Wes Berwise is a clever man. He has been passionate about his music for as long as he can remember, and was an avid collector from his school days. His love of music in all its guises (but especially soul and R’n’B) led him to an illustrious career as a DJ at Colourful Radio and then Jazz FM (at which point he had three shows per week; two on Jazz FM and one on Colourful Radio), adept at moving across the genres for all the right reasons.
Gradually, radio changed and became more about the playlist than the music, and this didn’t sit well with a musical curator like Wes Berwise. He made the bold move of changing tracks… moving from DJ to founding WBSS Media in 2013. WBSS has quickly become the go-to website for learning more about black music of all styles and genres, kind of like a cross between Wikipedia, Gracenote, and YouTube rolled into one.
We spoke to him about his life, his work, and how more people should be involved in music!
AS: Do you remember your first LP?
WB: The first record LP I ever bought was from a guy called Steven Nash, who was my best mate at school. I was about 11 or 12 years old at the time. He was a huge Slade fan (I’m showing my age there) and I didn’t particularly like them. And he said “I’ve bought this album and it’s just rubbish.” So I asked him what it was and he said “It’s some black guy called Johnny Nash.” So I said, “I’ll have it! I’ll buy that!” Bear in mind that I’d never heard of him either – this was the time of either Radio One or Radio Caroline, and people like Johnny Nash just didn’t get airplay.
Anyway, I bought it from him, and it turned out it was by Jimmy Cliff, not Johnny Nash. It was ‘The Harder They Come’ soundtrack. This was the first reggae soundtrack. Ever! I don’t know why he bought it – he was a white guy and this wasn’t the time when white teenagers bought reggae albums – but I think his parents were quite ‘hip’.
I remember taking this album home, and it was a gatefold. People might not remember this, but at the time a gatefold was a new thing! I was so excited that I was reading the sleeve notes on the bus. It’s still in my collection now. I guess you could say my whole career path in DJing and now music curation started there, even if I didn’t know it at the time.
Music ran through your family, didin’t it?
Yes. I was brought up listening to a lot of gospel music. And I played the guitar from a very early age in church. I was playing guitar every weekend, or twice a week in church. Nothing was forced; it was unnatural for me to study classical at first, but after two or three weeks I was hooked. But I also listened to everything I could lay my hands on. I started listening to a lot of reggae music too, when I could. It wasn’t easy because it didn’t get any airplay on the radio then. I remember I started getting involved in funk and soul music and I thought ‘this is good! I like this stuff’
How did having eclectic tastes in music fit into the music culture of the 1970s?
You weren’t allowed to like different kinds of music; it was your identity. I was listening to reggae, but secretly listening to soul stations. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true. As a young black guy growing up in the 1970s, you either liked soul music, or you liked reggae music. You were a soul boy, or you were a reggae boy. Which is very different from today, where fathers dress like their sons and sons dress like their fathers. But back in the day, everything was very distinct. If you were a punk, you were a punk. If you were a goth, you were a goth, and so on. You had your own dress code, everything. So it was a really big deal if you were really into reggae, but also liked soul! You couldn’t tell your reggae friends about it because they were in a completely different camp, which is bizarre!
Give me an example of this?
I heard this album, and you had to order them. I went to this shop called Contempo records (behind The 100 Club in Oxford Street). Two weeks later, I picked up my first soul record – the very first by Brass Construction and my first full-priced album – and I got on the bus to go home and met some of my reggae crew and thought “no! no! no! This can’t be happening.” When they saw the album, they started treating me differently for a while. I got away with it because I was a musician and I argued that I needed the record for my music, but that’s just crazy! Two years later... that had all gone!