Veteran UK DJ Pete Tong Tries To Crack The U.S. Dance Market

Essential Selection Volume One's two discs are mixed by top DJs Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold.

Although a legend at home in England, veteran radio and club DJ Pete Tong's name is so unfamiliar to Americans that when the first volume of his popular UK mix series, Essential Selection, came out in May, he withdrew his own mix, leaving the limelight to well-known electronic-music artists Fatboy Slim and Paul Oakenfold.

Yet the phrase "It's all gone Pete Tong" — cockney rhyming slang for "It's all gone wrong" (dreamed up by an old acid-house scenester) — is commonplace in the lexicon of his homeland. His ubiquitous role in British dance music even inspired a national newspaper to look into why Tong, the national Radio 1 DJ, plays so many records from his own record label, ffrr (UK home to Orbital, New Order and a host of one-off dance hits) — an investigation that went all the way to the Houses of Parliament.

From Sidekick To Top Dog

A DJ since his 1970s schooldays, London-bred Tong started out spinning soul, jazz and funk. In the mid-'80s he could be found spinning hip-hop alongside a young Paul Oakenfold, and by the end of the decade he was perfectly positioned to help take the emerging house sound from Chicago and the free spirit of clubbing island resort Ibiza, Spain (where he DJed in the summer of 1986), into London's mainstream clubs.

Tong's growing reputation landed him a guest spot on the British national station Radio 1, and in 1991 he was made host of its first strictly dance-music show, "The Essential Selection," which is now a British institution.

"The format," Tong says of the program, "is, 'It's 6 o'clock Friday night; the weekend's started; let's go for it.' All the DJs call up and say where they're going to be playing; punters call up really mad for it. It really is about living for the weekend."

The show has also become renowned for breaking dance hits, which has made Tong into one of the most influential members of the British dance-music scene.

In 1995, Tong introduced "Essential Mix," a Saturday-night radio show featuring DJs mixing live. The program soon soared in popularity, eventually spawning a series of mix-CDs by top DJs that often topped the UK charts.

Crossing The Pond

The first U.S. Essential Selection release featured the superstar tag team of Paul Oakenfold and Fatboy Slim, who each mixed one of the collection's two discs. Each DJ plays to his strengths: the former delivering a typically epic trance mix, the latter displaying his classically upbeat party style. In the UK, the package was released late last year (as Essential Selection Millennium) with a slightly different track listing — and a Pete Tong mix.

"America's weird, 'cause it's constantly got it wrong," Tong says of the stateside dance-music scene. "It had it all in the days of disco, with Studio 54, then it had it all cool with the Paradise Garage, Area, Zanzibar, places that were predominantly kept alive by the gay fraternity in New York and the passion for their DJs. And obviously Detroit and Chicago have been bubbling away.

"When electronica came along," he continues, "they really embraced it as 'We've got bands; they make albums; they go on tour,' but they didn't put roots down for them. What they didn't realize was why the Prodigy were the Prodigy and why the Chemicals were the Chemicals. They didn't realize that Liam [Howlett, of the Prodigy] would never have made [1991 UK smash] 'Charly' if he hadn't once been standing in a field in Essex, off his head at a rave. Now, with what I would call the new wave of it in America this last year, slowly but surely it seems people are understanding it's about going out; it's about the clubs; it's about the lifestyle."

Tong, however, knows that Americans don't want the Brits telling them how to run their increasingly vibrant culture, so the second Essential Selection CD, due in August, will be mixed by Florida breakbeat DJ/producer DJ Icey. MTV's DJ Skribble is set to release Essential Dance Summer 2000 later this summer as well. "The idea from this moment on is that all the releases here are tailor-made for the American market," he said. (Sonicnet.com's parent company, Viacom, also owns MTV.)

And while Tong, like anyone else releasing records in the States, has a vested interest in seeing the scene grow, he remains somewhat satisfied that there is not yet a radio presence on the level of his own UK show.

"[Internet radio site] Groove Radio were bemoaning to me that mainstream radio doesn't play dance music," Tong said. "But I honestly think that, right now, that's doing you all a favor because it's keeping it as something naughty, something subversive, something kids can aspire to."