This past week, Pete Tong brought his legendary weekly BBC mix show, Essential Mix, to the club for the first time, launching the Essential Mix Live series in Los Angeles with guest Richie Hawtin. On the one hand, this seems like a no-brainer, converting one of dance music's longest-running (22 years and counting) and most respected brands into a series of live events. On the other, live shows are an inherently ephemeral endeavor, and the Essential Mix has always acted as a definitive recorded document, drawing a detailed timeline of dance music's history, told in weekly two-hour chunks.
As that series moves into its next chapter, it makes sense, perhaps, to look at the series' more humble roots. Even before the Internet age, dedicated traders passed cassette recordings of Saturday night's Essential mix to collectors around the world, providing a portal into the world of electronic music that eclipsed the local offerings for those not living in major hubs like London or New York. Even a Detroit boy like me, with easy access to much the world's best techno, gawked in wonder at some of the series' eclectic offerings—from the apocalyptic drum & bass of Goldie to DJ Harvey's obscure disco gems. But even seemingly obvious mixes from acts like Detroit legend Jeff Mills were hard to find without the hiss of a hundred high-speed dubs, as tapes made their way from the UK back to our local postal code.
Thankfully, digital files have eliminated the sonic degradation of magnetic heads, and have also made these once sought-after prizes easily accessible to the current generation of dance music fans, for whom the very notion of life without an endless abundance of DJ mixes must seem odd to say the least. So here's a 12-episode, 24-hour primer on those early years, and relish the fact that these once hard-to-find mixes are now all collected in one place.
1. ANDREW WEATHERALL (1993)
That pop and crackle you hear at the beginning is coming from a real vinyl record. This classic set from Essential Mix's inaugural year goes from grinding industrial to bubbling acid house and blazing 303-driven techno. The only speed is "faster."
2. MASSIVE ATTACK (1994)
Coming mere months after the release of their genre-defining first album, Blue Lines, this mix by the Bristol crew leans largely on American hip-hop, mostly because there wasn't very much of their beloved trip-hop in existence at the time. The result is a fascinating look at the fork where Golden Era hip-hop split across the Atlantic and created something entirely different from the music's evolution in the US.
3. MK (1995)
Few careers have been divided up as neatly as Detroit-born icon MK's. This set from his first shot at fame in 1995 is full of stomping vocal house that clearly hints at the ecstatic sound that would make him one of dance music's standout acts 20 years later.
4. GOLDIE (1996)
Speaking of that split between US and UK hip-hop, how else can one explain the breakbeat mutation that occurred with the rise of jungle music in London that spread across the UK (and to tuned-in record stores around the world) with the release of Goldie's epochal Timeless album. This mix hit all the hot acts at the time, Photek, Dillinja, Doc Scott, LTJ Bukem, all of whom happen to now be seen as the godfathers of the entire drum & bass genre.
5. DAFT PUNK (1997)
Daft Punk have always been upfront about their influences (they have a song called "Teachers," for cripes' sake). But for those who haven't yet gone back before the age of Ed Banger, never mind "Get Lucky," this primer on essential 90s Chicago house will open up a whole new world.
6. DJ HARVEY (1998)
Another example of early work from an artist who's now having a serious second act, this mix by the venerable DJ Harvey, recorded back when he was the late night resident of London's Ministry of Sound, demonstrates the DJ's eclectic disco-heavy already arriving fully-formed.
7. AIR (1998)
The laid back French duo were anything but chill when editing their track selection for this four-hour session that had to be split in half when it aired over two weeks in March of 1998. The track list was equally uncompromising, with Bowie, Beasties Boys and the Beatles representing just one letter of the musical line-up that has made this mix a bit of rarity, even online, as it's constantly triggering copyright alerts.
8. JEFF MILLS (1998)
Airing on the Saturday before Harvey's excellent appearance, Detroit legend Jeff Mills offered a rapid-fire techno assault, highlighting a contrast that really demonstrates the diversity found on the Essential Mix week to week.
9. CARL COX (2000)
No other DJ comes close to Carl Cox in terms of number of times on Essential Mix—a whopping 43 by our count. A good portion of those appearances took place throughout '98-'99, when he was named an official "global resident," turning in almost monthly mixes recorded live from around the world—a precursor to the current Essential Mix Live brand. Things might have hit saturation when he appeared twice over the course of Essential Mix's Millennium broadcast, jumping the international date line to ring in the new year in both Australia and Hawaii.
10. TIESTO (2001)
Tiesto was already a trance deity in his home country of the Netherlands when he recorded his first Essential Mix in 2001, but the rest of the world was just about to catch on. It's almost hard to believe that the light and fluffy ethereal tracks that appear in his set were once the epitome of mainstream crossover dance music. What's harder to imagine is that a remix of Midfield Generals by none other than techno purist and anti-EDM emissary Dave Clarke shows up right in the middle of the mix.
11. SASHA & DIGWEED (2002)
The new Essential Mix Live series is reportedly aimed squarely at US audiences, with even Pete Tong now residing in Los Angeles as opposed to London. Here's hoping it turns out better than the previous UK dance music "take over" of America, the dénouement of which was Sasha & Digweed's Delta Heavy tour, a boondoggle that allegedly cost the duo loads of cash while failing to turn the tide against American's already souring taste for what was still being called electronica.
12. Richie Hawtin and Sven Vath (2002)
It all comes back to Richie, in this case following the America techno icon's relocation to Berlin. Paired with German legend Sven Vath, the two assembled this conceptually split selection, with Vath holding court for the club-inspired first hour of big room techno while Hawtin handles the trippier "afterhours" second sixty minutes. In hindsight, can we view this as a starting point for the minimal techno takeover of the European dance music scene that minted most of the biggest names outside of the EDM bubble today.