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Gilles Peterson

Gilles’ broadcasting roots lie with the burgeoning pirate radio movement in South London during the early 1980s. Inspired by the exciting blend of music broadcast on pirate stations such as Radio Invicta, he set up his own – Civic Radio – and then succeeded in bagging himself a slot on Invicta in exchange for his fully-functioning transmitter. With his foot firmly wedged in the door, Gilles went on to present on a string of pirate stations – KJAZZ, Solar Radio and On Horizon, before landing at BBC London with his show Mad On Jazz.

“For a 19 year old accustomed to risking my life clambering around on the top of tower blocks to put up aerials, there was nothing more frightening than the days leading up to my first show on the BBC.”

Bestowed with an insatiable appetite for rare jazz, soul and Latin records, Gilles became good friends with Paul Murphy, owner of Palladin Records and resident DJ at the Electric Ballroom, who fuelled his passion and encouraged him to delve deeper. Indeed, when Murphy left the Electric Ballroom, Gilles stepped into his shoes, proving himself an adept, versatile DJ with a remarkable ear. Honing his craft at The Royal Oak in West London – home to one of the most significant parties of the era for UK club culture – Nicky Holloway’s Special Branch jam boasted the likes of Danny Rampling, Paul Oakenfold and Pete Tong in the main room and bore witness to the birth of acid house, whilst upstairs Peterson and Chris Bangs held court, spinning a cheeky blend of “dodgy bossas next to Art Blakey next to Diana Ross” for an equally mixed-up crowd of soul boy casuals, DM-wearing shake-and-finger-pop and the West End style police.

“If it hadn’t been for Nicky Holloway there would have been no Shoom. He was the agitator, he was the bête noire… He was the one who made the connection between Caister and the Wag Club. He was the one who would organise magical mystery tours to strange unknown destinations. He put the imagination into club culture.”

Upon leaving BBC London in 1986, Gilles took up a new residency at Dingwalls in Camden alongside Patrick Forge which ran for 5 years. Coinciding with the rise of acid house in UK clubland, the popularity of Sunday Afternoon at Dingwalls grew and grew, establishing itself as a legendary session. Every year Gilles and Patrick organise a sell-out Dingwalls reunion to relive the incredible music, gymnastic dance moves and the fond memories associated with this landmark jam.

Gilles’ initial forays into A&R began in 1985 with his ‘Jazz Juice’ compilation series for Street Sounds and it wasn’t long before EMI were calling him up to collate and compile a series highlighting the output of legendary jazz imprint Blue Note. Parallel to these compiling duties, Gilles started his first label called Hardback Recordings with Andros Georgio (the cousin of George Michael). After their first three releases failed to ignite a wider audience, Andros suggested that they get his cousin to sing the next release under a pseudonym (provided they could both find five grand to add to the pot). However at this point in his career Gilles was more about the music than big names so he made what he laughingly refers to as: “the first of many disastrous business decisions”. The fourth release on Hardback – Boogie Box High – went on to become an international best seller.

It was 1986 when he founded the legendary Acid Jazz imprint alongside Eddie Piller – releasing records by the likes of Extasis, Galliano and Bucky Leo. Then in 1989 Gilles was approached by Phonogram to A&R artists for a new imprint born out of the acid jazz movement: Talkin’ Loud. It was with Talkin’ Loud that he really cemented his relationship with the new and the old, with innovation and heritage, releasing classic material by The Brand New Heavies, Jamiroquai, Galliano and The Young Disciples. Talkin’ Loud became synonymous with Gilles’ own broad taste in music and with no less than 5 Mercury Music Prize nominations under his belt (4hero, Courtney Pine, Young Disciples, MJ Cole and Roni Size Reprazent – the winner in 1997) his reputation as the tastemaker was assured. A short stint at Jazz FM was followed by an 8-year residency at Kiss FM, where he built the foundations of his enduringly popular Worldwide radio show. Taking Worldwide to BBC Radio 1 in 1998, he enjoyed 13 years broadcasting the “Worldwide” sound to receptive ears. Like John Peel, the formula for Gilles’ radio shows is a simple one: the finest new music he can lay his hands on… and that’s it. From Sun-Ra to Roy Hargrove to Theo Parrish to Flying Lotus – if it swings in the right places, it’s in. His shows are a marker for everything that is great about underground music from Brooklyn to Benin and beyond. Swapping his late night BBC Radio 1 slot for a peak time Saturday afternoon session on BBC6Music (3pm-6pm) in April 2012 is a natural progression for Gilles who also records a weekly Worldwide programme that is syndicated to 13 stations across the planet including FM4 in Austria, B92 in Serbia, Radio Nova in France and J-Wave, Japan’s no.1 commercial station.

