The Okayplayer Interview: Gilles Peterson Talks About New Music, The New Cuba & That Time He Tried To Sign The Roots
Gilles Peterson is a name well familiar to anyone with a passion for progressive music. The DJ, label head and radio personality has been a tireless champion of undiscovered artists, under-utilized vinyl, undiscovered scenes and generally anything that is "under"-amything, yet superior in originality and quality--for years and years, with zero tears. Having helped break everyone from Benji B to Erykah Badu, Peterson is still putting Europeans on to Cuban hip-hop, young heads on to dusty jazz sides and the whole world on to rising talents like UK MC Little Simz (who figured large in his Worldwide Awards this past weekend). Between rehearsals, Okayplayer had the chance to access the Gilles files on the occasion of a rare gig in Brooklyn (tonight at Output--get event details here) and the ever-enthusiastic Peterson held forth on his thoughts on the New Cuba (coming off his role mentoring young Cuban artists through his involvement in the Havana Cultura project) the state of new music generally--and that time he tried to sign a brand underground act called "The Roots." Read on and if you are in New York this evening, hit the link below to experience DJ Gilles Peterson provide the soundtrack to this wide-ranging musical conversation live at Output.
OKP: I have to assume that of all the people I talk to, you're probably pretty familiar with Okayplayer?
Gilles Peterson: Yes, indeed. Okayafrica, Okayplayer, all of it.
OKP: I was gonna say, your association with Okayplayer may be the longest of anybody in the industry, just because you've had such a long affiliation with The Roots.
GP: Yeah, and funny enough, I just realized, because we've got our Worldwide Awards Ceremony [this weekend] and we do an R.I.P. Tribute section. Remembering that Richard Nichols passed this past year, in 2014. That was really, really sad news when I heard that.
OKP: Were you close with Rich?
GP: Only because the first time I went to New York, I actually tried to sign The Roots and I went all the way to New York, just out of curiosity, before they signed to [Geffen]. I met them at their hotel and I had a really bad toothache that day and my cheek was kind of halfway across the corridor. I was a young white guy just coming up to them and they were surprised at how I looked, this English boy. We got along really well--they kind of gave me their first record, a kind of pre-record [the From The Ground Up EP--the artwork for which features possibly the first appearance of the Okayplayer logo in its original form - ed.]. But because they were signed to [Geffen] they managed to sort of break the rules of the contract just to give me this kind of EP that I released about 6 months before their first major label release.
OKP: Was after you had known them in London, or before?
GP: This was before. What happened was they released Organix in Philly and I was playing it in the clubs in the UK, because to me it was what I had been waiting for--a live hip-hop album. No one had really nailed it, until them. Jungle Brothers came before them, but they hadn't done the live music thing. The Roots managed to combine the two, equally and forcefully. When I heard Organix for the first time, it was unreal. I used to play it in the clubs and people would go crazy. My immediate idea was "I really want to sign them." So I jumped on a plane and went to New York and met them at the Paramount Hotel. I managed to make them feel sorry for me, and they gave me some tracks. At the back of that they kind of came over to the UK and the whole idea for them was to get a name for themselves in Europe. At that stage, Europe was a little more open to that kind of a record. So they worked really hard and that whole first year they spent in London--so they spent a lot of time in my office and we did a lot of touring together, actually, around Europe. We definitely spent a lot of time together. I released the record, they went back to the states and the rest is history, I suppose.
The last time I saw Rich I did a session with John Legend and The Roots for the BBC. That was the last time that I saw him, two years ago. I had been regularly calling him to try and get Questlove to come DJ at my festival. That still hasn't happened, but someday...
OKP: While we're on the subject of foundational moments, you also have a long association with Erykah Badu. Can you speak about the first time you encountered her music as well as the first time you met with her?
GP: Well, I didn't really meet her for a while. I obviously was blown away when I heard "On & On" for the first time and was a big supporter of her music from the beginning. I'm trying to remember when I first met her, actually. It was quite late.
I had done a couple of things with her, but it must be 5 or 6 years ago now that I heard some Jay Electronica and his first sort of releases. I don't know how I got hold of him, but she answered the phone. It was really weird. I said "I want to bring Jay Electronica over to London to perform at my Worldwide Awards," and she was thrilled. From that point onwards we got on really, really well. She made sure that Jay came over, and whenever I'm anywhere near where she is, we meet up and hang out and she does great radio shows for me. That's my relationship with Erykah.
