In 1991, about the time the electronic dance music revolution was just starting to seep into young American ears, a Brit named Pete Tong helped to launch the world's definitive mix show, BBC Radio 1's “Essential Selection.”
Its sounds of house and techno were so revelatory that young ravers in the States would beg, borrow and steal to get their hands on dub-degraded cassettes of Tong's show.
“All the ears in EDM were turned to Radio 1,” says Dave Dresden, who would grow up to be half of the duo Gabriel & Dresden and a onetime music scout for Tong. “Back in the '90s you'd get tapes from England just so you could hear it.”
It might seem strange to a new generation raised on EDM, but back then, the kicks and synths were all very exotic — flowing, as they were, from a scene half a world away.
Today Tong's London accent still resonates around the world on BBC Radio 1, and on iHeartRadio's Evolution digital channel, where his show is named “All Gone Pete Tong,” a cheeky bit of Cockney rhyming slang for “all gone wrong,” which also inspired an indie movie title.
If EDM is now the biggest thing in live music, Tong is, more than anyone, the man most responsible for bringing it to the surface. From helping to curate a stage at last month's critically acclaimed CRSSD Festival in San Diego to co-founding the TED of EDM, the International Music Summit, Tong still has both hands on the wheels of steel.
He DJs in Ibiza (Pacha), Las Vegas (the SLS) and Hollywood (Sound), but his influence is perhaps most apparent behind the scenes. Tong's remarkable career has taken him from the earliest days of drug-infested, Balearic raving to the most hallowed halls of the American entertainment industry.
Which is just a long way of saying that Pete Tong has gone L.A.
“It seems to have become a place where a lot of the decision-makers in electronic music want to be,” Tong says to explain his move here.
After more than half a century of propping up white guys with guitars, the mainstream music industry has embraced EDM wholeheartedly. Beverly Hills' Live Nation, the country's largest concert promoter, is organizing raves with partner Insomniac. Pop radio is playing Calvin Harris and Avicii. And Tong himself has been enthroned as a co-founder of Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor's electronic music division.
“Pete's skillful navigation of the ever-changing dance world has been an invaluable asset to our team,” says the firm's head of music, super-agent Marc Geiger, whose clients include Jack White and Lady Gaga.
On terrestrial radio, “The Evolution Beatport Show With Pete Tong” can be heard in 80 U.S. markets. Locally, you'll find him on KIIS-FM. Typical artists on the program range from Axwell and Ingrosso to L.A.-based Damian Lazarus. Jennifer Leimgruber, executive vice president of programming for iHeartMedia, says, “The name Pete Tong is synonymous with dance music, and there is no better curator to share this music and the artists with iHeartRadio's audience.”
During a recent interview at his WME office, several floors above the streets of Beverly Hills, Tong wears a crisp, black polo shirt, slacks and a black-and-steel Rolex. Framed record-sales plaques line one wall. An “All Gone Pete Tong”–themed book sits atop a coffee table. Pete Tong–branded white headphones rest on his desk.
In 2008 WME became the first major talent agency to establish an electronic music division, early on signing tabloid headline–makers Deadmau5 and Afrojack. As such, the agency can take a lot of credit for the insane talent prices and stage shenanigans that seem so far removed from house music's egalitarian roots.
“When EDM blew up
But Tong holds steadfast to his cred. Because he avoids the big-stage cheese on his radio shows and in his own live sets, he has avoided the tainted title of sellout. “When EDM blew up, everyone thought we all throw cake,” Tong says. “We don't.”
“He's one of the lucky ones that gets to do music, be credible and make a lot of money,” producer Dresden says. “That's testament to how good of a record guy he is.”
Born in 1960, Tong started his career as a radio DJ in the U.K. in the late 1970s; club sessions soon followed. In 1986, the year before Brits Paul Oakenfold, Johnny Walker, Danny Rampling and Nicky Holloway basically invented rave culture, Tong helped to engineer that birth by compiling The House Sound of Chicago, Vol. 1. That same year, Tong also founded his label, FFRR (Full Frequency Range Recording). It featured the likes of Carl Cox, Goldie and Frankie Knuckles and has been revived as a Warner Music imprint in recent years.
Tong's London was the epicenter of EDM in the 1990s, and his radio shows could make an artist with a single play. In 2000 in Miami, this writer watched some of the biggest names in dance music flock to Tong's poolside DJ booth to put their unreleased vinyl in his face, hoping to get a radio spin or a release on FFRR.
Work brought Tong to L.A. regularly for several years, but in late 2013 he finally moved here. He programs his radio shows from his home studio when he's not at his WME office.
The DJ says he has a plan to deliver us from a world in which EDM has become “When Will the Bass Drop,” a Saturday Night Live skit he references with some amount of lighthearted shame.
He wants “boutique festivals” such as CRSSD, which he says doubled its expected ticket sales last month, to show the way with polished but credible left-field house acts like DJ Harvey and J. Phlip. Likewise, he wants the culture's movers and shakers to get back to good music and vaunted values. That's the point of Tong's panel-heavy, industry-focused International Music Summit, a tastemaker's conference with annual incarnations in Ibiza, Singapore and Los Angeles.
The April 15 IMS Engage event at the W Hollywood, deftly scheduled between Coachella weekends, will include conversations between several industry heavyweights, including legendary rapper Chuck D and Detroit DJ Seth Troxler; the latter is noted for his outspoken criticism of a new generation of ravers unaware that house and techno were largely pioneered by African-Americans.
“Dance music is not thought of in the same gravitas as rock & roll,” Tong says. “We want to present it in the best possible light.”
Tong is hopeful that the EDM bubble won't burst and send the scene to a grave next to disco's.
“I think it's as big as it gets unless we change something,” Tong says. “We're at a point where it's not an ever-growing bubble. I do think it's bouncing off the ceiling now. Great music will take it to the next level.”
He says L.A., with its emphasis on entertainment (Hollywood) and technology (Silicon Beach), will help lead the way to a multiplatform future in which major record labels and massive festivals won't necessarily make or break an artist.
“Now all these amazing platforms and systems are being built, and the focus is coming back to content,” he says. “L.A. is on the rise again.”
It had better be. Tong turns 55 this summer, and he has clearly hitched his wagon to L.A. and its ability to change EDM for the better. This culture will be his legacy.
“I love these times,” he says confidently, sitting behind his desk at WME. “I've always been about championing the next thing.”
IMS ENGAGE CONFERENCE | W Hotel, 6250 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood | Wed., April 15 | internationalmusicsummit.com