Greg Wilson - When The Legend Returned

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So Greg, It's 10 years exactly since I first came over to Manchester to see your comeback gig at The Attic. To say your comeback has been a success is an understatement. You have kickstarted an entire scene that loves and lives disco and electro funk music. It would be fair to say that the musical landscape today would be different without your return, especially in the UK.  I can personally testify that my own DJing would not be where it is today without hearing your mixes and learning from your live shows.  I think we'd all like to thank you deeply for the energy you've injected into dance music in the 10 years since you've been back. 

RL - The reasons you quit DJing are fairly well documented but I still feel your 20 years out of the game remain shrouded in mystery.  I know you released the ‘UK Electro’ album with Street Sounds in 1984 and managed the Ruthless Rap Assassins until 1992 but there is still a gap in the fossil record Greg. What the hell happened in the 90s? 

GW - John Robb wrote a book 'The Nineties: What the F**k Was That All About?', the title of which pretty much sums up my own feelings towards the decade. It started off great with the Rap Assassins gaining a lot of kudus, but that, unfortunately, didn't translate into units sold over the counter and, when the sales of the second album failed to build on the first, EMI pulled the plug (although it obviously didn't help that Kermit had become a junkie by this point). 

For the next couple of years I was kept busy with Mind Body & Soul (MBS), which had all stemmed from what was originally intended as just a one-off 12" - a dance version of the psychedelic classic 'White Rabbit' by The Jefferson Airplane, which I recorded in 1989 when we'd finished working on the 1st Rap Assassins album with a day still to spare. The track was picked up on by a number of DJ's, most notably Andrew Weatherall, Boy George and John Peel, which led us to develop the project further, recording a few more twelves. It ended up becoming a songwriting vehicle for Tracey (my then partner, now wife), and we ended up getting a deal with Polydor. However, no sooner had we signed, there was a big change around at the top levels of the company, leading to a 'night of the long knives', where the old was swept out and the new moved in. We were victims of circumstance, our A&R man (Feargal Sharkey, as it happens) was one of those culled, although not immediately – it was a slow death, with them ultimately making his position untenable, forcing his resignation. Following Feargal out of the door were the acts he'd signed, so that turned out to be that for MBS.

The period that followed was the most difficult time. It was 1994 and the music business had well and truly worn me down. I pretty much lost my mojo for a while, becoming increasingly detached and even questioning whether I wanted to be involved in music again. I was just a bit punch drunk by the disappointment of not being able to make a success of either the Rap Assassins or MBS – you can receive all the acclaim in the world, but once the money runs out you're knackered. I felt like a broken to pieces Humpty Dumpty, having fallen off the wall with no idea how to, or even if I was going to be able to, put myself back together. It was all pretty bleak and negative for a while, but I eventually began to tentatively re-connect to my musical path – I wrote about this next stage in the 'Monastic Mix' blog post:

http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/11/the-monastic-mix/

Was there a defining moment or a single event that left you absolutely clear you would start playing again?  I know hearing Chicken Lips and Metro Area productions left a big impression on you. Did the emergence of a modern electro funk sound trigger your return?

I don't think there was any single eureka moment. The possibility of returning as a DJ had been there for many years, I was always being asked 'why did you pack it all in?' People were forever commenting on my dire fanatical situation by suggesting I could have made a fortune had I not retired, which was hardly the most comforting thing I needed to hear. The fact of the matter was that I didn't want to specialize in just the one strand of dance music, as was, and remains the case, with the majority of DJ's, but be able to mix up the styles and tempos. The Monastery was a reaction to what was going on in the clubs on Merseyside at the time, which had largely settled into, to my mind, a four to the floor rut. I wanted to play music of different denominations within the context of the same night, but I was continually told that this was no longer the way things worked. I felt older in the 90's than I did a decade on, for I no longer understood what was happening – I was completely out of touch.

