Revisiting the Old School UK Mix Series That Made Superstar DJs a Thing
Global Underground ushered dance music out of the era of the faceless jock—and laid the foundation for EDM celebrity culture in the process.
For the first two decades of club culture—from the mid-70s to the mid-90s—most DJs were people of mystery. Out at clubs, they toiled away unseen, tucked away in tiny corners or relegated to DJ booths hidden high above the dance floor. On record, they were equally elusive, frequently producing music under different pseudonyms. Of course, what this system failed to do was make anyone exceptionally famous.
By the mid-90s, some DJs had established marquee names, but photos of all but the most ego-centric jocks (ie, Superstar DJ Keoki) rarely made appearances on event flyers or the covers of compact discs. Instead, the visuals of club land throughout the 90s were dominated by graphics, giving few photographic clues to the musicians making the whole scene move: sci-fi futurism, Japanese anime, 3D psychedelia, and sex-bomb club kittens.
At the height of this period, it wasn't uncommon for original artwork to disappear completely, with brand logos instead taking center stage. From top-selling titles like the United DJs of America mix CD series to endless Ministry of Sound label compilations and even Richie Hawtin's ubiquitous Plastikman avatar, labels churned out new album artwork with a factory-like efficiency, eschewing personalization in favor of brand repetition. Even the original DJ superstar Paul Oakenfold's iconic 1994 mix CD, Journey By DJs, featured a photo of a packed Wembley Stadium audience (taken while Oakie opened for U2), with the star jock himself only appearing out of focus, at the very bottom of the image.
After Global Underground started putting the faces of jocks like Oakenfold, Darren Emerson, and Danny Tenaglia on CD covers, dance music exited the era of the faceless DJ, and the reign of the celebrity spinner was born.
But then a guy came along and struck upon an idea that would change the way mix CDs and DJs were marketed forever. His name was Andy Horsfield—founder of the London-based Global Underground label and mix series (with James Todd), and an avid clubber and professional photographer. After he started putting the faces of jocks like Oakenfold, Darren Emerson, and Danny Tenaglia on CD covers, dance music exited the era of the faceless DJ, and the reign of the celebrity spinner was born.
"At the time, the DJ was treated as someone who just mixed the CD," Horsfield tells THUMP over the phone. "He was generally given a list of tracks and told what to mix. He was also given very little credit in terms of the cover art. I thought this was wrong. The DJs were the stars, and should be represented in the same way artists would be on an artist album. Their photos should be on the cover, and their name the most prominent part. I thought the record label's logo should be a stamp of quality, rather than dominating the cover art."
From its first release in 1996—a mix by hard house icon Tony De Vit—to its apex in the early 2000s, Global Underground became synonymous with mix CDs carefully crafted by the biggest DJs in the world. On the cover of each double-disc set, an artfully shot close-up photo of the DJ gave listeners a good look at the mugs behind the music.
The series also became synonymous with the growing international market for superstar DJs who would travel the world with record bag in tow. The first four GU releases were recorded live in Tel Aviv, New York, Prague, and Oslo—by DJs De Vit, Oakenfold, Nick Warren, and Oakenfold (again), respectively. Soon, the live recordings gave way to studio-recorded sets inspired by various gigs across the globe. Along with the two-volume mix, each release was packaged in an oversized box that included a booklet of extensive liner notes about the clubbing destination in question, with high-quality pictures of the DJ's travels by in-house photographer Dean Beleche. "As a former photographer myself, I understand image and design and how powerful images can be as covers," explains Horsfield of the inspiration behind Global Underground's distinct aesthetic.
At its peak in 1999, the label released six CD sets in a single year, then continued to put out two-to-four releases annually until a hiatus in 2010. Looking back, Global Underground's discography reads like a history of superstar DJs, from the Electronica era to the dawn of EDM. Almost every DJ makes repeat appearances, so you can hear how their sound evolved over time. The once-mighty team of Sasha and Digweed recorded two and three individual mixes respectively, while Washington DC's Deep Dish issued two sets as a duo before breaking up and releasing an additional one apiece.
Danny Tenaglia's infamous first Global Underground mix in 1999, GU010 Athens, marked a creative peak for the veteran NYC house DJ. It also introduced the world to Miss Kittin and the Hacker with the inclusion of their track, "Frank Sinatra," a template for the Electroclash scene of the early 00s. Another Electroclash hero, Felix the Housecat, would release his own GU034: Milan mix in 2008, with a set list bringing together everything from house and techno (Josh Wink, Chris Liebing, Ben Klock) to big room electro and early EDM (Boyz Noise, Angelo & Ingrosso). Nick Warren would release a whopping eight CDs over the label's initial 14-year run, while Carl Cox would hold out until 2010 to offer his first Global Underground mix. But when he did, he based the session on Black Rock City, the first mix by a superstar DJ set at Burning Man.
In addition to the 39 mixes Global Underground put out between 1996 and 2010, there was also the NuBreed series, which gave early shine to future headliners like Danny Howells, Sander Kleinenberg, Steve Lawler, and Lee Burridge. For the Global Underground completist, there were also four editions of Seb Fontaine's Prototype series.
Following a four-your hiatus, Global Underground returned in 2014, with a mix by one of the first superstars of the new decade, Solomon. November of this year sees another release, GU041: Naples, mixed by James Lavell, aka UNKLE, the 90s trip-hop auteur who delivered several post-MoWax mixes on Global Underground in the early-to-mid 00s. Additionally, Naples is available in a limited Super Deluxe Collectors Edition, which includes exclusive versions of UNKLE classics like "Eye For An Eye" and "Rabbit In Your Headlights," and comes in a "luxury box" filled with the compact discs, a 112-page hardcover travelogue book, photo postcards of Naples, and a GU luggage tag.
"Nearly 90% of all orders on our website have been for that luxury format," Horsfield reveals, indicating that the same commitment to quality that pushed Global Underground to the head of the mix CD pack in the early 00s continues to sustain its business model in 2015. But while the original impact of Global Underground was to provide DJs with a sophisticated platform in a mix CD market awash with cookie cutter compilations, today it can be seen as injecting a level of integrity into a mainstream music culture that rarely looks past the celebrity factor of EDM's biggest names. In that way, the mission of Global Underground has changed, while the actual offering remains as consistent as ever— 41 destinations and counting.