Muzik | Feature | September 1996 | Photo: Stephen Sweet
IT'S ALL GONE. . .
"'The Essential Selection' liiiiiiiive from the Cafe Del Mar in Ibiza," booms Pete Tong, the way only Pete Tong knows how.
Outside, it's another scorcher. Shades are obligatory and there's more tanned flesh on display than in one of Sarah Young's finest Spanish porn movies. Which is something of a miracle because we're not actually in Ibiza. We're in London. At the studios of Wise Buddah, the production company behind "The Essential Selection", to be precise.
It's Friday afternoon and Tong is recording some trailers to drop into tonight's show. Most of them he lays down on the first take, but this particular one is being an awkward bugger. It's no big deal, though. Nobody will even notice that the editing suite engineer has had to splice "'The Essential Selection' liiiiiiiive from the Cafe Del Mar" after "Next week, we'll be bringing you..."
"Next week", eh? You'd better get your shirt back on.
Pete Tong usually arrives at the Wise Buddah studios two or three hours before he is due on air. When he's finished recording the trailers, he checks his messages, listens to any potential last-minute additions to the programme, makes a few changes to his script and has a quick pow-wow with his assistant producer, Caroline Dapre. Which leaves him just enough time to grab a coffee before he has to get over to Radio One.
As the host of "The Essential Selection", Tong is one of the most important people on the UK dance scene. But how much do you know about him? Did you realise, for instance, that he's also the A&R director of FFRR, London Records' dance offshoot? That he joined London Records back in 1983 and spearheaded the launch of FFRR four years later? Okay, perhaps you did. But a crisp new tenner says you didn't know he used to be a drummer in a heavy metal band.
"I was still at school at the time," he laughs. "I was into Black Sabbath and Deep Purple back then. You know, records like 'Paranoid'."
Did you do that funny dance where you hook your thumbs into your trouser belt?
"Oh yeah, all that stuff. But after a few gigs, I realised the DJ was having a better time than me. Plus he was getting paid for it. So I gave up drumming and got into DJing."
Leaving school in the mid-1970s, Tong immediately bought two decks, a mixer and a van. He did the weddings and the bah mitzvahs, but he also ran his own nights, hiring village halls around his home town of Gravesend in Kent and charging 50p to get in. It was an early indication of the entrepreneurial spirit he retains to this day.
By the early 1980s, Tong had graduated to clubs up in The Smoke and the occassional soul weekender. He'd also secured a weekly slot talking about the latest club cuts on Peter Powell's Radio One show, which in turn led to his own Saturday evening session on the Kent-based Invicta station in 1983. He remained there until 1987, when he joined Radio London as the replacement for Jeff Young, who had been poached by Capital Radio.
But it was only a matter of months before Jeff Young was once again on the move, this time to Radio One. Like Radio London before them, Capital turned to Tong to take over the vacant chair. If you have spotted the pattern emerging here, you shouldn't need telling who Radio One turned to when Young quit DJing in 1991.
It's 6.30, time to nip across to Radio One in Tong's Range Rover. It's literally a two-minute drive, but he still jumps a red light along the way. Perhaps it's all those years in broadcasting. Perhaps he thinks a red light meets "go", not "stop".
On arrival, Caroline Dapre reads through Tong's script, leaving the man himself to give his two record boxes a final once-over. He guesstimates around 500 new releases are sent to him every week and he is forever buying other tunes on top of that. But only 35 or so will make it into his three-hour slot. Tonight's choices include Way Out West, Faithless, Sneaker Pimps, Rufige Kru, CJ Bolland and the intriguingly named Jelle Boufon.
"We usually run five or six tracks every half an hour, with seven in the first section, when I play a couple of radio edits. It's the most accessible part of the programme because it's also the most crucial. We want to be able to keep hold of the people who have been listening to the previous slot."
Do you ever get nervous before a show? Are you nervous now?
"I think I've probably been doing it too long for that!"
"The Essential Selection" is just minutes old and already scores of listeners hoping to get those big shout-outs shouted out have faxed, emailed and called up the show. The telephone has 12 lines and every light is flashing. They don't stop for the duration of the programme. The guy whose task it is to choose the more interesting messages can barely cope.
"You don't even think about the number of people who might be listening," says Tong. "You're supposed to imagine you're chatting to one person sitting in their room or their car. That way you keep it intimate. But in dance music, there's also an element of 'Come with us, we're all in this together", which is why I often have other DJs on the mix at the end of the show. Getting DJs to phone in for a chat is part of that idea too. Everyone has heard these guys play a set, but the chances are they've never heard them speak. It's just championing what the scene is doing."
Tonight's guest caller is Nicky Holloway. When Holloway was running clubs like Sin and The Trip at The Astoria during the late 1980s, Tong was one of his main DJs.
"I still enjoy playing out in clubs, mainly because I don't actually do all that much of it now," notes Tong. "This may sound weird, but I've always considered London Records to be my proper job and I do well enough out of that to not have to DJ for the money. So if I'm playing on a Saturday night, my main concern is whether I'll have a good time. I'm not really bothered about how much I'm getting paid for it.
"By the same token, I've a great deal of sympathy for the DJs who aren't in that sort of position. Jeremy Healy comes in for stick about his fees, but someone doing it full-time is like a footballer in the sense that their career will end at a certain point. I know they're charging a lot of money, but they've got to be worth it or they wouldn't get booked back. I suppose it's just a fact of life that people like to bitch."
Tong has endured a bit of that himself, some of it focussed on the potential conflict of interest between working for a record company and having a weekly slot at the biggest radio station in the UK.
