Pete Tong: “I know I’m an old git, but I still enjoy the scene…” [December 1998]

Amazingly, BBC Radio 1’s Essential Mix celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, marking yet another landmark in host Pete Tong‘s long career.

Tong, who has been at the BBC since the early 1980s, launched the Essential Selection in January 1991, following that up with the Essential Mix two and a half years later – still vital listening for dance enthusiasts… and session heads. 🙂

In December 1998, The Times newspaper in London sent reporter Johnny Morgan along to interview Tong about the current state of the dance music the scene, ten years after the birth of acid house…

“I know I’m an old git, but I still enjoy the scene and I’m good at my job which probably makes it OK,” Tong explains.

Here’s the article in full:

A decade after Acid House, dance DJs don’t just live like rock stars, they lunch like them too. At least Pete Tong does. The star of Friday nights on Radio 1 for almost eight years has chosen to meet at midday in an upmarket Italian restaurant near London’s Chelsea Harbour.

Famous for hosting the Essential Selection – the country’s most popular dance music radio show – the 38-year-old is much more than an evening institution to British clubbers. He runs the record label ffrr, was instrumental in signing All Saints to London Records and has recently made his first forays into television, appearing as the in-house DJ on Ian Wright’s weekly chat show and hosting the dance documentary Clublife ’98 .

In addition, Tong still plays at clubs all over the world, runs his own radio production company and can claim to have topped the pop charts for six weeks in 1992 as producer of Shakespears Sister’s hit single, Stay . His name has even entered clubbing slang in the phrase: “It’s all gone a bit Pete Tong “ (wrong).

Last month the latest Essential Selection album received the ultimate seal of approval when Madonna allowed one of her songs, Drowned World , to appear on a compilation album for the first time. Finally, when 1998 becomes 1999, Tong will broadcast live from a huge New Year’s Eve party at Leeds Town Hall.

Take into account his family life – he lives in Wimbledon with his wife and three kids – and it is a wonder the Dartford-born DJ has time to eat at all. In a career which spans 20 years, Tong has run a mobile disco, has worked as the features editor on Blues and Soul magazine and has looked after the career of Eighties girl group Bananarama.

He first arrived at Radio 1 17 years ago. His job was to present a regular slot on Peter Powell’s show, bringing news and reviews from the underground dance scene to millions of mainstream listeners.

“I did a 15-minute feature once a week,” recalls Tong . “I had to say what was happening on the streets. It was weird, but also very exciting. I also got the chance to do some DJing. I was the first to play Malcolm McLaren’s Buffalo Gals on the radio which was fantastic. I thought I’d walk straight into hosting my own show on the station after that.

“Robbie Vincent covered dance music at the time. I told the bosses he was too old skool and they should take me on instead. They didn’t agree. They said I needed more experience. In retrospect, they were right. It took me ten years to get back on Radio 1.”

Following a successful stint at London’s Capital Radio, Tong returned to Radio 1 in 1991 with the Essential Selection , a groundbreaking show which heralded the start of the weekend for a new wave of committed clubbers. More importantly, he was instrumental in the station’s radical restructuring throughout the mid-Nineties.

“When I started the Essential Selection Radio 1 was divided,” says Tong . “The specialist DJs, like Andy Kershaw and John Peel, never talked to the mainstream presenters. In fact, until 1994, I didn’t speak to anyone there. When Matthew Bannister decided to revamp the station, he took me out to lunch to pick my brains. I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to make changes, but I was astonished that he came to me for ideas. I had no ambitions whatsoever in that area.”

Tong ‘s latest project for Radio 1 is a globe-trotting millennium show. “The idea is that we follow the path of the sun on the eve of 1999,” he explains. “There are people right now in places like Karachi and Goa working out if it’s possible to organise live broadcasts from local clubs.”

If successful, the programme may also be filmed for television, an area which intrigues Tong . “It took a long time to infiltrate Radio 1,” he reflects, “but once I had the trust of people in power I was able to make changes. I’m a sponge at the moment, soaking up the experience and trying to establish what I could do that would be interesting.”

Does the family man never feel too old to be hanging with the club kids? “I do and I don’t,” he admits. “If it wasn’t work for me it would definitely be a problem. I know I’m an old git, but I still enjoy the scene and I’m good at my job which probably makes it OK.”

But does he dance? “Sometimes, but I’m not very good at it. I have to drink quite a lot first. Contrary to what people think, I do like to have fun.”

And when he’s too old to shake his stuff to the Birdie Song ? “I’ll demand an underground spot on Gardener’s Question Time .”

[Article copyright The Times; London, 12 Dec 1998, Image by Andrii Khliakin, Creative Commons]

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