by a few people that it was a real influence on them.
Q. Did studio work come naturally to you?
I had this rash confidence about me – just get in there and get it done. I found that I loved the editing part of it; just cut a tape up and put it back together again. It was a bit meditative, I spent all day doing it sometimes.
[Ed – In the late 80s, Greg would go on to manage the Ruthless Rap Assassins, which we covered in a previous interview – click here to read]
Q. It took you almost 20 years to return to DJing, when you re-kickstarted your career in 2003. Did you feel you had unfinished business to attend to?
I never envisaged coming back to DJ. What changed all that was when the internet came along, and I went online and I started seeing websites that dealt with the history of dance culture.
People were talking about acid house and trying to link it directly to Northern Soul. The Wigan Casino closed in 1981, which effectively spelled the end of the golden age of that scene, so to directly connect that with something that happened in 1988, seven years later, just wasn’t right.
They were missing a key piece of the jigsaw; those kids that came to dance at Legend and other clubs, that were setting the template for what was to follow. In many ways they were at the cusp of what was happening.
Thanks again Greg! We can’t think of any better way to end then on a seminal mix recorded at this year’s Glastonbury, showing the maestro’s musical knowledge in full flow. Take it away.. 🙂
[Main photo by Ian Tilton]
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