GILLES PETERSON hasn't yet achieved the crossover success that some of his UK peers have in America, but his influence on the international club scene—as a DJ, radio presenter, and record label boss—quietly surpasses ballyhooed vets like Paul Oakenfold or Sasha & Digweed. Yet despite 20 years experience, the affable Englishman isn't sure he could repeat his climb in today's market.
"If I was a young guy now, wanting to be a DJ, I don't think I could do it," he admits. "Because these days everyone's a DJ. You've got to hire management when you're 12 to start working out your career path if you want to be a successful DJ."
He pauses. "Then again, I never wanted to be a successful DJ—it was just my hobby."
I-Spy, Saturday, August 19
Raised in South London, Peterson began buying records at 13. Within two years he was spinning soul and jazz-funk favorites for the under-14 set at a local church; the venue seems fitting considering how catholic Peterson's tastes are. As the years passed, and Peterson's bookings improved, his distinctive programming won more and more fans. "I just found myself playing jazz, fundamentally, and nobody else was doing that as a DJ," he recalls. "I got my reputation for being a little bit different."
"Different" is an understatement. His new CD, Incredible Sounds of Gilles Peterson (Epic/Giant Step), folds everything from Andy Bey's cover of Nick Drake's "River Man" and the abstract hip-hop of Handsome Boy Modeling School to the Scott-Heron homage "Your Revolution" by Russia's DJ Vadim featuring Sarah Jones into an eclectic, consistently engaging mix.
His import-only Gilles Peterson Worldwide (scheduled for US release in 2001) is even more ambitious, incorporating Sarah Vaughn, reggae, and an extended deep house segment into the program. He even throws in "The Ghetto/El Barrio," a George Benson chestnut so funky you'll wonder if it's really the same guy who sang "Turn Your Love Around."
Peterson credits his ability to change tack on the dance floor and play tunes far outside the current chart fare without losing the crowd to his role as a radio presenter, first on Kiss-FM and later, BBC Radio One. "It's been really critical that I've been on the radio all this time, because it's allowed me to be much more adventurous in what I play in clubs."
"When I was younger," he recalls, "I'd get into [the music] through the pirate radio stations, shows run by DJs who were playing what they were playing in the clubs but on the radio, which gave me that feeling of wanting to go to the clubs and hear those DJs." Today, Peterson can take a chance on an unconventional cut on the airwaves and expose it to a national audience; then, when he busts it out of the crate at a club, fans can't say, "I can't dance to this, I've never heard it."
WITH THE PROLIFERATION of dance music around the world, generating a constant flow of new product, Peterson's 20-year track record as an arbiter of taste makes him invaluable to busy listeners trying to determine what merits precious listening time. "That's one of the reasons that DJ albums have become quite popular in recent years. There is so much music that people are trusting a DJ to filter the rubbish out for them," he observes.
Peterson's also made his influence felt internationally via his Talkin' Loud imprint, home to a diverse catalog including releases by Galliano, Omar, Nu Yorican Soul, ex-Massive Attack canary Nicolette, the Roots, and Roni Size/Reprazent, since its inception 10 years ago. "Talking Loud was [created] to represent the music that was coming out of the alternative side of club culture, not the mainstream," he explains.
"The label has been able to grow as dance music's grown and represent all those new little forms that keep popping up. It's able to take music which is showing signs of growing and give it the artist development twist that very few dance labels have done, and still seem resigned not to do." One of the best current examples is Sincere by M.J. Cole, the first full-length album of the latest UK dance subgenre, two-step, and a contender for this year's coveted Mercury Prize (which Size/Reprazent won in '98 for New Forms, another Talkin' Loud release).
Through the years, Peterson has watched fashions change yet doggedly followed his own muse. And being alone in his field isn't always a handicap. "It's given me the advantage of playing what I would consider really dysfunctional sets," admits Peterson with a note of surprise, "leaving the club thinking, 'Oh, that was awful. . . .' But next morning people are going, 'That was a great night!'"
Today, the climate seems better suited than ever for Peterson's far-reaching style. "There was a period where, as a DJ, it was very essential to mix, because that's what people were looking for," he concludes. "But now it's become more about the music, because everybody realizes that it doesn't take a great deal of skill to mix two tracks at a hundred and twenty-four beats-per-minute."