Few people are as well positioned to give a proper perspective to America’s mass-market dance-music moment as Pete Tong. Why? Because he was there – or, more to the point, he’s been there for nearly 30 years. Though born, raised and based in England, Tong’s watched over and championed U.S. dance culture going back to its primordial, halcyon mid-'80s days of Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage (where he peddled Chicago house records to New Yorkers, alongside Shelter resident Tim Regisford and now-Atlantic Records president Craig Kallman).
Since 1991, he’s raised the house as a DJ and programmer at BBC Radio 1’s globally influential Essential Selection and Essential Mix shows – one of the few media venues where pop-hit-making DJs rub shoulders with established house/techno giants and bubbling underground producers. He’s also served as the A&R-minded founder of FFRR Records, which since the mid-'80s has been home to artists as diverse as Goldie, Orbital, Lil Louis and Portishead, among many others. It was via FFRR that Tong helped put together 1986’s seminal compilation The House Sound of Chicago: in its importing of cutting-edge club sounds from the American Midwest to the U.K. and Europe, that album would change global culture forever in its wake.
Now, as Americans have finally begun dancing en masse for the first time since the disco craze of the ’70s, Tong is once again playing the part of all-around hustler. Shepherding the music through its corporate growing pains, he’s currently playing to the mainstream market’s taste in beats, while also trying to guide it. As a radio personality who’s gained the moniker the “Pied Piper of Dance,” Tong continues to play the part of major selector for “Evolution,” the primary EDM presence on Clear Channel’s “I [Heart] Radio” online radio service. Increasingly, Tong’s daily show – now rebranded under the “Evolution” name – is making its way onto terrestrial Clear Channel station, holding down daily slots on Boston’s 101.7 and on Miami’s 93.5.
A true dance-music macher, Tong’s also helped found IMS – the once Ibiza, now International, Music Summit: an annual conference that explores global dance culture, IMS is set to host its first U.S. event, a one-day symposium in Los Angeles on April 17th. Tong’s also on the board of the recently announced Association of Electronic Music, a trade institution that will “represent the common interests of all individuals and companies whose business is electronic dance music and to advocate on behalf of electronic dance music as a musical genre.” (Their first issue is to lobby Europe’s Performance Rights Society on behalf of DJs “being charged extreme license fees” for the records they’re playing out.) Also in 2013, Tong will re-launch FFRR in the US (through his old buddy Kallman at Atlantic), with the summer release of a full-length artist album from Jamie Jones and Lee Foss’ deep-house super group, Hot Natured.
That’s a lot of institutionalized knowledge to tap into – which is what we did recently when we spoke with Tong by phone in advance of his inevitably crazy week at WMC/Ultra.
The Daily Swarm: Before we get to discussing the States, do you mind setting the scene of where you were professionally during the Acid House explosion in England, just how radical a cultural shift it was there?
Pete Tong: When I came onto Capital Radio, which was the biggest station in London, it was 1987, just at the start of house music; we’d already been through the electro and hip-hop phases. I always say that in the U.K., 1987 was Year Zero, and most DJs that existed before Year Zero dropped away; I somehow managed to get across the line and get down with the new wave, even though I was quite established. If you had come to see me play in 1985, I would have been playing old records from Blue Note, Donald Byrd – funk records that were made five years before, maybe some disco, things like that; the only new records I’d play would have been on Def Jam, Sleeping Bag, or Profile. That was the mix of things everyone played. Gilles Peterson would play that kind of thing, although there’d be more jazz; Oakey [Paul Oakenfold], too, actually. The often not-told story about Paul is that he was working at Champion Records as a kind of A&R/DJ promotions man, running around selling Run DMC and Salt-n-Pepa. If he played anything before ’87, it was hip-hop; then, obviously, Paul started going to Ibiza and all that, made his name as a DJ, and developed the Paul Oakenfold sound. But I digress. Once house music arrived, everything else went out the window.
One day, a box of records arrived from the exporters in America to the importers in the U.K. That’s the way it worked: whatever some shipper in New Jersey wanted to send us [laughs] is how the word got about. So I opened a box, and suddenly there were these records from [record labels] DJ International and Traxx. They had a completely different sound – totally minimal, totally lo-fi, the songs sounding like they’d been made in an hour. And the rest is history.
The Daily Swarm: Having seen that Year Zero of Acid House transpire in the U.K., how does it compare to America’s current EDM moment? In the States, it seems to me Year Zero took place around the Daft Punk live show of 2006-07, which sold out coast to coast. But I wanted to hear from you.
