When it comes to dance music, Greg Wilson is one of the most prolific and celebrated DJs of the past 50 years. Kicking off his career in 1975, he became a pioneer of mixing in the early 1980s – becoming the first DJ to mix on national UK television and ushering in the electro-funk era – before retiring in 1984. Returning in 2003, Wilson has picked up where he left off, dazzling audiences around the world. Inspired by his new book Discotheque Archives, he breaks down his life in music and the events that led to his present day success.
Along with music, books are my other great passion. I’m not so much a reader of novels, but someone who enjoys biographies and histories. I like to find out what went before, trying to get as close to the source as possible. The tagline to my book Discotheque Archives – ‘to know the future, first you must know the past’ – is something I strongly believe. History does repeat itself, never quite in the same way, but its patterns are clear when you join the dots. What goes around comes around.
In 2015, I was approached by DJ Mag to write a monthly column focusing on various facets of dance music history. I was aware that the majority of the magazine’s readership was younger DJs and dance music enthusiasts, to whom what I’d be writing about would be ancient history. This informed my decision to highlight four separate categories, outlining the pre-rave era in bite-size chunks, rather than concentrating on a single topic per month: Classic DJ, Classic Label, Classic Venue and Classic Record.
I wanted the column to be a fun read, reflecting the vibrancy and color of the scenes I’m highlighting. Something people could dip in and out of – more random than linear – but with the various stories interconnecting and hopefully helping the reader map out a greater understanding of these once thriving movements. In addition to label scans and club logos, I brought onboard the artist Pete Fowler to illustrate the Classic DJs. A few years earlier, I’d bought a small painting Pete had painted of David Mancuso, a DJ at the foundation of New York disco culture, which would set the template for a whole array of his DJ images. Initially 25 for the DJ Mag series, 5 additional illustrations would make this extended hardback edition of the book.
The original series was made available as a limited edition paperback in December 2020 and the response exceeded all expectations. I’d have been delighted if 500 copies had been sold, but in just a matter of weeks the orders had swelled and the run was capped at just over three times that amount. At this point I made the decision to extend the content and publish later down the line as a hardback, that aim coming to fruition with this new edition.
Much of what I’m writing about, in essence, is what I grew up with and then experienced first-hand as a DJ from the mid-1970s and into the 1980s. Initially it was the incredible music of the 1960s soundtracking my formative years, especially the wonderful soul singles my older brother and sister brought into the house which was my first musical love affair. I started buying records of my own when I was 11 and by the time I was 15 I had quite a tasty collection of tunes, mainly on 7” vinyl – the 12” single yet to surface – but also LPs. The great soul labels, Motown, Stax and Atlantic, set the tone in the ‘60s, before the likes of Philadelphia International, T.K. Casablanca and Salsoul epitomized the ‘70s disco era, with the DJ innovations of mixing and remixing gaining greater emphasis as the decade unfolded. It was at this point, just as disco was about to fully bloom, that my DJ career began in the local clubs of New Brighton, Merseyside.
I aspired to be a Black music specialist, playing the latest funk, soul and disco. One of the stories I tell in the book is how, when I was 16, I bought a copy of ‘Emperor Rosko’s DJ Book’ where I discovered, much to my excitement, that DJs could get free records from the various companies if they played to enough people per week to qualify for promotional copies. They were posted to you ahead of release, weeks before they were made available in the shops. In the back of the book all the record company addresses and phone numbers were listed and it was all handed to me on a plate. So I worked my way through all of the numbers and, hey presto, the packages of records from this source soon began to multiply as I got myself onto more and more mailing lists.
I’d receive literally thousands of records in this way, supplemented further by regular trips to London to meet and hang out with the people working in club promotion. This gave me an edge over my local contemporaries, and I was able to build a reputation for being the DJ who played tracks first. Not having to buy UK releases also enabled me to use the money I saved on more expensive US imports, moving me further ahead of the curve.
