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The Arrival: Carl Cox

UK legend Carl Cox reflects on his rave roots and influential journey.

by Michelle Lhooq
Jun 5 2013, 11:42pm

This the tenth and final interview in our interview series with our favorite electronic music artists, celebrating the Arrival of Thump and made possible by the new Heineken Star Bottle. In this edition: Carl Cox.

Ugh, washed-up music legends are so awkward. You know the type. The ones who blazed into history books with like, one amazing album...and then spend the rest of their careers clawing at the chance to taste that glory one more time. This either turns them into bitter nostalgists or clueless embarrassments. Either way, it sucks.

Thankfully, Carl Cox is...definitely not that. Because somehow, for the last 20 years, the amiable British DJ--who looks like the Hulk but talks like David Beckham--has managed to defend his perch at the top of the global dance music scene, all while earning the respect of the underground scene for not caving (too much) to commercialism.

After making his name in UK's blossoming rave scene in the 80s (in his own words, "My name on a flyer was like a stamp of approval"), Cox released his first single, "I Want You (Forever)" (not to be confused with Jessica Simpson's "I Wanna Love You Forever") in 1991 on Perfecto Records, founded by another dance music stalwart, Paul Oakenfold. That track became one of its kind to clock in on mainstream charts. And Cox became one of the first "celebrity DJs" in the world—DJ Magazine even chose him as the first #1 DJ for its first Top 100 poll in 1997.

Today, the dude owns two record labels, has a residency at one of Ibiza's most famous parties at Space club, and even has his own stage at major music festivals like Electric Daisy Carnival and Ultra Music Festival.

Because this kind of longevity can't be chalked up to "being at the right place at the right time" nonsense, I called Cox at his house to figure out how he arrived at the top of the dance music food chain. Turns out it had to do with child labor, majoring in electrical engineering, and getting your girlfriend to give out your business cards at acid house raves. I'm serious. Check out our interview below.

THUMP: Hey Carl, how's it going? I heard you just drove back to the UK from Monaco.
Carl Cox: Yeah I just got back from the Formula 1 Grand Prix. We had a wonderful time. If you're into that whole hullabaloo of the Formula 1 circus, there it was in its former glory.

Did you go as a fan, or did you play a show there too?
I've been going for a few years so they gave me a pass. So there I was on the lawn with Michael Douglas, David Hasselhof, Xzibit...I'm just a humble DJ and went straight into celebrity haven. [laughs]

Sounds like you're living the high life. You're pretty much a music industry veteran, having been in the business for more than 20 years. But what were your earliest days like?
When I first started, I didn't have a plan about how to become the person I am today. I was eight or nine years old, and my father had lots of dinner parties at home. I'd hear James Brown, Nat King Cole...and it was interesting to see how those tracks invoked reactions in people.

We had a mono record player that you could load about ten 45-rpm records on. But once you finished those ten, you'd have to reload the records again and there'd be silence. So I decided, why don't I just record the B-sides on tapes, write them down so I knew where everything was, and keep the party going. I was mixing records that way when I was eight, and people loved it. My dad took me to all our friends' parties after that. Basically I was cheap labor. [laughs]

Did anyone push you to make the jump from family gatherings to bigger parties?
Not really, everything was a natural progression. When I went to college in Carshalton, where I grew up, I took my books, my turntable, and my records. And when it came to lunchtime, I would take out my music and people would dance to it. Those school parties became very popular. But at the same time, I was basically a builder, working as a carpenter and scaffolder.

Just to make some extra cash? Or did you actually want to go into...construction?
I actually went to college for electrical engineering to be a motor mechanic. But what I really enjoyed is that I had the knowledge to build my own sound system: equalizers, amps and speaker boxes. So I built the Carl Cox sound system from the start.

When was your first big break?
Not till much later. I did ten years of birthdays and weddings. But right as the house music era kicked off in '86 and '87, I was completely on it, right from the beginning. In '88, we started having a rave scene in the UK, and I was a big part of that whole movement because my sound system was big, so anyone who was throwing a party would call me. And not only that, they also had a "double bubble" because I could also DJ.

So in 1988 there was a party called Sunrise and these guys were really popular as organizers for acid house parties. This one was at a place in Oxford for 15,000 people. I was still very unknown, but I started freestyle turntable mixing, and no one had heard that style before, so a lot of promoters who were there at the time were like, "Wow, who is that guy?" And my girlfriend at the time, Maxine Bradshaw, was handing out my business cards, like "Here's Carl Cox, here's Carl Cox."

And from there, you started playing more warehouse parties all over the UK?
Yeah, it got to the point where you had to have Carl Cox on the bill to have the party "understood". There were other DJs playing as well, like Paul Oakenfold, but my name on a flyer was like a stamp of approval for parties all over the country. It was a very privileged position to be in, but that happened when I was 28 years old. It wasn't like I was 18 and bang, I was in front of 50,000 people.

But how did you go from playing at Sunrise to appearing on every rave's flyer?
Every time I played a party, I marked my popularity. And I eventually got signed by Paul Oakenfold's Perfecto Records. And then I made "I Want You (Forever)" and that record made it to number 22 on the charts. That was unheard of for a DJ. I was probably one of the first DJs to make a mark on the European scene.

Were you aware at the time that you were pioneering an age of "celebrity DJs"?
I was always interested in making music, and I really wanted to create an album. No DJs made albums at that time. So I built my first recording studio in my home. Before I made At the End of the Cliché in 1996, I had a compilation album out on React called F.A.C.T. which stood for Future Alliance of Communication and Tecknology. I tried to put a lot of music on that it that you couldn't find unless you went to rave parties in Europe. And I brought that music back to the UK.

The biggest album that React did at that time was called Bonkers, and it had quite accessible techno music. They did 8-10,000 sales on that release. I figured F.A.C.T. would do around 50,000 sales. The first week was 35,000. And it went on to sell 350,000 copies. It became the biggest album for techno in 1995, and a statement for the rise of that kind of music. Then I put out F.A.C.T. 2, which came out in America first, on Moonshine Music, and that wasn't as big as the first one but still had a good impact. So I was known for putting out compilation albums with very high selling figures, and this went worldwide.

Do you remember a moment when you looked around thought, "Wow, I've really arrived"?
I felt that really early, at that party for Sunrise in 1988. I'd been DJing for 12 years before that moment. When people were asking for my number and wanting me to play at all their parties--that's when I knew that I'd arrived. I played that party and I rocked it. And all I could do was keep going. And I still feel like I'm moving forward and not looking backwards. I've never looked back since 1988.

@MichelleLHOOQ