On October 30, 1993, Pete Tong oversaw the first episode of the Essential Mix on BBC’s Radio 1. Club music was ascendant in the U.K., and Tong devoted a late-night slot to it on national radio, playing an uninterrupted string of house — inspired by iconic New York City mix-shows — that included cuts from Bottom Dollar, Lisa B and Sabres of Paradise.
“The fact that I come on playing house music and the underground of the whole country is kind of dancing to that, obviously the show connected with the people in a really powerful way from the start,” Tong tells Rolling Stone.
Twenty-five years later, the Essential Mix is still going, and it’s served as both an “I have arrived!” stamp for rising DJs and producers and a destination showcase — even for famously reticent stars like Daft Punk. Tong spoke with Rolling Stone about the origins of the show, and how it has changed over its two-plus decades of existence.
When did the idea for the Essential Mix first come together? What was the initial conversation?
I was already on Radio 1 for a couple of years. I started in ’91, which was after the rave scene and the whole house scene had blown up in the U.K. I was on a London station when that happened in ’87. I kind of graduated to Radio 1, which was the national station in ’91 when English club scene was kind of going legit somewhere. It was the opening of places like Ministry of Sound — club culture was moving on to stage two.
After a couple of years on Radio 1, I’d been going to New York a lot, because I had a day job at a record company. I was working at London Records and running my own label, FFRR. Every time I’d go to New York, I’d just be getting more and more educated about the DJs there and in particular the mix-radio scene, which was happening in New York on a couple of stations.
I kept coming back to the U.K. saying, “We should do this.” All through the rave era anyway, people were always coming up to the DJ booth asking for recordings of the sets and cassettes and mixtapes and stuff like that. So I was berating the management that we should have a show like that on Radio 1 and represent the culture and the movement in an even better way than I was doing already on my show that’d been going for a couple of years. Eventually, they relented. We called it, “Essential Mix On Air” in 1993.
Was it a tough sell for you at that time?
It wasn’t immediate, but they trusted me. My show played the music, but I had sections of my show that were mixed, but I was talking to people on the radio, so it wasn’t a mix show start to finish. My show started doing incredible numbers. They were really, really pleased with it. They saw how strong the music was, they saw it was the predominant youth culture movement in the U.K. They were a station that’s primarily there just to serve youth culture in the U.K. and to champion new music. So they saw the sense of it.
At the beginning, the show was our way of going out into clubs and doing live broadcasts from clubs. If you look at the history of the Essential Mix, in the first few years, we did an unprecedented amount of live broadcasts, and that’s why there’s so many Essential Mixes in the first few years, because it was always a part of that, whereas the Essential Mix as you know it today really is a two hour showcase of a DJ or producer’s vision. It’s their blank canvas, whereas in the beginning, we did those shows to plug into the underground clubs and bring that feeling from the dance floor out to the whole nation on the radio.
Were there New York stations or DJs in particular that you thought were doing that mix show so well when you were coming over here?
WBLS, for sure, was a station I was really influenced by myself as a fan of radio in the Eighties. I kind of befriended John Morales and Sergio Munzabi. They were two early mix-show DJs. There was also Timmy Regisford and a guy called Merlin Bobb. Timmy in particular was a big influence and became a good friend of mine. He kind of showed me how they built mix-show radio over there. All the guys back then, obviously — Frankie Knuckles, David Morales, Louie Vega — I brought that all into how we wanted to do the show.
Timmy in particular was the first one. I remember going to his crib, and he showed me how he obviously has two copies of the same record. You’re doing your thing on the turntables, mixing it onto a reel-to-reel machine, and then running that reel-to-reel machine again and mixing two more records into that mix, and then recording it onto another reel-to-reel machine and then cutting the tape up, sticking it on the wall. It was kind of madness, and it kind of really expanded knowledge on the kind of possibilities of what we could do.
It’s crazy to hear that it was inspired by U.S. radio, because I feel now that scene is pretty much absent from U.S. radio, but you guys are still doing it.
The idea of DJs doing continuous mixes on the radio I guess grew out of the popularity of the music from the days of disco, basically. In a city like New York, it still worked as a format. Although disco died, the format of mix radio carried on. Obviously, the Paradise Garage and clubs like Danceteria were a massive part of New York life in the mid-Eighties. So in a city like New York that was so kind of forward-thinking and cosmopolitan, the radio stations, it wasn’t like they were doing that all day, but they did give over a fair amount of airtime to kind of acknowledge that. Obviously with hip-hop starting to grow through the ’80s as well, a station like WBLS embraced both ends of that and both cultural movements. It wasn’t kind of national, you know? But New York predominantly had that.
