by Sterling McGarvey
You know his face from the magazines. You know his voice from those Essential Mix MP3s that you're not supposed to have downloaded. Pete Tong is one of the most widely recognized personalities in Dance music. From the Essential Selections, which boasts the largest number of listeners online than any other broadcast over the Internet, to the world famous Essential Mixes (that you shouldn't have on your hard drive), to the name Essential, Pete has made quite a name for himself over the decades. Lunar got a chance to speak with him during his visit to Eleven50, and he had quite a bit to share with us about everything from Hip-Hop to the state of radio in America.
Lunar: Your career has spanned over two decades, starting out with your work in Blues & Soul magazine, and a rapid ascent to the Editorial position there, while dipping into the realm of radio. You started FFRR Records at the wake of the Acid House movement. The Essential Selection has been going on for many years, and with the advent of the Internet, the show now has a global following. In essence, you've flourished over time and managed to keep a name for yourself when many would have fallen by the wayside. What has kept you going? Did you start out with a particular goal in mind, such as being involved in radio, and it evolved from there?
Pete: No, I never really had a name game, or a long-term goal. I just had to do it. I'm just fascinated by change; by discovery in music. That's the most simple thing it comes down to; it's just being curious, it's kind of like having a sixth sense, and knowing when to move on. I've never lost sight of the fact that we're in the entertainment business as well. I'm not like an artist in the sense of thinking that "I'm going to be doing this forever," but I do interact with the crowd. I'd be bored if I were doing the same thing all the time, or going the easiest route; it wouldn't be me. That's probably what's kept me going.
Lunar: You've got a wife and kids. Do your children have any plans to follow in your footsteps? Are they big Dance music fans?
Pete: They're into what I do. They travel with me a lot; they're not with me tonight. My oldest son, he's probably diametrically opposite to what I represent. He likes Limp Bizkit.
Lunar: You've worked scores on films such as Human Traffic and The Beach. Do you have any other plans to work with other filmmakers?
Pete: I'm quite tight with Danny Boyles, so there's talk of him doing the next Trainspotting, which I might hopefully be able to do. I'm working on the story of the Hacienda, of Factory Records, which spawned Joy Division, New Order, and Happy Mondays; there's a film being made, which is really cool. I've got the next Hollywood blockbuster in my hands! [grinning]
Lunar: What has been your favorite film all summer, or are you a bit busy to take in a movie?
Pete: There hasn't been a really big movie for me this summer, and I'm into film big time. I'd say...Shrek. I like the wit and the verve.
Lunar: Really? I heard it was good after several margaritas.
Pete: Oh, no, no, no. It's really a good film!
Lunar: Alright, you're stranded on a desert island. Name your five albums.
Pete: Bob Marley's Greatest Hits. The story of Jamaican music [smiling]...Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, What's Going On, Marvin Gaye, and...uh...probably a compilation I'd make of all the best fucking House records. And...Kind of Blue, Miles Davis.
Lunar: Will this be your first visit to Atlanta overall? Did you come for the Olympics five years ago?
Pete: This is the first time I've played as a DJ. I was here twice before when I was managing Salt n' Pepa, but I used to come in and out really quickly. It was bizarre circumstances; I'd jump a private plane from New York and have a beer and get back on the plane. I never really got a chance to hang out in Atlanta.
Lunar: Speaking of managing Salt n' Pepa, I noticed that you've done A&R for a lot of groups, including All Saints. How do you feel about what happened with them in America after the Spice Girls phenomenon and their album not catching on?
Pete: Well, I think they suffered a bit with some politics in our record company. We were leaving Polygram and going to Warner and they got caught up in the middle of that. It's unfortunate. I'm still working with them.
Lunar: Judge Jules, Danny Rampling, Tim Westwood, and Grooverider get in a fight. Who would win, and why?
Pete: Who would win?
Lunar: Who would win?
Pete: Probably, um...[smiling] Grooverider.
Pete: Yeah. [laughs] He's a big fucker. Well, either that or Westwood, because he might shoot me.
Lunar: Where do you see Dance music going overall in the next year? 2000 was the year that UK Garage got so big that it crossed the Atlantic, where it is growing in popularity.
Pete: It's redefining itself. To be honest, in financial terms, it's where the juice is right now in England. It's got a closer ability to crossover than the best Dance music has, for the first time really ever. But I like those times because that's when everything gets a little more interesting again, it gets a little more underground. But, what I think has been known as the core of it in England is reinventing itself. For the first time, UK Garage has been considered "Urban" music alongside R&B. It's a lot more mainstream in popularity. If you look on the Top Charts on our station, you've got the big R&B like Usher, you've got the big Hip-Hop; Afroman will be huge in England, then UK Garage, like So Solid. Dance Music's now fighting to get through. So, that doesn't really bother me as a DJ. Our records evolve to that.
Lunar: So with Garage being so huge, do you see someone like Fergie or Judge Jules bringing their sounds over next?
Pete: I think that UK Garage is so defined. Over time, the DJs that everyone have made so popular have changed their style over time; you have to. I mean, me and Oakey got started around the same time. We went through Jazz, Funk, Hip-Hop, early House, Trance. The best DJs, like Carl Cox, did the same. He was playing Gabber and Techno. Of the newer big names, Fergie's one of the most prominent out there. He's built his name off the back of the Gay scene, now he's got the Hard House thing going, but he's got enough foresight to know that it can't last forever, it'd be running up a blind alley. He's a good DJ. Just like Sasha is a good DJ. You can give him any box of records. He can play his box and your box of records. I really respect that. I think it's a really important thing to hang onto. The best DJs are good entertainers and they will move with music. But it's so dominated by the media that a great DJ gets pigeonholed too often.
