PM: You’re always killing us in New York because you’re playing things like Maspyke and Platinum Pied Pipers and Tiombe Lockhart before we even know who they are.
Gilles Peterson: I like her [Tiombe Lockhart].
PM: Yeah, she’s talented.
Gilles Peterson: She’s spiky! And she’s a New York girl, right?
PM: I think so. And Waajeed [of Platinum Pied Pipers] is from Detroit, but he’s living here now.
Gilles Peterson: The girls love him, too, don’t they? He gets on quite well with the ladies.
PM: Girls like to laugh, and Jeed’s got jokes. We’re just always wondering how this British guy is putting us on to things that are in our backyard.
Gilles Peterson: You need the radio here, don’t you?
PM: Even today I told people I was meeting with you, and they asked me to tell them someone in the States who’s doing what you do, and there really isn’t anyone. You’ve got your protégé Benji B over there who has given the same kind of shelter to some of this music, but in the States it’s all commercial. It’s all money.
Gilles Peterson: I know. But there are things happening – L.A. has a lot of things going on. I can say that musically there’s a lot happening in L.A. at the moment. It blows my mind when people say things like what happened last night just don’t happen very often anymore in New York. Which is such a shame.
PM: It is. But again you’re talking about money. The venues are nervous, so the promoters are very nervous to book things that they haven’t heard on the radio, and you get numbers coming into things immediately.
Gilles Peterson: It’s the same everywhere. Trust me. But it’s amazing here. Somehow New York lost something since Giuliani – lost an edge, I suppose. But equally it became a safer place, so it’s choices isn’t it?
PM: Yeah, I guess you have to accept the trade-off.
Gilles Peterson: The conservatives are well happy about it, but in terms of street culture and things like that it definitely lost an edge.
PM: You see it in hip-hop, which was this very vital force in the early ’90s and has dwindled down to where it is today, where very few people are making anything worth listening to. A lot of it is labels and radio and the business side, but I think the artists have to shoulder some blame. But that’s why it’s important for shows like yours to exist, because all of the true music-heads need new sounds and new directions. Which makes me think: When are you going to get Kanye West on your show?
Gilles Peterson: I’d love to, man. Really. I like him. I was in New York not too long ago and I did a big thing with Common and then Kanye did a session in London for the Zane Lowe show, so I guess we’re not going to get him, unfortunately. But I’d like to hang out with him and see what he’s got to say. Be interesting. I rate him. I mean musically – I like his whole approach, actually.
PM: You know you guys got gypped on the album though, right? He didn’t put the best track on the U.K. version.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, I know. It’s weird, but it’s kind of good too, isn’t it? Because it gives you an edge to play that. [Laughs.]
PM: And it’s funny, for all his supposed ego and arrogance, we were at Sonar this year in Barcelona and he just showed up and did a set with De La Soul for free just because he wanted to play on that sound system and for that crowd.
Gilles Peterson: He’s refreshing, man. Look what he did for Common. He broke Common through this album when he was in some real trouble sales-wise. Kanye’s a music-head. It’s like Pharrell. They’re music-heads in very powerful positions. Whatever’s said – I mean, I saw Kanye on a daytime program in the U.K., very mainstream, and the presenter was basically giving it the real cliché talking-hip-hop-to-him bullshit. But Kanye dealt with the situation, made the guy feel comfortable and got his point across. And he was pretty radical in that he understood the stereotype the guy wanted him to go along with and he kind of twisted it to work for him. I was very impressed by him as a talker.
PM: He’s smart.
Gilles Peterson: He’s very smart.
PM: His intelligence is underrated I think.
Gilles Peterson: And he’s got a proper concept for the future of music, and it’s important that people like him are there. Look, it’s equally important that someone like Jay-Z is the president of Def Jam. He’s signed the Roots now and he’s another music-head. I’d rather have him there than Lyor Cohen.
PM: Yeah, definitely. Lyor Cohen is about dollars.
Gilles Peterson: I imagine Jay-Z is about dollars as well, but he’s got an ear for music and it’s good that those kinds of people are in positions of power.
