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]?