OKP: That's the most high-powered publicist you could ask for.
GP: Yeah! I remember one day, I got a phone call at my house and one of my kids answered, really early in the morning. She must have been calling at night in the states. My son answered, and then he shouted out to me "Someone called Erykah Padoo is on the phone!" I've tried to explain to my son how important she is. One day...
OKP: Tell me a little bit about what's happening with the Worldwide Awards [this past weekend]?
GP: Well I've just walked out of rehearsals for a minute. Every year I sort of celebrate what I represent as a broadcaster and DJ. I've been doing this for the last ten years as an event. Before that I just did an on-air radio version of it. I took it to another level and organized a show, because I felt a lot of the music I was playing was always segregated from one another and that it would be good to put it all under one roof. Also to try and continue to explain the ideology of the worldwide concept.
By the way, the term 'Worldwide' was given to me by Questlove. I was on a radio station in the UK called Kiss FM, and I was interviewing him, and he had just seen my name all over the world doing gigs. They had been traveling and I had been traveling and he told me "Man, you are worldwide!" From that point on my show was called Worldwide. That's also why he has to come and do something at one of my award shows!
Anyway, the idea is to just in one evening put all these different aspects of music, from the sort of heritage music to forward-thinking electronic music, to new music from around the world, together. When you do that and curate it carefully, you can create a meaningful evening. That's something I do at the Worldwide awards, and something I do at my festival every summer in the south of France. Tomorrow we've got people like Taylor McFerrin performing live. I just came from the rehearsal between Bilal and the Heliocentrics. And Marshall Allen from Sun Ra, who's 91 years old. We're going to do a Sun Ra tribute tomorrow night to celebrate 100 years of Sun Ra's music. We've got Adrian Younge coming as well. Marshall Allen, he's 91--he was in the second world war! And he's still so hungry and enthusiastic. Those kind of meetings is what I love about the awards. I remember years ago we had Jay Electronica talking to Bonobo, talking to Skream and dubstep DJs. It's just about bringing all these people together and throwing the music together. That's what it's all about.
OKP: Tell me a little bit about what aspect of the far-flung Peterson empire is going to be represented at the Output show in Brooklyn. Is it representing one of your particular projects?
GP: No, not really. I'm so pleased to be coming to New York and to be playing. The last time I was in New York was with Flying Lotus at the launch of GTA 5, and that was a free party, so it wasn't really a proper gig for me. That was over a year ago. Really, as I said, I'm going over there primarily to do some work on a book project [on the legendary jazz label Strata East]. But I love playing, and I haven't played at Output yet. I've heard only good things about it. I love playing at Cielo, if only for the soundsystem. I always have a great time in New York.
I make sure I play all night, so in a way, rather than just coming along and doing a 90-minute set where it's difficult to kind of spread your wings, for me...but playing from 11 'til 4, I can really go everywhere. From the old school kind of digger/collector/vinyl junkie side to the more electronic stuff to my sort of excursions into Brazil and Africa and hopefully make sense of it.
It's difficult for me sometimes, because you go to places and you get people who want to hear Gilles Peterson circa 1986, people who want to hear what I was doing in 1992. Sometimes to play these things--everything from Jamiroquai to Omar via jazz and northern soul and a touch of hip-hop and then the whole heritage of house and funk and dubstep and bass music, you kind of go for the journey. That's where I'm most comfortable as a DJ. The older I get, the longer I have to play, really. To get it all out.
OKP: Which is the perfect segue into my next question...your activities are so diverse, the range of things you have a hand in is so eclectic. Multiple radio shows, you're working on a book, tours--what is the logistical thing that holds it all together? The radio shows are produced by your own company, correct?
GP: It's an old partner of mine who set up a production company. We've always worked together. They produce my show, which goes out on the BBC, and then I have my own show, which is syndicated. That's done in-house. Here at Brownswood, where I have my office, this used to be my house. Then I moved out and had a family, and kept the flat. This is where my records are and where my kind of hub is, and here I run a record label. We put out records as much as we can. It's difficult, but at the moment I'm just finishing off an album by an artist from Washington called Diggs Duke. I think he's gonna do a little performance before I go on [tonight]. He's really worth watching, he's amazing.
