Dance

20 Questions With Pete Tong: The Dance Icon on Chilling Out, Finding Hits & Why DJs Need to Become Scarcer

Pete Tong
Derrick Santini

Pete Tong

"People are starting to get paid again and labels are investing again, but we need better artists. We need better records."

Whether coming through through your speakers on BBC Radio 1 or through your cellphone for a workday afternoon interview, Pete Tong's voice is iconic. The venerable dance world tastemaker has been in the business for more than 30 years, guiding worldwide dance fans to the scene's best, freshest and most boundary-pushing dance music. 

Tong's path to this position first started via his interest in music and his proximity to London, a dance scene hotbed in the late '70s and early '80s. Following his interests and his ear, in time Tong graduated from playing school dances to working for record companies to hosting the Essential Mix, the trendsetting Radio 1 program which he's shepherded since 1993. In the '80s, Tong launched his own FFRR label, and this past summer he joined the label Three Six Zero Recordings as president.

Via these accomplishments, Tong has become -- literally and figuratively -- one of the world's most authoritative voices on dance music as the music has soared in worldwide popularity.

All these gigs are in addition to Tong's most recent project, Chilled Classics, an ongoing album series for which he records enduring dance hist with a full orchestra. Selections on the third collection, released in late November, include Underworld's "Born Slippy" and Robin S' "Show Me Love." Tong is currently on the road with the orchestra, performing these chilled classics to audiences throughout the UK. 

Here, Tong offers other insights, recollections and advice from his esteemed career in the scene. 

1. Where are you in the world right now?

I am in Los Angeles, in my office. I've got two offices actually. I'm in WME right now.

2. What was the first album or piece of music you bought for yourself, and what was the medium?

The Slider by T. Rex was the first album I ever bought, on vinyl obviously because it was a long time ago.

3. What did your parents do for living when you were a kid, and what do they think of what you do for a living now?

My dad was a turf accountant, which is basically a book maker. He ran betting shops. My mum, before I was born, was running a pub. Then she started really supporting my dad and just bringing up kids and then eventually my dad sold the book making business and they opened a hotel together.

They were very supportive. My dad was driving me around with DJ gear before I was old enough to drive. I was doing school discos and local halls in our village before I could drive. Then my dad helped me get a transit van. That was kind of my first car really, so I could drive equipment around, because back then DJing required owning the gear as much as actually DJing. I got sent to a private school, I think they thought I was going to become a civil engineer or something, but my dad didn't go to [university.] He studied after he came back from the army. He went to night school and stuff like that, but we weren't a traditional sort of [university] family. So once it became clear that I wasn't going to become a civil engineer, then they were supportive about music. They didn't really know whether I could make a living, and neither did I. So, I got a day job one year out of school...at a magazine and then eventually at a record company.

4. What is the first thing you bought for yourself when you started making money as a DJ?

Better DJ equipment. I put everything back into the business, so I got bigger speakers and a bigger amp and a really sexy set of turntables, because it was all about mobile DJing back then. So the nastier, badder soundsystem you had, the hotter of a DJ you were.

5. What was the first party you ever played?

It was a school disco. It was actually, the first time I ever set up my own gear and DJ'd.

6. Do you remember how it felt when you got a reaction in terms of people actually dancing?

Previously, I'd been the drummer in a school band, and it was actually while being in a band and watching a DJ for the first time that I realized I'd be better off being a DJ. I was15 or 16, and the next time I did the school disco, I was the DJ. It just felt like I'd found my thing. I was always quite shy, so standing behind the DJ booth was similar to being a drummer, because I was hiding behind something.

7. You mentioned that you grew up in a village. What's distinctive about that place, and how did it shape you?

The most distinctive thing about where I grew up is, purely by luck, I happened to be in a place where I could meet and engage with a load of people who were into what I was doing. They were all about older than me, and they were going up to London and coming back with these stories about these amazing underground clubs and this whole other world that existed beyond my of knowledge and experience base where there was effectively an underground scene and a type of music you didn't hear on the radio that you had to collect and go to special places to find.

By being in this part of the country, I just happened to be around a load of kids that just happened to be into something that was pretty cool and pretty hip, and they introduced me to all that. They used to bring me back records, and I quickly latched on to what was going on and burrowed deeper into that world through them.