"It doesn't worry me because I know I'm not abusing the system. I'd be a fool to. It would be so public. At the same time, FFRR is a reasonably hot dance label – although we're not always the hottest – and I think we put out good records. So long as the FFRR tunes I'm playing are also being played by my contemporaries, by Rampling and Jules and so on, I feel okay about it. If I was the only one and they were rubbish, you'd soon know about it."
Throughout the show, Caroline keeps her finger on a stopwatch, writing down the times of every record played to be able to work out the performance payments due to the artists, while Tong continually checks the pair of clocks up on the wall of the studio. Alongside the clocks is a tiny door bearing a sign that reads, "This cupboard contains the Radio One Emergency DAT".
Caroline explains the DAT is in case of a breakdown during an outside broadcast. There's also a DAT to be used should a transmission be interrupted by an event of national importance, such as the death of the Queen Mother.
"All of the DJs have been issued with guidelines in case of a situation like that," says Tong. "There's a big book about it. It's right here under this desk... Oh... Well, it was here..."
Unless you want to see Tongy's head on a pole outside the Tower of London, let's hope the Queen Mum never forgets to take her tablets on a Friday.
This week's Essential New Tune is "Good Intentions", a collaboration between Groove Corporation and Shara Nelson. Tong introduces it with his customary pizzazz. Let's face it, you'd recognise that voice anywhere. Or would you?
"When people meet me, they often say, 'You sound nothing like you do on the radio'. It's strange because where I'm from has one of the worst accents in the country. It's just horrible. It's worse than Cockney. My brother speaks like that. I don't know how, but I've definitely adopted a different voice for when I'm on the air."
Is it something you just slip into?
"I suppose it's an act, but it comes on subconsciously. Don't forget we've come through a long period of DJs not talking. It's far more natural for the drum 'n' bass jocks who are getting onto the radio now, they're a bit like the old school soul scene guys in the way they'll chat at gigs, whereas nobody talked when house music had the monopoly. Except for me. Maybe that's why I got the job."
You always sound really self-assured.
"I'm just used to it. When I started out, I was really unsure of myself and wrote everything down. I basically thought about it too much. My confidence has certainly grown since I've been with Radio One. But this will never be a personality show, it's more about the music. I'm trying to reach a happy medium. I'm not Chris Evans, but at the same time I don't want to simply read out a bunch of record titles.
"What I'm trying to do is vibe everybody up for the weekend. Sometimes I think it works, sometimes I'm not so sure. It's a bit like a Rubik's Cube. Some weeks it snaps into place. You can tell while you're doing it, but you don't know how or why."
We've had the Cool Cuts Countdown. We've has the Transpotters Phone-In competition. We've had some guy ring in with a special request, but he can't remember what the track he wants to hear is called or who it's by. He's not too clever at humming it, either. We've also had a couple of jokes about "Dealers 2 The Dancefloor", the title of the new Tin Tin Out single. Caroline won't let Tong tell the second one on air.
Now we've got Hustler's Convention playing out the last part of the show, giving Tong a chance to talk a little about the recently released "Essential Mix 3" double CD. Previous volumes have featured sets by Carl Cox, Paul Oakenfold and Sasha. This time round, it's Judge Jules, Derrick Carter, Dave Seaman and, of course, Tongy himself. The package also includes a CD-ROM which allows you to try out your own mix of Tong's set.
"I've a fascination for multi-media," he admits. "The idea of the CD-ROM is to give people a set of turntables, a mixer and a box of records on their computer screen. The technology isn't yet there to do it exactly the way I want it to be, but I'm pretty happy with it. It's fun, it's interesting and the music is high quality, as opposed to being anonymous drum loops. It also makes it different to other mix albums. There are so many out there, you need something like this to help you stand out."
As the clocks tick towards 10.30, Tong gets visibly jittery. The show is over and he's eager to get home. Back to his wife Deborah, who runs the beauty salon down at the Harbour Club in Chelsea. Back to his two children, Rebecca and Joseph, aged six and four.
"I guess I lead an unconventional life," he declares as he jingles the keys to his Range Rover. "I generally start at London Records at around 10.30 and I don't get out of there until about eight. Then I'll probably be off out somewhere after that. I'll go to a studio, go to see a band, sign a band, wine and dine. Then there are the regular meetings, which invariably get moved. There's no such thing as a typical day for me."
What do you get up to outside of work?
"I try to spend as much time as possible with my kids. They're great fun, they're very active, they don't want to sit around watching TV. I play a bit of tennis and I like travelling. Deborah and I take the kids away whenever we can."
Those clocks are still ticking away. But there's time for a couple more quick questions. How come you've never recorded a track yourself, Tongy?
"Apart from the fact that I don't think I'd be any good at it, I honestly couldn't then take myself seriously as a broadcaster or an A&R person. I might play something I've signed or something from the label, I can't get around that, but at least I don't have to play something I've made. It would also compromise my position with my artists at London. What would someone like Goldie think? That I was trying to be bigger than they are?"
It would inevitably also have an effect on your private life. The way it is now, your voice is a lot better known than your face.
"I don't actively run away from it but, yeah, perhaps you're right. I was once asked to introduce 'Top Of The Pops' and half of me wanted to do it, mainly for my mum, but the other half of me thought, 'No way'. To be truthful, I don't hold any value in something like that. It's not as if you're Robert De Niro, is it? Or Jeremy Paxman, who is someone I admire. You're just the guy who says, 'This is...' and 'That was...'.
"That's why I don't think I'll ever be interested in a daytime radio show. I don't want to play records that have been chosen by someone else or be judged by an invisible board. At the moment, I come up here and do what I like without any pressure. I can't really screw up. I don't know if that's being scared to take a risk or being smart. To me, it's being smart."