“Because I’ve been DJing for so long people expect different things from me. Some people want me to play new stuff, others want Brazilian stuff or this and that. And the thing is, I’m really grateful people are still enjoying booking me because I’m not doing a nostalgia set. That hasn’t happened yet. I can’t play the same set two times running.”
Due in no small part to the Fast Show’s characterisation of jazz music as a piece of static heritage for men in smoking jackets (“Nice!”), there’s been a rapidly dissolving misconception that it’s an artefact with no contemporary relevance. In the thirty years since he first slipped on his headphones though, the DJ, record label boss, promoter and broadcaster (these are just the best-known roles on his exhaustingly industrious CV) Gilles Peterson has been the antidote to this. A selector who’s immersed in the past while still continually pushing new sounds, new scenes and new associates, Gilles has remained one of the UK’s best-known musical figures by fusing together everything from crate-digger’s delights to cutting-edge footwork. He’s a crucial figure in the history of British club music and a natural choice for a place on Friday’s main stage at Junction 2.
With the characteristic enthusiasm of a man known foremostly as a music lover, the only problem with his set is that he’ll miss other DJs he wants to see. “It’s an amazing standard of DJs. I looked at the line-up and I’m up against everyone I really like. I think the standard undoubtedly is one of the highest in terms of DJs compared to other festivals I’m playing at this summer. I can’t believe it.” Speaking humbly about his own contribution, what he doesn’t mention is that so many of those other DJs may well owe a part of their success to him. Not only does that include crate-diggers like Hunee and Jeremy Underground, but the hyper-moderns like Ben UFO, all of whom he’s played in clubs and given airtime to on his global radio shows.
“One thing I’m beginning to look into at the moment is writing, looking at trying to get into that headspace of spending time on a book. I’ve always been about passion projects anyway, so the writing side is something I’d like to develop.”
One of the reasons why he’s remained so relevant is because rather than attempting to remain an island (Cuba, perhaps), he’s surrounded himself with the right people. “I can find people who give me energy, which is what it’s all about. People like Thris Tian (one of the original founders of Boiler Room) and Benji B, a lot of the people that I’ve worked with, when they came to me were just students almost. Then bringing them in and sort of being their mentor and their advisor, it’s great, because it’s really wonderful to see them be successful on their own path. For me that should be part of what I do, just like I had mentors.” This, he says, is “how you manage to maintain an edge, you’re bringing in that constant energy.”
Recently he’s been ploughing this energy into projects like the recently launched We Out Here festival, and into a possible future avenue that’s even new to him. “One thing I’m beginning to look into at the moment is writing, looking at trying to get into that headspace of spending time on a book. I’ve always been about passion projects anyway, so the writing side is something I’d like to develop.” He acknowledges that time to focus is hard to come by though, so the book might not be immediately forthcoming; better right than right now. “Why do lots of things ok when you can do one thing really, really well? For me, it’s kind of how do I maintain a high standard in things that I have to do regularly and yet still learn something new that’s going to satisfy me and hopefully be of a standard I’m proud of.” Similarly, he recognises the value in just getting stuck in, “because sometimes you can almost be so frightened to make mistakes that you don’t do anything. It’s just finding that line. It can happen at any age, so it’s about finding that new challenge and being brave enough to put your foot into the fire.”
“I think if you talk to anybody from Mike Banks to Pete Rock to Nile Rodgers, in their own fields whether its techno, or hip hop or disco, they’re opening the door to a world which will take you further towards the holy grail.”
Passion, bravery and a relentless drive are things he shares with one of his ultimate musical heroes, the group he chooses as his pick for a fantasy music festival. “I think that one of the artists that everybody has to see is the Sun Ra Arkestra. At the age of 94, Marshall Allen is still extraordinary as a musician and bandleader, and there’s no group in the world today that has the same amount of history as the Arkestra. It’s been a continual group for over 50-60 years now. So when they do a set you really go through the ages of music and if the set goes like I’ve heard them on many occasions, it doesn’t necessarily end in the same place, which is the magic of the group, but it will end up somewhere in the future musically.”
For Gilles, whether or not you’re a fan of Sun Ra specifically, that’s one musical world that can align the past and future of all kinds of genres. “I think they’re all doorways into the funk and into the jazz and into the foundations. For me, they’re just the gatekeepers and they open the doorway to the holy grail, which you could potentially call Sun Ra, or any of this complete kind of art. I think if you talk to anybody from Mike Banks to Pete Rock to Nile Rodgers, in their own fields whether its techno, or hip hop or disco, they’re opening the door to a world which will take you further towards the holy grail.”
“It’s an amazing standard of DJs. I looked at the line-up and I’m up against everyone I really like. I think the standard undoubtedly is one of the highest in terms of DJs compared to other festivals I’m playing at this summer. I can’t believe it.”
Currently, this grail quest leads right back to the town Gilles is intimately associated with, London. “The jazz scene in London is being talked about a lot at the moment and there’s a lot of new music being made and some good talent. If you’re going to compare the music note for note with other jazz records, then it might lose in certain aspects, but in terms of a certain energy or ideology it wins.” He suggests that even more than just music, it’s about the presence of the scene itself. “That community is growing and with every new record coming out there’s a whole new sound that’s emerging. It’s about to become a very interesting phase coming out of the UK because of the fact that a lot of the new wave of American talent in jazz tend to be wholly influenced by hip hop and American music. The UK musicians on the other hand have a much wider set of influences coming through club culture and from Britain’s geography.”
He’s similarly optimistic about the current crop of venues and events in the capital too. “This year I’ve been to places like XOYO, Giant Steps, Phonox and fabric, and every time I’ve been it’s been really popular and really good nights. Then I’ve also been to some more pop-up, warehouse-y parties that have all been fully exciting and underground. That’s what I’m seeing.” It’s a scene that allows him to further plough the trade in eclectic club music that’s made his name. “There’s good lighting, proper club stuff, too dark for people to stare at you. People are just there for that happening, that moment. And then there’s freedom as a DJ to be able to go wherever I want.”
When it comes to playing the more naturally diverse environment of a festival too, Gilles continues to push things forward. “Because I’ve been DJing for so long people expect different things from me. Some people want me to play new stuff, others want Brazilian stuff or this and that. And the thing is, I’m really grateful people are still enjoying booking me because I’m not doing a nostalgia set. That hasn’t happened yet. I can’t play the same set two times running.” His will be a main stage set that ranges everywhere in order to keep the dancers locked into the moment, the happening. Just like his own jazz heroes, his sets chase completeness through an openness to all things; come see him for a sip from the holy grail.
Gilles Peterson plays the Main Stage on Friday 7th June.
Words by: Stephen Connolly
Photo by: Rob Jones