8. Tell me about the first night that you went out and really experienced dance music in a club setting.

I was doing it myself before I experienced anyone else doing it, but I guess the formative experiences were when I was super young. The underground dance scene was really the soul and jazz funk scene, and the biggest DJ on that scene was a guy called Chris Hill. It was a real mission to go and see him perform. He was a very charismatic character. He used to sing over the the records on the mic. He wore a glittery suit. He was playing really obscure underground soul and jazz music that was really hard to find. He had a profound influence on me, and he took me under his wing and was very much a mentor to me.

The other guy that was a massive influence on me was a guy called Robbie Vincent, who was a radio DJ back then, a guy playing very much the same kind of music as Chris. He was the voice on the radio that took this music out to the rest of the UK, and he really dialed me in on what it was like to be a specialist DJ on the radio. The third profound influence was when I managed to go to New York when I was like, 19 on a charter jet. There was an airline called the Freddie Laker Airways, and you could get a flight to New York for 99 dollars. 

9. What happened when you got to New York?

I went a few times and got into a few clubs. It was just totally alien to anything I'd experienced in the UK. Then, when I joined the record company in the 80s, they started sending me to New York every couple of months. I started finding my feet and meeting more people in the business. I got into Paradise Garage. A Billboard reporter called Brian Chin got me into Paradise Garage for the first time. I saw Larry Levan...it was all the formative stuff that is the foundation of what we take for granted today.

10. If you had to recommend one album for someone looking to get into dance music, what album would you give them?

That in a way is kind of a nonsensical concept, whilst electronic artists have made great albums, that wouldn't necessarily be the best thing to play someone to get them into dance music. So I think it would probably be depends on what era we're talking about, but I would give them a mix album. Sne of the classic Global Underground albums by Sasha, or the Renaissance album by Sasha & Digweed, because they would have to hear music sequenced together in a seamless way, and it would be music that maybe they'd never heard before. Or I'd tell them to go on Boiler Room or Circle and watch Solomun or Carl Cox or Boris Brejcha.

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11. The Essential Mix is obviously a worldwide sensation. What are you looking for when selecting producers to contribute?

Originality, and a certain degree of achievement before they get to do an Essential Mix, so the Essential Mix platform really delivers for them. That achievement could be obviously through the music they've released, but equally it can be, and often is, due to the achievements they've had on the dance floor and their reputation as live DJs in the impact they've had on the underground circuit. They might have a little residency that has just blown up and they've built their reputation at one club, or they might have toured the world and have just been moving up the rankings in terms of the way they're talked about by their peers and promoters We often find these DJs kind of book themselves...people just get to a certain level and it's like "Yeah, they're ready."

12. Can you choose the most essential Essential Mix of all time?

Oh gosh. That's like asking someone their favorite food. I'll always have benchmark shows that I'm very proud of because I think they took the show to a different level or really showed off what the show was all about. There was Paul Oakenfold's Goa mix back in the beginning. There were David Holmes mixes that were very cinematic and not so dance floor oriented. Daft Punk, obviously the fact that they even did one. Âme, I remember hearing their first one and it had a profound influence on my DJing style. There's a lot.

We don't do them as much now, but in the first couple of years, the Essential Mix was live from a club almost every other week. It was really about connecting and plugging into what was actually going on up and down the UK and bringing that to a wider audience.That was really important in terms of shaping the scene in the beginning and building up those club brands.

13. What's one song you wish you had produced?

Ooh, that's a tough question. I mean on the one hand, I wish I could have made music like Hans Zimmer's compositions, like Inception or Interstellar. I think that's so powerful, in the way that that music moves me. On a dancefloor level, just coming up with something as simple and effective as Lil Louis "French Kiss" would be pretty mind blowing. I got to sign that record, but I didn't make it.

14. Give me a one sentence review of the 2004 film It's All Gone Pete Tong.

A fly on the wall look of what it's like to be a superstar DJ.

