Interview: Greg Wilson spreads the electrofunk gospel
The fabled U.K. DJ Greg Wilson plays the Bunker.
Tue Aug 21 2012
Northern England’s Greg Wilson was a resident at such famed venues as Wigan Pier and Manchester's Legends ("My greatest nights as a DJ were spent in this club," he says) and the Haçienda, spending the early ’80s as the U.K.’s top purveyor of a sound he termed “electrofunk”—the kind of electronic postdisco, prehouse dance music that was coming out of New York clubs like the Paradise Garage, the Roxy and Danceteria. In 1984, at the height of his powers, Wilson quit deejaying; but in the ’00s, he came back strong, playing more than ever, forging an array of spectacular reedits (notably the Credit to the Edit series) and running the Electrofunkroots website. On August 25, Wilson comes to NYC to headline the Bunker bash at 12-Turn-13.
Time Out New York: Do you remember what labels had the specific sound you were looking for in the early ’80s?
Greg Wilson: Oh, absolutely. The biggest labels—the ones I was playing in the early ’80s—were Prelude, West End, Emergency, Sugar Hill, Profile and a few others. There were just all these great underground dance-music labels in New York back then. New York was generally an incredible place for music then. When you go back and look at the sheer amount of great dance records in that era, whether they be mainstream or underground, all coming out in a short period of time… Well, there was never anything else like it. A lot of it went under the radar, and was only known about in the more specialist clubs. In England, I was playing to predominantly black crowds, and they were really into this stuff. And we used to get the music really quick; it would be released in the States and we would get it a few days later. We were right on the button with the music.
Time Out New York: That must have been a rush for you.
Greg Wilson: Oh, it was an amazing time. In many respects, people are only catching up with it now. A lot of it happened because the glare of the mainstream was off of dance music, and disco had been declared dead in the media. There was that whole “disco sucks movement, of course. The mainstream treated dance music like it was totally gone, but people were still dancing, and people were still making dance music. And a lot of it was coming out of New York.
Time Out New York: Do you think the lack of attention allowed dance-music producers to experiment more?
Greg Wilson: There weren’t very many expectations anymore, so people got back to making music for the right reasons—to play it in the club. That was when you had this whole era of New York DJs who were doing amazing remixes, people like Tee Scott, Larry Levan, François K and Shep Pettibone. All these people were just being very experimental with their remixes. If it had been three years earlier, when disco was a big money thing and everyone had their eye on the dollar, perhaps they wouldn’t have had the ability to be so experimental.
Time Out New York: It’s easy to forget how different the dance music of the early ’80s was from what was being released just a few years before.
Greg Wilson: A lot of that is due to the dub sensibility that was seeping in. We had actually been on top of that already in the U.K., mainly because we have such a huge West Indian population. But when dub really started making its mark on New York music, that’s when some of the best music was coming out.
Time Out New York: That was such a fertile time.
Greg Wilson: There were so many hybrid forms and ideas floating around. And you had so much more freedom. The music that I played, for instance, wasn’t of just one tempo. A lot of it was really downbeat and groove-based, some really up-tempo and there was everything in between. There was no set way of doing it. Electrofunk was actually a very wide range of music, but the common factor was largely that it was predominantly black or Latino people in New York who were experimenting with the technology of the time—drum machines, synths, samplers, sequencers—to create new sounds. But it wasn’t just one sound. It could be dark or it could be happy; it could be fast or it could be slow. It was a whole spectrum.
Time Out New York: These new sounds had a big effect on what was going on in hip-hop at the time, right?
Greg Wilson: Oh, yeah. During that early ’80s period, the hip-hop movement really was taking off. And it was a part of the same thing, thanks to things like “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash—which was a very electronic-based track—and, of course, “Planet Rock.” That definitely helped bring rap into focus. And Chicago house music started coming pretty soon after that. From our perspective in the U.K., we looked at house as a continuation of what was going on. The early house records from Chicago, and the early techno ones from Detroit… We didn’t really think of them as something new. We didn’t even know at first that they weren’t from New York! And then there’s the whole boogie influence as well. I think there’s still so much to be discovered in the music of that era. That’s what makes this music so much fun; there’s just so much to mine from.