And you said right off the bat your numbers did really well? You immediately felt an impact for the show?
Radio 1 was the national popular music station. When acid house and rave broke through in ’87, it really happened in two cities in the U.K. That’s well-documented. That was London and Manchester. I happened to be on Capitol Radio in London on a Saturday night when house and techno kind of first arrived, so I really established myself on the radio doing that, and as a club DJ by then. What happened between ’87 and ’91 was every city in the country had caught onto the kind of craze and the whole culture around dance music. Every city and town in the country had its own club, had its own nights, had its own DJs, had its own brand starting to emerge.
By the time I arrived at Radio 1 in ’91, it was like the youth movement of the country was all dancing to house music and going to clubs like Ministry and Cream and Gatecrasher and the Hacienda. Nobody on national popular radio had actually ever come up with a show talking to that audience, so there was already a massive audience for it in the U.K. There is no national radio in the U.S. still to this day. I guess there is a bit in the shape of satellite radio now, but this was a national terrestrial public service station that played new music. It was even more powerful then than it is today, because there was a lot less distraction and a lot less competition, so that’s why it kind of got off to a flying start, and the Essential Mix just followed that a couple of years later.
The good thing about BBC is that it’s not beholden to any commercial pressure or an advertiser’s request or desire. It’s a different mindset. I’ve been able to establish these really deep and longstanding relationships with the station and drive kind of deep foundations into the station. I always say in any interview I do — everyone asks me, “How come the show is so famous?” Or, “How come the Essential Mix became so legendary?” In the simplest terms, it’s having that backing and commitment from the station week-in, week-out. Year after year. It becomes classic by the fact that it’s a constant in people’s lives, much in the same way that Rolling Stone was to rock & roll, you know?
Obviously and particularly in the Seventies and Eighties, no disrespect to now, but Rolling Stone could break a band, you know? If someone got put on the cover or got stellar reviews, much in the same way in the U.K. we had the NME. It’s just that thing of being a constant through time, and obviously the show’s gotta be good and it’s gotta connect with the people and it’s gotta work on a weekly basis, but it’s that thing of being there over a long period of time. That part money can’t buy. You’ve just gotta put the time in, and I’ve been lucky to have been left alone, as it were, by Radio 1 and left in place for so long, and that’s added an extra cachet to the impact that the show’s had.
I’m sure people must be beating down your doors to do one of these mixes, but over the years, how have you decided who gets to do one?
I’ve always felt it’s a process of this kind of natural selection, natural evolution. I think everybody earns the right eventually to do one. There comes a moment in time in someone’s career where you can’t ignore them and they deserve it. That’s the way we’ve always gone about it, you know? People obviously come back and do them again when they’re established, and that’s almost a payback to the show. But the most important shows are when it’s that new person rising and getting their first shot at it.
Early on there were a lot more live broadcasts — at what point did it more shift to just becoming the two hour showcase for a vision?
From ’93 to 2000 was really when we were much more active with live. We still do them, and often now we’ll record them and broadcast them a few days later, but I think in the zeitgeist of the Nineties in the U.K., it felt like it was so important for the station to be on the ground with the audience and the people. Everything was new; the story was fresh. So just simply going around the country and doing a live broadcast from all of these individual towns and cities had a massive impact in the local market, and it had a very positive impact for the brand value of Radio 1.
When I grew up with Radio 1 in the Seventies and Eighties, they used to do these road shows, which was they used to go out to seaside towns with a mobile broadcast unit and they used to play pop records and throw out t-shirts and do silly competitions. That was the way of Radio 1 meeting the audience.
I found that very old fashioned. It was a bit embarrassing when I first joined Radio 1. I was already working in these amazing underground parties and raves and festivals and all sorts of things from the late Eighties, so the idea of me going out and doing these road shows, I said, “Forget about it. We should be going and plugging in.” I said, “Radio 1’s not cool with the people generally. I’m cool without sounding conceited. The music I’m playing’s cool. So we should go out and meet the people that way and almost sneak in undercover and plug into a club and broadcast what’s happening there.”