It was after this point that I finally began to confront my technophobia and drag myself kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The idea of having to learn to use computers had horrified me and, as with the mobile phone, I'd resisted for as long as possible. When I finally got my own computer and was able to embark on an internet voyage of discovery, I began to tune in to where all the pockets of underground dance culture that interested me were hiding away, as each had its associated forum/s – Electro Empire, Disco Music.com, Deep House Page, DJ History and Electriks became regular-stop offs.

The artists you mention, as well as the other contemporary acts I featured on my comeback night (Crazy Penis, Diplomat and DMX Krew, who were mashed up with Raw Silk) were really important with regards to stating my intention. I was very conscientious about how I needed to avoid being viewed in a purely nostalgic context, as there was no shelf life in this - it was all about the balance between past and present, and I'd recognized this from the off. I'd made DJ appearances at various points during my 'retirement', but these were just one–offs, and, apart from The Monastery, centered solely on what I used to play back in the day, especially the Electro era. This was something completely different, for I was making a leap of faith in daring to hope that I might find acceptance, once again, as a professional DJ  – somebody who does the job for a living, not a hobby. Furthermore, this had to be done on own terms - I could never just do it for financial gain, for that would have felt  like I was prostituting myself. Up until then I'd had no inclination to return in anything more than an irregular capacity, so nobody was more surprised than me by the way this all worked out.

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Forgive me if I geek out a fair bit here but I am a little DJ gear obsessed.  

I am still amazed when I listen back to your original 1983 mixes at how you could put records together seamlessly that were not made on computers and therefore quantized tightly.  Even if there were drum machines involved they were often quite loose on the timing.  You employed different DJ techniques such as cutting between records but there are still mixes where you beat match and they hold tight.  Was this simply a case of riding the pitch control well or did you use editing to make the blends on DJ mixes for radio?

I don't hear them as seamless at all. To my ears the stitching is often a bit frayed around the edges. That said, whilst the flesh, so to speak, was weak, the spirit was willing, so there's a boldness to these mixes that perhaps forgives what I hear as the messier parts. 

Beat matching was more difficult back then, for the reasons you mention, and also because a lot of 12" versions were finished off with manual edits that, although unnoticed by the ears, weren't perfectly precise. Once a few of these had passed by, the tracks would drift out, so you couldn't trust them to run for more than a few bars without having to manually nudge them in (touching the record rather than using the pitch control). Chop mixing, or cutting directly from one record to the next, was much more prevalent back then. Beat matching later became the be all and end all, and many DJ's forgot, or never got to learn in the first place, how effective and dynamic a straight chop could be. 

My original radio mixes were recorded as live, during the daytime at Legend in Manchester. They were then taken back to Piccadilly and topped and tailed by an engineer ahead of broadcast. When I bought my home DJ studio set-up at the end of '82, with 2 x SL1200's (at a time when it was rare to see them in a UK club, let alone somebody’s house), the Matamp mixer, and a Revox B77 reel to reel, I began making my mixes there, the editing becoming increasingly intricate. Even then though, I didn't spend a great deal of time working on any of those mixes  – the process was always quite spontaneous after I'd mapped out a rough running order based around the bpm's of the tracks I'd chosen. It was more about those bold strokes I mentioned, rather than attention to the finer details. I suppose that this is why the flaws jump out to me, for had I given myself more time I'd have ironed out a few of these rough spots.

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The Revox B77 has always been your weapon of choice and trademark. Now you use it for dub delay effects and spinning in sounds and samples live but originally it was your tool for edits.  Did you keep your old tape out takes from this era?   Do you think you could still make edits from the original material?  And finally did the tape edits take on a different shape than current digital edits due to the physical process involved?

Most of the Piccadilly mixes were kept at the station, so are now unfortunately lost in the mists of time, although I managed to salvage a few reels. I have lots of tapes from the subsequent years, most of which has been digitized. I could still edit these tapes, but there's no point now I can do it non-destructively in the computer. 2 of my original tape edits ended up on the first 'Credit To The Edit' compilation in 2005 – Chaka Khan's 'I Feel For You' and 'Absolute' / 'Wood Beez' by Scritti Politti.

