UK disco edit and electro-funk hero Greg Wilson sails beyond the vinyl revival, reel-to-reel in tow
SUPER EGO "Don't you think that scratching records might annoy the people who spent a long time in the studio making them?"
I'm snickering at a jaw-droppingly antiquated — yet actually quite relevant — video from 1983 titled "1st UK DJ to Mix Live on TV." It features famous, fresh-faced turntablist Greg Wilson, gracefully fending off tin-eared questions from Tube program host Jools Holland while demonstrating to an antsy, angular-haired audience what this whole "mixing records" thing is about.
The scratching bit's a hoot because Wilson — who recently emerged from an 18-year retirement and will be performing at Triple Crown on Friday — isn't scratching at all. He's merely cueing up the record, a simple act that draws gasps. "Well, that's it, that's the danger," Wilson replies to Holland, poker-faced, his soft brown Afro unshaken. "But when a record's been played in the club for a long time, people get a bit fed up hearing it, and it's nice to hear it in a different way. And that's why I kind of ... play about with them a bit."
Wilson goes on to blow post-punk minds by phasing on two — two — tables at once. Then he takes it to a whole other level by revving up his trademark, Steampunk-prophesying Revox B77 reel-to-reel effects machine, real-time sampling David Joseph's Jheri curl-slick classic "You Can't Hide (Your Love From Me)," filling out the back-end with sly loops and layering on psychedelic dub echoes. It's a wondrous bit of analog theater that I imagine, in this "digital age" I keep hearing about, would cause the same kind of pop-culture rupture if played out on American Idol today.
Or maybe not so much. Two of the big nightlife media hooks of the past few years have been the disco revival and the vinyl resurgence — twinned digital-reactionary movements that recall the late-1990s hip-hop and soul crate-digging of hometown heroes like DJ Shadow and Ren the Vinyl Archeologist, a fruitful response to the CD reissue mania of that time. Every technology carves out an implicit niche for its own backlashes. Now, it swallows them too. Despite all the retro nostalgia, DJs need the Internet to get their mixes out and research rare tunes. Plastic and silicon moving in tandem — it's a real mishmash.
Wilson, who spent his decks hiatus pursuing his production career, may still keep one hand on the vintage — that Revox B77 still travels with him — but he's made no secret of his enthusiasm for new fad gadgets, and felt that with the simultaneous rise of disco re-fever and software hijinks, a comeback was due.
"I think it's an exciting time," he e-mailed me from Australia, in the midst of a bonkers world tour to support his latest compilation of rejiggers, Credit to the Edit, Vol. 2 (Tirk). "Some people pine for the old days. But great as they were, I don't like to dwell on the past too much in a nostalgic way, but use it to inform the future. I like the way younger people, who didn't directly experience the original disco era, are drawing influence from it, reshaping it from their own perspective here and now. For me, music — no matter how old it might be — is always alive and evolving, so I'm all for bringing it into a new context."
Wilson made his name in the '70s and '80s by birthing the electro-funk movement in the U.K. (www.electrofunkroots.co.uk ), which pipelined many hard-to-find American dance releases to British crowds, and he came of age in a world of DJ record pools — strategic vinyl-sharing cabals that hooked cash-strapped DJs up with record companies eager to get their releases heard. Record pool culture opened the doors for innumerable disco and funk edits: DJs wanted to sound unique, so they mixed (or had someone else mix) their own versions of hits, stamping them with an individual sonic imprint. Thus the hugely influential edit scene was born, paving the way for a spectrum of club remixes from genius and egregious.
No one handled edits quite like Wilson, whose pitch-perfect additions, stretches, and overlaps and live technique proved to be a bulletproof blueprint. The disco edit scene, a subsection of disco revivalism that also digs up more contemporary "lost" tracks, keeps looping back into view, the most recent fanatic attack including acts like Wolf + Lamb, Soul Clap, Les Edits Du Golem, and Tensnake, and labels like Rong, Wurst, and Ugly.
Our very own rulers of the local edit scene are King & Hound (www.myspace.com/garthgrayhound ), a collaborative effort between two SF DJ legends, Garth and James Glass, on the Golden Goose label. The two met in the early '90s at the notorious Record Rack music store and have lately released tasty versions of David Ian Xtravaganza's kiki 1989 "Elements of Vogue" and Can's space-groovy "A Spectacle."
"I have quite a few of Greg's records," Garth told me over e-mail. "I recently rediscovered one of his early hip-hop records called 'We Don't Care' by Ruthless Rap Assassins, which I bought in 1987!" Glass joined in, "I grew up in London listening to Greg's mixes and I'd hear him out and about." Both of them shake off suggestions of Wilsonian influence, however. "But we're all doing the same thing — taking out the cheese and respecting the quality," Glass said.
Wilson's brilliant 2009 Essential Mix mix for the U.K.'s BBC1 radio found Massive Attack and Talking Heads sharing space with Geraldine Hunt and Chic, and reintroduced him to American ears ("I think that mix illustrates what I always strive for: connecting back but moving on," he told me. "I was shocked at the overwhelmingly positive response.") But to Bay players he was always in the loop, working with the invaluable Anthony Mansfield of the Green Gorilla crew and Qzen and even visiting Haight Street a few years back to feed his '60s obsession.
I recently had the opportunity to explore a bit of the Bay Area's record pool and disco edit past with DJ Jim Hopkins of the ubiquitous Twitch Recordings, and who currently spins eclectic sets at venues like 440 Castro and Trax. He's no stranger to the edit scene, becoming one of the youngest edit contributors in the early '80s to San Francisco disco and Hi-NRG record pool Hot Tracks and later, after Hot Tracks owner Steve Algozino passed away from AIDS, Rhythm Stick, helmed by Algozino's protégée Jenny Spiers. (He also namechecks the Bay's Disconet and New Wave-friendly Razor Maid.) Hopkins got his edit start as a teen in the '70s, using the pause button on his dad's tape deck to make his own edits, and soon grabbed professional attention. "Record companies wanted several versions of their records available for DJs, and record pools wanted to put out compilation issues for subscribers that featured unique takes on tracks, so I happily provided," he told me. "It's funny that those things are worth a fortune today."
Hopkins just started an online organization called the San Francisco Disco Preservation Society (find it at www.twitchrecordings.com ) to collect and celebrate Bay-centric edits and reel-to-reel mixes. "As for the edit scene now, there seem to be two kinds being produced. There are easy-sounding ones that just extend the good parts. Then there are more serious ones that take the original and make it into something new and more moody. I think that's good for the future — because sometimes I have to laugh. Disco kids these days are pulling anything out of vinyl resale bins from 20 years ago and calling it 'classic' when most of it is crap. It was crap back then, too. Making it into anything different is doing it a favor, really."
Read Marke B.'s full interview with Greg Wilson here .
GREG WILSON: CREDIT TO THE EDIT TOUR
Fri/19, 10 p.m.–4 a.m., $15/$20
1772 Market, SF
HONEY SUNDAYS PRESENTS JIM HOPKINS
Sun/21, 10 p.m., $3
1501 Folsom, SF