So the “Essential Mix” took on a whole different meaning at the beginning. Radio 1 listened to that and they saw that was a much more effective way of looking like they were doing the right thing with the vast majority of the young people in the U.K.: They weren’t sitting on a beach waiting for the DJ to throw out a t-shirt, they’re going into these clubs. That’s why we did so many broadcasts in the beginning, because it was such an effective way of getting Radio 1 out with the audience.
As the years went by, budgets come into it. It costs money to do those things, and Radio 1 always did them well-produced, with lots of staff running around doing things — they always went at these things in a way that you’d never see in America with commercial radio. They threw bodies at it, and we did it in a really top level production.
But that couldn’t go on forever, and eventually people start looking at what it’s costing, and you kind of look after five years, six years and go, “Well, we’ve done that. It’s time to do something different, or do it in a different way.” By the time we got around to the millennium, we were picking our moments. The millennium was obviously one of the biggest shows we ever did in 1999, December 31st.
The dance music space still gets split still between what’s mainstream and what’s underground. Is it hard for you to thread that needle?
It’s funny, actually. The beginning you would see, like in the Nineties, there was a lot more of what, looking back, you might call “mainstream dance music.” There was more Tiesto, there was Paul Van Dyk, there was more Paul Oakenfold, there was more big room DJs. That’s probably one of the things that’s changed the most over 25 years. The audience now, given the way that everybody connects with everybody in the world of streaming, the audience doesn’t seem to want us to be just giving the slot over to David Guetta, no disrespect, or the biggest DJs commercially of the day. They don’t need to be on the Essential Mix, and the Essential Mix doesn’t need them.
That wasn’t the case in the early Nineties: It was all considered to be underground, doesn’t matter whether it was techno or Tiesto. They were less accessible. So I think the job of the Essential Mix now does predominantly focus on the underground. Although we did a psytrance show recently with Vini Vici, which I think is just as relevant, because they’re not in the charts, you know? They’re not making pop records with hip-hop stars and appearing on Spotify all of the time.
It’s more about covering the areas of dance music that aren’t in the mainstream focus. So we would do a drum and bass; we’d do a chillout mix; we’d do trance at 140 beats per minute, but not what’s out there for everyone to see already on YouTube or Tomorrowland.
Has it been challenging to compete as people put a lot of mixes on Soundcloud and stuff in the streaming era?
Without question. It’s definitely harder. I think the show has impact still. I think that by the fact that it’s been going so long, it has a real intrinsic value attached to it. But obviously, with the advent of Boiler Room and all of the festivals, particularly Tomorrowland and Ultra, BeAtTV, there’s so many of them. I think Boiler Room had a very unique idea, and a lot of people thought at the beginning, “That just looks like the Essential Mix on TV.” Editorially, they followed us.
They probably go further left field and right field now than we do now, but I think they were probably the biggest competition at the beginning. Now they have their own competition.
We talk about visualizing it, whether that’s something we should do. I’m still limited in that sense by what the BBC can do and not do. They’ve been brilliant at backing the show for 25 years, but actually getting them to put it as a streaming thing on as a visual is a different thing. We do experiment, but I think that as much as everything’s visual, that in itself makes the Essential Mix unique, because it’s not. We’re like that fine dining restaurant that’s still there 25 years later with an amazing chef people still wanna come and eat at, you know?
Are there particular accomplishments that you feel especially proud of when it comes to the Essential Mix?
I think the archive is unbelievable. I think it’s the soundtrack to 25 years of dance music history, and nothing else out there comes close to that. So I think the fact that everybody that matters has done it at least once — there’s people that it’s very hard to get to do anything, so the fact that Daft Punk have done it, the Prodigy have done it, Ricardo Villalobos has done it. It’s like a museum, an aural timeline, an historical document.
That’s something also that I’d love to get into with the BBC. I’d love it if there was a place you could go and listen to all 25 years’ worth 52 weeks a year if you wanted to. Like a proper archive. We have discussed that. That would probably be the biggest challenge for me now going forward is realizing that and getting them all. You can hear a lot of them bootleg fashion online, but a place like a museum online that you could go to. If you wanna know anything about anything that’s gone on in the last 25 years in electronic dance music, you’d just listen to the Essential Mix and you’d get a pretty good idea.