Greg Wilson Interview, December 2009

If you take a tape of dance music history and rewind it back to the start, it doesn’t stop where house music started in the late 80s. Looking further back than that we have soul and disco, then jazz-funk. However, quantum changes in the way dance music sounded and also the way it was played occurred in the early 80s with the development and use of electronic technology, such as synthesisers and drum machines. This radical new music was known as electrofunk, or later electro for short, and was the precursor for everything that followed, be it hip hop, house or techno.

A young Northwest based DJ, Greg Wilson, embraced this new sound and applied new DJing techniques that the more regimented electronic beats allowed him to use, such as mixing two records together to perform a perfect segue. Greg’s electrofunk nights at Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester are now legendary. Having created somewhat of a stir, Greg hung up his headphones and retired from DJing at the height of his powers in the mid 80s.

For nigh on 20 years, Greg’s legend remained just that – a legend. Something talked about in hushed, reverential tones by those in the know. Until, of course, he unexpectedly returned to DJing some five or so years ago. These days Greg melds together both old and new to create a unique party atmosphere, standing apart from his contemporaries through the use of custom re-edits as well as a Revox tape machine for effects and samples.

It is with great pleasure to us that Greg has agreed to answer a few questions for Proper Mag, giving us the full story as told by someone who is a dance music legend not once, but twice. Over to you, Greg…..

How did you first get into music?.  What are your early memories?.

I grew up in a seaside town, New Brighton (across the Mersey from Liverpool), during the 60’s, so there was a constant soundtrack of great pop and soul around me. My family ran a pub with 2 functions rooms above, so mobile discos were coming to play wedding receptions, 21st parties, every weekend – I lived there between the ages of 6 and 13. Further to this, I had an older brother and sister who were buying mainly soul singles, on labels like Stax, Atlantic and Tamla Motown, so that was a key influence, with soul becoming my first love.

So how did a young chap from New Brighton get into Djing?.  Did you start by going to clubs, or did you always have an interest in playing music to other people?.

My schoolfriend, Derek Kelsey (aka Dee Kay, aka Derek Kaye) built his own somewhat primitive mobile disco when he was just 11, using an old draw to house the decks and incorporating a single switch to go between one and the other. It was as basic as you could get, but still highly impressive at the time that someone my own age could put this together. This, along with the fact that I’d probably seen every mobile DJ in a 20 mile radius, when they came to play the parties where I lived, would certainly have influenced me towards deejaying. By the time I was a teenager I had a relatively large record collection, including those 60’s soul singles I’d ‘inherited’ from my brother and sister, so I suppose that deejaying was a logical next step. Derek eventually upgraded his mobile, then upgraded again, so I bought his second console and, along with another friend started ‘Dancin’ Machine Mobile Disco’ (named after a Jackson 5 track)  – ‘good service / reasonable charges / always reliable’! I was only a mobile DJ for a few months though as I landed the Saturday night residency at a popular local nightspot called the Chelsea Reach in December 1975. I was 15 at the time and still at school, so I had to be careful to conceal my age. By the time I left school I was deejaying most nights, either at the Chelsea Reach, or another local club, the Penny Farthing, so it all stemmed from there.

Did you still tend to play Soul/Disco/Dance music at this point?.  Or was there an element of compromise?. Talk us through how your career developed over the next few years.

I always aspired to be a black music specialist and would do Funk nights (playing Soul, Funk and Disco) at the Penny Farthing and, later, the Golden Guinea (where I was resident from 1977-1980). However, most of the time I was playing a wider spectrum of stuff, as the majority of DJ’s in the UK did. When I started at the Guinea it was pretty much like every other club in the area with regards to what was being played, but I gradually, over a period of maybe 6-9 months, changed things around, introducing newer records and an ever-increasing amount of US imports, building myself a reputation for being a DJ who played tracks other DJ’s played later down the line. Eventually the Guinea would be regarded as one of main clubs on Merseyside when it came to hearing the latest black music, and Blues & Soul (then the quintessential magazine for serious minded DJ’s), via reporter Frank Elson, came along and wrote a glowing review in 1979, giving the club its seal of approval. It was a proud day for me!