PM: That’s one of the things I like about your show, that some of these preconceived notions about artists are checked at the door. You have someone like Beck come on and he’s talking about the Brazilian records his father listened to when he was a kid and how special it was for him to be able to clear one specific sample. As a listener you’re able to forget this persona that has been created for this person whether they like it or not. It’s very personal.
Gilles Peterson: That’s the advantage of being in London, though. That’s a big advantage I have because I wouldn’t be getting the same thing if I was in New York.
PM: Why? Because people would be trying to act too cool?
Gilles Peterson: I just don’t think I’d be getting the gig. I’m white and European and I’m not competing against thirty other radio stations, so if you know me and you know the kind of music I’m pushing when you come to London you check for me. In that sense it’s quite nice to be in London, especially for black music, because over here it’s so segregated in terms of radio and audience. Last night was quite interesting I thought, because a lot of people were there for the Bilal and the Dwele, and it was quite a black audience – or let’s say fifty-fifty. But usually when I play in New York the audience is twenty-five percent black, if that. I think last night there were a good amount of people going, “Who is this weird British white guy?”
PM: And you’re dressed all sharp in your suit
Gilles Peterson: A couple of times I was up there thinking, Am I talking too much? Obviously some people in there knew what I was about and understood the whole idea of me hosting it. But there were definitely some people in there looking at me like, He’s kind of weird, this guy. [Laughs.]
PM: So how did this whole thing get started for you? Was there something or someone who put you on this quest to find this music that other people weren’t finding?
Gilles Peterson: Not really, you know? It’s very strange – I get asked that question quite a lot. The thing is my parents weren’t that into music and I’m not even English – I’m Swiss French. My mum’s French, I was born in France, my dad was Swiss. I happened to be living in England, youngest of three kids, going to French school in London and basically living in white, middle-class, suburban London. And then suddenly my mate at school – he lived nearby when I was about fourteen – I went ’round his house and his sister had Earth, Wind and Fire records and Bobby Caldwell records and Maze records and he played them. And suddenly [I went] from being a budding sports boy – playing a lot of football, soccer and rugby; I was pure sport then and looking like I was going to go that way in my life professionally – and suddenly overnight I got this music thing.
I was going to events and next thing I knew I heard Grover Washington Jr.’s “Sausalito” being played in a club, at a rave – at an all-dayer, let’s say – and I was sixteen at the time, and that was it. I was hooked. And from there I heard Art Blakey and then I discovered John Coltrane – all that happened in two to three years. There was the whole pirate-radio thing happening in England, which was very exciting. I got my driving license at seventeen and I bought a transmitter and turntables, and next thing I knew I was driving around putting my airwaves up off London skyscrapers, being a bit of an urban terrorist and playing Cameo records. That was all very cool. And that was it. I was twenty-four and looked back and thought, This is going to be my career. It was a hobby up until then.
But I definitely did my ground work – I didn’t just make it. I played the weddings and bar mitzvahs to finally get where I am. But that allows me to enjoy it more – and I did it all without any help really. My parents left England when I was sixteen, and I was left no money. So it wasn’t like I was left a studio full of records and enough money to just sit around and play them. I had to work to live. So I struggled like anyone, but I’m enjoying it now.
PM: I love jazz music, which really has no place anymore. One thing you do for people like me, especially people my age or younger, is to keep that music in our ears. Listening to some of those Brownswood Basement sessions is like taking a jazz class. And I’ve taken some of those classes, and they’re not that cool.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, they never are, are they? [Laughs.] It’s funny. I’m going to start a new label now that’s going to kick off next year. I’m not quite sure what I’m going to call it yet. One part of the label is going to be called Quiet Fire and it’s going to be jazz. All jazz. We’re going to do a Heritage Orchestra album. I had a meeting with a New York pianist, solo piano, like Bill Evans kind of shit. Unbelievable. And we’re going to put that out. I want to put out a lot of jazz. That’s something that I really love. But it’s more of a hobby thing. Have you heard the Soil & Pimp sessions?
