30 July 1960, Dartford, Kent, England. Certainly one of the most high-profile personalities in UK dance music, Tong has been described by some as the most powerful. This is perhaps because of the range of activities in which he is involved, head of ffrr Records, among the world’s top 10 club DJs and host of the hugely popular Essential Selection show on the UK’s BBC Radio 1. This gives him tremendous influence in determining which tracks transfer from the club scene to the national charts and often international success. He also runs his own imprint, Essential Recordings, and releases mix compilations for the Ministry Of Sound and Cream. His distinctive tones and streetwise turns of phrase represent the popular voice of commercial dance music. Tong grew up listening to funk and soul artists such as Funkadelic, James Brown and Evelyn ‘Champagne’ King and played his first gig as a DJ at the age of 15 at a wedding. Naturally entrepreneurial, he began promoting local bands, booking gigs and DJing at local clubs. After leaving school, he set up his own mobile sound system and would transport it from gig to gig in a Ford Transit van. In 1979, he began to write for the magazine Blues And Soul and was features editor between 1980 and 1983. Simultaneously, he DJed for regional radio stations, such as BBC Radio Medway and Radio London. An important break came when he presented a regular 15-minute dance ‘magazine’ feature on Peter Powell’s Radio 1 show.
In 1983, he was appointed A&R manager at the newly-founded independent label, London Records. While overseeing the career of pop chart acts such as Bananarama, he continued his radio career on Kent’s regional station, Invicta, before returning to Radio London. Almost immediately, Tong was lured by Capital Radio, where his weekly soul and dance show became hugely popular with London clubbers. By 1988, with the explosion of acid house in the UK and the beginning of the dance music revolution that followed, Tong had launched the ffrr Records imprint through London Records, with the aim of promoting Detroit techno and Chicago house, alongside his first love, black soul and disco. The label began with club/chart crossover successes such as ‘Bass (How Low Can You Go?)’ by Simon Harris and Salt-N-Pepa’s ‘Push It’ and continued throughout the 80s and 90s with influential hits from artists such as Steve Hurley, D-Mob, Smith And Mighty, Cookie Crew, Lil’ Louis, Brand New Heavies, Orbital and Goldie. By 1991, club culture was booming in the UK and Tong left Capital Radio to present The Essential Selection on national BBC Radio 1. House-based but championing all forms of dance music, it has become a club culture institution, attracting almost two million listeners in the UK and a significant audience in continental Europe. An American version was also launched in 2000. Tong was instrumental in reinventing Radio 1 in the mid-90s to reflect the new clubbing generation. Since then, much of the station’s output has become dance-orientated, notably at the weekend. Other DJs on the station from dance music backgrounds now include Danny Rampling, Judge Jules, Fabio and Grooverider. Tong remains insanely busy with his roles at ffrr and London, radio, television and club DJing slots, mix compilations (including the Essential Selection series), advertising voice-over work, and a radio production company. He also acted as musical director on the highly successful movies Human Traffic and The Beach.
You’re quite a veteran in the dance music scene and a very influential and key figure in that scene as well with a pretty extensive career. You first started DJing in the 1970s and you’ve been an ambassador in music basically ever since: can you give us a little more insight as to what the scene was like back then when you first started out?
I started DJing partly out of being a kind of frustrated musician: I was a drummer in a band at school and infatuated by music and collecting records, pouring over the sleeves for all the details of who was playing on them and what the artist had to say. Then I saw a DJ one day at a school disco and thought ,“Oh God, that’s so much better!” It aligned with my passions – it sounds better and it makes people dance, and then I kind of fell in love with DJing. But, DJing in the beginning… no one had a career being a club DJ, it took me a little while to graduate to what was effectively “underground DJing” of the day, specialising in a type of music that was sitting outside of the mainstream.
Once I moved into that direction it was really a case of, I didn’t really know what it was back then but looking back on it now, being as entrepreneurial as possible and just joining different aspects together that enabled me to make a living doing what I loved, which was being involved in music. From DJing, well, how do you progress? No one made music then: it was impossible; so it was a case of breaking into radio. Radio had a huge influence and there were a couple of specialists on there that I followed closely and was a fan of, so then it was a case of ,“Well, how do I get myself into those positions?” So I started breaking into radio – working on local stations and pirate stations, and I started running my own events so that I could book the bigger DJs of the day and then they could kind of discover me. Eventually I needed a day job as well because that wasn’t enough [money], so I joined a magazine and started writing about the scene before joining a record company and rose through the ranks there, and then ended up having my own label. It was just whatever it took to make a living being in music. I mean, for a long time DJing was effectively a hobby of mine and I became well known being a DJ publicly, but I actually had a day job running a label and it wasn’t until the early 2000s when I stopped doing the label -much later in life – and I could effectively call myself a full time DJ.
That was the journey at the start: I think the only thing I didn’t do back then was make music, which is what everyone does now, because then you had to have a record deal and someone had to pay for you to go into a studio. There were a lot more barriers to entry that made it a lot more complicated.
Yeah, it was a different sort of business model which has almost been flipped on its head a little in recent times. Do you think the genre has changed a lot over the decades? It’s nearly gone full circle with the sounds that it grew from to then being a bit more abstract, and now honing back in on those purer sounds again.