I worked in a cellar disco in the Guinea. The upstairs room was a throwback to the past with a DJ playing between bands (of the cabaret variety, who would play covers of pop and rock & roll hits, doing 2 or 3 spots a night). This worked in my favour, as if someone asked me to play a record that was too poppy for my room I could simply send them upstairs where the DJ would be quite happy to play their request.

You’re most famously known as a pioneer of Electrofunk.  How did that transition occur from the Soul/Funk/Disco that you had been playing to this ‘new’ music?. 

That happened a bit later. In 1980 I landed the residency at Wigan Pier, which was one of the most impressive venues in the country back then. I deejayed there 4 nights a week, including the Tuesday Jazz-Funk night, which would subsequently result in the Pier winning the Blues & Soul award for best club in the north. By this point, Jazz-Funk and Fusion was being played alongside Soul, Funk and Disco on specialist nights under the catch-all term Jazz-Funk. The reason the vacancy had come up at the Pier was because the company that owned it had opened a new club in Manchester, with the previous Pier resident moving over to there – this was Legend. Legend held its Jazz-Funk night on a Wednesday, but, after a successful period, the night began to alarmingly lose numbers when the DJ, John Grant (then one of the leading black music specialists in the north) switched to a rival night co-promoted by Blues & Soul and Piccadilly Radio called The Main Event (at Placemate 7, where the old Twisted Wheel used to be). With numbers slipping below 100, when it had previously been pulling in more than three  times as many, I was offered the opportunity to see if I could turn things around, given how well things were going for me in Wigan.

Legend was an incredible club with arguably the best sound and lighting in the country. I took over in August 81 and slowly but surely we began to attract more and more people, until, the following May, we hit the 500 capacity, with Legend now at the forefront of the black music scene and people travelling from Birmingham, Huddersfield, Leeds, Bradford, Sheffield, Nottingham etc, even as far as London. The crowd was predominantly black – the best dancers into the most upfront music. It would remain packed to the rafters right through until I stopped deejaying at the end of ’83.

I was fortunate in 2 major ways. Firstly, I’d made a conscious decision to place the emphasis on mixing when I started at Legend. It was the first British club I’d worked in that had SL1200’s (3 of them). At the time only a handful of DJ’s in the UK were regarded as mixing specialists, and I was the only DJ on the Jazz-Funk scene up North to embrace mixing. Further to this, a new style of electronic based black music, utilising drum machines and synths (later samplers), which would be termed Electro-Funk, began to appear towards the end of ’81. This was a type of music suited to mixing, so I found myself doing the right thing with the right crowd at the right club, playing this new music  – everything fell into place.  Although I took a lot of criticism from the purists, who felt that electronic music had ‘no soul’, this new direction placed me, and my clubs, at the cutting-edge. Things really exploded in the May, when Piccadilly Radio also began to feature my mixes (on Mike Shafts Soul Show) – this was also the month that the seminal ‘Planet Rock’ came in on import, and The Hacienda, then very much an indie / student venue, opened

I guess in many ways, changes in technology would drive what happened thereafter – whether that be in the music, like you say through drum machines and synths – but also for the DJ. 

