Picture the scene. You’re booked to DJ at a night where a packed crowd is expecting dubstep. And all you have is a bag full of jazz-fusion. What do you do?
“You gotta just power through man! Power through and make it look like you know what you’re doing! Never look scared!”
I've asked Gilles Peterson to expand on something he mentioned in an interview last year, the story of when he played at 'Acetate' in Leeds.
“I could tell, you know, there was a little bit of disappointment I think.. after about 45 minutes..and it wasn’t going to change. I could tell the people on the outside were a bit pissed-off you know. But the hardcore were really into it."
For most of us this would be the stuff of nightmares, a source of acute embarrassment. For Peterson it is simply “interesting”. After all, a champion of alternative music cannot be timid.
Perhaps this is because he has seen it all before. In his book, Adventures on the Wheels of Steel, Dave Haslam relates the story of a disastrous appearance at Space in Ibiza, broadcast live on Radio 1. In an ill-advised piece of programming, Peterson was scheduled to follow Carl Cox - cue 1000 disappointed ravers. Peterson would later say: "I killed it. It was horrendous really."
He told Bill Brewster's DJHistory website in 2002: "It taught me as a DJ that you don’t need to be frightened. I dealt with that situation. Not particularly well, but I dealt with it and I didn’t die." Together with his birth of fire DJing to some of the most unforgiving partisan dancefloors in the 1980s – the likes of London's Electric Ballroom - it's fair to say that Peterson has earned his thick skin.
His CV is equal parts intimidating and enviable. He's played at every festival and club you'd care to name, his career has taken him from pirate stations to Jazz FM and BBC radio, to A&R work, and masterminding the excellent labels Talkin' Loud and Brownswood. He has released a plethora of compilations and launched, influenced, and produced countless artists.
All of these achievements might inspire some jealousy if he wasn’t such a likeable chap - in our phone conversation he talked with boyish enthusiasm (never quite finishing his last thought) about his upcoming Worldwide awards taking place on Saturday January 17th at Koko in London.
As you would expect, the live performances represent the full spectrum and this year Peterson feels like they have struck a nice balance to include Bilal from the States, Melanie De Biasio in from Belgium, and the latest Brainfeeder starlet, Taylor McFerrin.
He is particularly excited to have Marshall Allen perform, whose unassuming modesty, he says, exposes the false sense of entitlement of many who have achieved far less: “He’s telling every fucking overpaid overpriced DJ that, at the end of the day, you can be 91, you can have worked with Sun Ra for the last 40-50 years…longer, two gigs a night, travelling around, doing everything - much more than your average spoilt DJ. I’m like - this is kind of amazing! It really humbles you when you realise that these guys, they’re just so delighted to be..you know…
"Then you ask some bloke who’s put out a half-decent track that he’s made in his bedroom, and he wants £5k and four business class flights you know, it’s completely out of order!”
For Peterson the awards are a chance to celebrate the music he's played throughout the year. But it's not just about recognition, he enjoys the interaction between the different artists backstage - artists who might never have met otherwise. "I have all these great memories of Jay Electronica hanging out with Steve Reid or just the fact of putting people slightly in a different environment to what they’re used to is great."
UK indies Wah Wah 45s and Tru Thoughts have both told how Peterson's support for certain records has been integral to their success. In effect, he can make or break artists and labels alike. In a world where stats often dictate business choices, he supports the bold decisions made by others to start an alternative label and rewards the leap of faith shown by those prepared to take a risk. This is how the UK's indy label scene remains great.
As far as feeling the burden of this responsibility, he does not overthink it: "If I don’t like somebody it doesn’t mean I’m not going to play their record, for example. Do you know what I mean? If a record’s good then I’ll play it.
"And if it fits into what I represent and the kind of soundscape I want to create on the radio every week then brilliant. I’m so glad that they’ve basically put out some great records because, without the great music, I can’t present good radio shows and I won’t have radio stations wanting me to be on them."
And how does a cardinal of tastemakers, the man whose career is built on introducing people to records, find them himself? You can almost picture him peering over a magical crystal ball but the reality is slightly more prosaic. Peterson says it’s often through recommendations from his circle of friends - the likes of Four Tet, Alex Barck [Jazzanova] and LeFtO, as well as his own team.
Having such wide tastes, it must be an art in itself filtering out the stuff he doesn't want. Does he ever feel overwhelmed?
"If I think about it like that I do get a bit panicky about it and have anxiety attacks and stuff but luckily I don’t really think about it too often like that.
"But I’m not super-anal either in the sense that if I miss some stuff that’s the way it goes. I’m not going to every record shop trying to make sure I haven’t missed anything on vinyl as well as the stuff that’s sent to me on MP3 because that’s a whole other world. As long as I’ve got around 25 to 40 songs a week that I’m into - whether that’s old or new that I can play on the radio with enthusiasm then that’s good."
I wondered if Peterson's encyclopaedic musical knowledge allows him foresight as to what genres are about to blow-up. If this is the case, he will not admit to it (though trap and footwork are currently where his "ears prick up the most"). It does mean, however, he is difficult to surprise:
"People talk about Brainfeeder or I don’t know… all these labels, but they’re just trip hop labels really. Nothing’s really changed! It goes back to pre-Massive Attack. Listen to an old Pressure Drop record or an old Smith & Mighty record and then you listen to The Bug’s album and funnily it’s not that dissimilar, apart from thirty years.
"It’s funny you know - house keeps being reinvented. That’s been one of the biggest, most amazing mysteries..well maybe not mysteries..it’s like the ultimate hustle really. My son’s listening to music and I’m like “I remember that track! A track like that came out 15 years ago or 25 years ago!" or whatever. What I’m more interested in is the way new generations perceive music and the way they vary in how they approach it."
I tell Peterson I have no concept of how to go about compiling a jazz set for a club. Do the same rules apply as with any other genre?
"The thing you’ve got to remember is that it’s all about a scene, it’s all about a culture. I mean you could turn up today in a club and play a jazz set and it won’t mean anything. But back in those days..because there was a scene, there were dancers, who would go and follow…just like northern soul…you would go to all-dayers in Leeds or Nottingham or Manchester and there’d be the main room playing northern soul and whatever and there’d be the back room and the best dancers would be in that room dancing to these tunes.
"And these tunes, they weren’t just random jazz tracks. They were specifically sounds broken to that dance floor and those dancers over a period of five to ten years. You know they talk about the New York classic house or disco tracks? Well with jazz dance it’s the same thing. There’s tracks like, I don’t know, Terumassa Hino ‘Merry Go Round’, or ‘Magic Theater’ by Barry Miles - these tracks are just unbelievable tunes that were broken in these rooms."
In truth, his jazz background, a genre synonymous with experimentalism, is perhaps at the heart of why Peterson does what he does. When he turns up to 'Acetate' and pisses-off a load of people who want to hear dubstep, this is when the magic can happen.
“In a weird sort of way sometimes I when I do those freaky nights with the most difficulty, they’re usually the best remembered nights”.
What could be seen as DJing masochism is actually a manifestation of his search for the new and original, the excitement and anticipation of finding the next musical pioneer. After all, greatness doesn’t come from doing what everyone else is doing.