15. Obviously you're often described as a tastemaker. How do you know when something is a hit?

Usually when it moves me or when it has a balance of originality and great composition. I know what I like. I know what's good. I think I know what's quality. You don't always know what's going to be a hit. The process of having hits is changing in the way music is emerging. Back in the old days, it was all about the gatekeepers. It was very hard to get onto radio or get into DJ boxes to actually get played. Nowadays, there's a choice of billions of things, and it's about how you get noticed amongst the billions. I think the process of having a proper hit is kind of changing day by day in the kind of new era of streaming. But the old core values of originality and great composition and production still apply.

16. What is the most exciting aspect of the worldwide scene for you at the moment?

I think the monetization of making music is getting healthier again, and that should allow everyone to relax a little bit. The process of making great records does take time, and I think what's frustrating in the electronic scene is people often start with the greatest record they'll ever make, because they had the time and their whole lives up to that point. Then that record changes their lives and they go on the circuit and go and perform for a few years and the roller coaster ride never stops. The music making kind of takes a back seat, and they often never get time to make one as good as they made in the beginning.

I think that's indicative of the fact that pretty much for the last 20 years, there's not really been money from making music -- from the labels, from the publishing, all of that went kind of haywire, and in the electronic scene probably more because it was more forced than by desire that we stumbled into the now well spoken notion that all the money is in live shows. DJs were kind of forced to migrate at the end of the 90s, when the labels stopped paying out the huge advances that allowed people to relax a little bit more. A lot of us still did work week in and week out, but album acts -- The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx and the Orbitals of the world acted more like rock bands. They went away for a year and made their album and came back with it and toured.

I'd like to see DJs become a bit more scarce and make better records and not have to play every weekend all over the place, and there will be more excitement and value around when they do play and the records will hopefully help evolve them and the whole scene and raise the bar. People are starting to get paid again and labels are investing again, but we need better artists. We need better records. The biggest revolution in music and certainly in electronic music is just the access to making music. When I started, you couldn't dream about making music. You couldn't get in the studio or find a producer. Now, the entry level to making music -- everything's so cheap. So it's brilliant for the creator, but that means everybody can make something pretty good, but it seems very few people make something amazing.

17. The third installment of your Chilled Classics series came out late last month, and you're touring with an orchestra performing the songs. What's your favorite way to chill out?

Meditation has become a big part of my life in the last five years. Just having the knowledge to stop and switch off and not do anything is actually really difficult in the world we live in now, with all the billions of distractions. Letting everything settle and doing nothing for five, ten or twenty minutes every day is actually really rewarding.

18. How is touring with an orchestra different from touring as a DJ?

Couldn't get more different. DJing is rewarding, but quite a lonely pursuit of touring around on your own or with a tour manager if you can afford it. I'm not a DJ duo; I'm a one man band, so touring with a band is amazing because you're with your mates. Touring with an orchestra is even bigger. It's super expensive to do it. We managed to do it at scale, and that's what makes it great. I really look forward to these periods of time when we get together. It's highlight of my year, really. I'd say it's like the difference between driving a Mini versus driving a Formula One car, in terms of what it's like to be on stage. It's just so much power in front of you, with all these amazing players. It's very exhilarating.

19. What piece of advice would you give to yourself at the beginning of your career?

Believe in yourself. Believe in your core. Believe in our heart and your soul, and stick to your instincts. And always be open to learning.

20. We're coming up on the close of what was a big decade for dance music, especially in the States. What moments do you consider some of the high points?

Seeing dance culture operate at the top table for a bit is a massive achievement. I think the overall value of the business got to a point where it was finally taken seriously by the old gatekeepers of the music business in general. Dance music's relentless pursuit and relentless growth and the kind of artistry that went with it...If you look at the career trajectory of someone like Calvin Harris and the way he ended up making records with Pharrell and Frank Ocean -- he comes from our world and headlined Coachella and played with Rihanna. To get a couple of people from our world into that top tier is a great achievement.

Also seeing the effects the Swedes had on the world and Avicii obviously and David Guetta, and now someone like Peggy Gou picking up fans so fast and coming from such an underground spot and just thinking about where she can go in her career. [Guys like Calvin Harris and David Guetta] are obviously pop stars now. My heart will always lean more into the underground and so I think it's a very exciting time, to finally see underground house and techno acts doing the kind of business that the EDM acts did 10 years ago. It feels like a proper shift into a new generation of artists, and it's really exciting.