OKP: He actually made Okayplayer's Songs of the Year list!
GP: Oh great! Which song?
OKP: "Pinnacle of Class and Taste"
GP: Fantastic! His album is wonderful and I'm really excited about him. Equally, I've just this week finished mixing an album from a brilliant Cuban Singer, a girl called Dayme Arocena. I was in Cuba last year making a record [Havana Cultura], more mentoring young Cuban artists. And while I was out there I managed to find this singer that I had been looking for. I'd been trying to get her in the studio for the last five years but she was so young, that I couldn't get her int he studio when I first went over. But now she's of the age where--she's 22, so she's out of college and stuff--so anyway I've just done her record. It's kind of a cross between Cesaria Evora and Jill Scott...
[Click Thru to Page 3 To Watch Dayme Sing Live For Brownswood Basement Sessions]
I've just been having fun with this label. All the projects I do are just projects, I don't look at it as a business. I see it as something that just motivates me and encourages me and excites me and my staff. The whole idea of the label, in a way, is to see people like José James come and let us put out their first record. Then, it's a pleasure when they go and sign to a place like Blue Note. I can't do that, what I do is, I'm kind of phase 1, is all I'd say.
OKP: Part of the reason I ask about how you're business is organized...Okayplayer is an independent company and we also tend to often be a home for artists who are--sometimes indie by necessity, often indie in spirit--and you've done such an amazing job of carving out a road map of how to be an indie industry unto yourself, I just wonder--do you have any insights into how to do that for people who are finding their way in this very fractured musical landscape?
GP: I think you just have to find what you're passionate about and then really motivate the people around you--create a platform for everybody to feel like they're really getting something out of it. It is a team game and that's why I think events are very important. For me, the people who work on the record label are also working in the clubs for me, because they want to. So for me, having a group of people who enjoy the dream and what you're all about, it's not treating it like a job in the traditional sense. These days everyone's so career-minded and everyone's so sort of scared, to a degree, to make a wrong decision, that sometimes that holds you back and I think it's important, for me anyway, as somebody who might be a sort of mentor to the young people who want to get involved in music, is to remind them: "This is entertainment. You've got to be into it."
For me the most important thing is to have a really good collective support system and to be able to bring people through. I was really proud to have worked with people like Benji B, who was 15 when he first started working for me. He became the youngest producer on the BBC when he was 18, producing my show. Another guy who I'm proud of is Tristan, who set up the Boiler Room. I'm just really pissed he set it up after he left me! That would have been a real bank winner.
But it's great they've gone off from being with me and wide-eyed in the industry and to now they've managed to learn and move forward and take the ideas with them. And the concepts and philosophy with them, which is really about the music. They're all totally passionate about the music. The moment you lose sight of why you're doing it in the first place, you need to get out. Whenever I'm employing people or seeing new people coming in, it's really important for me to see that they're there for the right reasons. That's really, I think, how I've managed to stay young. It's just about making sure that you don't get caught up in laziness.
That's why I don't do reunion gigs! People always ask me and I say "I'm still living in the now. I'll do the backwards stuff when I'm retiring, but for the moment I'm in the now." Once a year I do a jazz dance throwback gig at Dingwalls, where I started out--and that sells out in a matter of hours. It's 30 to 50 year old people dancing to jazz. It's great, but I couldn't do that every week.
OKP: Jazz has always been an element of jazz that connects almost all the diverse things that you do...
GP: For me, it is all about jazz. It all goes back to that, and I think it’s very important to constantly refer back to it, but maybe not using the actual word “jazz” in doing that. I think it sometimes pisses people off. When I was about 21 years old, I was very fortunate to meet three jazz musicians in the space of a few months when I was working on a radio station, one of them was Jalal from the Last Poets. The other one was Wayne Shorter, and the other one was the jazz singer Mark Murphy. They all come from very different areas within what you can call “jazz” and I think that that had a very deep impact on me for the future. It’s almost as if they saw something in me that could almost act as a messenger. For the music.
