For generations of electronic music fans around the world, he’s been the definitive voice of the scene for decades. But don’t ever think of Pete Tong as part of the establishment. In fact, throughout his varied and astonishing career, he’s been a catalyst, a genuine agent for change. And it’s all based around a simple yet relentless personal mission: to find great music and talent, and to share it with as many people as possible.
Take the Ibiza Classics project, the globally touring, live orchestral extravaganza that’s seen Tong and collaborators Jules Buckley taking electronic music to another dimension. Initially conceived as a one-off for the Proms classical music festival in 2015, translating some of the most loved dance music anthems for an orchestra to celebrate 20 years of Radio One in Ibiza, the way that Classics caught the imagination shocked even Pete: “I went to Manchester to go on breakfast TV to launch it. And by the time I came back on the train to London, we’d sold 18,000 tickets.” The original core of the idea was to reach those ravers for whom going out to clubs all night was no longer a realistic option. “Life catches up,” says Pete. “But it doesn’t mean you fall out of love with the music. Those songs; ‘Promised Land’, or ‘Your Love’, ‘Cafe Del Mar’: to some people they’re just as important as the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. If you were there on the dance floor at, say, Space in Ibiza, they’re in your soul for the rest of your life.”
And through dozens of genuinely live orchestral shows (ranging from The Hollywood Bowl to London’s O2 to, inevitably, Ibiza) and three albums (‘Classic House’, ‘Ibiza Classics’ and ‘Chilled Classics’) the project has kept pushing the limits, bringing in contemporary collaborators like Tale Of Us, ARTBAT, Kølsch and Tiësto to remix seminal tracks and exploring the full theatrical potential of instrumentals like ‘Age Of Love’ and even the work of Hans Zimmer. He says it also fulfils a childhood dream: “I always wanted to be part of a band.”
Growing up in Kent, young Pete “tried learning piano and gave up, tried guitar and gave up; eventually I took up drums and used to play in a band doing Deep Purple covers.” That was until, at 14, he saw his first DJ at a school party – and life changed forever. He became an obsessive listener to radio DJs like Emperor Rosko and specialist shows from Robbie Vincent and Greg Edwards: “a door to a secret world.”
After a stint as a mobile DJ playing weddings and school parties, and a residency at a local pub, Pete and a friend decided to start their own club night. An encounter with Nicky Holloway led to gigs in London, where by 1987 the founding fathers of the UK dance scene were coming together. “Danny Rampling was Nicky’s best friend. I met Paul Oakenfold, who ran a club in Streatham, and Carl Cox, who did his soundsystem, and started doing parties with the Boy’s Own crowd: Andy Weatherall, Gary Haisman and Terry Farley.” As a DJ, Pete was playing rare groove and soul, mixed up with some early hip hop and electro, but “when those first house records arrived, it was like year zero, like everything before had ceased to exist.” After a stint as a journalist and presenter across various radio stations, Pete was hosting Saturday nights on London’s Capital Radio in 1991 when Radio 1’s Jeff Young quit his show – and was the obvious candidate to take over. He arrived at the station at a time of monumental change.
Newly appointed controller Matthew Bannister and his deputy Andy Parfitt were seeking to bring the station up to date. The target market was to be youth, and the pair realised they might have the perfect advisor already on hand. “I went from no one talking to me to feeling like I could have a real influence there,” says Pete. Not only was he in the right place to help create the station’s new specialist output, it was also the right time. “Dance music was exploding,`’ says Pete. “Cream and Ministry of Sound were starting, there was so much great music coming out – and I was the only one playing this music to the nation’s youth.”
Today, the Pete Tong and Essential Mix shows he devised in those meetings are still the flagship of underground dance music on the station, and new show, The Month In Dance, a vital anthology on BBC Sounds. Tong himself remains a sounding board for the station’s management and an occasional mentor to a new generation of presenters.
Outside of the radio studio, the focus for Pete as a DJ now is moving away from the grind of weekly touring and towards being part of events where he can really express himself musically – like his residency at Ibiza’s Blu Marlin, his arena at Creamfields festival where he can curate not just the line-up but the experience, and gigs like joining Tale Of Us, Marco Carola or Bedouin at their nights in Ibiza, where without the pressure of being ‘the headliner’ he can concentrate on allying his own style to the vibe of the night. DJing as a hobby, rather than a career, means more time for his family – and it also makes the experience more joyful and collaborative.
More like his music production, in fact, something he has dipped in and out of over the years, including a fertile period with Paul Rogers, a recent team-up with Alex Kennon for ‘Apache’ on Crosstown Rebels and most notably John Monkman (“he’s an amazing analogue virtuoso, I’m more like the arranger and rhythm guy”) for a consistent series of releases including ‘Ecstasis’ [Ellum]. A 2021 live-streamed lockdown performance saw a flat-capped Tong revelling in the possibilities offered by the set-up at Metropolis Studios and Monkman’s inspiration.
Pete reckons he still finds so much joy in DJing and music production because he’s “always had a day job”. As an A&R, first at London Records (where he launched FFRR), he signed and released some of the acts and records that changed the course of music in the UK, from Lil Louis’ ‘French Kiss’; to hip hop pioneers Run DMC and Salt ‘n’ Pepa; one of the first post rave superstars duos in Orbital and the breakthrough of drum’n’bass in Goldie and LTJ Bukem. A number one record with Shakespereare’s Sister saw him working with legends like Dave Stewart and George Harrison, and breaking All Saints led to a soundtrack collaboration with Dany Boyle for The Beach with composer William Orbit. As music supervisor for films including Human Traffic, 24 Hour Party People, and It’s All Gone Pete Tong, he’s also soundtracked the movies that have most successfully documented the scene.
Pete was also instrumental in establishing the Electronic Music Department at the WME Agency during a seven year stint living in LA and focusing on establishing that business, and he remains a client and consultant partner. But, he says, “ultimately I was missing being more hands-on. I still felt I had a lot to contribute in that department” Pete eagerly accepted the opportunity to join the ThreeSixZero group (management company of Calvin Harris, Willow & Jaden Smith among others) in 2019 as President of their new label ThreeSixZero Recordings and plunge back into the world of A&R.
Meanwhile, with The International Music Summit, held in Ibiza since 2007, Pete and his fellow founders assemble annually some of the most insightful thought leaders from within and without the industry – from Brian Eno to shesaid.so – to help the scene navigate crises and opportunities from the EDM boom to Web3 to mental health, diversity and environmental sustainability. 2022’s event was also the launchpad for one of Pete’s biggest projects yet, and one clearly important to a figure starting to become ever more aware of his legacy. The Pete Tong DJ Academy, an online video training course featuring peers like Carl Cox, aims to safeguard the ‘craft’ of DJing in a scene dominated by producers-cum-DJs, pass on knowledge accumulated over decades, and open up pathways for new young talent.
The only question that remains, especially after a Music Industry Trust Award in 2021 that saw him join a pantheon including figures like Beatles Producer Sir George Martin, is whether this restless soul is likely to slow down soon. “It was unbelievable, amazing,” he says of that night. “But really I like the fact that it celebrated our industry, that it was someone like me that got it as much as me that got it, someone who’s spent their life in electronic music. I won’t be hanging up my slippers anytime soon.”
In other words: he continues.