By embracing this new state of the art music, whilst working in the region’s most state of the art venues, I’d set myself apart from all the other DJ’s on the scene, the chasm made even wider by the fact I was mixing. I suppose that everything else seemed a bit old fashioned once someone had experienced the Pier on a Tuesday or, even more so, Legend on a Wednesday, hearing this new electronic music over a sound system that was second to none as far as this country was concerned. By comparison, most clubs that held specialist black music nights were rundown ramshackle venues that had seen better days, with tinny systems, basic lighting, and a DJ talking over the microphone, as was the norm in the UK back then. I was only 22 – a young upstart in many peoples’ eyes, with totally different ideas to the old guard, well and truly rubbing them up the wrong way as a consequence (although I’d never intended to cause such controversy). However, the most important people, the young black audience that made up the majority of those who attended my nights, were totally receptive to what I was trying to do, enabling me to, in a sense, turn the scene on its head, placing myself and my clubs in a position of power and influence. It was very much a revolution that took almost everyone by surprise, myself included.

You yourself began experimenting with reel-to-reel tape machines.  How did that occur, what were your influences and where many other people experimenting in the same way?.

Contrary to the impression that a lot of people have of me, I’ve never been technically minded. When I started doing my mixes for Piccadilly Radio in ’82, Mike Shaft would bring one of the stations’ portable Revox B77 reel-to-reel machines to Legend during the daytime, where I recorded the mix as live. A technician at Piccadilly would then top and tail the tape, readying it for broadcast.  Then one day there was nobody available at the station, so I went into an editing booth myself and, before I knew it, I was turning bits of tape around to create backwards sections, and trying out other rudimentary edit effects. I’d been shown the basics of editing 5 years earlier, when a presenter from BBC Radio Merseyside, Dave Porter, helped me prepare a demo for the station, but I hadn’t actually cut tape since. Other than this I was totally self taught – there were no other DJ’s doing what I was doing in this country.

From that point onwards my mixes became increasingly intricate as I incorporated editing as a vital element of how I prepared them. By the end of the year I’d put together my own home DJ studio, with a B77, two SL1200’s and a Matamp Super Nova mixer (this was the equipment I used when I mixed live on Channel 4’s The Tube in Feb ’83). All subsequent mixes were recorded at home, including the ‘Best Of ‘82’, which was a major landmark for me, comprising of 52 tracks (some just snippets) in less than an hour. Although it’s very raw by today’s standards it was regarded as something of a masterpiece back then!

You demonstrated some of these techniques on a now legendary appearance on the channel 4 television programme, The Tube.  Talk us through how that came about and how it was received by a largely unsuspecting TV audience.

The record companies used to regularly bring acts to Wigan Pier and Legend for personal appearances when they had a new release coming out. This was then considered part of their promotion and we never paid for anyone to come to the club (unlike later, when PA’s became quite a lucrative sideline). Most of the British based artists on the black scene, as well as some US visitors – Kool and the Gang, Gwen Guthrie and Oliver Cheetham – came to Legend. Anyhow, in February ’83 we had David Joseph, the former vocalist from Hi-Tension, in the club for a PA and, given that he was about to appear on The Tube, some of the researchers from the programme had travelled down from Newcastle (where The Tube was based at Tyne Tees TV), to see Joseph perform.

One of the things I was known for was ‘doubling-up’ with two copies of the same record, altering the arrangement by switching between different sections of the two, whilst running one behind the other, be it one, two, four beats or more, to create what might now be described as live edits. I generally did this with tracks that I’d been playing for a while on import, which had just been released in this country (getting the UK labels to send me two, or even three copies – Legend and the Pier had three turntables, enabling me to ‘triple-up’ with the odd track, most notably ‘Buffalo Gals’). On the night David Joseph appeared, performing his then unreleased debut single ‘You Can’t Hide (You’re Love From Me)’, I followed up the PA by playing the track later in the evening, but this time ‘doubling-up’. The Tube people heard this and were impressed enough to ask if I’d do this live for the programme, with them switching from Joseph on stage at London’s Camden Palace, where they were doing an outside broadcast, to me mixing the track in front of the studio audience at Tyne Tees.

