WMC 2010: Q&A with UK Legend DJ Greg Wilson, Playing Electric Pickle on Wednesday

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Few figures in the international dance music scene can wear the title of legend as aptly as Greg Wilson. The British DJ boasts a career spanning three decades, going back to the birth of house and his early days as a DJ at Manchester's seminal club The Hacienda, and he carries on the authentic mixing art form to a greater degree than any of his contemporaries. To watch him go at it live on the decks is to take a trip back to the early days of garage, disco, and electro-funk, when vinyl records, beat-juggling, and old-school tape delay gave dance music a loose-limbed vitality rare in today's mechanized DJing.

Wilson makes records speak. He still uses his vintage Revox B77 reel-to-reel tape machine to expand his live sound to epic funky proportions. A mixing pioneer in the UK's clubs, he introduced the early-'80s British generation to the new electronic post-disco sounds coming out of New York. Old-timers might recall his famous 15 minutes on television in 1983 when he became the first DJ to mix live on British TV on The Tube.
The past few years have seen Wilson tour widely across all continents, including, surprisingly, his first dates in cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In January 2009, the release of his widely acclaimed Essential Mix on BBC Radio 1 revealed his craftsmanship and imaginative blend of sounds to an eager new generation. Hardly one to fade away, Wilson has garnered a new relevance in today's dance music scene that seems timelier than ever.

Miami welcomes him for his WMC debut and an exclusive performance at the Electric Pickle on Wednesday, where he'll be leading an all-star lineup including esteemed Hamburg DJ/producer Vincenzo, Australian tech-house specialist Murat Kilic, and Brooklyn's No Regular Play. Crossfade caught up with a very candid, eloquent, and insightful Mr. Wilson to reminisce about three decades on the decks and the fascinating history of British dance culture.

Greg Wilson at Electric Pickle, with Vincenzo, No Regular Play, Murat Kilic, Will Renuart, Aaron Dae, DJ Dirty, Jay Marley, and Lee Mayjahs. Wedsnesday, March 24. Doors open at 8 p.m. 2826 N. Miami Ave., Miami. Tickets available at www.residentadvisor.net

Read the full Q&A after the jump.

New Times: How did you first get into DJing?

Greg Wilson: A school friend of mine built his own rudimentary mobile disco when he was only 11 -- just 2 old decks housed inside a draw with a switch in the middle so you could change between them. Later, down the line, his set-up became a bit more sophisticated and he began picking up regular bookings, some of which I'd go along to with him. Then, in 1975, when we were 15, he built his 3rd console and, along with another schoolfriend, I bought his old one, setting up "Dancin' Machine Mobile Disco", named after the Jackson 5 track.

No sooner had my mobile career started than I was offered a Saturday night residency in a popular local nightspot, the Chelsea Reach in New Brighton (opposite Liverpool on the River Mersey). "Dancin' Machine" had been booked to play at a function upstairs in the venue, but when the regular DJ failed to turn up downstairs the manager asked if one of us could fill in. I jumped at the chance and at the end of the night was asked if I could do it every week. I was offered a few more nights at another local club, the Penny Farthing, before I turned 16, so, on leaving school a few months later I embarked on a career as a professional DJ, working around 5 nights per week and carefully concealing my age in the process (I was eventually rumbled, but they allowed me to carry on).

It's worth mentioning that between the ages of 6 and 13 my parents had run a pub, which included a couple of functions rooms upstairs where wedding receptions and birthday parties were booked in pretty much every weekend. Sitting behind the bar with my Mum, whilst she worked, I'd seen more or less every mobile DJ in the Merseyside area at one time or another, and with my older brother and sister buying soul singles on a regular basis, which I would 'inherit', I was probably destined to become a DJ myself.

What can you tell us about the legendary early days at The Hacienda and the birth of dance culture in England?

Britain has its own unique dance culture, which dates right back to the early 60's. In London, you had the mods, who were obsessed with rhythm and blues, and subsequently soul (the mods later became a national movement, my brother becoming a scooter riding affiliate). At the same time you had the Merseybeat scene in Liverpool, from which The Beatles emerged, with black music dominant. The British obsession with black music is something that has never been fully appreciated -- it was the British, of course, who re-introduced the blues back to America via the 'British Invasion' of the mid-60's, changing the course of popular culture in the process.