Time Out New York: Electrofunk is probably having as much influence on producers nowadays as it ever did.
Greg Wilson: Exactly, and that’s because of the Internet. When you have people in their twenties or even younger, they can act on their obsession with Tee Scott or Larry Levan, say, and find out about everything they ever mixed quite easily. We didn’t have that information channel; you either knew Larry Levan, or you’d have to go into the shops and figure it out yourself. But yeah, there is a lot of music with the same kind of spirit coming out nowadays. For a lot of producers, the sound hasn’t fully crystallized yet, but they’re definitely heading in that direction. It’s really about the vibe.
Time Out New York: When you do your own edits, are you still doing it the old-fashioned way, like with tape and scissors?
Greg Wilson: Oh, no, no, no. That’s just too impractical! It’s a nice romantic idea, but I’ve progressed since the old days. Just a bit, but I’ve progressed.
Time Out New York: But you are romantic enough that you use a reel-to-reel tape deck.
Greg Wilson: For years, I’d been collecting sounds and putting them on tape. In the studio, I would just sit back and play one of these tapes along with whatever I was working on, just to see what happens. Sometimes, it would be out of tune; other times, it would just be inappropriate. But once in a while, you would hear something that would work perfectly. It started as a way ofpeppering up the track, to give it a little lift.
Time Out New York: And you still bring a reel-to-reel with you when you DJ, right?
Greg Wilson: Of course—though I just hire them out nowadays. The first time I played in New York, I actually brought one over with me! That was a lot of work.
Time Out New York: Was that for the Mister Saturday Night party a few years back?
Greg Wilson: This was even before that, at APT. That was around 2005, I think.
Time Out New York: Which wasn’t all that long after you had come out of deejaying semi-retirement.
Greg Wilson: Yeah, apart from one-off bits and bobs here and there, I went a long time without playing at all. I never really viewed myself during that period as a DJ. But even then, I’d be with people going, “Have you heard this? Have you heard that?” So I guess I still was a DJ, even if there was only one person in the room with me. I was always that kind of person who wanted to share, even as a child, so I guess deejaying is part of my nature in a way. Music affected me so much that I wanted everyone else to be affected, too. I was never like one of those Northern Soul guys, who would cover the record labels so that nobody would know what they were playing. I can kind of appreciate that, but I always wanted to share the music. And I still live through that principle.
Time Out New York: Another way that you share is through your website, Electrofunkroots.
Greg Wilson: Doing that is what brought me back into deejaying, actually. The reason I did the website in the first place was that I could see, with the passage of time, that the dance-music scene in the U.K. wasn’t being properly documented. They were missing out on the black scene, which is what underpins everything, really. I suppose that in New York, something similar happened; New York dance culture was being written about without properly mentioning the Loft. But then everybody woke up and said, “Hang on—without the Loft, all the rest couldn’t have happened.” It’s the same in the U.K.; before dance music exploded at the Haçienda, it was an underground-specialist thing. And all the innovation then was coming out of the black community. But people didn’t really know much about that; people only knew about what happened later. The Northern Soul scene was very well-documented, but there was a lot more going on in the north of England than Northern Soul. I never played Northern Soul. And black people hardly ever went to Northern Soul parties. They weren’t really interested in what they thought of as old music. They were interested in what was bang up to date, and that was the electro that was coming out of New York. They immediately embraced it.
Time Out New York: Do you know what the Northern Soul people thought of that music?
Greg Wilson: Oh, they hated it. They thought it was just machines, and had no heart. They eventually realized they were wrong, of course!
Time Out New York: What can people expect to hear when you play this weekend?
Greg Wilson: I’m predominantly drawing from the past. I understand what my role is. I’ve realized that to connect people to the past, you need to package it in a new way, a way that’s more contemporary. And what’s happened in the past decade or so is the emergence of the reedit movement, which I’ve found is a good way to put music into a contemporary context. Without it, I don’t think I could be doing what I’m doing now. I’m sure I wouldn’t be coming over to the States!
The Bunker: Greg Wilson is at 12-Turn-13 Saturday, August 25.