Greg Wilson: The man behind the groove

The word pioneer gets thrown around all too often these days. If we actually stop and think about its true meaning – the first to explore – then few live up to the hype. Yet Greg Wilson is just that, the UK’s very own pioneer of electronic dance music.

From becoming the first British DJ to mix live on TV in 1983, introducing the re-edits format to the UK, championing early New York electro records, becoming a stalwart in the black music scene, holding down The Hacienda’s first weekly dance music night and teaching Fatboy Slim to scratch, it is not hyperbolic to credit Wilson with invigorating the UK’s electronic music scene.

He may have retired from DJing in 1983 for a 20 year sabbatical, but on resuming in 2003, it was as if he’d never left, and more importantly, the scene had one of its guiding lights back. Two Credit to the Edit compilation albums followed and catapulted him onto the international scene once again.

Then the Essential Mix came calling in 2009, and what resulted carved Wilson’s already weighty name into dance music folklore. Named as one of the top 10 Essential Mixes of all time by Radio 1 and one of the top 25 internet mixes ever by Rolling Stone, it’s on the 10th anniversary of his quite legendary mix that we caught up with the man behind the groove…

Thanks for taking the time to speak with us Greg; how have you been, what have you been up to of late?

Well it’s just getting into festival season, I’ve already been at a couple already and the next four months are looking particularly busy, I’ll be pretty much all over including Glastonbury, Romania, Spain and of course the UK.

I should be saying happy anniversary! It’s 10 years on from your Radio 1 essential mix, so if we rewind to that, how did it come about? How did it feel to be selected?

It was kind of odd in a way because to be perfectly honest, I hadn’t realised how big it was at the time. I mean I knew how big it was in the 90s and how people would religiously tune in to it, but when I was approached to do it I didn’t think it was anything like it used to be in terms of popularity. But what I learned later and really surprised me at the time was how it spread over the course of 24 hours, all over the world really. So if anything, it is bigger now because of the internet, whereas a couple of decades ago it was pretty limited to the UK.

It was just a really nice surprise, I remember I was leaving for San Francisco at the baggage thing and my agent rang and said I’d been asked to do the mix. So that gave me a bit of time to think about it and decide how I was going to go about it. It was about five years after I’d decided to come back to djing again so I decided to focus on tracks that I’d been playing in that period, largely contemporary stuff but as I do, reworks and edits of classic and cult classic tracks.

What was your process for selecting the tracks? Was it more regimented than for example, your typical process ahead of a set?

In terms of pulling together a mix it was perhaps only second to one I did just before that called Electrospective, which was covering the electro-funk 82-83 period, so that was really hard as it was so specific.

With the Essential Mix, I started by selecting a pool of tracks just like a DJ does I suppose when they get a box of records, they aren’t going to play all of them. But I decided at the beginning of the process that I was going to edit them all as the nature of the mix means you need to get each track to about two and a half minutes on average, and you’ve got to do that coherently as you want the best part of the track, so there’s a lot of work in shedding the tracks down to shorter versions.

I probably did about 90 tracks all in all then about half actually made it. And of course there were certain tracks that I knew had to be in there and others that I would’ve liked to include. In theory I could have probably made a second one from the bits that I didn’t use. It was a real mix of spontaneity and pre-planned tracks I wanted to include.

So which were those staple tracks that you always wanted to include?

Well I opened with The Originals – Down To Love Town (Dimitri From Paris mix) and that was in fact the first ever 12 inch released on Motown, and I’d always loved that track and the grand opening that Dimitri had drawn out of it was perfect, to which I then dropped Jesse Jackson’s speech from Wattstax Festival 1972 in over the top. I was in a way nodding my head to Andrew Weatherall who had done a remix of Primal Scream’s Come Together back in the early 90s and also used that speech, so it was a nice way to open and from there it just flowed. There was also the Chic – I want your love (Todd Terje mix) and the Edit The Edit – Two Sides Of Sympathy (PTA mashup / Greg Wilson mix) that I really felt needed to be in there.

Following its release it really took off as we’ve touched on, I mean Rolling Stone dubbed it as one of the top 25 internet mixes of all time. How did it change your career in that respect, how does it feel to read responses such as: “This mix had a profound effect on me. It rekindled my love of dance music, introduced me to the edits scene, inspired me to buy my own decks at an age’, how does it feel to have inspired so many people?”

It’s great, and obviously that person is someone who could relate to some of those original tracks. It’s funny really because I remember the jingle for the Essential Mix at the time was ‘In new music we trust’, and I was thinking, ooo you know, a lot of the tracks I had were older tracks, although presenting them in more of a contemporary way. So when it went out I kind of thought there would be a mixed reaction, people thinking what is all this old music? The biggest surprise for me was how across the board it was being accepted. I mean at the end of the day, it really is the proof is in the pudding, it is quality music and I’m fortunate enough to be able to draw on dance music that has been tried and tested on either a mainstream or underground level.

It’s funny, even if a track is 30 years old, unless you’re wound up on a production level then it is still a great track. For example, some people probably won’t watch black and white films just because they are black and white, so I thought in this sense, there would be some backlash to me playing this older music. But there wasn’t, and that was a huge shock and really took my breath away. People still ask me about the Essential Mix and even Radio 1 named it in their top 10 of all time, so it’s been quite a big thing for me.

So how did it alter the trajectory of your career at the time?

Well in 2005, I did the first Credit to the Edit album and that was the point where I started picking up bookings from overseas. I did my first US tour on the back of the release of that album, so there was already groundwork done before the Essential Mix, as well as the second Credit to the Edit album in 2009, but it certainly took my name further and to different places that would probably never of heard of me before then. Yeah, it had a really positive impact for me.

