Gilles Peterson has achieved a modest sort of fame, but he prefers to keep the spotlight on the sounds he’s been key in popularizing. Acid jazz. Drum’n’bass. Nu-jazz. Broken beat. All are prominently featured on his show “Worldwide” on BBC’s Radio 1, a body of work that feeds the 50 mix CDs and compilations he’s released since 1985—2000’s INCredible Sound of Gilles Peterson is his most prominent work in the U.S., while more recent efforts like …In Brazil and last year’s Back in Brazil gave me the electricity I hadn’t heard since. He’s also a label boss, founding the groundbreaking imprints Acid Jazz and Talkin’ Loud—you can thank Gilles (rhymes with smiles) for the Brand New Heavies, Roni Size and Reprazent, 4hero, and Nuyorican Soul, to name but a few. His new imprint, Brownswood—named for an old house of his now dedicated entirely to his vinyl—moves forward with an ear to what he helpfully describes as “just great music.” (The label’s first project, Brownswood Bubblers, spans house and modern jazz, with soul providing the glue.) When not on the air or running labels, he’s behind the decks on a constant world tour, anchored by a club residency in London. With all that space to fill, his eclecticism is a necessity—he needs all the music he can get, so the possibilities only include hip-hop ‘n’ samba, bossa nova ‘n’ nu-jazz, funk ‘n’ soul, r&b ‘n’ d&b, house ‘n’ jazz, Afrobeat ‘n’ techno. And that’s only the first hour of a set. This French-Swiss hybrid from South London is not called a tastemaker for nothing.
He slowed to human speed just before his New Year’s set in Tokyo, fresh from vacation with his family in Lausanne, Switzerland. I could feel the whirlwind through the Skype connection as he described crate-digging—for cheese. He’s busy, but life’s clearly not so tough. “Not in Lausanne,” Gilles says. “They have the number one cheese store in the region. It’s deep over there.” (He had it bad for a Corsican goat cheese, evidently.) It’s the same with music—he’s surrounded by exotic excellence he just “has” to sift through. “I’m constantly struggling as to who I am,” he says. “And if it ever gets too easy, you’re cheating the people in some way.” This, after 20-plus years spinning records, launching careers, serving gems from Brazil and Africa, bridging the worlds of dance music and jazz . . . his dedication is 100 percent vital. It’s enlivening. But of course, that’s his gig: He means it.
“My mission is to give people the energy that I received from jazz and funk records when I first heard them,” he explains. His own education came in clubs and ballrooms, electric and vibrant. Fueled by complementing soul/fusion/r&b scenes in early-’80s London, Gilles’s special purpose and knack for what he calls connecting the dots between genres might have gained an anchor when fate played a three-part solo: “In one week, when I was about 21, I happened to meet Mark Murphy, Jalal from the Last Poets, and Wayne Shorter,” Gilles recalls. He pauses. “In that week, a great deal of learning happened.” If the next 21 years are evidence—a fresh DJ from a jazzbo scene blossoms into an impresario and curator with a worldwide radio show—what he learned was powerful. He plays in such a way that you can hear what he hears: the common thread in sometimes radically different things.
Gilles returns this week to the home of Shorter, Jalal, and Murphy to push that feeling on, DJing in addition to showcasing new talent on the Brownswood label. “I love to play New York,” he says. “New York gives the love.” Hopefully he finds some cheese here he likes as well.
Gilles Peterson appears alongside Soil & Pimp, Tita Lima, Jose James, Taylor McFerrin, and others at the Hiro Ballroom January 24.