I was this 21 year old kid who didn’t know a great deal, my parents weren’t jazz musicians and I hadn’t been brought up on jazz at home. But the guy spent two and a half hours talking to me about his career. I was like, I was nothing. I was nobody. I wasn’t even on a powerful radio station. I just thought that it was these sort of people, those experiences, they make you for the rest of your life. Whenever people come to me, you’ve got to give them the time of day because you just don’t know what that person will be able to do to push the message forward.
OKP: Not so much about jazz in a conventional sense, but of taking jazz out of a certain arena or ivory tower that it had become trapped in...
GP: Totally. That’s it. For me there’s no greater pleasure than being on the radio on a Saturday afternoon on the BBC and slipping in a little bit of Rahsaan Roland Kirk, you know? --on an unsuspecting public.
OKP: You’ve become such a champion with Brownstone of undiscovered and new artists—who are you excited about at this moment that nobody else has heard of or checked for yet?
GP: I can’t give that away, can I? You’ve always got to hold a couple of secrets!
OKP: Alright, well don’t give us the one you’re debuting tomorrow, but how about the one you debuted this week?
GP: There’s a producer called Clap! Clap! I really like from Italy. I’m really into this singer from Melbourne at the moment. The Australian scene is really bumping now off the back of Hiatus Kaiyote. There’s this guy called Jordan Rakei I really like. It’s a little bit like old school Dwele. There’s an MC from the UK that I’m doing a radio show with tomorrow, she’s called Little Simz. She’s a British version of Madea.
GP: Yeah, I think she’s got really good character. She’s got something. Clap! Clap! is a kind of cross between world music and trap. It’s a little bit like the kind of thing Sango would do, a bit. I’m feeling his stuff.
OKP: As you mentioned, you’ve just come off a run of being very involved with the Havana Cultura tour and being very involved with different Cuban artists. Do you find that you kind of go in runs where you get excited about a certain scene or a certain place, if it’s something that’s kind of been in the vaults and is now coming to light through reissue labels?
GP: Well with Havana Cultura, it's all underwritten by [the rum brand] Havana Club; they came in at a time when the financial support to do projects with a big brand was very handy for my business. We need these kind of associations every now and again. I was just very fortunate—I landed on a subject that I was fascinated by, people who worked within Havana Cultura who are incredibly knowledgable and passionate about the music of Cuba. I went over there as not particularly an expert on the music. I knew a little bit about Irakere and Machito, but I wasn’t I really deep on it. But then it was my first time just being in this place that was so different from anywhere else I’d ever been to, particularly nowadays. That will change, of course, as we’re seeing what Obama does. Basically I’ve just been lucky to build that catalog of Cuban music, and it’s going to be fascinating to see how Cuba changes in the next 10, 15, 20 years. The good thing we’ve got is a load of catalog now, so all these American labels and businesses are going to have to come to me! (laughs) --'cause I've got a lot of the new generation stuff.
The other project that I spent a lot of time on last year was the Brazilian project Sonzeira that I did. That was exactly a year ago that we went to Rio. Brazilian music is so close to my heart, I would say it’s a lot closer to my heart than Cuban music was. It’s been with me throughout my career. To go to Brazil last year to work with people like Seu Jorge and Ed Motta and Elza Soareswas an amazing experience for me.
OKP: You mentioned the establishment of the first U.S. Embassy in Havana and the end of the embargo. What’s your first reaction, having spent so much time in Cuba?
GP: I think it’s a great thing! I’m not a Cuban living in Miami. They’ve probably got a different viewpoint, but I think the Cubans who live in Cuba could do with a little bit of connections—they could do with good internet. I just think that it’s ridiculous. yes, to a degree, it's going to spoil it, possibly? But I look at Cubans who live in Cuba and everyone who I know from over there is happy about this. They see it as a positive thing that’s going to give them a better life. I’m excited, I think it’s a good thing and about time.
One of the things that was really important the first time I went there—a few American MCs did go to Cuba, Common went, Erykah went [with the Black August hip-hop collective] and what they did was immense. There is no internet over there, so when you go there they’re still passing CDs around. I remember going to the suburbubs of Havana on my first trip over there, to meet this producer called Obsesion. I didn’t speak Spanish, and he didn’t speak English, but we were both completely crazy about J Dilla! So I just gave him all that I had and he did the same for me, and it was just great. That’s how we kind of communicated. That exchange is the positive side, that we have to focus on for the future.