Pete Tong: I think they are different, and equally relevant. In England, it felt like a movement, maybe because the country’s tiny compared to the U.S. Really, when you talk about ’87, it was just two centers, London and Manchester, with a small number of DJs with a bunch of different sounding records, and a very committed bunch of people. It felt like you were part of a gang, a tribe; it was very social. Clubbing in London was a very exclusive thing before, and when Acid House came along, it became a very inclusive thing – the rope was gone and everybody came in. Obviously, there was a drug element – it was the loved-up, smiley-face generation – but it was very much a youth-culture movement.
In America, it’s been more like a kind of chemical reaction: two or three things happened at the same time that caused this explosion. There was a cultural element because of the raves and the one-off huge festivals that had been championed by the likes of Insomniac [the producer of Electric Daisy Carnival] and Ultra for ten-plus years, and they made a massive contribution over time. You can’t get into a club when you’re under 21 in the U.S., so the one-off events were phenomenally important in creating that candy-raver kind of thing; I suppose that’s where the youth-culture element comes from. They didn’t necessarily know who was playing the music, who the music was by, or what the records were; they just wanted to be at those events cause that’s where their friends went.
On top of that came the success at pop radio. Suddenly hip-hop and R&B didn’t dominate pop music anymore: the soundtrack changed to a 4/4 beat courtesy of David Guetta and Will.I.Am. [via songs like The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”]. The whole sound of American pop radio changed to dance music. Pop artists started wanting Guetta, Calvin [Harris], and the Swedish House Mafia writing for them, not Pharrell and Dr. Dre. That had a massive impact.
Then the third element was the professionalism and the entertainment – the sheer unbridled, unequaled, “Fuck me! What have we just seen” when people saw the Daft Punk pyramid for the first time at Coachella. It said that these DJs put on a show that’s worth watchingm, and could now compete with the biggest rock bands and acts in the world. Obviously, that really works in America. So, it was these three things coming together that got us to the place we’re at today.
It’s funny how the term EDM has metamorphosized more quickly than any term in dance music since I can remember, meaning one thing one year and something else the next. If somebody used it in an interview two years ago, it would have meant all of us – dance music in general, electronic music, call it what you want. Now it means something cheesy, very large, very Vegas, in your face – it defines a specific type of music, not all of us anymore. That’s very much due to what’s happened in America; in fact, for the rest of the world, [EDM] means the American sound.
The Daily Swarm: So, you’re expanding the work you’re doing with Clear Channel beyond just the online 'I [Heart] Radio’ platform to daily shows on terrestrial stations in Boston and Miami. Can you talk about DJ’ing on American radio versus DJ’ing on an institution like BBC’s Radio 1? What are some of the opportunities and limitations that come with each, the things that you can do in one place as opposed to another, and how the job differs in terms of programming?
Pete Tong: I’ve flirted stop-start with American radio my entire career to not very much effect. It’s been far more effective to just have people streaming [my radio show] from England, legally or illegally. Nothing’s had greater impact than that.
The Radio 1 shows are twice a week – effectively two blocks of airtime. One’s my show, where I pick all the music. It serves as a kind of pyramid of what’s going on at that moment in time that people should listen to: I draw them in with big tunes, then take them to a much deeper place. And I don’t mean deep as in “deep house”; it’s a broader world than the access point. Part of what I do has always been to be entertaining; it’s also been my raison d’etre, though, to give 'em one part of what they know, and two of what they don’t, to broaden out and promote new artists. The other show is the Essential Mix, for which I serve as a producer and host: it’s a fantastic platform for people to express themselves, and to introduce new artists.
In America, what has finally come along with the 'I [Heart] Radio’ opportunity and Evolution is the sheer scale of what they’ve got on offer: the ability to go on seven days a week, two hours a day. That really fascinated me, because I can almost run a radio station within a radio station. I can have a playlist. I can repeat stuff. I can rotate stuff. Therefore, I feel like I can have an effect. I can actually make some ripples by playing some song five, six, seven times a week, and maybe help by scaling some things up.
I’m not stupid. I’m very mindful of the American market. There’s no point in me coming and just playing a bunch of things that go over people’s heads, or don’t fit people’s tastes. I want to embrace what’s working, and – again – to fan out from there to see if it will work. Some might say, “You’re wasting your time, just give them what they want.” But that’s not me so laughs I give them some of what they want, and some of what I think they might want.
The Daily Swarm: “Some of what I think they want” speaks to promoting new artists – on Radio 1, that often means tunes on small labels from all over the musical map. For example, late last year you started playing “So Good To Me” by Chris Malinchak, a release on a small Brooklyn label called French Express that isn’t even all that well known in New York. How long do you think it will be in America’s evolution before you are able to break somebody like Chris Malinchak on a Clear Channel platform?
