Gilles Peterson has created a musical solar system all his own. Broadcasting around the globe via his BBC Radio 1 show, Peterson has tied together disparate countries and cultures through music. In the process, he’s redefined the role of the deejay.
Peterson is world renown for his influence and good taste – he dedicates entire shows to classic jazz, soul and afro-beat, playing only original vinyl from his personal library or filling out playlists with white-labels, hand-delivered CD-Rs and an ever-rotating roster of artists you haven’t heard of yet. Now, with his double-disc BBC Sessions Volume 1, released by RRM on November 1, he has the tracks to prove it.The album features stripped-down performances recorded live in the legendary Maida Vale studios, exclusively for his visionary Worldwide Show. He spotlights artists such as N*E*R*D, Beck, the Roots, Amp Fiddler, Björk, Matthew Herbert Big Band, Roots Manuva, Plantlife and Common in a very intimate setting. We were stage-side for Peterson’s party at Canal Room in New York City to promote the record, and the next day we visited him at his hotel to talk about the party, the radio and his latest album.
Prefixmag.com: Last night was cool, man. You don’t get many things like that in New York these days.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, that’s what I was hearing. It was definitely quite left-field, too. Did you see the Steve Reid bit at the beginning?
PM: No, and I was heated because my friend in Birmingham, in the U.K., was just telling me not to miss those guys together.
Gilles Peterson: That was quite left.
PM: You guys started right on time, then?
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, we did, because there was quite a lot to deal with. There was Steve Reid and Four Tet, which was mad, mad left, I would say. Definitely blessing the session in a way. And then Amp Fiddler did one song. Then Heavy were quite interesting – a different angle, a different energy again. Robert Glasper I thought was great, actually. His band was tight.
PM: Jazmine Sullivan
Gilles Peterson: Oh, yeah. She killed it.
PM: How do you know about her and we don’t?
Gilles Peterson: Just from traveling around and doing things. I went to Philadelphia a couple of years ago to do a documentary on the Philly scene, and everyone was talking about Jazmine. I met up with her then and heard her and saw her play live, and then I just tried to get her to do things as much as possible. I got her a couple of gigs in the U.K. She signed a deal with Missy, actually, but she just got dropped.
PM: That’s what Gamall [Awad, of Backspin Promotions] was telling me. That’s ridiculous.
Gilles Peterson: She’s not Aretha and she’s not Brandy.
PM: So they don’t know what to do with her.
Gilles Peterson: If you’re eighteen, you’ve got to be tits and ass, man.
PM: You’ve got to be a video dancer and a singer. But she’s crazy talented. She took over that stage. When everyone was up there doing “Think Twice,” I saw Dwele shoot her a couple of looks over his shoulder like, Damn, this girl’s got something.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, they got on well, those two. It’s quite interesting. That’s what I like about these kinds of situations – you can put people together and sometimes it’s like introducing a boy and a girl and later on you see them married with children and you’re semi-responsible for it. That’s a nice little part of the whole thing.
PM: That was the nicest thing for me. No one was really stepping on anybody’s toes. There were some long horn solos and whatnot and people were just laying back and enjoying all the little parts.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, I think you’re right. It was quite funny when Jamie Cullum turned up.
PM: That was great.
Gilles Peterson: That was interesting, though, because I said to the bass player, “Can he borrow your bass?” And I think there was a little bit of that “Okay, only because you’re putting me on the spot and asking me at this very last minute am I going to let my bass go to this white guy” kind of thing. And that was a funny moment.
PM: I don’t think people even realize, because Jamie is really famous in the U.K., right?
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, he’s big. He sells two-and-a-half-million records.
PM: And he’s strolling through there and maybe ten people knew who he was before he got to the stage.
Gilles Peterson: And he was drunk, too.
PM: Obviously. [Laughs.]
Gilles Peterson: But it was quite cool for me to see an American crowd react to his version of “Frontin’.”
PM: That song has taken on a life of its own. I’ve personally played that at a New Year’s party in Miami and at my friend’s wedding and I’ve heard Spinna and Medina play it.
Gilles Peterson: He’s tall isn’t he?
PM: Yeah. [Laughs.] But I know somebody put that out on an unmarked black label, and it was there for a minute and then it was gone. Which is what’s funny about BBC Sessions, because previous to this everything from those shows were black labels and bootlegs and MP3 captures and whatever else. So it’s nice now to have properly produced full versions of some of those songs.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, I’m happy. I’ve done a lot of compilations and mix albums, but this is the first album that truly represents what I do as a radio broadcaster. A lot of the other ones are about me as a selector or a deejay. Which is great, I love that stuff. I love the new one that I’ve just done for Ubiquity, Digs America. But that’s just Gilles collecting and making a mixtape. But this is different for me, because it’s a culmination of five years of moments – fresh moments.
So I’m quite pleased that it’s coming out. And the record company did really well, too, because they’re an independent record company. Because you’ve got to license from the BBC, you’ve got to license from the major record companies and the independent companies, from American and British companies, and then you’ve got to get clearance from all the artists individually. That’s a big job. If you do a compilation album, normally there’s a whole special department for that. And money talks, so you just throw some money and you get it done.