It wasn't until the latter part of the '70s and early '80s that US disco culture began to merge into the British lineage, which was already highly evolved, as you'd imagine, after such a long germination, laying the foundations for the rave explosion of the late '80s. The main adaptation from a British perspective had little to do with the music played (DJs had been buying the latest records on import for a long time), but the way in which they were played -- US-style mixing gradually replacing the microphone, which was the main tool of the trade for the UK DJ.

The Hacienda, during my time there in 1983, was a club struggling to find direction (and customers). I was already a successful black music specialist hosting the two main nights in the north, at Legend in Manchester and Wigan Pier, playing to a predominantly black audience. It was on the back of this that The Hacienda approached me to do their Friday nights. Their regular crowd were mainly students and indie kids, the majority of whom hated dance music, so it was a bumpy road for me -- the black crowd not regarding The Hacienda as their type of club at the time. The DJ booth was also in a terrible location, in a room down some stairs to the side of the stage - all you could see was people's legs through a slit in the wall.

The club was much more geared to live bands, but the management, having seen what was happening in New York clubs like Danceteria, The Funhouse  and Paradise Garage, when they'd been over with touring Factory bands like New Order, A Certain Ratio, and Quando Quango, wanted to attract a more dance-based audience. Legend was the great Manchester club of the period, but although I was only at The Hacienda for a relatively short time, seeds were sown, and a few years down the line, with Mike Pickering now DJ on Fridays (he was the promotions manager at the club during my time there) and the DJ booth moved to pride of place on the balcony, the dance direction well and truly gained momentum, with the black crowd leading the way.

Thanks to the wonders of YouTube, many of us are now familiar with your by now classic 1983 clip on The Tube, when you became the first DJ to mix live on British TV. How did this appearance come about?

The Tube, which was a hugely popular music show of the time, broadcast nationally on Friday evenings, were doing a dance music special and had booked David Joseph, the former singer of Brit-funk band Hi-Tension, who was about to release his debut single "You Can't Hide (Your Love From Me)". Wanting to catch him perform, ahead of his appearance on the programme, some of the researchers came down to Legend, where he was making a personal appearance to promote the forthcoming single. At the time I was known for doubling-up (sometimes trebling-up) -- playing two copies of the same record to create a live mix, running one behind the other to repeat sections, etc. -- and, obviously impressed by this, they approached me to see if I'd do it live in their Newcastle studio, before they switched to an outside broadcast from London, where David Joseph would be on stage.

It would prove to be fantastic exposure for David Joseph, and the springboard for the record to become a big hit. Larry Levan would later remix it and it's now viewed as something of a cult classic. It would also, of course, be a major moment in my own career, as pretty much every DJ worth their salt, the length and breadth of the UK, would have been tuned in. It certainly confirmed my status as a British mixing pioneer.

You still use the same modus operandi on the decks as in the early days, including a reel-to-reel tape machine for effects. What is the impetus for working this way? Do you frown on contemporary DJing technologies/techniques?

Not at all. I respect a DJ's choice to play music whichever way suits them, be it vinyl or Ableton Live. My own set-up combines past and present - on the one hand I use antiquated technology, the Revox B77 reel-to-reel, whilst on the other I employ contemporary technology, in the form of a laptop and the PCDJ program I work from. It's this balance between 'now and then' that defines my approach. This is reflected by the music I play, which draws from the past, particularly my original period as a DJ ('75-'84), but with a contemporary twist via re-edits and the inclusion of current artists who draw their inspiration from this era.

With a career spanning three decades you've seen a lot of changes in the dance music scene and dance culture. What would you say some of these changes have been? What remains the same?

Dance music obviously became big business, which eventually, in my opinion, had a negative effect. Thankfully the underground is strong again, so all's well with the world -- the underground being the lifeblood of the scene. One of my main criticisms during the '90s was that DJs stopped playing a spectrum of dance music, with varying mood and tempo, concentrating on ever narrower genres and sub-genres. This was alien to me -- variety very much being the spice of life in my book. Many DJs began to place mixing ahead of programming in terms of priority, selecting what they played not because it was the best record, but because it mixed out of the previous record seamlessly. This was putting the cart before the horse as far as I'm concerned. I'm all for mixing, but programming is the most important skill a DJ possesses and, in comparison to the DJs of the past, I think that this was an area that suffered.

