Pete Tong is so important to the progression of dance music worldwide and so beloved in the UK that in 2013 he was knighted by England’s Prince William. Whether on BBC Radio 1 or iHeartRadio in America, for the last 25 years when DJ/radio presenter Pete Tong has tabbed a track as “essential,” it’s a dance hit that’s ultimately going to shape mainstream pop and push creativity in all music ahead. From 90s house names like Ultra Nate to current era superstars like Swedish House Mafia, any producer or artist that’s crossed over in the past decade has Pete Tong’s stamp as they key moment that’s allowed them to rise. As a DJ he’s phenomenal too, counting sets at literally every festival that we all regard as “groundbreaking” in America and elsewhere among his 2014 highlights.
“It’s all gone Pete Tong” is official Cockney slang for things going wrong, but also an apt description of the wild responses to his radio show and sets, one of which he plays this Saturday night at DC’s Echostage alongside headlining German techno and tribal house DJ/producer Loco Dice and American opener Harvard Bass. For an American comparison, talking to Pete Tong is the global equivalent of talking to Alan Freed or Wolfman Jack about rock and roll or Funkmaster Flex about rap music. This is an incredibly important conversation with a man who must be seen in the flesh and heard over speakers to have his influence and living legacy truly appreciated. Enjoy!
This may seem like a simple question, but I’ll ask it anyway. With 25-plus years in now, what exactly makes a track “essential?” What are those unifying themes that are important in a song that goes on to define so much of where dance has headed?
Well, it’s been an extension of my tastes and my tastes regarding whatever is out there at that time. I guess that’s one way of putting it. [The track] has to both deliver in terms of populist interest and also be forward thinking. It’s never just been new for new’s sake. It has to work on another level.
You recently released an Essential Mix “Classics” collection that has a truly broad collection of everything from more modern era house to soulful 90s house, the progressive style favored by Swedish House Mafia and more. It’s a unique blend, and just to find the thread that binds all of that, what exactly would that be?
It’s always contentious when you call something classic because purists tend to get feisty about things that are more recent, but if you’ve just entered the world of electronic or dance music, then what’s classic to you is kind of all that’s relevant. The further you go back, the easier it is to identify classic records that made a contribution to the scene at the time or were very popular for one reason or another. Sometimes it’s [popular in the charts sense, and with some house classics, they weren’t necessarily [chart] hit records at the time but they are still considered classic records. As you come more up to date, you have Swedish House Mafia who obviously can be judged as “classic” on a different level because of the impact it made, specifically in America, it’s crossover appeal kind of thing.
America’s a new frontier for you, with iHeartRadio, and your broadcasts there. What has remained the same from BBC Radio 1, and what have you had to alter for educating the American audience about dance music?
The simplest thing is to stay true to my own beliefs and my own formula. American radio was a big inspiration for me when I was young. I used to come over and record some of the DJs in New York in particular. It always felt so important and so exotic. However, once you understand American radio, you know it’s great for 15 minutes, and then it becomes a very frustrating medium. It tends to work like an advertising machine, giving people what they want every second of the day. It’s hard to find populist radio that actually takes a risk. The trick is can you have a foot in both worlds. Can you have a big audience and can you still push things forward [, too]. That’s the kind of formula I’ve been working on.
It’s similar to what we’ve been doing on BBC Radio 1. Radio 1 is a station that maintains a large enough audience where the needle still moves, but it doesn’t sound like lowest common denominator hits all of the time. I’m bringing my expertise of how to do that for over 20 years to American radio. I also have a fairly potent time. You can take a chance at like, three in the morning, but we’re on for two hours a week on over 90 top 40 stations on the weekend before midnight, Friday and Saturday nights. Nobody [in America] has ever managed to do that before. We don’t want to turn them off, but we want to turn them on enough where they’ll give new music a chance as well.
There’s many radio stations in America and there’s plenty of outlets for electronic music that tend to be very niche oriented. The trick is can you bring that format onto a mass market platform. That’s where I’ve always sat in the world. I don’t want to be cool for cool’s sake and have nobody listening. I also don’t want to be pop. You want to find an audience where if you play something new and amazing on radio that you’ll get a reaction, you move the needle, you enhance that record’s progress.
Thoughts about modern American pop’s influence on EDM. For as much as dance has affected America’s musical ear, I feel as though dance’s establishment has been affected by rap and R & B, too with the rise of sounds like trap, house’s resurgence and future bass, too. Your thoughts?
I think that when you look at Guetta or Zedd, and the way they’ve interacted with top-40 urban and pop artists in America, it’s a formula that works. My observation is that you have a lot of people like Afrojack, Nicky Romero, all of the Swedes and anyone who’s been successful in the EDM world – and taken it to another level when the American market opened up so big – and they’ve been put in the position to work with big pop and urban stars, that formula’s been successful to a certain extent. But I don’t think that formula has had blanket success in the rest of the world, or at least not anymore. In particular, the UK has turned away from anything but the “best” EDM in the last year or two. The stars are still the big stars, but there are people who are doing well in the EDM world in America who aren’t necessarily doing well in the UK.