Lunar: Give us a bit more background on you. Many interviews and bios tell us of your beginnings with Blues & Soul, and your work as an A&R. Where did you go to University?
Pete: I went to school until I was 18; I didn't go to University. I left school after I passed my A-Levels, which is the equivalent of graduating high school in England and became a professional DJ. Then I drove a Ford truck around the country doing gigs. I was also a year under everyone else. So when everyone was 18 doing their classes, I was only 17, I don't know why, but I was.
Lunar: You mentioned that Aquemini by Outkast was one of your favorite Hip-Hop albums, and it is the album that gained them superstar status in the UK. Over here in the States, it was probably ATLiens that really put them over. However, it was with Aquemini that they began to experiment a bit more with Electronic music, and with Stankonia and its tracks, you can really hear the influence. In fact, Dr. Dre has apparently been spotted at a rave before. Why do you think it's important for producers, DJs and artists to pull from all the angles?
Pete: Well, my natural instinct is to be influence and excited by anything that I think is cool, y'know. I think that people should be more open-minded. What got my attention about the last Outkast record was that it was so broad in its influence. I mean, you listen to one side, and you've got that massive track that's Breakbeat, almost. I mean, I know Dallas Austin, I know She'kespeare; Timbaland's a fucking God. And those people crave information. I mean, you can go back to Aaliyah's record on Romeo Must Die and listen to the production on it. I mean, how fucked up was that rhythm track? He's obviously listening to European and Electronic music. And he was. I found out he was listening to Daft Punk and Kraftwerk. It's really interesting now; the international records. England and Europe gets the cream of American R&B, you don't get the Top 5 through 20. They get the very best. Like, at the Winter Music Conference this year, I sat at Crobar with Dallas and She'kespeare; we hung out for a long time listening to Digweed.
Lunar: Actually, I'd heard that Timbaland didn't listen to any drum n' bass when he first started producing.
Pete: I don't know, he might have been listening to Reggae or Soca; it's got the same Dubby sounds to it....
Lunar: Is not having a national radio system a bad thing in your opinion? On Radio One, you've got everything from Kosheen to Prince on the playlists, but in America, the stations are so split up and departmentalized.
Pete: In England, there's a non-commerical network. Everyone pays a license fee to be educated, in a way. The lines get blurred sometimes, but at least the BBC can take a risk. The frightening thing in this country is that radio at large is dominated by 2 or 3 Big Brother-like corporations, like Clear Channel, for instance. It's a business. It's like the lowest common denominator 24 hours a day to get people to buy...Coca-Cola or y'know, whatever they're selling. That's frightening for young people. Hip-Hop got through eventually, so did Grunge. Dance music, thrives on the Internet, which is quite interesting; you have to go there to find it. I think that's cool.
Lunar: What is your take on the Dance music scene in America?
Pete: Well, the reception's been quite positive, to be honest. I can't think of a bad place I've been, really. I'm starting to fill in the South a bit more this year. I've been playing in Austin and Phoenix. It's been good. Some of the hype about the "Dance Explosion" has been bad; you can't run before you learn how to walk. It's club nights that really count; the festivals aren't bad, but the clubs are important. Like with Creamfields was a real blow when it didn't happen. Then again, it didn't happen in the UK until about 10 years of clubbing were established. The same thing's got to happen here. America's got to fall in love with the music for it to happen. It's not just like going to U2 and buying a ticket, it's about something else. America had that; with what was dominated by the Gay scenes in New York, Detroit, and Chicago, and now if the rest of America can get that bug, then you'll get something going on, but at the moment, it's been all good. There's still a long way yet.
Lunar: You've said that your goal is to make Essential a stamp of quality in pop culture, rather than just Pete Tong all the time. Are you talking records, or are you talking personality, as in not being pigeonholed into one thing at a time?
Pete: There's no real big...I guess it's to release albums of quality by interesting people, and in radio to break through that incredibly conservative commercial attitude to radio. I think radio's a beautiful medium, I really believe that. I remember when I used to come here to the States back in the day, I'd sit in my hotel room and tape WBLS and other stations in New York and take their ideas back to England. But now, it's so formularized, y'know?
Lunar: What do you consider the greatest moment of your career? What do you consider the lowest moment?
Pete: I don't really like to think about "Pete," because that everything's just not as good afterwards. I just like to think about really positive things. As for the lowest? I guess the only thing that glooms me out is probably making the effort and...it's not so bad when you're in America when you tend to fly everywhere and it's no big deal, but when you're in England and you have to drive somewhere to play, which is fucking hours, and it's not really good, I dunno, I wasted my time. That kind of pisses me off. I gave up a lot to come; I've got a family and everything at home, and when it's a waste of time, I don't like that.
Lunar: What's the craziest thing you've witnessed DJing?
Pete: Probably live sex onstage. That's a pretty good one.
Lunar: What is the reaction when people use that expression...you know..."It's all gone a bit Pete Tong?"
Pete: I love it. What can you say? Be happy.
Lunar: Yeah, I guess it means you're in their heads.
Pete: Exactly. It's good.
Lunar: Got any last words for Atlanta?
Pete: Well, it'll be a good night. It's good. I like the club. It's a good space.
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