The “Worldwide” tag extends to two annual musical extravaganzas – the Worldwide Festival and the Worldwide Awards. Recently celebrating its fifth birthday, the Worldwide Festival takes place in July in the south of France, bringing together a handpicked line-up of Gilles’ favourite artists, bands and DJs for a 4-day party in the Mediterranean sun that moves from the beach, to the Theatre de la Mer (one of the most amazing open air venues in Europe) and climaxes in a flurry of bass and flailing arms at the St Christ dance stage. His annual Worldwide Awards session in London is a more intimate affair, celebrating the finest emerging talent championed by GP and tips its cap to heroes and innovators from days gone by (such as Mulatu Astatke, Steve Reid, Roy Ayers, The Mizell Brothers, Marlena Shaw)

Establishing a new, independent record label – Brownswood Recordings – in 2005 as an outlet for his favourite new discoveries, Gilles hasn’t been afraid of signing new, hitherto undiscovered talent such as Ghostpoet, Gang Colours, Ben Westbeech, Jose James, Owiny Sigoma Band or Elan Mehler in addition to the face-melting Death Jazz stylings of Japanese sextet SOIL&”PIMP” SESSIONS. What’s more, his bi-annual round-ups of the great unknown in the Brownswood Bubblers compilation series (distilling the stream of exciting new artists that have become semi-permanent fixtures in his radio playlists and DJ sets) consistently vouch for the rude health of the Worldwide underground.

Most recently, Gilles spearheaded a collaborative project with Havana Club called Havana Cultura. His Cuban adventure began three years ago and has burrowed to the heart of Havana’s music underground. Travelling there in 2009, he teamed up with the award-winning Cuban jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca to find the very best up and coming musical talent in Havana. Revelling in his role as Executive Producer (a first for the globetrotting DJ/broadcaster) his initial exploration of the Cuban underground uncovered Havana’s fertile – and fiercely independent – hip-hop culture: nodded to the riotous thump ‘n’ grind of Cuba’s homegrown reggaeton movement and highlighted a clique of artists innovating in the spaces between jazz, soul, traditional Cuban rhythms and hip-hop. These sounds were documented on ‘Havana Cultura: New Cuba Sound’ – the biggest collection of contemporary Cuban musicians in a single musical initiative since the highly acclaimed Buena Vista Social Club project in 1997. Continuing his longstanding love affair with Cuba and its musical melting pot, Gilles returned to Havana in 2011 alongside co-producers Vince Vella (a veteran from the first album); Simbad (Gilles’ production partner in his remixing endeavours); and dubstep forerunner Mala (Digital Mystikz), to orchestrate and record new studio sound clashes with a fresh crop of Cuban talent. Embracing the full rainbow spectrum from the freeform rumba flex of ‘La Tormenta’ to the frenetic rolling pianos of ‘Agita’ via hip-hop’s golden age (check the Cuban rework of A Tribe Called Quest’s ‘Check The Rhyme’) and Eddie Kendricks’ certified soul classic ‘My People…Hold On’ (‘Espera Mi Gente’), ‘Havana Cultura: The Search Continues’ is a wonderful snapshot of Cuba’s music underground in 2011.

When all is said and done, whichever role Gilles is performing – DJ, broadcaster, producer, compiler, label boss or plain old record collector – the music is always the bottom line. His passion and enthusiasm is unfailing and deeply infectious, and it’s the reason that his BBC iPlayer stats routinely nestle in the Top 5 BBC Radio shows… that luminaries like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke or Erykah Badu drop in to co-present special shows… and that his knowledge, opinion and playlists are universally respected.