It was a daunting scenario. This was the first time a UK DJ had mixed live on TV and, although excited to be asked, I was also terrified that things might go wrong, leaving me looking stupid. Rehearsals confirmed my fears as there was a cameraman with a hand held who was getting far too close to my equipment for comfort. Finally I got both records cued-up and ready and, feeling like some kind of condemned man, listened to the ten second countdown until we were live on air. My eyes were constantly darting to the turntables as I waited for Jools Holland to interview me, and I could barely concentrate on his questions when it began. Finally I was given the go-ahead to start my ‘demonstration’ and, thankfully, all went well, despite the cameraman bumping into the console that housed my decks (which was picked up on in the commentary). Fortunately the needles held firm and I wasn’t faced with the indignity of the record jumping, and the panic that would have ensued had i had to deal with that nightmare!

The Tube would serve to greatly enhance my reputation on a national level, given the large TV audience the programme generated and the fact that pretty much every DJ in the country worth their salt was tuned in. Many people, however, would have been somewhat bemused by it all, mixing being a totally new concept to them, as it seemed to be for Jools Holland. It was telling that he asked me to point out what a turntable was, as he felt that a proportion of the viewers wouldn’t be aware of what this might be (record player being the widely used term back then). It was also clear, looking at some of the people in the audience during the clip, that they had little interest in what I was doing – no doubt awaiting the appearance of The Tourists (Including Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox) who were set up and ready to go on the opposite stage.

It turned out to be brilliant promotion for David Joseph, and the record would go on to be a big UK chart hit, as well as a club favourite.

On your website www.elecrofunkroots.co.uk you are almost evangelical about the music and how it was a door-opener for all that followed (hip-hop, house, techno).  How important do you think it is for the kids of today to know where the music they are currently dancing to came from?.

The reason I’m so keen to continually bang this drum is because I know I’m constantly playing catch up in an attempt to draw peoples’ attention to the crucial influence of the black scene in this country. For years and years the myth has been continually perpetuated that the beginnings of UK dance culture were tied in with the much celebrated Ibiza trip in ’87, or, on a more localised level, that the Manchester dance scene started at The Hacienda. This is what has, generally speaking, been passed down and continues to be passed down in all areas of the media. As an individual I can’t hope to stop this flow of misinformation – for every person who I can connect with, thousands more buy into the same old story, having no reason to dispute a source that’s supposedly reputable. However, it’s encouraging that now an increasing amount of dance historians are looking at the big picture, rather than taking 1987 as some sort of year zero, enabling them to help piece together the true lineage for those who are interested in learning about the foundations.

To know the future first you must know the past, so I feel that it’s important for people to know and respect the full richness of their cultural heritage, in order to properly move things forward – if the past is false, then the future will be also.

There must have come a point when you began to see the music you had been playing starting to move from the underground and become more generally accepted…..

There were always records that crossed over to the more mainstream clubs, having originally broken via import plays on the black scene – a lot of now classic dance tracks emerged in this way. The biggest change in dance culture was once ecstasy arrived on the scene, as this resulted in a tidal wave of people, who would have probably told you dance music was shit before they got on one, taking to the dancefloor in their legions, hands in the air, believing they’d discovered a new style of music when, in reality, this was a direct continuation of what had gone before, but with the addition of MDMA. The black kids weren’t into ecstasy, chemicals weren’t generally consumed by the black crowd, for the overwhelming majority it was strictly herb back then. Although ecstasy was the catalyst for the late 80’s House explosion, it also resulted in the original House enthusiasts up North, the black crowd, moving away from clubs like The Hacienda, where they’d sowed the seeds for what happened in 88/89. From their perspective, their dancing space had been invaded, and a ‘House music all night long’ policy was not what they were into, having been used to hearing a spectrum of dance music in the club previously, including Hip Hop and Street Soul alongside the House stuff.

By 84 you’d retired from DJing.  Why was that?.  And did you retain any involvement with the music scene in the years thereafter?.

