Pete Tong Doesn't Think Dance Music's Best Days Are Behind Him
Tong isn't whining about the good old days.
Photo by Derrick Santini
For the last month of 2013, Pete Tong kept a secret that might've made his mother cry. In November, he'd answered a call from his manager regarding what Tong calls a "bizarre" proposal. After nearly 40 years in the music industry, the legendary British DJ and radio host
Tong admits it was an honor for him as well, but the real joy came from watching his mother's reaction. "I thought straight away what it would mean to my mum. I grew up in an era when the Royal Family had an even greater impact than it does today... So you never expect to get that call." The announcement was finally made public December 30, 2013, with the Queen's New Year's Honours List.
Three months later, on March 4, 2014, Tong, along with his mother, wife, and two of his daughters, rode through the gates of Buckingham Palace to be greeted and pinned by the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William. Just days after that, Tong flew back to his adopted home of Los Angeles to play a three-hour set at Sound Nightclub. Even after the royal honor, he barely rested before returning to what he loves best.
As a kid, Tong was expected to become an engineer or an architect or even a bookie at his dad's betting company. Instead, the youngster took his own bet on music and, in particular, on becoming a DJ. "One of the main reasons I started to DJ was because I couldn't dance," he says. "Back then, being a dancer was considered to be much hotter... and I was a bit shy, so hiding behind the DJ booth was a comfortable place for me."
But once Tong found his safe space, he still had an uphill battle to make a name as a world-class DJ. "Nobody was a world-famous DJ back when I started. DJing wasn't considered to be a thing you did for a living — it was a hobby. The only professional DJs I knew were either doing weddings or were radio personalities doing a breakfast show or something like that." Tong's first gigs were, in fact, school discos and weddings when he was about 15 years old. But it didn't take long for him to find his form.
To start, Tong knew he didn't want to play pop. He says he was "excited by all the minirevolutions in music." A group of his mates used to travel 40 miles from their school in Kent to London, where they'd visit burgeoning underground clubs and get their hands on vinyls from America. "It sounds odd now because everything is so accessible, but back then, records had to be physically put in boxes and shipped around the world." Tong got hooked on the sounds of the soul and funk records his buddies brought back from London. Soon electronic and hip-hop beats entered his lexicon.
"I'd try to identify what differentiated myself from other DJs," he says. In the mid-'80s, he and friends would host events in London. "I'd play records no one could get," he says, referring to rare funk and experimental stuff by the likes of Donald Byrd and Herbie Hancock. "Then, in the middle of my set, I'd drop in the first Beastie Boys or LL Cool J record." Introducing audiences to new acts soon became something of his signature.
"Most DJs didn't make music back then," Tong says. "The barriers to entry and the costs of the studio were way too expensive. So the best way to build a reputation as a DJ, other than by running a club, was by getting on the radio." Tong diversified his craft, branching out from his London events and staff writing position at Blues & Soul magazine to put his voice on pirate radio. Soon he could be heard on Capital FM, one of London's biggest stations. By January 1991, Tong's voice was broadcast across the UK on BBC Radio 1's Essential Selection.
There's really no fair comparison, but it suffices to say that Tong's show did for dance music in the UK what TRL did for pop princesses in the U.S. But unlike TRL, Tong's show was an autocracy in which he played his favorite hits. "This was my primary platform for breaking new music. All of the pioneers of electronic music at that time came through my show," Tong says, cringing slightly at the self-importance of his own sentence. He adds after a pause: "I was in a very fortunate position."
Tong isn't being cocky. He was the focal point of the UK's electronic music movements in the 1990s, with acts like Carl Cox, the Prodigy, the Chemical Brothers, and Basement Jaxx in his immediate circles. But when the late 2000s brought an electronic dance music boom to the States, Tong watched it reach a "critical mass" from across the pond and decided he had to be closer to it. He moved to L.A. to immerse himself in the scene, and since then, he's continued to host regular events, radio shows, and three-hour sets around the globe.
"Everything is relevant to now and to the new audience experience," Tong says. In 2007, he cofounded the International Music Summit to celebrate and proliferate the art of DJing and electronic music. The conference brings his old friends and up-and-comers together for education and inspiration in cities from Singapore to Ibiza, kind of like the upcoming Miami Music Week, where Tong will host one of the hottest parties of the week: the All Gone Pete Tong Pool Party at the Surfcomber.
And though Tong has seen dance music go through multiple stages of growth and change, he insists there's no desire for nostalgia here. "I'm never nostalgic," he says. "I'm always looking forward. The past is done, and it was great, and I'll never be one of those guys to say, 'It used to be better.'" He pauses and laughs. "That's just not in my psyche."
All Gone Pete Tong Pool Party with Pete Tong, Kolsch, Andrea Oliva, Jackmaster, and Armand Van Helden. Noon Thursday, March 17, at the Surfcomber, 1717 Collins Ave., Miami Beach; 305-532-7715; surfcomber.com. Tickets cost $36.70 to $54.55 via wantickets.com.