Before Pete Tong became one of the most legendary DJs to rock a club, he had to earn a living like anybody else. Luckily, his early career as a wedding DJ was “good training,” he says, in learning how to keep a crowd happy. “If the bride and groom went home together after the reception,” he says, “that was always a good sign.”
Pete Tong has been an in-demand DJ since the late 1970s, and his BBC shows Essential Mix and Essential Selection and compilation albums such as Classic House and The Annual set the standard for forward-thinking dance music curation. He’s toured the world many times over and spun at every dance music club and festival worth mentioning several times already, and shows no sign of slowing down any time soon, having recently played poolside at Wake Up Call at W Barcelona.
Tong is celebrated for his sharp taste and has developed a reputation for always being on the cutting edge; for one thing, he was one of the first DJs to ever play house music on UK radio. “I was on a London station Capital Radio when House broke,” he remembers. “It had an instant impact. It was the start of a musical revolution. People went crazy for it. There was no turning back. It was a shot of fresh energy.”
Though he’s well-known for helping to popularize house music, he mentions that he was DJing “long before house music came along,” he says. “But I was always focused and open to what’s next and new and fresh and house music was like the second coming of disco but way cooler!
He was in New York when “people started telling me about these futuristic sounding tracks coming out on new labels from Chicago,” he remembers. “It was causing excitement in the underground record stores and the music started getting shipped to the UK shops. It evolved from there. It felt important and fresh and there were enough releases in a short space of time to suggest there was a real scene going on.”
He has been in the DJ game long enough to remember when dance music was mostly an underground thing, popular in cities like Chicago or Detroit but far from the festival-filling phenomenon, it is today. “America never really got over disco, so when house and techno came along in ‘86/87 it scared mainstream America,” he says. “The UK was the first place to embrace house and club culture as we know it today. It took 20 years and many mutations before it came back to conquer pop radio in the USA in the shape of David Guetta and the ‘EDM’ sound in 2008.”
Tong was one of the people who embraced dance music before it was popular, and through his production work and helping to organize music festivals around the world, he’s become a beloved elder statesman of dance. “I have just tried to follow the music, follow my passion and connect with the audience and tell a story,” he says. “I’m proud of what I have achieved, but I also know I was fortunate to be around during this era.”
Tong is such a mainstay of dance music that he’s also earned affectionate nicknames. When the underground Boys Own fanzine coined the term “It’s All Gone Pete Tong” as a way of saying something has gone wrong. He chose to be flattered by the ribbing.
“It was supposed to wind me up at the time but it stuck and look what happened. I love it,” he says, though he admits that “my mum didn’t get it for a while.”