This is probably the question I’m asked the most, but not something I can explain without going into time-consuming detail – there just isn’t a quick way to answer. With this in mind I actually wrote a piece called ‘Why Did I Quit?’, which anyone who’s interested can read on the electrofunkroots website:

http://www.electrofunkroots.co.uk/misc/why_did_i_quit.html

Throughout my ‘retirement’ I was always involved in music, in one capacity or another, be it running record labels, production, management, promotion etc. It was certainly a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs, but I generally had some sort of project or other on the go. I’m best remembered during this time for my work with Manchester’s Ruthless Rap Assassins, who I managed and produced. We released 2 albums through EMI, the ‘Killer Album’ in 1990 and ‘Th!nk – It Ain’t Illegal Yet’ in 1991.

I guess it follows that the question that you are asked second most often is ‘what made you come back to it’?

It was all to do with the fact that UK dance culture was now being documented from a historic perspective – a significant period time had passed, and by 2003, when I returned to deejaying, it was 15 years since the whole House / Rave thing had begun to explode. Books were being written, TV and radio documentaries broadcast, websites appearing etc, all concerning themselves with the evolution of dance culture in this country, but there was one huge glaring omission almost everywhere, and that was the pivotal role of the black scene in laying the foundations.

I made a conscious decision to do everything within my power to address this situation. I fortunately had all my archive material up in my loft, so I spent time going through everything and piecing it all together. The result was the electrofunkroots website, which focused on the early 80’s period, which would underpin what happened subsequently. As I’ve often said, Electro-Funk was the hybrid – the missing link. It was the catalyst that enabled the previous era of Soul, Funk, Disco and Jazz-Funk to morph into the Hip Hop, House and Techno movements. Electro-Funk rung out the old and brought in the new.

Now I was active again and had an online presence, people began to approach me about deejaying on their nights, and in Dec 03 I made my return at Manchester’s Music Is Better. Everything snowballed from that – it was all a very organic process, which was the only way it could have properly come together. Had I made some great comeback masterplan, it could never have worked out as well as it has. I feel that this was because I was doing it for the right reasons, with a greater purpose providing the driving force, which was the draw people’s attention to the crucial role the black scene in this country played in sowing the seeds for all that followed.

How do you think the club scene compares between ‘now’ and ‘back then’?

It’s impossible to make direct comparisons because the dynamics were completely different. When I was working with a mainly black crowd in the early 80’s it was at a time when there was still a lot of racism, both in everyday life and on an institutionalised level, so the people who came to my nights really needed a release from the day to day problems they encountered, with dancing holding a far deeper significance. The atmosphere at a club like Legend was really intense – you just don’t come across the equivalent nowadays. The level of dancing was something to behold – it’s a real shame that this has been largely lost in more contemporary clubbing. The black kids were always the ones into the most cutting-edge music, and with the best moves, so I was blessed to be able to work with them in such great clubs as Legend and the Pier. I’m often asked the question ‘what were the parties like at Legend’, parties being a widely used term for club nights now, but these certainly weren’t parties in the ‘hands in the air sense’ people might visualise, but something altogether more profound given the social conditions this audience were subjected to.

Club culture has obviously come into a more mainstream context since those times, the hedonistic Rave era setting the agenda for the last 20 years, with the majority of young people embracing dance music (whereas previously this was a more specialist area). What’s great about now is the amount of knowledge many of the younger heads have, fed by a real fascination with what came before, often before they were even born. It’s also a global community now, with the internet revolutionizing how we connect and interact, enabling someone like myself, who once regarded the midlands as an exotic location in which to DJ, to now appear in clubs throughout the world, finding likeminded people wherever I might be, even though I’m still on the fringes with regards to my place in the greater scheme of things.

Your current sets seem to embrace a wide range of dance music, frequently through the use of re-edits – are you still cutting tape?

I don’t do my re-edits on tape – it’s totally impractical given the options computer programs allow. However, the Revox is still a key element of my live presentation – I use it to spin sounds, textures and samples, which I’ve recorded onto tape, over the top of the tracks I’m playing, and also to create dub / echo fx.