Pete Tong: Well, most people listening to that record who program regular radio would probably just not get it all. They might think they picked up an [adult contemporary] record or something. But I know where it came from, and the movement behind it, the DJs and the label; I know why it’s there, and how it’s causing excitement on the street, in Brooklyn and elsewhere. I also have hard data of that record having an incredible reaction in all these places in the world where I play it. It’s a brilliant piece of music if you program it right; with that one, it’s only a matter of time before people are going to come around.
I already sense a little bit of a ripple happening in America where certain people are changing. If a year ago everyone in pop music would want a track from David Guetta or the Swedes or Calvin, I feel now that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. It might be quite soon that people are looking to Malinchak or Disclosure or something. I am listening to Timberlake’s new record right now, and I sense that it’s just around the corner. It’s not gonna be long before the biggest acts in the world, the best A&R people, the best managers will want something else. People aren’t stupid – they’re watching what’s going on. I feel validated in that sense: [with the new artists I support] I am not knocking on a door that’s never going to open.
The Daily Swarm: So do you think that the market will go towards other producers turning into huge names, or towards a sort of diversification?
Pete Tong: I don’t think there’s much room left for big producers. Swedish House Mafia are who they are, and they’ve got their gang with them – Alesso’s very good, Otto Knows is pretty talented – but there’s never going to be another Swedish House Mafia. I doubt there will be another Guetta, but there can be another Deadmau5 and another Skrillex because they weren’t like anyone else when they came along. I think all this excitement is fertile ground for people to break through. There is a tendency where so many DJs and so many clubs in America (particularly in Vegas) are playing the same 20 records. That is definitely an issue: people are getting paid more and more money, and feel like they have to deliver. Balls breaking out of the safe zone are rare; it’s a tightrope walk. But once in a while, someone different will break out 'cause they made an amazing record, or are incredibly talented, or just different. Take Dillon Francis, or Skrillex, or Zedd, maybe. I think that’s taking us down a different road right now. It will be interesting to see where it goes.
The American sound was not really run by Americans but by Swedes and a Frenchman, and then Deadmau5 came along. I would say now the American sound is dominated by Americans, or by what’s happening in America; it might be German in Zedd’s case, though he’s almost an adopted Californian. We’re already seeing EDM 2.0 in the shape of Porter Robinson and those types. And then on the other side, I think we’re going to see more interest in Seth Troxler and Jamie Jones, and in Brooklyn-based labels such as French Express and Soul Clap.
The Daily Swarm: Do you think that there’s room within what you’re calling “The American Sound” for the underground to make an impact?
Pete Tong: I’d like to think so, but the underground relies a lot more on environment – the underground needs to be delivered in a slightly different way. It isn’t going to come off the main stage at Ultra with fireworks and explosions. Ibiza is a great melting pot for all that. In Ibiza, you can go to a Guetta gig and see everyone go mad and get their cameras out; then you can go to a Marco Carola gig at Amnesia and see just as many people going just as mad, even though you won’t hear a lyric and you won’t know a song. But Marco goes for environment in the way he plays, and the very particular way he sets up that room that he plays in. That’s the way it used to be at the beginning of house music, with all those legendary clubs – more like what we were talking about in England circa ’86-'87. You’ve got to ask yourself, is America going to do that? Does it want that? Is it ready for that? It was vilified back in the day as being part of the gay scene – and it was only New York, Chicago and Miami that were playing on that level. Places like Danceteria and Paradise Garage were social clubs, where drag queens mixed with straight people, and all of them loving house music.
But I’d like to think that with all these millions of new people interested in the scene, some of them will grow up with it – that they’d want it to evolve into something different. It’s like what you see in England right now: there the mainstream, the main room, has been dominated by the likes of Guetta for the last 5-7 years, but now the next 17-18 year-olds are coming along and saying, “You know, that’s not for me.” They’re listening to Jamie Jones – it’s not just the old people; with the deeper sound, the audience has always typically been a little older, but now it’s not. It’s very young again! So you’ve got young people mixing with 30 year-olds who wouldn’t want to dance to David Guetta. Eventually that’s probably going to happen in America. If you batter the kids every day with the biggest DJs that are always on the radio, that are always headlining shows, the same ten people everywhere you go, then one day just through evolution and age groups changing that moment will come along. I suppose in a way it happened already when kids decided that Skrillex was cooler than, I don’t know, Paul van Dyk.
The good thing is that it feels like it’s not going away in America, that it’s there to stay. It might ebb and flow a little bit, but…. I’d be curious to see if Vegas can carry on the momentum of its function.
The Daily Swarm: Do you think it needs to? If Vegas drops off, do you feel like there will be a falloff?
Pete Tong: Only in DJs’ earnings [laughs], not in how people love to dance.