It's interesting what you say about the different process between analogue and digital editing. I suppose that back then you might want people to hear it’s an edit, so you'd factor in a few tricks – it was like an additional effects source. These tricks would often be employed at a difficult juncture, where a smooth transition between 2 parts wasn't possible. With digital you have many further options at your fingertips, so its usually possible, even at the tricky points, to successfully make those smooth transitions. So editing has been made much more fluid in the digital age, which, although a positive development, doesn't negate the need for the odd quirky curveball cuts to pepper things up – everything has a time and a place.

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I do love a good DJ mixer, however old.  The Matamp Super Nova that you used to mix on The Tube looks like an awesome piece of kit, and was designed by DJ Froggy.  Did it sound as good as the famous American rotary mixers made by Urei, Bozak and Rane?   Did you use the auto start much on The Matamp that connected to your decks?  When did their use fade out?

It's difficult to make those comparisons – you've got to remember that most sound systems in UK clubs back then left a lot to be desired. You'd go into some places and there'd be pure tinniness coming out of the speakers. I was extremely fortunate to work at Legend and Wigan Pier, clubs way ahead of the curve with regards to placing the emphasis on sound (and lighting). 

When you see me mixing on The Tube in 1983, with the Revox and the Matamp, that's my own home set-up, not what I worked with in the clubs, which was all plumbed in. We took it all to Newcastle, sticking out of the back of Mike Shaft's car. It was Mike's radio show I did my mixes for, and a few years later, when I was down on my luck and had to sell my equipment (with the exception of the my Revox), it was Mike that bought it. I'd love to get that Matamp back – it was quite a piece of kit, although I can't comment on its quality in comparison with the classic mixers you mention, someone more technical nous would need to answer that. I’d presume that the price was a factor in them not becoming more popular in the clubs – can’t remember how much I paid for it, but I know it was a pretty expensive piece of kit.

Your blog has been a massive undertaking for you. The articles tend to be super long and incredibly well researched.  All this takes time but you still manage to knock out at least two major features a month and at least a post a week. You even went down to The British Library to look at source material when you weren't happy with what you could find at the time online for a piece.  How much time a week do you give to the project and what is the driving motivation for your writing?

Whilst remaining an important part of what I do, it's become increasingly time-consuming, especially in this past year, and I'm going to have to cut back on the regularity of the posts if I'm to do all the other stuff I have planed for the coming year. As I've said before, I'm hardly the quickest of writers, especially when, as you point out, I place great importance on balancing personal anecdote with hard facts. This is at the core of how I write, and I know the combination of the two has been helpful to many people when it comes to acquiring a more rounded understanding of how things used to be, for it's the past informing the present that provides the main theme of the blog.

When I first heard of blogging, from a friend who worked in the IT industry back in the late 90's, he described it as an online diary / journal, and suggested that this would be the perfect medium in which I could share my perspective - the factual side providing the structure, but the anecdotal adding meat to the bone. Later down the line a friend, Edward Barton, described me as a 'warm historian' - someone who outlines history from direct experience, giving it more of a human dimension in the process. History to me is never a remote thing, for what happens in the past affects what's happening today. As I've said to the point of cliché, to know the future first you must know the past, and if the past is just a list of facts, you can only gleam so much from it. Via my passion for the music I play and the things I write about, I’ve been able to, as was once pointed out to me by someone in San Francisco, provide a bridge between now and then (and they know all about bridges in San Fran).

Do you feel DJs are writers at heart?  Is it a similar process for you to create a blog piece as it is to make a DJ mix?

An interesting analogy, but I wouldn't say DJ's are writers at heart any more than people in other walks of life. 

You recently started producing your own music.  Do you work alone or do you have a production partner?   What productions are coming in 2014?