Absolutely! It’s always ebbing and flowing and some stuff is circular and some stuff is fresh. It doesn’t really go away, we’re in a time of change at the moment which is pretty exciting too.
So you’ve obviously got your radio show and your label, stemming back quite a bit now. How important do you find things like your radio show are for discovering new artists and gems when there’s just so much out there?
Fortunately, people still think it’s important. Obviously it’s a radically different environment to when I started – it was just one of handful of outlets for the music, maybe even less. I guess there was more focus and attention on that and now you’ve got to really fight for the attention because there’s millions and millions of distractions. That’s the challenge of how radio cuts through all the noise in the present day: I’ve been doing it for so long in the same place at the same time, so that’s something that’s very rare and kind of adds a gravitas to what I do and makes it stand out a little bit more. That sort of consistency over time – money can’t buy that, you just have to keep doing it. That helps and that kicks back to why people still seek that endorsement of being played on the show. Music discovery is very different now, you don’t have to have the first copy of everything ever made. I’m just as excited about discovering a track that might have been on Beatport or Soundcloud or streaming services for a year before it gets to a level where it can benefit from me playing it. I think the roots to discovery have changed pretty radically, but ultimately it’s still about programming an entertaining, inspiring and entertaining listen for two or three hours every week.
So do you find that mediums like Beatport and Soundcloud and streaming have helped with discovering new artists?
I think it’s mint: nobody is a gatekeeper and that’s a great thing for an artist or a DJ trying to break through. There isn’t that excuse of “Well, I couldn’t get on this one show, I can’t get started.” There’s millions of ways of getting out there and getting attention for yourself, so that makes for a much more democratic and fair system. Millions of people have been discovered through platforms like Soundcloud, and things like Beatport are just really honest. You put music up there, and if it becomes popular then you start rising up the charts and that gets you another level of recognition. I just use those things as scouting sources now, they all ultimately help. You can’t go backwards: things are always changing and progressing, you’ve just got to look around you and make the best of it.
How long were you working on the orchestra to get that idea and envision it?
I was asked in January 2015 whether I’d like to curate or organise a concert at The Proms, which is a famous series of classical concerts that the BBC had been involved in for many years. The Proms have been going for around 110 years at the Royal Albert Hall and is a celebration of orchestral and classical music. They wanted something more contemporary that would engage a younger audience. They asked Radio One and they asked me and we came up with the idea. I got introduced to Jules Buckley and in turn, the Heritage Orchestra who was his weapon of choice, and they were a progressive younger symphony orchestra who didn’t really play much classical music. They would enjoy being an orchestra that was much more forward thinking.It took about six months to plan the set and organise it all and we went and did the show in July. At that point it was the job we had to do and obviously a great job and we really enjoyed the performance on the night and there was a special atmosphere and electricity in the room and the reaction of the crowd really took us by surprise. It kind of snowballed from there. It was beautifully shot by the BBC and it had a good audience on social media and it helped to build up steam over the next few weeks where people were talking about it and asking us to do it again. They were asking friends why they weren’t there and we being asked to travel around the world with it.
Eventually we got together to do three arena shows in the UK, which went better than we had ever dreamed of. We sold out three huge arenas including the A2 in London, which is 18,000 people. By then, the real work began like last year where we developed a show around it, our own production. We went and recorded the first album and the album went to number one. We’ve finally been able to take the show down to Australia which was so much fun and so inspiring and it’s the first proper country we’ve been able to take it to apart from Ibiza this summer, but it was almost like playing a home match there. Now we’ve played in the Hollywood Bowl and the new album has just come out and then we kick off our new run in the UK on the 11th of December where we have five arenas back to back including two major arenas that have been sold out. So it’s been a mad two and a half years.
So you’ve done a lot of travel around the world during your time, travelling from region to region and city to city across the world. Do you notice that some areas of the world are more passionate about specific sub-genres of dance music than others?
I guess so, traditionally. Certain places have always been leaning more towards the underground. Having said that, when the EDM explosion happened in 2007-2008 that kind of skewed the map a little bit because for a moment, bar a couple of places that was pretty popular. In general though, South America have sort of tended to favour underground music, and Berlin of course and parts of Eastern Europe. So the map has changed a lot in the last couple of years.
You have obviously been in the music industry for many years. Do you think the house music genre has changed a lot during this time?
The essence of what we’re all trying to do is the same – we’re just trying to have a great time. Back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s everything was new. Getting to make music was a lot more challenging from a financial perspective and getting to entry level was a lot more difficult. You had to get noticed and signed, the whole process took longer and it cost more money. Now everything is accessible and music is so global that you can find like-minded people all over the world. The core of it all remains the same and so does what I’m trying to do.
You’ve had your own radio show and record label for a long time. How have these served as platforms for discovering new talent?
I use them to share talent. My show has always been about discovering music and championing new talent and I have a reputation for doing this. As for my label, it’s the same sort of thing. You find artists who you want to put music out and get heard. It’s a business, so you have to find people with the potential to become popular. Everything about my career has been about trying to break talent.
During your career so far you’ve played all over the world and been awarded an MBE. What would you still like to achieve in the future?
I’d like to find new challenges or continue telling a story in a different way. That’s what I’ve done with the ‘Classics’ project and that’s what is dominating my life right now.