So, that begs the question about what’s next, stuff like Disclosure working with Mary J. Blige that’s absolutely not David Guetta working with Lil Wayne…
Yes, that’s the exciting stuff right now, what Disclosure’s up to, what Kaytranada’s up to, how Sam Smith’s appeal has grown since he came out of the Disclosure camp to now some people are calling him the “male Adele.” He may have an [Adele-style] impact on America, and he came out of club culture in the UK. Those developments are where things are getting really interesting right now.
So what do those developments mean for the now established US pop-as-EDM stars?
[Producers like] Avicii and Calvin Harris are pure pop now. They’re not being judged by the world of EDM anymore, they’re being judged the same way Taylor Swift is being judged. “How many number ones do you have?” “How big are you on the radio?” They’ve left their core base. [Their core base] doesn’t matter anymore, they’re big pop stars. They’ll succeed and fail accordingly by the rules of pop music.
You’re DJing at Echostage coming up, and you spoke about club culture, too. Where is your excitement coming from insofar as DJing in clubs these days?
It’s working in the cracks a little bit. I never wanted to be the biggest name in EDM. I’m the guy that’s championing the next big thing. It’s the stuff between the cracks that interests me. I don’t want to be playing in rooms of 200 people, but it’s what’s just happening outside of the main stage of EDM that interests me. There’s a lot of creativity happening on the edges right now. I’m constantly encouraged by what I’ve seen since I moved to America in the summer of 2013. I think that there’s enough people interested in different strands of electronic music separated from the top 40 end of it. I don’t think it’s going to turn into Ibiza overnight or anything, but I think some of the best people from other parts of the world like Richie Hawtin and Marco Carola will always find their audience in America, but that doesn’t feel like what the next big thing is, though. It’s going to be a mish mash of a lot of different things, I think.
I just played last weekend in Montreal and Vegas with Sasha to a couple of thousand people and in San Francisco with Matthew Dear, and it was three pretty crazy nights. The music was adventurous and all over, too. That’s where I sit. That’s what excites me. When America gets its act together and produces its next wave, it’ll be influenced more by Disclosure than Deadmau5. That’s when it’ll get really interesting. I think that the R & B and hip-hop influence on EDM is quite interesting. I’d love to see where it ends up.
I think dance is as wide as it is deep right now, so whatever is coming next certainly will have pieces of a number of genres and movements.
I agree. But I’ve also never seen boundaries anyway, it’s all about good music. I’m still open to hearing the most amazing “EDM” record tomorrow if its totally original and takes the story to another level. I’m not so open to another 500 tunes sounding like the last 499.
The film All Gone Pete Tong. It’s a classic one for anyone who’s into dance culture, especially if they want to get a flavor of what the turn of the 21st century Ibiza scene was like. Your thoughts about that film’s legacy and about why there has yet to be that defining American “EDM” film that should be happening any day now it seems?
Looking back at it, it was an incredibly smart move! It’s a cult film that people really relate to and care about all over the world. It seemed like a crazy idea at the time. It didn’t have too much of a script, it was more of a feeling. I worked with the same team on a film Human Traffic about what it was to look forward to a rave on the weekend while living fairly menial lives and boring jobs, then having the escape of the weekend. Discovering that music and all of the paraphernalia that goes with it. I think we did that, and then we realized we wanted to do a parody and celebration of the life of a superstar DJ in the mid-late 90’s into the 2000s. That was the inspiration for the film. We had some wacky ideas, but it wasn’t until we found the director and he went to Ibiza for six months that it was shaped into what the movie was.
That movie was six months of anecdotes from characters and DJs in Ibiza. The director came from a comedy world and knew nothing about electronic music, so he looked at it from a fresh light. He made something that was entertaining and that was inspiring, but it’s also a parody, obviously. It was brought to life with a brilliant performance by Paul Kay. I was worried about some of the drug references on paper, but it ended up being appropriate and done in the right way.
I’d like there to be a modern one reflecting on what’s happened in America the last five or six years, but Hollywood in general has been very reluctant to go there. I still won’t give up, but I think there’s been a missed opportunity. In the age of disco it was brilliantly documented by Saturday Night Fever, but we haven’t had that in the past five or six years in terms of the American story. There’s a Zac Efron one coming, but I think it will be a very “Hollywood” and “Zac Efron” view on it as opposed to a potent, “real” and edgier film. I haven’t given up, though.
So, as a best way to close, I wanted to get a sense of what was the music that made you decide that you loved music and wanted a career in music? I think that when you boil it down to that, you get a really good sense of a person. What were those records, and why did you love them?
The first group I fell in love with as a kid and identified with was T-Rex. When I had to make a decision about what I liked on the school playground, [T-Rex frontman] Marc Bolan was the first artist I liked who wasn’t straight up pop that I really got into. Through his love for “black” music, there was a lot of funk and boogie and soul in what T-Rex did. That led me, and it gave me a sixth sense that I would always be into “black” music. Then I got into Funkadelic and James Brown, all of these records that were by artists that were dead or “over” when I discovered them. Those records made me a DJ, too. When rap started from Sugar Hill Gang onward, I was besotted with that because it was so fresh and so new and so interesting. That led into house music around ’85 or ’86. I’m not trying to be racist [by mentioning “black” music] but even the most minimal of techno has to have some kind of soul to make it a sound for me. I can find that in a techno record from Detroit or Berlin as much as I can find it in a Marvin Gaye record. I was always a soul boy at heart, basically.