But with this it was a new concept, so a lot of work had to be put into it. And everyone cleared it. There was one problem with a track with King Britt and Roy Ayers. That didn’t happen and I’m not sure why. But all of the artists we approached said yes almost immediately – including Bjork, and she doesn’t allow any of her music out. Which is understandable in a way, because all artists want the best of themselves to come out. They don’t want some sloppy version out there – well, the N.E.R.D. track is sloppy on this album but it’s brilliant; it’s got a lovely spirit. But it’s super sloppy and I could have imagined Pharrell going, “What the fuck? I’m not letting this go,” but he did. He was like, “Cool. Whatever.”
PM: That session was one of my favorites, where they were beat-boxing their own radio station, what they wanted the radio to sound like – he and Chad just creating it from scratch.
Gilles Peterson: That was good. I wish they were still like – like the first version of their album, the programmed version before they went live. That version was murder, man. I loved that album. But they’re finished now. I heard they’ve broken up. But I think it’s a record company thing and they’re still friends.
PM: Their records never really sold that well. Especially not in the States.
Gilles Peterson: I know. That’s weird.
PM: But then Pharrell will turn around and produce one song for someone else and it will be a number one hit for like eight months, but they never really did anything with their own band.
Gilles Peterson: And it was good, too. It wasn’t like it was some crap side project or anything.
PM: Yeah, it definitely had tracks. I mean “Run to the Sun” is a great track.
PM: I feel like BBC Sessions album is something that needed to happen. I listen to your show every week and I know a lot of other people who do, too, but the shows are only up on the Web site for a week and then they just kind of float off into space. To have some of those moments there in your hand is nice.
Gilles Peterson: It’s the same for me. I’m delighted. I’m interested in seeing how it does, because it’s not your regular dance record. But I think it’s going to do better than a lot of things I’ve done.
PM: It’s one of the better records I’ve heard this year, and for people who haven’t heard the show it’s going to be like opening up a whole new world with artists they already know.
Gilles Peterson: What are your favorite tracks?
PM: The Jamie Cullum track can’t be beat. That’s a winner every time. The N.E.R.D. track is great just because it’s so freestyle. But Jazmine’s track I love. Oh, here it is for me – the Roots Manuva track.
Gilles Peterson: Isn’t it great?
PM: That whole session! I did a piece with him, too, and we were talking about that specifically and I told him how it was really nice to hear him so stripped-down. He’s really about creating this wall of sound – this murky, dense kind of thing. So to hear him, a singer and a piano
Gilles Peterson: And it’s the right kind of piano, too. Quite old and a bit dark – almost modal, basically. I love that session.
PM: And it makes you see his talent, which sometimes gets lost behind those beats. Not to discount him, but the new record – I never really fell in love with it the way I wanted to.
Gilles Peterson: No, me neither.
PM: But I think that session captured something entirely new from him, which was great.
Gilles Peterson: I like the Beth Gibbons track.
PM: Yeah, that’s a good one. Who is she?
Gilles Peterson: She’s the singer from Portishead.
PM: Oh, I knew I recognized her voice.
Gilles Peterson: Portishead for me made the most important British record in the past ten years. Forget Massive Attack, forget Roni Size. Portishead are the ones that made the definitive trip-hop album – if you have to give it a certain name. That was the record that any beat-head in America or wherever- they weren’t listening to Massive Attack, they were listening to Portishead. And her voice was just a killer. And she made a stellar album a couple years ago that just disappeared. So to get her on here with a track that strong was really magic for me.
PM: Well, that’s part of your importance. You’re creating a format; you’re really giving a home to music that doesn’t necessarily have a format and that might get lost otherwise.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, I don’t know. It’s tough out there now, isn’t it? You can’t muck about. You’ve got to make an effort; you can’t just throw music out there. You’ve got to think about it, because there’s a lot less consumers and the business isn’t as strong financially as it used to be. So you’ve got to make sure that you do it well and give value for money, in a way.
And for this there is a community that has built up over the years around the show, the Radio 1 show – very much helped by the Internet, very much helped by the fact that the BBC is national in the U.K. And a lot of artists, as well as the public that listens to it, believe in it. So in that sense it is like a movement or a scene. In that respect it’s brilliant for me because people want to be part of it and artists want to be a part of it. But I have to be very careful not to take the piss, if you know what I mean. People are watching for me to be honorable, which is obviously my thing, but that’s why there is a strong movement. I think people have come to believe in the honesty of it.
PM: It’s pretty obvious that you care about the music. And I think you’ve helped build that home with the records that you play – from playing eight-minute jazz tracks to playing artists that nobody has ever heard of and letting those type of things flourish and have a place to be heard.
Gilles Peterson: But the important thing to remember is that I’m just a little radio show on Radio 1. And I could be gone tomorrow because to them it’s just another radio show. They appreciate that it’s important and that it has an influence, but at the end of the day it’s important for these kinds of things [BBC Sessions] to come out and for the scene to stay strong and united and support itself, because that means programs like mine will stay on the air.
I need artists to come from out of here and cross over. I need a Zero 7 to come out and break across so people in influential positions recognize what we’re doing and not just see the show as this specialist, fringe or underground kind of thing. I have absolutely no issues – I mean, I love it if a band can come out and smash it and go massive. I have not got a problem with that.
PM: Who are some of the bigger people you’ve broken?
Gilles Peterson: Well, I say Zero 7 because I was really the only person playing them for ages before they finally broke out. But there are a lot of artists, like Dizzee Rascal or Lady Sovereign or M.I.A., where I was really the first person to play their music on the radio in England, as opposed to breaking them. Let’s just say I opened that particular door.