Looking forward and Glastonbury is just around the corner. What’s your relationship like with the festival, I expect you have some fond memories?

Yeah Glastonbury has been really special for me and I’m so glad to be back there this year. I played a string of years from 2011-2015 and one in particular, I played a Thursday night at the Stonebridge Bar and I didn’t think that there would be many people there, I imagined it would be a night for the people working at the festival and setting things up, but it was actually a big top and already rammed full of folks. Half the people seemed to be scousers too, I had people coming up to me saying “I was at Stonebridge!” and that set became my most listened to online.

I’ve also played at Block9 and the Beat Hotel, and this year I’ll be playing there and a place called the Rabbit Hole and Funkingham Palace, four gigs in under two days. It’s an incredible place Glastonbury, the greatest show on Earth and so I’m delighted to have been booked.

You’ll be playing at Lost Village festival again this year, where the dedication they have to ensuring you are completely detached from real life is really commendable. Why do you think the UK does festivals so well?

Yeah I love Lost Village, I really like what they’ve been doing there and I’ve been there the last three or four years. I’ve played in those woods which is a really great spot and on the Junkyard stage just before Craig Charles; it’s just a really great place and as you say, they do a lot to separate you from reality in a safe environment with great music.

As for the UK’s relationship with festivals, I really think it’s the British attitude of just getting on with it and having a good time, regardless of things like the weather. It’s just such a good culture we have here and the load of options that are open to people now is just great; festivals are just part of our culture now. In fact some of the best festival appearances I’ve done have been in bad weather conditions because British people just seem to go the extra yard.

There is certainly a school of thought that says the more commercial festivals keep on becoming, the more diluted and unoriginal the scene becomes; it becomes solely about the DJ, their social media presence and who they are. How do you feel about how much DJs have become the star, the focus of the night rather than perhaps the music? How do you view the modern day club culture? Is it on a healthy trajectory?

Well you know the commercialisation has always been there, right since the early rave days in the late 80s, ever since DJs started putting their hands up and wanting the adulation of the crowd. It’s not really my thing but you know, it’s part of the showmanship of the scene.

Festivals, they have been really, really important for me and my trajectory. About ten years ago I was doing a lot of gigs that were pretty underground and relatively hard to find out about, you needed an in. Yet what the festivals allowed was people coming up to me and saying, “wow, I don’t usually listen to this stuff but it’s great, what is it?”, and I’d say you know, disco, funk, edits, this that and the other. From there, they would perhaps go and see you at a club gig; so festivals almost become a sort of recruiting ground and they certainly bring different people to new music which is great.

There is certainly that aspect of festivals becoming more and more commercial but it generally happens, once something becomes successful it is usually commercialised to a level. Yet at the same time you’ll have other smaller festivals starting up that won’t be as commercialised. So just invest your money in something away from the commercialisation if that’s what you want. You’ve got to remember that people are paying money for the weekend or whatever and expecting a good time, expecting a certain track to be played and so on. Whereas in a club you get a licence to experiment and push expectations a bit more, get a bit more avant-garde. It’s always a balance between giving people what they want and giving them what they need.

Even in America, where there is the big EDM scene, it’s not what I’m into but you have to look at it in a positive way; there are a lot of kids going out and dancing that weren’t before. As they then come into different environments they discover what else is going on, EDM is another point of entry for them to discover other dance genres. It’s been difficult for the US crowds to actually find that pathway because house and techno were genuinely underground in America, whereas here house really took off. We can’t be dismissive of this and say it’s all rubbish, we have to take something from it and it will take people into other areas that we deem to have more musical substance.

You’ll be heading back to Ibiza in July to play at Hi, what memories does Ibiza hold for you?

Over the last 12-15 years I’ve been playing pretty regularly over there. I went for the first time in the 90s as a punter on a short holiday, so I didn’t really experience that whole Ibiza era but experienced it in a slightly different way. It is this huge thing that’s developed, huge billboards with DJs on and the super clubs, it’s a very expensive place to be and you’re dealing with, in many respects a tourist crowd, but it is what it is; it’s the entertainment centre of the modern era of dance music so you’ll probably find the more interesting events a little bit out of the way there or midweek.

I’ve done Croatia too; The Garden Festival and there are obviously a lot of things going on in Croatia now and I loved all that because it was quite organic in comparison to Ibiza. This summer I’ll be playing at Glitterbox at Hi and at La Discotheque at the Ibiza Rocks Hotel, so it’s great that these places are having a disco night. I mean I don’t like the term disco, not even the stuff that was on my Essential Mix is really disco, disco is more specific to the 70s but it was a catch-all term I suppose for the music played in discotheques and later it became seen as a specific genre. I didn’t like it because people already had an association to what they thought disco was, it’s now a hodge-podge covering house and other genres. But it is crazy you know, 10-15 years ago I was playing this sound in a backroom somewhere and now it’s in a massive superclub.

Other than a pretty busy summer, what else is in the pipeline for the near future?

Yeah well I’ve got a few things lined up on my label Super Weird Substance, but that’s been on the backburner recently, so getting some things out over the summer and negotiating my way through all the gigs is occupying my time at the minute, but I’m certainly looking to get some of those releases out soon.

Thank you, Greg!

Thank you, take it easy!

Greg Wilson plays Lost Village Festival alongside Peggy Gou, Bicep, Shanti Celeste, HAAi and more!

Final tickets available from here.

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