4:09 pm Aug. 24, 2012
Wilson and his machine both go way back. A native of Manchester, England, Wilson began D.J.ing in the mid-’70s, utilizing a Revox tape deck to play his own re-edited tracks. This was common practice for many D.J.s of the era—Frankie Knuckles, whose Chicago club the Warehouse gave house music its name, was another to do so. After working for years in some of the U.K.'s top clubs, including Wigan Pier, Legend, and The Hacienda (where he was the first regular dance music D.J. long before it became the locus of the U.K. rave scene), Wilson began a long retirement from playing clubs at the end of 1983; when he started up again 20 years later, it would have seemed logical for him, like nearly everyone else, to jump fully into digital.
“I could completely redefine myself by leaving the Revox at home and getting a papier-mâché one to stick on my head when I play out,” said Wilson via email. “Then I might be able to command the same type of fee that Deadmau5 gets—that could be a shrewd career move.” Instead, for the past decade he has been hauling the reel-to-reel around on his revived rounds.
And it's not that Wilson is short on savvy. Since returning to action, he has played on the BBC’s Essential Mix (later chosen as one of the program’s ten crucial episodes) and toured consistently. His self-maintained SoundCloud page is judiciously edited, full of excerpts from longer live sets, all downloadable.
Wilson still plays “disco,” broadly speaking—which for him mostly means soul, R&B, funk, and electro-funk, but can also range to house and beat-driven pop and rock music, and spans roughly the past forty years of music history (he makes a point about it with this mix for the Tate Gallery from 2009).
I’ve listened to his hour-long performance from Bristol’s Big Chill Festival, recorded August 8, 2010, more than any other D.J. mix of the past five years. It’s a blowout, an unabashed roller coaster with lots of obvious signposts, throwing the Beatles next to Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes without blinking. It could be horribly cheesy and obvious; it’s anything but. A more recent set, recorded last month at Dorset’s Camp Bestival, is more distinctly turn-of-the-’90s in feel—sinuous in the manner of Madonna’s “Justify My Love” (which appears in edited form) or the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now?” (ditto). I’ve been playing it nearly as much as the Big Chill mix. Even better, Wilson actively engages with his listeners on the Soundcloud page, identifying remixes and responding to feedback (“Hadn't realised that the sun set during 'Papua New Guinea'—nice bit of serendipity there!”).
“I come from an old school tradition in the U.K.," Wilson told me, "where D.J.s used to announce the records they played on the microphone. Getting that information out there has always been important to me. When I started mixing I was faced with a dilemma—how do I let people know what I’m playing? At first I’d still use the mike, but less, back-announcing the three or four tracks I’d mixed together, but the problem was solved by the weekly record lists I did, which included a Floorfillers chart, and a list of all the new releases I’d bought in the past few weeks. A4 sheets were photocopied and available to everyone who attended the nights I did, and all they had to do was pass me their copy, they didn’t even need to say anything, and I’d know to tick off the track I was playing. Then the following day they could take the list to Spin Inn, which was the only shop in the North where you could buy the majority of records I was playing, which were mainly imports, and grab a copy if they had it in stock.
“The people on the side of the scene I’m involved with are a pretty knowledgeable bunch, some obsessively so. I think that some of them prefer not to know, so they can play the game of hunt-it-down themselves, detective style—it’s no fun for them otherwise. However, my policy is to spread the word.”
Wilson’s work goes back to disco’s height, but today “disco” has become a more pliable phrase. I'm hardly the only person in their late 30s who feels it's weird to hear people in their 20s refer to something that sounds like the Miami Vice soundtrack as "disco" (or the soundtrack itself). Yet that’s what a lot of young clubbers call their slice of nightlife.
“I think it’s an unfortunate name to be given to the current scene,” said Wilson. “There are far too many preconceptions regarding the term, especially in the States, where you had all the ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash, and all the homophobic and racist fallout that came with it. It’s such a rich part of America’s culture, yet it was treated with ridicule once it had been ‘declared dead.’ It didn’t die, though. It went back underground and, from my perspective, from strength to strength. That early '80s period is so rich in creativity, it really hasn’t been given anything like the amount of acknowledgement it merits. We didn’t have the same type of backlash here. Disco was played right through until the early ’80s, but absorbed on a more specialist level. People wouldn’t think twice about travelling a hundred miles or more to go to a club night.
“Disco nowadays means so many different things to different people—to one it’s ‘YMCA’ by the Village People, symbolized by the embarrassing uncle trying to do the moves at a wedding, to another it’s the orchestral splendour of MFSB in Sigma Sound, Philadelphia, whilst yet another, as you say, equates it to the ‘Theme From Miami Vice.’ But stuck with it we are. It’s weird how we keep ending up with genre names that have been previously used, R&B and electro being the other examples. It would have been nice if the current scene could have been named with a bit more originality, but such is life.”
Wilson was hardly inactive in music after leaving the world of D.J.ing the first time, working with the Manchester hip-hop group Ruthless Rap Assassins. Still, he said, “To be honest, I was glad to be away from it. I needed to take in other impressions than those I was used to in nightclubs—I couldn’t grow as a person otherwise. For example, I really started to read after I stopped deejaying—I’d obviously read the odd book here and there beforehand, but now I was devouring them, putting my head in a different space to what I’d been become accustomed to. It was a real period of discovery. By the time I started up again, at the end of 2003, I was completely out of the loop. Even before my son was born, in 1998, I rarely went out, but afterwards I became completely detached with regards to what was happening. I didn’t have a clue, which probably served me well in a sense, as it enabled me to come back into it in a much purer, more organic way.”
Greg Wilson plays The Bunker at 12-turn-13, 172 Classon Ave., Brooklyn, at 10 p.m. on Saturday, August 25. Tickets available here.