Carl Cox Reflects on 20 Years With Ultra Music Festival & Shares His 2020 Stage Lineup: Exclusive

 Carl Cox at Ultra Miami
Courtesy of aLIVE Coverage

 Carl Cox performs at Ultra Miami.

'I've always tried to keep it as underground as humanly possible,' Cox tells Billboard.

In today's festival scene it's not unusual for an organization to team up with a DJ, label or party brand on an all-day stage takeover, but how many DJs do you know who get to curate their own section of the festival?

Carl Cox is that rare artist. For 20 years, Cox has become synonymous with Ultra Music Festival's flagship Miami event. What started in a tent as Carl Cox & Friends grew to become the honey-comb behemoth Ultra now calls the Carl Cox Megastructure. Now, Cox is a well-known ambassador for Ultra's underground Resistance stage, and as he returns this year to celebrate a milestone and the fest's return to its downtown home, Cox is expanding his stage domain across all three days of the fest.

The lineup was just announced, featuring sets from Adam Beyer b2b Cirez D, Dubfire b2b Nicole Moudaber b2b Paco Osuna, and more, and who would have known it almost never happened.

But when Cox first played Ultra during the fest's third year in 2001, his first impressions could have been better.

“It was something of a situation where I wasn't sure how long it was going to last,” he laughs. “Artists weren't being picked up and didn't know what the DJ [set] times were. I didn't know where I should be, who was on before me was very, very untidy.”

Cox was scheduled to play at 4:00 p.m., and by 3:45 had still not been picked up from his South Beach hotel. He grabbed a ride with another DJ who wasn't on the bill in return for getting that DJ into the fest, then battled with security to allow the SUV backstage. He ran onstage with five minutes to cue up his first track.

He called the hour-and-a-half set that followed “one of the most intense but most awesome times at that event.”

“It was brilliant. The ethics of what they were trying to do was there,” he says, “they just needed the infrastructure to be correct.”

It was exhilarating, to be sure, but Cox swore to Ultra co-founder Russell Faibisch that he'd never come to Ultra Music Festival again. Cox says Faibisch turned around and asked, “What can we do to make you feel a part of our Ultra family?”

“I said 'the only thing I can do is if it is something separate to what you're doing,'” Cox remembers, “and that's how it actually started.”

Cox' stage didn't launch immediately, because the thought of handing a DJ his own stage with complete curatorial control was then a strange concept indeed. Ultra was already known for booking the biggest DJs in the world, which in the early 2000s meant Paul Oakenfold and Tiësto, Armin van Buuren, Paul van Dyk and Sasha.

“Then here is lil Carl Cox playing for one and a half hours,” Cox jests. “That's not me. What I can do, if you build something on the side of what you're doing, I'll give you the real, true essence of what it's all about, bringing the DJs that have made and created the scene and giving your public something outside of what they're normally going to be getting."

Intrigued, Faibisch started popping up at Cox' events around the world, with he and his brother spotted among crowds in Italy, Singapore and Tokyo.

“They wanted to know why I was asking for something separate from what they were already doing” Cox says, “and when they understood what made me tick, whether I was playing to 5,000 people -- [or to] 500 or 50,000, they then understood what they had when it came for me to be involved in a festival. That's one of the reasons I'm still there after 20 years.”

Fully impressed by Cox' ability to conjure a magnetic vibe out of thin air, the Ultra team trusted him to curate a lineup that dug deep into the cultural roots of electronic music, representing the underground sounds from New York City to London, Ibiza and beyond. The Carl Cox and Friends Stage made its Ultra debut in 2005. The lineup included Erick Morillo, Pete Tong, Josh Wink and of course Cox -- burning his big, toothy grin into the minds of all the ravers who stumbled by. In 2006, the stage was upgraded to a tent, which affored the environment a more intimate feel.

“More than anything, it was really nice that I was able to have my peers around me, knowing what I know they can do all over the world,” he says. “It was just a great party. Even though we didn't have the best sound or the best lights, we had the best vibe, and that's what this whole room was built on, based on my belief of what can happen in Miami.”

In 2006, the stage was upgraded to a tent with sets from Danny Tenaglia and Josh Wink. In 2007, Ultra expanded to two days, and in 2008, it celebrated its 10-year anniversary by giving Cox reign over two full days of programming. Then, in 2011, the world famous Megastructure was born.

“We outgrew our marquee,” Cox says. “We went from 2,500 people to 5,000 to 8,000. We couldn't get a bigger tent, unless it's a circus tent. That was too contrived and it had these pillars in the middle. It's awful. So, Russell basically found this company that could build this elaborate aircraft hangar, which doesn't have any pillars in it because the actual building stands up once its up and erected against itself.”

They had the structure built to be as large as possible, then they crafted a ceiling of honey-comb shaped lights that could move up and down, giving the impression that the space became larger and smaller, and in doing so messing with revelers' minds. Add to that Ultra's costumed dancers, smoke machines, lasers, and a proper sound system, and things at the festival have never been the same.

“This had never been seen in America before, ever,” Cox says. “But but the thing is, I've always tried to keep it as underground as humanly possible. We have many lights, the fancy ceiling, all that, but I still want to make people feel like they're in a darkened warehouse-style room with a really great sound system...what it used to be like back in the day with raves. A lot of kids that go there now, they've never been to a rave, they don't know what it's like. So, here it is. This is what it used to be like for us, but obviously in 21st century ways.”

Ultra debuted its Resistance Stage in 2015, booking high-brow house and techno artists to play a dark-themed stage independent from Cox' kingdom. It's the festival's creative baby, but Cox takes great pride in having shown organizers what a dark room full of proper speakers and world-class DJs can do. In 2017, Carl Cox' name joined with Resistance, bridging the two worlds into one idealogical home for all those who wander from the main stage bombast.

“It's important for people to see that Ultra are not just a one trick pony,” he says. “You're able to see Martin Garrix in one room and two hours later come and see Loco Dice in another. There's not many festivals you're able to have that kind of ability to change, and the production is still great in both rooms.”

This year's three-day Carl Cox & Friends programming rounds out with performances from Amelie Lens, Eats Everything, Loco Dice, Richie Hawtin, Tale of Us, Anna and more, plus special live performances from Christopher Coe and Saytek. Cox will also get down on a b2b with Maceo Plex, and a triple b2b with Jamie Jones and the Martinez Brothers.

The structure will be bigger, the sound will be better, and the lasers will be even more impressive.

“I should be trying to relax and put my feet up, and [instead] I'm putting my foot on the gas,” he says. “It's coming back to the original home and with that, everybody seems to be super, super happy. I can't just do two days, I have to do three, and nail down that this is what we do and this is why we do it, because we love it. If we didn't love it, we wouldn't do it.

“People need to understand that Ultra is a family,” he continues, “and there's been no other company that I've worked with that's ever made me feel like that. That comes across when I play for them. It's not a job. It's an absolute pleasure … It's a great day to be celebrated, based on what they've stuck by and what they believe in. I think a lot of people should take the hat off or give them some sort of standing ovation for their passion. If people could see what they have to go through to to give people a good time, they wouldn't believe it. They should believe it, and that's why we carry on.”

Ultra Music Festival returns to downtown Miami Friday to Sunday, March 20 to 22, 2020. Tickets are on sale now. Check the full Carl Cox Megstructure lineup below.

Festivals 2020