Dennis Kane is one half of the Siren duo (with Metro Area's Darshan Jesrani) and the man behind the Disques Sinthomme and Ghost Town labels. He's back to chew the fat with dance music's movers and shakers, with the U.K.'s longtime electro-funk iconoclast Greg Wison serving as this month's subject.
December 6 1975: A young man of 15 with a mobile DJ set-up arrives at a local New Brighton nightspot, the Chelsea Ranch, and begins the first of many residencies—the first public performance of a long and storied career. We are, of course, talking about Greg Wilson—edit king, electro-funk spokesperson, remixer, label head, intellect, essayist and most importantly, a thoroughly engaging DJ.
Greg’s career is a storied and well documented one, from his early days at Wigan Pier and the Manchester club Legend, to his moving to the Haçienda—all the while championing an electro sound coming out of NYC that had a new approach to production and a raw street vibe. Greg also pioneered mixing records in the U.K., and began showcasing his technique on Piccadilly Radio and Mike Shaft’s T.C.O.B. (Taking Care of Business) show, as well as being the first DJ to mix live on British television. At this time, Greg put out the first U.K. re-edit, (Paul Haig’s "Heaven Sent"), toured with a young Norman Cook (a.k.a. Fatboy Slim), and established himself as a major force in the his country's dance scene.
Then at the age of 23, Greg walked away from DJing, choosing to focus on production work and managing a Manchester breakdance crew. He co-wrote and produced the seminal UK Electro album; eventually resettling in London, he began to manage and produce the Manchester group Ruthless Rap Assassins as well as a sister band Kiss AMC. In 1994 Greg compiled the Classic Electro Mastercuts LP.
Greg started the website Electrofunkroots in 2003, documenting the '80s era and covering the impact of electro sounds; that same year, he made his proper return to DJing. With a new audience pool available, and seeing the music he spent so much time championing gaining in popularity, Greg’s career found a new context to flourish in. His Credit to the Edit compilations have had a huge impact on contemporary dance culture. Greg now tours extensively, runs his Super Weird Substance label, writes, lectures, blogs, and produces…he is a very busy man. Several years back he guested on my podcast—the only all-spoken episode we ever did. Along with Liquid Liquid frontman Sal Principato, we talked for hours, specifically about the early '80s in NYC, disagreed on some things, broke for for dinner, hen we resumed the conversation on the phone and spoke from midnight until six in the morning. What impressed me then about Greg was his ability to argue points—his obvious depth of knowledge—but also his lack of ego and incessant curiosity. He asked me more pointed questions about music than any young person I have met had, and he was willing to answer any I posed for him with great enthusiasm.
I was very excited to get the chance to chat with Greg again; what follows is boiled down from several hours worth of conversation.
Hey Greg, I wanted to ask right off—you grew up seeing mobile DJs from an early age. [Greg’s parents owned a pub, and wedding receptions and parties would be held in a party room.] What was the effect of being exposed to the social component of music so early on?
In hindsight, it gave me discernment, to both eye and ear, as to what a good DJ could be, what his impact could be on a crowd. I saw a great number of DJs—some good, some not so good—and you could feel what happened when one read the crowd properly and brought an emotional intensity. Then, for years, I fell asleep hearing songs being played through the floorboards—I think some of that got into my head through osmosis. [laughs] Years later I would recognize songs I didn’t know that I knew from that time.
When you started playing after experiencing this, what were the components of your sensibility as you started out?
Well, soul and funk, the black American sound, were huge for me. Ohio Players, James Brown, Kool and the Gang—this was the original disco music before it was named so as a genre. This was the music you danced to. I loved pop and rock music as well, but my brother and sister had great soul and funk records, so I had a very strong foundation in that. The other thing I wanted to say, going back to your earlier question: What stood out at this time was the concept of programming a set, building from song to song; then, there wasn’t mixing or any technical flourishes It was programming, which I still think is the most important aspect of DJing. I think DJs in the late '70s and '80s were very good at reading crowds and constructing the arc of a set. Perhaps they had to be because mixing hadn’t really come into play yet.
What I find admirable was how you transitioned from playing funk and soul, to really absorbing newer music and championing what you would refer to as “electro-funk” sounds.
It seemed very natural to me. I realized that perhaps some of what I was introducing was rubbing some people the wrong way.…
Sorry to interrupt, but why do you think people objected to these new sounds?
Well it’s sort of an age-old status-quo thing—people wanted to hold on to a certain sound that they perceived as “authentic.” And these are people who have a lot invested in a scene, so here I come playing these new records, which I see connected naturally, but they see it as electronic sounding and perhaps a threat to what they have. I just saw how the younger black kids absorbed the music immediately, and I wanted to play to them. I’m sure it wasn’t much different than what was happening in other cities as well.
"I remember someone saying to me, 'You are leading these kids astray, playing this stuff.'"
In New York, electro became the sound of the street, and you could feel hip-hop coming on, especially after “Planet Rock.”
Yeah, it was where the edge was, and young kids always have their antenna out for new forms—or at least they did at that time. People like Afrika Bambaataa and Kool Herc were playing a really generous mix of things, it wasn’t regimented. New York seemed so good at pulling together diverse sounds; it took the U.K.much longer. From a distance, I was truly fascinated at what was happening in NYC.
So how do you make the case for these sounds in '82, '83?
Well, songs like Tee Scott’s “Tee’s Happy” and “Time” by Stone became significant; they were new sounding, but also had a strong connection to songs that had preceded them. “You're the One for Me" by D-Train was absolutely massive. In retrospect it doesn’t sound so radical because it influenced so much, but that was an incredibly impactful tune. Then another Prelude tune, “On a Journey” by Electrik Funk, really went further—I played the dub side and that’s when that term electro-funk started getting used.
