Chris Gill cuts a distinctive figure. It’s mainly the hair – a big, wiry white man’s afro; but it’s also the big-collared shirt, the sideways smirk, the determinedly laidback everything about him.
Northside Records is an extension of Gill. He’s run the Fitzroy store for the past 12 years, and in that time, it’s become the hub of soul music in Melbourne. “When we started the store, soul music was not represented in Australia at all,” he says. “Of course, there’s always been an undercurrent, but opening the shop was about supporting it, giving it a voice and giving it a chance.” On the day of my visit, Gill is doing his thing in the store, rapping with customers (“Secondhand hip-hop is up the back, man”), flipping records on the store turntable beautifully, almost unconsciously, and explaining to me, a novice, about this soul music deal. “Essentially it’s a groove that allows you to relax yourself,” he says. “It’s about a good time, about feeling. There’s a syncopated drum rhythm that is shared by a lot of styles of music, which of course stems out of Africa. That’s the kind of music I push through the store, a lot of soul, Latin, dub, hip-hop, reggae type music. That’s the swimming pool we’re swimming in.”
Gill jumped into the metaphoric swimming pool as a kid, when he noticed that of all the Frank Sinatra songs his dad played, the tunes he gravitated to were produced by the same guy. “I looked at the back of the cassettes and saw that name – Quincy Jones. Then I saw all the Michael Jackson stuff and there he was again.” Once he’d gotten his toes wet, Gill paddled deeper and deeper, and essentially now bathes in the stuff 24-7. “Having the record store, it’s a joy watching people swim in the stuff and find their own way. Sometimes they ask for suggestions and you just nudge them in a direction.” He’s been DJing at parties since ’91, and on community radio for around the same amount of time. Currently, he hosts Get Down on RRR as well as a regular slot on ABC 774. Northside Records also has its own record label, which released The Soul of Melbourne compilation in 2012 featuring tracks from local acts and associates including The Cactus Channel and Chet Faker. Gill reads out the label’s brief hand written contract with Saskwatch, which is stuck on the wall behind him: “Three words: keep it real.”
Keeping it real seems to come naturally to Gill. “You wouldn’t get into this business if money was your driving force. I’ve been bad at business but my focus is more on longevity and integrity.” He tells me ‘the man’ comes knocking occasionally, but he isn’t really down for swapping a slice of his thing for corporate cash. “I don’t think integrity and branding work. It just becomes gross,” he says. “My unions are made through more like-minded stuff, like the Social Studio down the road or people who tour soul music.” On the day of my visit, Justin Timberlake’s band stopped by, and ended up playing a live set for his radio show. As far as Gill is concerned, the pay off is these confluences, which are less about business and more about enjoying the music he’s built his whole life around. “I’m a total fanboy,” he says. “Your place is in the crowd dancing. If you don’t love it any more, get out.” He tells me a story to illustrate the point: “This Sudanese kid Ror who’s doing his VCE just put an album out and it’s a-mazing. He did the launch and like, it was great. But the best bit was when after everyone had gone and Ror and his buddies were standing around the desk singing hip-hop songs, just owning it. Just seeing it for a second was like… oh shiiit. That’s the pay off.”
A couple of days after our meeting, I bump into Chris again, this time on Johnston Street, Collingwood. He’s on his way to pick up his car. “This is the new place to be, right?” he tells me. It’s not a question. “They’re even moving the Gertrude Street Gallery down here. That’s like the left ventricle of Gertrude Street.” I suggest to Chris that he might be the right ventricle, at which he scoffs. “Nah man, I’m more like the… the…,” he looks around, scanning the air for the next line. “I’m the left armpit of Gertrude Street, man. Kinda funky.”
An edited version of this story was published in Vault magazine Issue 8, November 2014