For Gilles Peterson, the hunt for great music is global, endless, and all-encompassing. He is driven to share his discoveries as widely as he can, whether on his much-loved radio shows, his record label Brownswood, or at the two music festivals he founded. His unique Marantz Amplified playlist brings together some lesser-known tracks from artists he’s personally discovered and nurtured during a lifetime in music.Words: Bruce Tantum
DJ, label boss and all-around musical lightning rod Gilles Peterson is often called a “tastemaker,” and while that description is certainly apt, it only hints at the depth of the French-born Londoner’s connection with music. As a teenager he ran his own pirate radio operation, in the late eighties he founded a pair of hugely influential record labels; he currently helms a third label and two music festivals, and his hosting duties on BBC Radio 6 and his own Worldwide FM are the latest in three-and-a-half decades of high-profile DJ gigs. Gilles is a treasure hunter, eager to share his globe-spanning, jazz- and funk-drenched riches with anyone with an open mind. Few people have done as much to shape our musical tastes.
Peterson came of musical age in the golden era of the mid- and late-70s, when disco and punk were shaking things up, and soulful sounds like Bobby Caldwell’s “What You Won’t Do for Love” or Earth, Wind & Fire’s “I Am” were catching his ear. He began exploring the worlds of jazz, funk and soul, stepping into the small London clubs – most were really pubs or bar back rooms – where these sounds were being played.
“Those clubs were brilliant,” he beams. “And the crowd would be diverse as well, a mixture of all cultures. That was the great thing about that music — it was the most multiracial thing that existed. And for me as a boy living in the suburbs it was all so exciting. We were 14 or 15 years old, going to these places and standing in the corner, listening to DJs playing these records imported from America, and we were learning from them.”
His compulsion to share music saw him broadcasting illegally as a pirate DJ. “I wanted to champion music you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. In those years the British musical zeitgeist was very rock & roll. So if you were into soul or jazz-funk, you were already an outsider, because it wasn’t the mainstream. You felt you were part of a secret society.”
Few in the music business can claim to have codified a new genre, but Peterson managed just that when he and fellow DJ Chris Bangs came up with the term “acid jazz” – a jokey play on “acid house” – as a way to break free of the more traditional jazz network. “Acid jazz was a box for us to throw in all our mad eclectic ideas of what jazz could be,” he explains. As a record label, Acid Jazz championed this DJ-led approach, and with its follow-up label Talkin’ Loud, played host to the likes of Galliano, Incognito, Young Disciples and Roni Size & Reprazent, among many other notables.
His third and current imprint is Brownswood, and it’s clear that the label is a driving force. “There's a part of me that's very much about signing and developing artists,” he explains. “and as a radio person I feel a responsibility that at least 70 percent of the music I play should be new, because these artists need that.” Whether as label boss or DJ, his excitement comes from seeing artists he’s discovered rise and do well. “Part of my enjoyment is to see groups that I celebrated very early do very well globally. It’s a bit like putting money on a horse.”
// People are looking for the most authentic and real music there is, and they’re finding it. //- Gilles Peterson
Whether listening to demos or choosing music for his show, great audio is essential. “For a little while, I fell into the bad habit of listening to music on bad headphones and through my laptop speakers,” he admits, “and listening to music started becoming more like work.” Thankfully, Gilles caught himself and renewed his insistence on the highest quality sound. It’s a matter of respecting the artists, he says: hearing their work as clearly as intended.
He recalls how a few years ago the hi-fidelity sound of his studio gave him and his mother a moment of pure emotion. “She came for a visit, and I wanted to have a moment with her, so I put Dave Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ on my sound system. And we had the most amazing union, my mum and me, during the drum solo – just a very magical moment of closing your eyes and listening to audio.”
Lately, Peterson’s explorations have taken him deep into the music of Guadalupe and Martinique, along with a wide variety of South American scenes. “I've been listening to a lot of northeastern Brazilian music, for instance, which is so different than what’s going on in other parts of the country.” And he remains optimistic that such localized scenes will retain their identities despite our ever shrinking world. “People are discovering things that are deeper than ever. They’re looking for the most authentic and real stuff there is, and they’re finding it.”
Three and a half decades on, and Peterson remains one of the most respected names in music. Thanks to a constant workload of DJing, his curiosity and his curating skills are as strong as ever. “It’s like being a sommelier or a chef,” he says. “You’ve got to continue eating, and you’ve got to continue drinking – you can't just take three years off and still be at your best. I trust my ears because my ears have never stopped working.”
//The crowd would be a mixture of all cultures. That was the great thing about that music – it was the most multiracial thing that existed. //- Gilles Peterson
The Amy Winehouse story is interesting. Island Records, who eventually signed her after a bidding war with other labels, found it hard to find an angle to break her. So they asked me to put her on my series of mix albums. In 2003 we put her on “Worldwide Programme 3” and the rest is history!
A 2020 story. I picked them up on some social media posts from Los Angeles that featured an outstanding connected performance by singer Jacob Lust. I played them throughout my lockdown shows and they got signed to Warner Records. "We are a record label of iconic, culture - shaping music & entertainment. Built on irreverent ideas, creative risks, and life-changing hits." https://www.warnerrecords.com
Twelve years ago he received Track of the Year at our Worldwide Awards based on his post-dubstep track "CMYK." It was a magic moment watching the crowd in awe and shock when he performed an acoustic version of “Limit to your Love.” Not what they expected.
People forget how most big stars started their path on the outside lane. Little Simz was barely accepted by the traditional hip-hop and RnB communities because her music was so unconventional. It was only a matter of time before they would catch up. She was an early Worldwide Awards winner – check her duet with Anderson Paak in 2016.
These guys were big-hitters on the radio for me from their early days. We booked them in 2019 for our Worldwide festival and they were subsequently offered Glastonbury. I always appreciate them for turning down Glastonbury to keep their promise and playing at the modest (numbers) of Worldwide instead of getting mass TV exposure. A humble, beautiful band. And they’re playing Glastonbury this year instead!
// We had just a very magical moment of- Gilles Peterson
closing your eyes and listening to audio. //
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Header hero image: Yukitaka Amemiya. All other images: Benjamin Teo, Jesse FK Howard