In the first edition of our Gordon West interview we looked at his heyday at the height of Manchester’s soul and club scene. Now Gordon guides us through his younger influences, his business days and his rise as one of the city’s foremost DJs.
Gordon developed an ear and a love for music early on.
“I’ve always had a love of reggae. When I was six or seven I used to sneak into the front room – my mum was Irish and I think growing up in an Irish house is very much like growing up in a West Indian house – where we had a gramophone and them [Murano] glass fish.
“I’d be in the front room with the gramophone and I’d tune into Radio Luxembourg and Caroline. I found a show on Luxembourg, a proper dub show, and I loved it. My mum used to say ‘where you get this from? this passion?’ because I still enjoyed my Irish music and my country music. Then I discovered soul music, then the Motown and ‘70s soul and what was to become rare groove, which was a little before my time but was still being played.”
Like so many from the city, black music spoke to Gordon in a way which the traditional music on Britain’s radio stations and television could not. Northern soul had been big in Manchester since the ‘60s and ‘70s as well as reggae, dub and other forms of music came over from the West Indies with the Windrush generation and the influence of American soul and R&B came as part of the great American export machine and its attempts at global, cultural domination.
Despite this early love for music, in his early adult years Gordon made a living for himself in business and it was purely by chance that circumstances provided Gordon with the opportunity and gentle push to pursue a career working with the music he loved in the ‘80s.
“I started by accident. I used to be a businessman, but basically I got ripped off by my ex business partner. I had a pretty impressive soul and reggae collection by the time I was in my late teens to early twenties and everyone used to invite me to their parties, always asking me to bring and play my records. When I did, the party jumped, even though we only had one deck and a tape player.
“I didn’t know that was DJing, but then when I left the party, the party slumped. I didn’t really think too much of it, I just knew if I threw a party, or went to a party with my music it would take off.
“So when my business went under, I was in my early twenties, driving a Jaguar in an expensive suit. I was pretty big time in this business, but I decided to close it down. I drove to the dole office in my Jaguar and all I had was suits, I didn’t have any casual clothing because I was in business all the time and always in the office or meetings.
“So I found my cheapest suit, which was this silver, grey, silk Italian suit and a pair of red, Italian shoes and I went in and they said ‘think you’re in the wrong place sir, the employers are round there’ and I said no, no, I’m here to sign on and everybody’s looking at me gobsmacked like ‘you’re here to sign on?’ So one day I was technically a millionaire and the next day I’m on the dole.”
For many people this monumental shift in lifestyle could have a serious knock on effect, or even take them under completely, but Gordon had other ideas and most importantly, he had his passion.
“Someone came and said ‘I’m having a party do you want to come and Play some music for me?“ and I said ‘alright cool’. At the time there was this thing about CB radio so they had this CB radio party and when I got there they had two turntables and I know from being a fan of rap music that two turntables means you can mix. I didn’t think about how you had to do it, I just thought it must be easy ’cause it looked easy when I saw it on TV.
“So I went and played at the party, me and this mate of mine called Jed Withajay. (Jed Palmer) We’d never done a gig before in our lives, apart from the parties I played at for my friends and I wouldn’t call that DJing exactly, but maybe it was?
They had a microphone there and we started playing and the party was jumping and I was putting one record on and mixing it into the other; not even thinking about it, it just came naturally.” I remember we didn’t have proper turntables, I mean they didn’t have vary-speed to adjust the tempo of each deck to be able to beat match. You couldn’t make them faster or slower so I just put my finger on the record and either speeding it up manually or slowed it down so it would match the beat of the record before so I could mix it in smoothly, quite crude really but it worked.
Like with all his parties, this one was a veritable success and as luck would haven’t, his performance wasn’t going unnoticed.
“There was this Well dressed Asian guy there. He says ‘I own a club in town, how long have you been DJing?’ So I went ‘about five years’ – you know as you do, the little white lies you have to tell when you need a break or a way in – and he said ‘right well I want you to come and play at my club’ and I said ‘we’ll come and have a look first, see if we like it’ – as you do, we were all dressed up at the time, even though we were on the dole.
“I remember us being scared to use the mic at first, eventually Jed persuaded me to say something on the microphone so I just said ‘hello’, I was a bit nervous, but then I started to enjoy it. By the end of the gig, me and Jed were fighting for the mic!”
So from humble beginnings, playing records at parties, sharing his love and ear for music with friends and friends of friends, things started to take off. Aside from in the DJ booth, Gordon West is perhaps just as, if not more well-known for his work on the airwaves.
“A couple of weeks after that party we’d started working at this club in town. We had a residency now so the dole went to touch because we were earning money.
“I’d been doing less than three months in the club and this radio station came to me because I’d been speaking on the mic and he said ‘you sound great on the mic, have you done radio before?’ I said ‘yeah I’ve been doing it for years!’ Another much needed way in so another white lie, you do what you have to to make things happen in the early days, no one else had my corner but me, so he said ‘come and do some work with me, I’ve got this pirate station’.
While you could say that luck played its hand in Gordon’s rise, as well as perhaps an ability to ‘wing it’, there was another factor at play which is a part of the fabric of all true greats – a burning desire to innovate and be original and an ability to take a knock back but rise again to bigger and better things.
“So I went to this station and the first show was awful to me anyway, but luckily I don’t think anyone noticed or even realised but I thought I need to improve. I tried things they hadn’t thought about; doing live mixes on the air and stuff like that and that got dead popular. Then I got asked to go to other stations like Smooth and Key 103 and stuff like that, small time stuff at the time voice-overs, adverts and some producing.”
Small time stuff it may have been at first, but it was just the beginning for Gordon. Tune in next time as Gordon talks about race inside the music industry, from his experiences as a DJ…