Leaving The DJ World Behind
Greg in 1985 (Photo by Kevin Cummins)
This has been perhaps the most frequently asked question since I started deejaying again. There’s not a single answer to this, rather a number of factors combined. These are the main ones:
1. CHANGING SCENE
I could foresee a change on the horizon, with what I now look back on as a golden era for underground dance music, the early Electro-Funk period, coming to an end. This had a lot to do with the advent of breakdancing in the UK, for, from the summer of ’83, whenever I played anything remotely Electro a circle would form on the dancefloor around a break challenge, which, although highly entertaining for everyone at first, soon began to cause resentment with the non-breakers, especially the girls, who were being jostled out of their dancing space. This would eventually cause a schism, the breakers becoming the instigators of the Hip Hop movement in the North and Midlands, whilst some of the non-breakers, after initially going for a more soulful vibe, would form the early House crowd.
It wasn’t a clean split however, Hip Hop and House were still played together right up until the Rave explosion towards the end of the decade. The perfect example in Manchester would be Stu Allan’s hugely successful show for Piccadilly Radio (later Key 103), a direct descendant of Mike Shaft’s show, for whom I did my radio mixes. Stu not only played the latest Hip Hop imports, but also supported House music from the earliest stage. House was never seen as separate back then and, like Hip Hop and Techno, simply followed on from Electro as far as the black scene was concerned.
2. COMPROMISED NEUTRALITY
I was in the fortunate position of not only having a strong following with the Manchester audience, but also Huddersfield, Birmingham, Leeds, Sheffield, Bradford, Bolton, Nottingham, Liverpool, Wolverhampton etc. Wigan Pier, especially, having next to no black population, was viewed as neutral territory, with all the various crews regarding it as home from home. Legend, being in Manchester, was obviously attended by a mainly Manchester based crowd, although, having said that, there was always a big turnout from other areas.
Having been blown away with the whole breakdance thing, I organised the ‘Break Dancing & Body-Popping Championship Of The North’, the first competition of its type in the UK. Heats were held at Wigan Pier and Legend with the final at The Haçienda, which, if my memory serves me right was judged by Tony Wilson, Rob Gretton (the manager of New Order) and Lindsay Wesker (club columnist for Black Echoes).
At the time my links with the Manchester breakdance crew, Broken Glass, were growing ever-stronger and when Broken Glass members claimed all but one of the top placings there were rumblings of discontent with the entrants from other areas, but I didn’t pay too much attention to this as there were always inter-area arguments when it came to dance challenges, which I was already well used to from the Jazz Fusion crews who used to dance against each other.
With Stephen Morris having been named the individual winner, the following Tuesday it was the turn of the ‘Team Dance Championship’ at Wigan Pier. In my naivety I’d expected a carnival of dance with all the crews from the different areas taking part with a ‘may the best team win’ type attitude, but the reality was somewhat more disturbing. Only Broken Glass and the Bradford crew entered. I couldn’t understand why Huddersfield, Birmingham, Bolton and the other crews were not competing, but then people began to tell me that the word going around was that it would be fixed in favour of Broken Glass, given my personal association with the crew. I was angry that such a suggestion could be made, but the damage had been done and, with the atmosphere growing uglier, we had to pull the competition completely.
Over the following days the full implication of what had happened dawned on me as I realised that I had a major conflict of interests on my hands by getting involved with Broken Glass. I’d totally compromised my neutrality and realised that I was never going to be viewed in quite the same light by the people from the other areas, for, as far as they were concerned, I’d now firmly pinned my colours to Manchester. What made it worse was that, although they were the first crew in Manchester, there’d soon be other crews in the city, so I couldn’t even be viewed as neutral in Manchester! Swept away on a wave of enthusiasm for breakdancing, I’d almost accidentally fallen into the role of manager of Broken Glass and, as a result, things would never be the same again.
3. WANTING TO REMIX
I’d been trying to get work as a remixer since 1982. I’d actually won a mix competition, the first one to be held in the UK. It was through R&B Records, who were having big success with the band Imagination. The competition was to put together a medley of Imagination tracks and the winner would have this released on the flip of a future single (for some reason, this never happened). Anyway, in collaboration with my friend and fellow DJ, Paul Rae (who did all the other nights, apart from the Wednesday, at Legend), we submitted the winning mix. This whet my appetite and I unsuccessfully attempted to get remix work via my record company contacts in London. Although the club promotion people, who I had strong links with, were supportive, they couldn’t get their bosses to trust a UK DJ to do the job. The answer that kept coming back basically amounted to ‘US DJ’s remix, UK DJ’s don’t’!
The only job I got during this time was a promo-only edit of a track on Island by Paul Haig, a more alternative type artist, called ‘Heaven Sent’. Without realising it at the time, this, to the best of my knowledge, was the first re-edit by a British DJ.
After banging my head against a brick wall for a year or so, I decided that the only way I was going to remix a record is if I hooked-up with some musicians and made one myself. This is how the ‘UK Electro’ project would eventually come about.
It seems crazy now that not getting remix work was one of the reasons behind my decision to quit deejaying, especially as UK DJ’s, within a matter of years, would be brought in to remix records by all the big labels. I suppose it’s all a matter of timing and, unfortunately for me, my timing was all wrong, but, having made the decision that I wanted to get involved in the making of records, I decided this would be my priority for 1984, alongside my management role with Broken Glass, who, by the end of the year were beginning to gain widespread recognition, with clubs all over the country wanting to book them for appearances, coupled with interest from national TV shows.
4. GO OUT AT THE TOP
Given that I sensed a new phase approaching, my ego dictated that I make a grand gesture by going out at the top. A few years earlier, John Grant, who was the big DJ on the scene at the time, had gone to work as a harbour master on the South coast, giving up deejaying completely. The fact he’d gone out at the top, rather than, like many DJ’s, his popularity slowly fizzling out, had made an impression on me.
I was only 23 when I gave up deejaying, but I’d done a lot in the past 8 years, since starting out in the clubs in 1975, working an average of 5 nights per week throughout that time and, more or less, growing up in nightclubs. Looking back with hindsight, I can see I was more than ready for a change. My whole adult life had revolved around being a DJ and the lifestyle that accompanied it, but I was beginning to look for other avenues of stimulation.
I felt I’d pretty much achieved all my ambitions on a club level. Legend, circa 81-84, is undoubtedly the greatest club I’ve had the privilege of working in. I’m fortunate to be one of the few DJ’s who can truly say that they got to play exactly the type of music they wanted to play to exactly the type of audience they wanted to play for, week-in and week-out at one of the best equipped clubs in the world, and at a pivotal time in the evolution of dance music. It doesn’t get any better than this for a DJ!
People often zoom in on my time at The Haçienda when they talk to me, given its worldwide fame, imagining that this would have been the peak for me. But Legend was a different universe back then, with The Haçienda struggling to find an audience who appreciated dance music and wrong, wrong, wrong, when it came to things like the sound system and the DJ booth (which was then in a separate room to the side of the stage. More info here: http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/02/the-hacienda-dj-booth/ and http://www.gregwilson.co.uk/2012/04/the-hacienda-disco-v-fiasco/). I can seriously say that anything would have been a step down from the dizzy heights of that Wednesday night at Legend. So my youthful logic / ego, decided that, like an undefeated boxer, I’d retire at the top of my game!
From unpublished Q&A with Electro Empire forum members.
© Greg Wilson, 2005