PM: Only on your show.
Gilles Peterson: They’re the best live band I’ve seen in the last couple years. Amazing. Because they are jazz, very jazz, but they are very punk. They’re young, they’re hip, they look great, they’re Japanese, they play wicked. One of them is pure ragga, another is pure jazz, one is bohemian – typical for Japanese. But they play with the energy of a punk band but with the melodies of a jazz band. It’s great.
PM: It’s funny too because I’m a hip-hop head and I love beats, but I don’t think a lot of people realize where a lot of their favorite beats came from. The session that ?uestlove did when you were out of town where he played a lot of original breaks was cool because it makes you realize all the great music that was being made during that time and how much of it is out there to be discovered. But I have mixed feelings about it because he was kind of blowing people’s spots with that session.
Gilles Peterson: What do you mean?
PM: It made me think, So did this guy add an extra drum kick and call it his beat? And he was killing some people – basically re-creating their beat with two records and making it look pretty easy.
Gilles Peterson: I’d never even really thought on that. I wonder if people do get upset by that.
PM: I’m not trying to spark anything, because I know ?uest genuinely loves the music, but on the other hand I think there was a slight undertone of “I’ve got a band and these guys are robbing from old records” vibe going on.
Gilles Peterson: I don’t really think so, though, because they’re all quite successful.
PM: I don’t think anyone is shaking their fists, but at the same time he’s killing some of the mystique around some of these records that we considered to be classic work. All the sudden the entire beat is sitting right there in the original. But other deejays are making their whole living off digging those up. In the end it does encourage people to get educated and re-discover – not to sound too snobby. But even last night when they were playing “Red Clay,” my man was like, “Yo, they’re playing that Tribe Called Quest joint.” And I had to tell him yeah, but they’re playing the Freddie Hubbard version.
Gilles Peterson: [Laughs.] I wish Q-Tip had come last night.
PM: I know you guys are cool and I was thinking that he was going to.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, he didn’t make it down.
PM: And where was Waajeed? He was out of town?
Gilles Peterson: I think so. A lot of people in there, though. It was packed at one point, wasn’t it? So people may have come in and gone, “Oh .” You’ve got to be in the mood for those parties sometimes. Especially on a Tuesday night. And Ahmir [“?uestlove” Thompson] was meant to come as well, and Louie Vega didn’t show up.
PM: So Aaron Michelson over at Ubiquity sent me Gilles Peterson Digs America.
Gilles Peterson: Yeah! Definitely. I’m really happy with that one.
PM: But is it official? Were you really digging around in America?
Gilles Peterson: Well no.
PM: [Laughs.] I knew it!
Gilles Peterson: They’re all American records, though, and to be fair what happened was – first of all, I really like Ubiquity. I like what they do. They are serious music heads. And I was over there about a year ago and they invited me to check out their new offices. So I went over there from L.A.
PM: I heard the new offices are really nice.
Gilles Peterson: Really nice. I was kind of jealous of the lifestyle they have over there, actually. You know surfing in the morning, jazz in the afternoon all good. So they bought this record collection from some bloke in Baltimore – twenty thousand records or something ridiculous. So I spent hours and hours that day going through, and it was an amazing stack. The deal was kind of like, I’ll do your compilation, you give me a load of records. Do you know what I mean?
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, more or less. They paid me some money but more than half the fee was records.
PM: Is that true?
Gilles Peterson: Yeah. And I bought about twenty of the records off them from this collection, of which like three or four made the album. So in that sense it was “digs America.”
PM: So just more for the vaults then, huh? What do you have, an entire house for records?
Gilles Peterson: Oh, yeah. I moved out. I lived in a flat in North London – with all my records in a four-bedroom flat and my wife had a baby. The family grew, so I had to make a decision about family or records. So I moved the family out. We bought a house, but I’ve still got my flat for the records. And that house is Brownswood.
PM: So that’s where the Brownswood Basement thing comes from?
Gilles Peterson: Yeah, right there on Brownswood Road in London.