Gilles Peterson’s influence on the U.K.’s jazz/world dancefloor scene is inestimable. Born in Switzerland and raised in South London, Gilles started his DJing career at the legendary Electric Ballroom in Camden in the ’80s, taking over from Latin jazz veteran Paul Murphy.
"I was really annoying,” says Gilles of his entry into the world of turntables. “I was that 14-year-old going to Paul Murphy’s parties, sneaking in through the back door and asking him what tunes were. I took over from Paul at the Ballroom because he moved to another club. I think he gave it to me because he thought I’d fuck it up. To be honest, I did mess it up for the first three or four weeks, but because the club he went to wouldn‘t let a lot of the old Ballroom crowd in, they came back to give me some support.”
A couple of years later, Gilles started his own night, “Talkin' Loud & Saying Something,” at Camden’s Dingwalls, which would also become legendary on the jazz/funk/soul scene. Showcasing the cream of the U.K.’s jazz/soul/funk bands—Jamiroquai, Brand New Heavies, Galliano, Snowboy, Incognito—the night helped spawn the Acid Jazz label (started by Gilles and Eddie Pillar) and the worldwide movement of the same name.
Though jazz and soul have always the mainstays of Gilles’ music policy over the years, he has consistently championed world grooves on the dancefloor too, enthusiastically deploying the sounds of Latin luminaries like Poncho Sanchez, Tito Puente and Mongo Santamaria to the trendy crowds who frequented his events.
His pioneering ’80s compilations Jazz Juice and Blue Bossa, which plundered seminal labels such as Blue Note, Prestige and Riverside, featured big U.S. jazz names but also emphasized world fusions and included tracks by acts like Gilberto Gil and Sergio Mendes. The latter anthologies in particular became the motivation for the hugely popular “Blue” series of Jazz compilations.
In the ’90s, with Acid Jazz already a thing of the past in the media’s eyes, Gilles set up his Talkin’ Loud label, through which he released a diverse range of artists: Reprazent, Nuyorican Soul, Courtney Pine, 4 Hero, MJ Cole and Terry Callier among them. He continued putting out Brazilian music compilations, namely Brazilica Vols. 1 and 2 (compiled alongside Far Out label owner Joe Davis), which featured heavyweights like Mendes, Tamba Trio, Milton Nascimento, Marcos Valle, Elis Regina and Joao Donato.
“The [Brazilica series] didn’t sell many but they were good fun,” recalls Gilles. “It was mostly old school records on there because we did it through Universal and they had the Philips back catalog. They were good albums, I think, a bit ahead of their time. There was always a lot of Brazilian stuff around when we DJed as well as some African bits and pieces too, even way back in the day. I remember playing (Fela Kuti’s) ‘Roforofo Fight’ regularly at the Electric Ballroom, though Brazilian and Afro-Cuban music especially was more a big part of the club culture we were a part of.”
These days, Gilles continues to push music from around the world, especially if it contains the jazz, soul and funk elements he loves so much. Though he still DJs and puts out compilations, most of his taste-making activities take place via his hugely successful BBC Radio One show, WorldWide.
A fervent radio enthusiast, he started broadcasting in his parents’ garden shed, recording tapes and transmitting them on the airwaves back in the early ’80s. He then played a role in emerging pirate stations like KJAZZ, Solar and On Horizon before going legit with BBC Radio London with a show called Mad On Jazz. He joined Radio One in 1998 and has built up an impressive following that tunes in weekly and listens to him connect the dots between Sun Ra and Zero 7, Roni Size and Miles Davis, D’Angelo and Stevie Wonder.
Though generally left of the mainstre