(This is the unabridged version of an article that appears in Issue 3 of TBC Magazine: http://www.tbcmagazine.com/?p=1387)
With just basic equipment, recording snippets of songs from the radio on a tape deck and then splicing them together, this was something many of us of a certain generation did in our youth, how we compiled our birthing music collection. There was of course no internet back then, and even if one could afford to buy a single from Woolworths each week, it would hardly go towards to amassing a large collection of tunes. This was how it was done back in the day, by being creative. Some, like Mista Pierre, took that creativity to a whole other level.
Like any true and great connoisseur of music Pierre wasn’t limited in his tastes to one genre, he embraced everything from classic to pop, the musical understanding of each giving him a solid and lasting foundation. However, as a young kid growing up in Peckham, it was the cultural explosion of hip hop that took predominant hold, and so set him on a direct path through and out of South London and to a wider world.
Once a wealthy village and hunting ground of Kings, with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and the rapid expansion of the capital, trains saw Peckham became accessible to those working in the City and the docks, and the area grew rapidly. Heavily redeveloped in the 1960s, with high-rise flats built to house people from still existing slums in other areas, this initial high quality and modern standing of living, had, by the late 70s/early 80s fully entered a decline that turned it into one of the hardest residential areas, an archetypal London sink estate. It was here Pierre spent his youth, an area that seemed to hold little prospects: “There were triads and yardies” he says, “it was all gangs and drugs and within that you had no choice but to take your role.” There seemed very few, if any, ways out.
Music was therefore, undeniably Pierre’s escape, and without over-glamourising, his salvation. From a young age he dreamt of being a conductor. But how on earth could a young lad growing up in South London enter that far away world of classical music? Instead, he looked at what was around him, the hip hop culture and its four elements of rapping, DJing, dance and graffiti. He picked up an old turntable, repaired it, and with the few records he had in his possession, taking inspiration from Grandmaster Flash, he began to teach himself how to scratch. Someone heard him, was impressed, and the next thing he knew he was, at the age of just 14, placed alongside and pitted against those far more established in the Reggae Dance Hall in Peckham. It was competition, it was bravado, and despite the darker aspects it was still about team and community spirit. His talent swiftly assured him his place, and so gave him his accepted ‘role’, meaning that he didn’t have to take another within the gangs or drug-dealing. With just two small crates of records he had to learn how to make them work in a new way; every track had been heard before, so he had to ensure they had never been heard in quite the same way. It is well-established that, at its best, hip hop has given a voice to the voiceless, particularly in inner cities and neighbourhoods suffering from urban blight, and showcased their artistic ingenuity and talent on a global scale. Here is no exception, and so in the young Pierre a DJ was indeed born.
As time went on, wishing to see him removed from the still-troubled area, he was sent to stay with relatives in New York. Here was a young man with the knowledge already his now becoming immersed in all that was new and bold across the Atlantic. He played in the clubs of Brooklyn, and picked up extensively used samples blending the sounds of classic disco, the Chicago sound, and elements of hip-hop from the likes of the legendary Todd Terry and Def Jam. This lead to him achieving the highly-impressive stance of supporting ‘A Tribe Called Quest’ as DJ on their US Tour, an accolade few could match. For the next four or five years he travelled back and forth from New York to London, bridging the two and giving him a freshness to everything he played, wherever he played.
So it has been ever since, playing across the globe. With his early start, also being an accomplished exponent in break dance and pop lock, he soon learned how music can make people dance differently, and how as a DJ you can move them to a new mood. “Hip hop gave me the courage to experiment, to know how to take people on a journey with music.” says Pierre. “Real DJs know it is not about them, it is about the journey they take the crowd on, embracing their physicality and how music influences that”. Talking with him brings a realisation as to the true and real craft of a DJ. “You have to gauge the crowd. You have to study them, closely observe, so you know where to take them.”
Once a hip hop purist (never particularly piqued by the Acid electronica) and then onto house (as well as delving back further to all its origins) his music tastes are understandably all-encompassing. Hip hop being a genre that follows in the footsteps of earlier ones such as blues, jazz, and rock and roll with additional inspiration from soul, funk, and rhythm and blues would undoubtedly ensure this, leading one to look further back and dig deeper. And as Pierre himself acknowledges his ability to scratch way back then was born, in part, from the change in tempo found in his early passion for classical music.
Asked what the first ever record he owned was the answer that comes is perhaps unexpected. Adam and The Ants – ‘Ant Music’. “It begins with 8 bars of [drum] rim shots at the start, and I just used to play those on constant repeat”. Assuredly then, Pierre’s music repertoire is of not just the origins of his youth or subsequent years but that of a man with decades of music at his fingertips. Accessibility to all kinds of music has become readily available for us all, and so, even more so now “a DJ has to think and work. They no longer have the exclusivity of tunes as they did in the days of vinyl, now they have to be even more creative with their choices – a melange”. Many accomplished DJs have subsequently fallen by the wayside in this shift, just as many more (albeit less gifted ones) have arisen; it takes far more than just putting one track after another with a bit of beat matching to make a true DJ. As Mista Pierre proves.
With that then he now brings us the podcast you can enjoy with this issue. “I wanted something funky, soulful, and distinctly edgy London, bridging gay, straight, black, white.” Because isn’t that what music does, cross boundaries and break down barriers? It can alter who we are, change where we are. It travels, and it transports us.
“I’m a maverick. I didn’t get out of one ghetto to be put in another.” Mista Pierre says. What really compels him? Ultimately, his reward is to make people feel good, to see happiness coming back to him as he plays. That is surely the true mark of a DJ.