Carl Cox on Working With Nile Rodgers & Ultra's Evolution: 'I'm Into What Happens Next'

Carl Cox performing at Ultra Music Festival 2011 at Bicentennial Park on March 25, 2011 in Miami, Florida.

The techno institution reflects on eleven years of Carl Cox & Friends.

The year is 2002. It’s a humid Saturday afternoon in Miami, and U.K. techno legend Carl Cox is not pleased. 

“Get me out of here,” he thought as he climbed into the decks of the Bayfront Park Amphitheater. He’d played the fledgling Ultra Music Festival a couple times in the past, and things just weren’t working out.

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“At the time, things were really difficult in the sense of the organization and it wasn’t really helping my cause and what I wanted to give – what I wanted to do for Ultra and the people that were coming,” he says. “I said to myself ‘right, this is my last Ultra. I’m never going to play here again.”

As he says this, he’s talking to Billboard from the comfort of an air-conditioned yacht, mentally preparing to headline UMF’s Carl Cox & Friends tent-turned-megastructure for an 11th year in a row. Wearing sunglasses indoors and flashing his signature gap-tooth, baby-faced smile, he's not angry any more. So, what happened?

“I played, and everyone was just whooping it up, going mad, having a really good time,” he says. “[Ultra founder] Russell Faibisch came to me and he said ‘man, please, we can’t lose you. What do you want us to do?’ And I went, ‘I’ll tell you what you can do. You can give me my own stage, and I can basically create something for you that will be a festival within a festival. So, we sat down and talked about it, and there’s something to be said about talking.”

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Today, Ultra without Cox seems completely unimaginable. The festival’s brand has grown hand-in-hand with the superstar’s personal vision. Fans come from all corners of the globe just to stand under the mighty glowing beehive. The lesson: When Carl Cox speaks, you listen, and what Carl Cox asks for, Carl Cox gets.

“It’s good for the scene, it’s good for Ultra, it’s good for the people,” Cox says. “With the music that we basically have been pioneering for all these years, it has to have an opportunity to develop and nurture, from what it stood for to begin with, and then for the next generation to take up the baton.”

Cox is a 30-plus year veteran. Sure, he had to prove himself in 1986, but it’s been decades since his reputation did anything but precede him. It’s poignant that he’s here now, stronger and more recognizable than ever, the same year Miami’s Winter Music Conference marks its 30th anniversary.

“Things have come leaps and bounds from where it was to where it is,” he says. “It’s interesting times, and being here in Miami shows that it’s interesting times based on where we’re at. We have people who are into the music from 16 years old, maybe younger, all the way up into 50, 60, 70 years old -- which is just brilliant because obviously the ones that are 60 and 70 were here at the beginning, and they still can’t let it go.”

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Cox is both dance music’s past and its present, but his real legacy remains his tireless journey to push dance music’s future. The Carl Cox Megastructure is undoubtedly the best place in the world to hear Cox be Cox. His sets in Miami are a bountiful mix of flavors from Ibiza, to Croatia, New York and Detroit. But even with such a master chef in the kitchen, the dinner is nothing without his friends. Whether curating his UMF institution or a pool party for his record label, Cox is all about giving new light a chance to shine.

“It’s all about what’s going to happen next with their music, and to be able to show them off in a sense of showcase,” he says. “I’ve always been into what happens next, always wanted to scratch the surface and look behind the scenes of the music to see who we’re dancing to in one or two more years time. That generation of people who are just coming into it now are going to be the ones that determine where we end up, and I want to be at the cusp of all of that.”

And Cox knows the people he books and the tracks he play today only further the cycle by inspiring those who are out there watching.

“That one that’s 12 years old watching me play at Ultra, is he going to be the next big thing? Or she, it doesn’t matter,” he says. “They’re going to get to experience Marco Carola, Adam Beyer, Richie Hawtin, Hot Since 82. The list goes on, but this is where we are. This is another realm in what the music scene is all about, and you should get to experience that.”

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Nile Rodgers experienced it last year, and he was so moved by Cox’s Ultra experience that he immediately reached out for a collaboration.

“I can hear every single hit record he’s ever made in the licks,” Cox says. “He’s just sitting there and he’s playing and I’m like ‘oh man, are we recording all that? Have we got it in? We’ve got like 15 albums right there.’”

Working with the Chic guitarist is monumental, even for Cox and all his years. The techno giant premiered one of four collaborative tracks this weekend during his Ultra performances, but promises there are three more at least still to come.

“He’s a legend himself at the end of the day. He’s one of those people you just can not deny,” Cox says. “Someone like Nile Rodgers really understanding and respecting what we do, we feel very fortunate and lucky enough to have him on board, to help us pioneer our music even more.”