I work alone or in collaboration, depending on the project - there's a nucleus of people who I now regard as my musical co-conspirators. 2013 has been a breakthrough year for me in terms of re-approaching production and songwriting - just small steps, but enough to whet the appetite for more. At the same time, Kermit has blown me away with his new musical projects, Blind Arcade and The Footprint, which he wants me to help bring to fruition. I hadn't envisaged taking on all this extra stuff, I can hardly cope as it is, but Kermit's diving deep into the ideas pool at the minute and coming up with some really special stuff, which I can't help but be inspired to work with. 

Now I’ve reached the 10 year milestone I need a fresh challenge, and this will be more to do with making music than anything, so expect a lot more output in 2014.

You have recently undertaken some long sets, on occasion playing all night.  When you first started back you were pretty keen on keeping sets to 2 hours.  Have you enjoyed the progression to playing longer and was this something you used to do at Legends, did you play all night?

2 or 3 hours is my norm. When I was originally a DJ, mid-70's - mid–80's, I always played the full night at all my residencies - this was generally 5 hours (9pm – 2am). All-Dayers were different – you'd share a bill with other DJ's in a similar way to what happens now, playing shorter slots.

When I played for 8 hours at Loft Studios in London last year, it was an incredible night, and last week I did the same at Kantine Am Bergain in Berlin, which once again, but in a different way, proved to be a really special night. On Boxing Day I'm going to be playing for 5 hours in Glasgow, and I've done a few 4 hour slots here and there, but I don't see any major shift towards longer spots. I think what makes it special is that these type of nights are very much one-offs, so I look at them as the exception rather than the rule. Perhaps it would work if I did 4-6 of these longer sessions during a 12 month period, each in a different city – I’d be open to this if, as in London, Berlin and Glasgow, the venue is right.

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You helped start a huge boom in editing, especially disco music edits. You licensed your edits and released them officially but there is a whole bunch of edit labels out there that edit and release as bootlegs effectively. How do you feel about the effect on the artists, who made the tracks. Is it a healthy way for new generations to find their music or is it DJs taking advantage of other people's music for their own gain?

I think the edits scene, both official and unofficial, has brought to light many records that would otherwise be condemned to obscurity in the current climate, or certainly remained under the radar for a younger audience who’ve embraced these reworks, inspiring them to dig deeper into the career of the artist concerned. Many artists have been rediscovered during recent times via re-edits of their tracks, so I feel the positives far outweigh any negatives. It’s all part of the process of re-shaping the past to inform the future, and this has always been key to the evolution of all aspects of the arts.

Do you think the edit scene is now dead, a victim of it's own success?

Rather than dead I’d say it was more alive than ever. There’s an almost bottomless pit of great music to re-imagine, and the edits scene enables tracks that would otherwise only be geared to oldies or revival nights, given that when they were made their mixability wasn’t considered, to be contemporized for the clubs today. There have been some brilliant edits and reworks done during recent times - more than ever. While some might believe the edits scene is on the wane, it’s only just opening up as a voyage of discovery for so many more people, and on a global scale.

I remember reading somewhere that the edits scene was dead about 4 or 5 years ago, just as things were about to shift to a whole new level via Soundcloud. What some people, especially those who are a bit older, fail to consider is that for the younger heads who are embracing these edits, this is new music – music which is making an impression in their lives here and now.

You give out nearly every mix you ever record free on Soundcloud. Has this been an important aspect of building your considerable fan base?  

Not every mix, but I try to share a fair percentage of them – not only on my own Soundcloud, but elsewhere. It’s obviously been an important means of connecting with people, both those who attend the nights I do, as well as people who’ve never seen me DJ live but appreciate the music I play.

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Does the current trend of giving away music for free devalue DJ mixes or is this just the changing landscape for good now? They used to be something you could buy on a CD after all.  

There’s still the possibility of doing official mixes on CD, nicely packaged and with informative sleevenotes, but there’s a limited market for such product these days - it’s just the way things are now. The internet changed everything and it’s impossible to go back to how things used to be – we have to make the best of the circumstances we find ourselves in, the important thing being that we connect people to the music we play as best we can, whether that be by sharing it with them or selling it to them.

