Pete Tong Talks Cockney Slang, Florida's Disco Heyday, and Lazy DJs
After three decades on the scene, Brit legend Pete Tong's got nothing to prove. He's been a critic, an A&R guy, a producer, a BBC jockey, and one of the most massive club DJs in the world. But still he's hitting the decks hard, night after night. It's almost like the guy's on a deranged mission to promote existential elevation through electronic music. Or maybe he's just a beat junkie.
In any case, Crossfade chatted with Tong by phone about his name as slang, the disco days, and superstar DJs who can't escape themselves.
Pete Tong: It's wrong, actually. I keep meaning to change it. No, it was a fanzine back in the acid house days, like the late '80s. There was this fanzine called Boy's Own. You know, I was a big DJ at the time. But I was kind of considered too big already to be part of the acid house spirit. It wasn't too serious. But they used to tease me, because certain people thought that once acid house exploded, anything that was around before was [obsolete]. It was like the year of the dinosaur. There was a line in the sand. Nothing existed before.
And what's the meaning of that phrase exactly?
It's very simple. We have this stupid thing in London where you say one thing and mean another because it rhymes. So, "It's all gone wrong" is equivalent to "It's all gone Pete Tong." It's that simple. You know, "apples and pears" means "stairs." It was a kind of language that grew through the 20th century in East London during the First and Second World Wars. And it got adopted by taxi drivers and market store people. It's Cockney rhyming slang.
What were your earliest experiences playing music?
I took piano lessons, learned the basics and rudiments of the scale. But I got bored and I didn't have the attention span to deal with it. I wish I had. I greatly regret it. And then I played the drums at school until I saw a DJ one day in the '70s. It was very basic, just someone playing somebody else's music, moving seamlessly between two turntables. And I just thought, "That's what I want to do." And I just dived into it from an equipment point of view. I always loved music and I always collected records and listened to the radio and wrote down the names of all the songs. So it all evolved kind of rapidly as a hobby or passion or obsession during my teenage years.
It's interesting you played drums.
With drums, it was bang. You made a noise and it looked good. And I could emulate my heroes in rock bands. I was into weird, progressive stuff like T-Rex and Deep Purple and Black Sabbath. But really, when I started collecting records and buying singles, I quickly moved into dance music like funk and James Brown and Funkadelic and the very early days of disco. And that included all those great early records that came out on labels from Florida like TK Records.
How did you turn this hobby into a career?
I come from a time when DJing couldn't be a job unless you worked in radio. It was never thought of like a career. A club DJ just didn't exist. Traveling around the country was hard enough to think about, let alone traveling around the world. You always had to have a proper job. And a lot of my friends were getting into record companies. I didn't go that route.
I went into a magazine. It was called Blues and Soul. And they had another magazine called Black Music. They wrote about the soul scene, which was a club scene in this country [England]. And clubbing culture was becoming more and more important in the late '70s and early '80s. It was tribes of kids following certain DJs.
And all our music was imports. It's funny to talk about those times now because everything's so instant. But the scene was governed by what records were brought in from the big exporters in New York and Chicago and Miami. Every week, you waited for the new records to come in. We followed America and that was disco, soul, funk, and eventually hip-hop, electro, and house.
So I was writing for a magazine from about '79 to '83. In '83, I got offered a job at London Records, which was a new label starting out with an old name. I started signing dance artists. I started doing A&R. I signed Run DMC. I was their licensee for the rest of the world and that blew up. I signed Salt 'n' Peppa and that blew up. I signed Joy Simmons from a label called Sleeping Bag that was run by Mantronix and another guy called Will Socolov. And that blew up. I was getting a reputation for spotting important records.
But then I was getting better known as a DJ, so I kind of had two careers at the same time.
You've worked on almost every side as a critic, promoter, A&R guy, label head, radio host, producer, and DJ. Have you always thought of yourself as more one thing or another?
Always DJ. My sixth sense is programmed for DJing. I'm always worried about my next gig and whether I've got the hottest record. It was the skill that came to me first before anything. And it's served me pretty well. And I never got bored of it. It's never become a chore because I could never do it as much as everyone elsed did when it exploded. I had a proper job. I always had the reins held back slightly because of my commitments to Radio One and because of my commitments to working at a record company. From '83 to '99, I had a day job.