Initially I make re-edits to play myself, they’re pretty much a means to an end in this respect – I usually share them a little bit later down the line.

We discussed earlier how developing technology (drum machines/synths) had been behind changes in the music in the early 80s, resulting in electro.  Do you feel the same applies now – changes in technology (or rather the low cost and easy availability of hardware and software) are driving forward music and DJing?

Music always needs new impetus. This either comes from the fusion of 2 or more existing styles to create a new direction, or technological advancements. The fact that home computers can now offer options that were once only available by hiring a recording studio has obviously made an impact. The internet also allows artists to make their music available without, as it once was not too long ago, being dependant on the support (and often interference) of a record company. The goalposts have most certainly moved and I feel that we’re experiencing a period where everyone is trying to make sense of these changes, and how best to step forward from here.

With regards to deejaying, there are now many ways to skin a cat – it’s no longer a case of vinyl and turntables (although this still remains a valid option). Then there’s the current re-edit movement, which gained momentum due to the possibilities presented by the many programs now available that enable you to digitally manipulate existing recordings, putting a contemporary spin on the past, allowing older tracks to find a new audience and be appreciated in a non-nostalgic setting.

Sometimes it’s a case of looking back in order to move forward, and this is where I feel we are at the moment – technology helping a new generation to connect with what came before and thus gain their bearings. The new Beatles Rock Band game is a perfect example, as this will introduce their music, as well as their story, to so many younger people who might have been previously under the misconception that this wasn’t relevant to their lives when, in reality, it underpins our understanding of popular culture and the vast riches it offers.

Have you ever given any thought to making music yourself (as an artist)?   Was ‘I was a teenage DJ’ a step in this direction?

I’ve made lots of original stuff down the years (in collaboration with various musicians), but since I came back to deejaying I just haven’t been able to find the time. It’s very much something I want to do, but I’ve no idea when this will be possible.

‘I Was A Teenage DJ’ was basically an edit. It’s built around the intro of KC & The Sunshine Band’s ‘I’m Your Boogie Man’, weaving in and out of a series of loops, with additional loops from other tracks plus further sounds and textures added. I actually put this together a good few years before I got into deejaying again, as with all the other stuff pressed up under Teenage DJ – I initially referred to these as my ‘Acid sketchies’. When I first got a computer and was learning how to use the Acid program, which, being loops based, is ideal for my way of working, I experimented by cutting up stuff I liked and making these ‘sketchies’. The Teenage DJ project evolved from this.

You’ve been involved with dance music now for 30 or so years as a DJ, remixer, producer and manager.  What does the future hold for Greg Wilson?

I’m just going with the flow. There’s so much I’d like to do, but it’s a case of taking things one step at a time. The past 5 years have snowballed along – I couldn’t have dreamt that people would want to book me to play in far flung places like Japan, Brazil, Australia and the US. I’m still getting my head around that!

I definitely want to produce and write, so hopefully this will be the next step, but as things stand there’s simply not enough hours in the day – there’s always something waiting to be done.

Given that there are never enough hours in the day, Proper Mag then left Greg to get on with what he should really be doing – making great music and DJing – rather than blabbering to us. It only remains for us to thank him for his time and patience in answering our questions.

Further details can be found on Greg’s website www.electrofunkroots.co.uk. If you’re interested in dance music then take time to have a look, it really is worth it. In addition, Greg has a further collection of re-edits available on a ‘long player’ as ‘Credit to the Edit volume 2’ (featuring re-edits of Roxy Music, A Guy Called Gerald, OMD and others) and two re-edit 12”, one as 6ix Toy – Sisters Of Soul, Brothers Of Funk (Greg Wilson Version) and another featuring two GW Edits as the 10th in the Disco Deviance series. Available in all good records stores, as they say. And maybe a few crap ones too, you never know.

Anthony Heslop

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