DJ's also began to believe their own myth, thinking they were somehow above the audience they were playing to. For some it became a massive ego trip as they soaked up the adulation. I found this very unsavoury as I'd always regarded it as a reciprocal relationship on an equal footing -- the DJ feeding from the crowd and able to adapt to their mood in a spontaneous manner. When I realized that DJs were playing pre-arranged 'sets', which had been rehearsed ahead of the gig so that every record mixed perfectly into the next one, I felt that this completely negated the spirit of DJs as I'd known it, which was to read a crowd and play your tunes accordingly. Being locked into a rigid set doesn't allow this -- there's no room for exchange, it's all about the DJ knowing best and if the crowd doesn't 'get it', it's their problem.

At the bottom line, now as always, the DJ is an entertainer. People pay their money to go into a club, wanting a release from the stresses and strains of their day to day, and it's the DJ's role to take them out of themselves via the music they play. Some DJs like to feel that they're educators, but I find this to be highly conceited -- music is subjective and what one person likes another might not, so to think that you hold the moral high ground when it comes to what is or isn't good music is somewhat deluded. It's great to be able to introduce people to new music, and a good DJ will certainly be skilled at this, but there's always going to be those you'll never connect with, not because they don't have any 'taste', but because they vibrate in a different way. The way I see it is that you're expressing your personality via the music you play and hoping that other people tune into this, sharing the same wavelength -- not that you're some sort of all-knowing musical shaman who demands adoration from his/her minions, as some DJs seem to believe.

What contemporary artists/music knock your socks off these days? What have you been playing live most recently and are there any classics that have never left your crate?

Not having a crate these days, I'm not limited to the music I carry with me. This is one of the major benefits of modern technology. There are a lot of younger DJs currently doing great re-edits of older tunes. There are also, of course, many poor or pointless ones -- as with anything, it's a matter of sorting out the wheat from the chaff. People including The Revenge, Todd Terje and the Situation crew have enhanced my playlist over recent years, along with edits labels like Disco Deviance, Redux and Duff Disco. Then you have a global community of artists who've been making their own music, connecting past to present -- for example, here in the US you have people like 40 Thieves, Escort, Gary Davis and Nick Chacona & Anthony Mansfield, all of whom had tracks included on my recent compilation Credit To The Edit Vol. 2.

In the last few years you've toured extensively across the world and performed for diverse audiences. Any especially memorable cities or parties you've played at?

Too many to name. It's been incredible for me to come back after a two-decade gap and be so well received wherever I go. Back in the early '80s the furthest I traveled to DJ were places like Birmingham, Nottingham and Sheffield, which seemed really exotic then. So to find myself in Tokyo, São Paulo, or Miami is pretty nuts!

What are you up to next?

By the time I play in Miami I'll have been touring for a month, taking in Japan, Australia and the US. Miami is the final date before I head back to the UK -- we scheduled things so I'd end up at the WMC. Once I'm home I have a few dates in London and Liverpool before heading over to Austria for Snowbombing, which kicks off the festival season in Europe, the majority of events taking place throughout the summer months. So, between now and October, it'll be a mixture of UK and European dates, interspersed with the festivals. I'm also going to have to find time in between to do the various remixes and edits that make up the other side of my work.

We're very excited to hear you spin at the Electric Pickle on March 24. What can Miami expect during this performance?

It's my first time in Miami, and a fitting conclusion to the tour. I'm very much looking forward to playing at Electric Pickle -- it's going to be 4 hours, so it's a good length of time. As ever, I just do my thing -- having never been there I'll obviously weigh things up on the night and proceed accordingly. Miami, for me, evokes the Sunshine Sound of TK Records in the '70s, so I'd hope to play a few tunes from that era. One of the first edits to take off for me, following my comeback, was the cut-up of KC & The Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man" a.k.a. "I Was A Teenage DJ Pt. 1", so I'll have to remember to play that one.
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