So only at the end of the millennium when the label got sold and I had a choice between staying involved or becoming a consultant ... I mean, '95 to '99 was an absolutely explosive time for dance music in the UK. I gave up the day job. And I became Pete Tong the DJ.
Are you proud of your days as an A&R man?
The legacy of FFRR Records really stood for something. It's ironic that some of our records that are now deemed most seminal weren't the ones, at the time, that kept staff in jobs. When you're running a label, you have to keep the lights on and pay everybody's wages and make a profit. That forces you to do things that you might not have done for the purest reasons. It's very easy when you're starting a label to be very purist. But after a while, if you want to grow, you need some hits. And usually, you have a hit by accident at first. But then you get used to the idea of having hits. I wouldn't say it was a very enjoyable time. But I didn't really appreciate what we were doing.
And it's funny because you're talking to me at a time when I just literally signed a deal to start doing it again. I'm going to work with the company [Warner Bros.] that bought our company back in '99. I'm gonna actually start doing A&R again because it's first time in a long, long time that I feel that there's a place for me to make a contribution. Electronic music seems to be in a very exciting, worldly state right now. So I'm going to start doing that again on the side.
Are you going to take a different approach this time?
Well, it will be a much more focused approach this time. I've got the time to nurture the careers of one or two acts a year. So I'm not getting back in the game to sign 20 things. I want to work with a few select artists who are interested in me helping them. That would give me great satisfaction. I want to find one Swedish House Mafia or one band like Phoenix or Daft Punk. That would be my ambition.
You've also put together the soundtracks for several movies including 24 Hour Party People. Were those just business opportunities? Or is there something essentially cinematic about the way you think about music?
I'm a massive fan of film. And I think it's a very natural extension of DJing. I did quite a lot in the '90s. But it's been more sparing in the last few years because the British film industry is very stop-start. If I was living in Hollywood and everybody could just come to me, it probably would've been a bit more fluid. In England, though, you get a relationship with a director and the next film might take another three or four years. And then they might be in Hollywood.
I've worked with Michael Winterbottom. And I've worked with Danny Boyle back in the day on The Beach. And I've worked really well with Daniel Barber on this Harry Brown film. But the big difference with Harry Brown was that we did half the score. I did a little bit of score for It's All Gone Pete Tong and Human Traffic but nothing like we did for this film. We did proper, proper score.
Film is such a closed shop because so much money's at stake. And music is never the top of the pile when it comes to where the priorities lie. So people tend to go to people who they know can deliver. It's quite a hard world to break into where they'll trust Pete Tong to do a score.
What are the differences between DJing at the club and DJing for radio? And where's the crossover point?
There are huge differences between putting together an insane radio show and working in a club. I think club DJing is the most raw, natural thing. It's always been about finding music that people didn't know about and fanning the flames. So I've always acted like a bit of a turbo engine to give people a kick up the old arse. My DJ mantra is always to entertain the crowd. But I always want to make them dance to something they don't know.
And it's difficult because the money gets bigger and the gigs get bigger and the expectations get bigger. It's hard to resist the temptation to just give them what they know. A lot of DJs, who get very, very big, find themselves trapped in a cycle of just giving people what they know and getting paid an awful lot of money. They're putting smiles on faces. And I wouldn't name names, but you can guess who I'm talking about. Some of the biggest DJs in the world play their greatest hits and they get quite trapped with it after a year or two. Unless they start to experiment, people start slagging them off. I've just always wanted to lead people to a place where they didn't expect to go.
You're known for being totally cool about accepting demos from unknowns. Should wannabes bring their CD-Rs to the show?
Yeah, definitely. In general, we always pick up really interesting stuff. People who come to gigs these days know what they're doing. I always try to listen to those things as soon as possible.
Pete Tong. Wednesday, October 27. Mokai, 235 23rd St., Miami Beach. The show starts at 11 p.m. and tickets cost $25 at the door. Ages 21 and up. Visit mokaimiami.com.
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