Over the past quarter of a century, BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix series has become a thousand-strong collection that spans every inch of the dance music spectrum—simply one the one of the most revered and vastly reaching surveys of dance music ever recorded. Every week one of the world's finest DJs—recent installments include Maceo Plex, Nero, Floating Points, and Seth Troxler—takes audiences deep into their sound with a two-hour selection. The series has traced every step of dance culture's development, from acid house to trance to future bass, and has played a major part in expanding the reach of electronic music from the dancefloor to the day-to-day.
This past Friday in Los Angeles, host and dance icon Pete Tong unveiled the Essential Mix Live concept, a traveling calendar of events that will be based in the United States, where Essential Mixes will be recorded live by scene-leading DJs. Taking the show live is the boldest move the program has made in its quarter century of existence, and to do so in America, historically a secondary market for the series, is at once controversial and exciting.
To complement the gravity of the moment, Tong sought out legendary techno innovator Richie Hawtin to perform at the inaugural edition of the series at Exchange nightclub in downtown Los Angeles.
How many Essential Mixes are there between these guys? // Photo credit: Jamie Rosenberg
Despite the novel circumstances of Essential Mix Live, the project presents an opportunity to bring the mixes back to their ideological roots. "The spirit of the Essential Mix, when I started it, was to capture live DJ sets. That was our vision, bringing what was going on in the acid house and rave scenes onto the radio," Tong says. As the Essential mix grew in importance, artists began to think of it more in terms of an artistic statement than purely just a dance mix. "It began to evolve into the more studio-based sensation of DJs experimenting, diversifying, and, to a certain extent, showing off!" he says, laughing. "What we're doing with the Essential Mix Live idea is much more back to the original spirit, the original concept."
With this in mind, Richie Hawtin was an astute choice for Live's first iteration. His sets operate with a steadier narrative pacing than many of his peers, meaning his performances read well even without the flashing lights and CO2 cannons of the club. But it's still music very much made for the dancefloor. It was well past 3AM at Exchange when Hawtin put the finishing touches on his selection. Even the fog machines were exhausted by the time, but his loyal audience understood the gravity of the moment and were rooted to the dancefloor, as many will be rooted to their headphones when the mix goes live on the radio in a couple short weeks.
The Essential Mix Live endeavor represents a major paradigm shift in the model for how Essential Mixes are sourced. Most often, sets are recorded in the studio. In the past, live sets from Ibiza nightclubs and festival stages have made it into the Essential Mix calendar, but only special editions. For his new Live series, the Essential brand will actually throw parties, during which the live recording will take place. After twenty-five years as a radio show, the Essential Mix has now added a globally roving party division, one that will see the Live series in a number of major dance cities in the United States later this year.
Tong himself has become a vocal proponent of stateside life, particularly in his adopted home of Los Angeles. He lead the charge of dance music professionals expatriating to the area over the past half-decade, so it's fitting that episode one of the Essential Mix Live take place in his own backyard.
"Los Angeles is the center of content creation again," says Pete. "That's why it's attracted so many people from the electronic space: artists, composers, DJs, producers. As much as I love Ibiza, it's quite hard to get anything done there from a business perspective. LA is completely the opposite. It's a lot more work-orientated. It's got an image of sunshine and all that, but it's actually a very driven place, a very competitive place. I like that. I find it inspiring."
He dropped no hints about where Essential Mix Live will travel next, but either way, this event marked an exciting new chapter in the life of the influential mix series. The typically laconic DJ is even finding some time to to wax nostalgic. "I'd be lying if I said I knew [the success of the Essential Mix] was going to happen," he said. "I'm proud of it."