Interview: ORIGINALS… Greg Wilson, part two
Following on from part one of our interview with legendary selector Greg Wilson, in part two we chat to the New Brighton native about the emergence of the electro sound (and the response from the blues and soul fraternity), his residency at The Hacienda, and his departure from the DJ scene – and subsequent re-emergence some two decades later.
Thanks again to Greg for the interview, and for the Beatyard and Bodytonic teams for making it happen. You can catch up on gigs, mixes and everything Greg Wilson-related at www.gregwilson.co.uk. [Main photo by Brian Cannon]
Over to you, Greg. 🙂
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]