This is also a time when B-boys and breaking start really becoming a thing unto themselves.
Well, in the U.K., songs like “The Wildstyle” by Time Zone and “Pac Jam” by Jonzun Crew, became bigger breaking jams than, say, “It’s Just Begun”. This was a significant shift, and really a new paradigm was establishing itself. I remember someone saying to me, “You are leading these kids astray, playing this stuff.” [laughs] Well, first of all, you don’t lead these kids—these kids are the leaders. I was thrilled to play for them.
Shortly after this period, you stop playing; did you move to London immediately?
I was managing Broken Glass, a breakdance crew, and I was still in Liverpool. In Thatcher’s England, it was a hard time to survive there. The city took a huge hit economically and people started to depopulate, not unlike what would happen to Detroit in the States. Later, I went to London, managing the Rap Assassins. I was back and forth between Manchester and London at that time.
In '92, '93, you did some DJing in conjunction with the release of the Classic Electro Mastercuts LP—but what got you back into playing full-time again?
The Internet really changed things…getting a computer, and seeing this scene that I didn’t feel was really documented properly still attracting interest. I started Electrofunkroots.co.uk, and began bringing my archives into that, and finding an online community. Soon after, people started asking me if I would begin playing again. I could sense a revival or interest in edit culture and dub versions of songs.
"I did see the re-edit as a way to open a door, and share a huge part of my interests and contemporize the history."
Well, for sure that stripped-down sound—the stuff Arthur Russell and Nicky Siano had done, a lot of the dub sides of Prelude jams, the raw sounds of ESG, or a band like Atmosfear all became strong influences on the dance music of the early 2000s
Yes, and the connection between that and electro-funk was an area that fascinated me. I’m still learning about how these forms influenced each other. It was real underground culture, as opposed to the more commercial disco stuff that gained popularity.
With the interest in re-edits, did you see that as an opportunity to turn people on to the music you had been so engaged with?
I was pretty detached at the time. I saw the influence of people like Danny Krivit and Ron Hardy on edit culture, things like Black Cock, and the work Dave Lee was doing. I remember going to Electric Chair and Low Life parties, and hearing edits and seeing it work—it was inspiring witnessing this serious enjoyment. I could sense a new context emerging, and it enabled me to edit myself back into the scene. [laughs] Suddenly a lot of the work I had done in the past was making sense. I saw the re-edit as a way to open a door, and share a huge part of my interests and contemporize the history.
What originally got you into doing edits? Were they motivated by your work as a DJ?
Originally I was doing it for the labels to kind of showcase my ideas, and to see if I could get remix and production work. The record companies were so far behind what was happening in the clubs, they had a very staid perspective—and also there was this bizarre prejudice that only American DJs did remix and edit work.
Doing edits in the studio and cutting tape is very different than sitting at a laptop.
Yes, and the method was to work quickly and use the faders, try to get the freshness and richness quickly, and not worry too much about small mistakes or micro imperfections. I think in the digital era, you can over sanitize and groom things a bit too much; you have to be on guard against that.
With Super Weird Substance, there seems to be a focus on a live sound.
Yes. We wanted vocals and songs; we want that live swing and a strong topline.There isn’t really a shortage of decent groove tracks or loop-based work, but we are trying to go in another direction., and there isn’t really a shortage of decent groove tracks or loop-based work, but we are trying to go in another direction. Even if you listen to those early electro tracks like “Thanks to You” by Sinnamon, it’s a very complex drum mix and it has a live vibe. It relates to the vibrancy of good funk and boogie as well—there is a richness there, and I want to go down that road.
Five Greg Wilson Jams.
Like many of the artists in this series, Greg’s discography is pretty overwhelming. You can spend a very nice YouTube or Discogs evening going through his varied offerings. Below, I select five of my favorites.
1. Greg Wilson "I Was a Teenage DJ Pt. 1" Greg Wilson (Reactivate)
A nice chop-up of a KC & the Sunshine Band jam, some K-Billy's Super Sounds of the '70s voiceover, plus some Dimples D for good measure—what?! Pure fire and enjoyment from Greg right here.
2. Social Disco Club & Maia "The Way You Move" (Greg Wilson remix) (Bear Funk)
Greg takes this lovely song by Humberto Matias and gives it the pimped-out deluxe treatment. The pacing is really amazing; you feel like the lyrics are coming to life. This song set the tone for many a dance floor…a truly elegant groove.
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3. Yello "Lost Again" (Greg Wilson edit) (Tirk)|
One of my favorite jams by these Swiss gurus gets a great extension and delicate rework from Greg. He emphasizes all of the tracks strongest elements. Strange, elegiac, forward thinking electronica here, it sounds amazing on a proper system.
4. Sheila & B. Devotion "Spacer" (Greg Wilson edit)
Some German/Italo disco, produced by Chic's Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Greg trims some of the cheese, reduces the vocal parts, and brings out the piano and guitar parts—he deftly makes it more floor friendly and brings the Chic goodness to the forefront.
5. Talking Heads "Psycho Killer" (Greg Wilson edit)
David Byrne starts the film Stop Making Sense by playing a guitar/boombox/drum-machine version of this song, it’s dramatic and haunting, and it was a song Greg thought about editing for years—and as soon as a DVD was made of the film, he did just that. The edit is really a great take on Byrne’s iconic performance, complete with looped crowd noise.