But this was still a big fish in a small pond situation in a backwater local scene. Fast-forward to the early-‘80s and, as far as the Black music scene in the North of England was concerned, I’d found my way to the Premier League, appearing on all-dayer bills alongside already legendary names like Colin Curtis and Mike Shaft. My weekly club nights at Wigan Pier and Legend in Manchester, became the leading nights on the scene, giving me a serious power base from which to forge my own direction.
That direction was dictated by the changing times, with musicians and producers embracing the new technology – drum machines, sequencers and samplers becoming a mainstay in the New York studios, the source of much of the music I played. I had also placed the emphasis on mixing, at a time when DJing was still largely microphone-based in the UK. This new electro-funk, as we’d call it, was coming in on import from NYC, leaning towards mixing and being beatbox driven.
The third element, which brought it all together, were the venues themselves. Both state of the art clubs that were way ahead of the game, Wigan Pier opened in 1979 and Legend in 1980. I was blessed with the perfect environment and having taken the risk of introducing this new electronic Black music – against much resistance I must add – the scene was flipped on its head in 1982. Electro became the prominent force, bringing an end to the jazz-funk era, which had held sway since the late-‘70s. This became my legacy, as did a brief association with a then-new Manchester club, The Haçienda, in 1983, the year when I became the first British DJ to mix live on TV, on Channel 4’s ‘The Tube’.
It was at this point that I stopped DJing for twenty years, concentrating instead on record production and, by default, band management. It was an up and down existence, especially in the 1990s, without the money to fund recording projects, and with no other form of income to fall back on. Back then, if you wanted to make a track, you had to pay for studio time, which didn’t come cheap. Having pulled in all the favors I could, I had little option but to drift until circumstances finally changed.
With the turn of the century, and the internet on the rise, I was able to engage with people in the club community online. I started to write articles about club culture, the first focusing on the electro-funk scene, which had barely been touched on in the books then written and documentaries broadcast. It was, and still remains, a missing link in our understanding of the UK lineage, and it’s something I’ve consistently drawn attention to, underpinning my decision to return to DJing in 2003. This piece ‘Electro-Funk – What Did It All Mean?’ was shared by a number of websites that specialized in various aspects of club history, giving me a platform where I can draw attention to areas of the culture I feel have been misunderstood or undervalued.
Having kept all manner of archive material from my former DJ days, I was able to dive back into the era from a new perspective, documenting the music played on a week by week basis from lists I’d given out at the time. This resulted in me setting up Electro Funk Roots, a website that focuses on the early-‘80s, its origins and what came out of it, via interviews, articles, audio and video footage and, of course, extensive record lists. The site is approaching its own 20th anniversary this year and still going strong, with new material added from time to time. It’s become quite an archive in itself.
I found my footing as a DJ again, playing underground clubs initially, which were then supplemented by an increasing amount of overseas bookings. This resulted from the release of my first ‘Credit To The Edit’ compilation in 2005, the second of which appeared in 2009, the year my Essential Mix for BBC Radio 1. This provided a landmark moment in my career reignition. The mix would be named one of the 10 best Essential Mixes in the 17-year history of the series, whilst Rolling Stone magazine named it as one of their 25 greatest internet DJ mixes of all time.
Festivals became a mainstay of my DJ schedule and, after establishing myself in the UK, I’d find myself in far-flung countries like Australia, the USA, Brazil, Mexico, Japan, Canada and various parts of Europe, playing some incredible overseas events. This continues today and my second DJ career is now in its 20th year, significantly longer than the eight years I spent behind the decks the first time round. I draw from the past but with a contemporary spin, by largely playing re-edits and reworks of classic and cult-classic tunes.
I’d like to thank Mixcloud for inviting me to contribute to Campus. It’s a platform I’ve used to upload content of a historical nature, so, in many respects, this greatly compliments Discotheque Archives.
Words by Greg Wilson.
Greg’s new book Discotheque Archives is out now via Super Weird Substance.
Check out Greg’s expansive mix collection on Mixcloud, including a collection of the ‘30 Classic Records’ that appear in the book, mixes from across his early career and his 2009 Radio 1 Essential Mix.