We chat to DJ legend and music nerd Gilles Peterson about his phenomenal career and love of tunes
‘If you filled up Wembley Stadium with 100,000 people, I could probably give everyone one song each.’ A bold claim, that. Some might say downright crazy. But coming from the mouth of Gilles Peterson it’s actually believable. Gilles has, after all, spent the best part of 25 years collecting everything from ’50s jazz to the latest hip hop, taking in drum ’n’ bass, soul, breaks and countless other genres along the way. His record collection is famously so vast that it essentially consumed his house in Brownswood Road, London, which is now little more than a warehouse. Frankly, the man’s in danger of turning into a giant morass of vinyl with a vestigial human attached to it.
And that’s a double-edged sword for Peterson. Because, while his encyclopaedic knowledge of great music has kept him DJing both in clubs and on BBC radio over the decades, it’s made him a pretty divisive character. ‘Because I’ve been doing it for 25 years, I’ve appealed to lots of generations of clubbers. So some 40-year-old will complain that I didn’t play Massive Attack and some younger person will complain that I didn’t play a Flying Lotus track.’
He stops with a chuckle. ‘It’s a hard life.’ Well, indeed. Frankly if your biggest problem is that some of your audience are a bit miffed that you didn’t play trip hop then you’ve pretty much won at life. Besides, he’s had his triumphs, too. ‘I do Space in Ibiza every year with Carl Cox, and after one show Jade Jagger and her mates came up and said, “We can’t believe how good you are. We thought you just played all that noodley jazz s***.”
So those people are sometimes surprised that I’m not as jazz as they imagine. I can get a bit naughty and a bit dirty if I have to.’ We’re not sure how naughty and dirty he’s going to get when he comes to the Madinat Rooftop this weekend, but he assures us that it’s going to be a new experience for everyone – himself included. ‘I’m constantly changing my set. I haven’t DJed for a couple of weeks, which is rare for me, so I’m going to come to Dubai with a pretty fresh box, mostly new world music stuff. I always have a few safety tracks and I’ll still play classics like [Nuyorican Soul’s] ‘I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun’, but the way I look at it is that I aim to please myself. There’s nothing worse than a DJ who looks bored. So many DJs play the same set – big, big DJs who play literally record-for-record the same sets six months apart. I don’t know how they can do that.’
Gilles is, in case you hadn’t noticed, a bit of a fan of music. And during his time in the industry he’s made fans of his own, many of whom are pretty famous indeed. ‘A lot of those big stars that you’d think don’t need people like me can be very gracious and grateful for the support they get,’ he explains. ‘The Roots is a good example – they’re probably the most successful live hip-hop band ever, and I put out their first record. I did a DJ battle with [Roots drummer] ?uestlove in Paris recently and he just stood up and said if it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t be around. My whole thing is about supporting music, so I love it when people appreciate that. He won though! He can do anything! He can DJ for 12 hours non-stop, no problem.’
So, with these eclectic, time-spanning tastes, when and where would Gilles really like to live? ‘I would have loved New York between ’59 and ’69 for the jazz music. That would have been wicked.’ Ah, yes. But a world with no iTunes! Wouldn’t it drive him nuts?
‘As long as you’ve got the live music you’re fine. It’s the spirit of the time that’s important – lots of naive energy and great music.’