How has it been to hold down family life since you started to tour as much as you do now.  I also have a family and find it constantly tricky to find a balance between home and work.  There are never articles in magazines about how DJs live the life, with families, as I suppose it's not that fashionable to discuss it.  However there are many DJs with kids.  How is it for you?

I just think it’s a different way of working really. Most people work normal hours, Monday to Friday from 9-5 type thing, so by the time they get home they just want to wind down and relax because they’re worn out. Apart from touring in other countries, which takes out a week or two here and there, maybe 4 or 5 times a year, I’m home during the weekdays, so it’s not as though I’m detached from my family.

The longest I’ve been away for is just over a month, which I felt was too long for me, so now I don’t like to go away for more than 3 weeks, whilst taking a bit of time off from the DJ side of things around these dates. I suppose it’s about trying to pace things out in a way that suits your situation best.

I also do a lot of work from home (recording projects, writing, plus the never ending task of trying to keep up with my emails), so I have to be careful I don’t completely vanish into my room for days on end. It’s all about balance, and that’s the ongoing circle we’re all trying to square.

Does it freak you out that you could be playing to your son in a club pretty soon would he like your set?

He’s 15 now and in a band that’s doing really well locally, already picking up a fair number of gigs in Liverpool. He’s more Indie-Rock than Dance in his personal taste, although he has a good overall appreciation of music. I wouldn’t be surprised if we appear at the same festival – if not this year, then certainly next. He last saw me play at Glastonbury, I’d managed to get tickets for him and a few of the band, but it was all about Arctic Monkeys and the Stones for him – I was just a sideshow.

I read recently that Laurent Garnier questions his relevance every year as he gets older, but so far still feels he has the energy to smash clubs to pieces. Do you feel you can now DJ until you retire or could we see another Greg Wilson departure when we least expect it? You are at the top again and you did decide to quit at the top last time after all...

 I’ll no doubt eventually cut down on the amount of gigs I do, space things out a bit more, but I don’t envisage myself retiring any time soon. Laurent Garnier is correct about questioning the relevance of what he does – I’m exactly the same myself, there needs to be a reason why I’m doing this that’s greater than the financial rewards. My whole thing is tied in with connecting to the history, so that keeps things fresh for me – that’s the underlying motivation.

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What ambitions remain for you to fulfill as a DJ?

My ambitions are more to do with making music than playing it - there’s definitely unfinished business in that direction. There’s no big masterplan from the DJ side of things – since I started again everything has worked itself out in an organic way, so I’ll continue to go with the flow and see where it takes me next.

Finally we all know you have extensively compiled charts for your early years but what we need is a Greg Wilson Floor Fillers 2003 - 2013 chart to celebrate your time back.  If you'd be so kind to do the honours, as many as you see fit sir.....

OK, I’ll have a go at 15 remixes, edits and mash-ups that have all played a key role for me during the past decade – in alphabetical order:

The Beatles ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ (Leftside Wobble Edit)
Neneh Cherry ‘Buffalo Stance’ (Henry Greeenwood Rework)
Chic ‘I Want Your Love’ (Todd Terje Edit)
The Clash ‘Casbah Breakdown’ (Joey Negro Edit)
Edit The Edit ‘Two Sides Of Sympathy’ (GW Edit Of PTA Mash-Ups)
Electronic ‘Getting Away With It’ (GW Edit)
Fleetwood Mac ‘Everywhere’ (Psychemagik Edit)
Imagination & Missy Elliot ‘Gotta Keep Workin' It’ (GW Mash-Up)
Late Nite Tuff Guy ‘One Nite In A Disco’ (GW Edit)
The Originals ‘Down To Love Town’ (Dimitri From Paris Remix)
Raw DMX ‘Do It To The Funk’ (GW Mash-Up)
The Rolling Stones ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ (Soulwax Remix)
Sister S ‘Living Ecstasy’ (Norington Remix)
Talking Heads ‘Psycho Killer’ (GW Edit)
Teenage DJ ‘I Was A Teenage DJ Pt 1’ (Extended)

Greg Wilson interviewed by Ralph Lawson – December 2013