Carl Cox: "I was the only DJ that ever did it"

Carl Cox: "I was the only DJ that ever did it"

Trying to think of musicians that are ubiquitously liked is harder than you think. There are even people out there who don't like The Beatles. Bob Marley is one everybody seems to love. And Carl Cox is another.

The British OG DJ cut his chops in the 80s as house music first started to become a global phenomenon and hasn't taken his foot off the gas since. Whether it's his unparalleled knowledge of music, his technical prowess, or his unwavering dedication to the beat, if you want to get an idea of the history and development of electronic music, just look at Carl Cox's career.

From his 16-year-residency at the legendary Space Ibiza to his Global Radio show that had over 17 million weekly listeners, to headlining every club and festival you can think of and consistently being at the forefront of electronic music's sonic progressions, he is easily one of the most influential electronic musicians of the last 30 years.

We caught up with The Three Deck Wizard in the midst of yet another busy summer to talk about what goes into a set, the relationship between the crowd and the DJ, club culture and the rise of festivals.  

To start off I want talk about how you approach a set. When you step behind the decks for the first time of the night do you have songs picked out?

You can imagine I've been doing this many years and that's a question that doesn't get asked too often, so I'm very happy to answer it, in such a way. I never know what I'm going to play at any time, at any point.

What I normally do is get to the venue about an hour before, hear what the other DJ is playing, see what the crowd are reacting to and then once I've kind of got information about what's going on in the room at that time I'll choose certain records to complement the DJ that's just played.

Once I've done that and we've done the change over, then I can start to select records based on my sound and what people are expecting from me as an intro to what happens next. So there's nothing set at all about what I do. It's all done on the vibe, how I feel, where I think I can take the night.

I always complement the last DJ, I think that's very respectful. I never go on and go 'right, you've played a record which is 126 BPM, now check this out, 135 BPM' and just go straight up, because it's too much of a change. So I like to keep the party going, the flow, and then eventually taking it into where I believe it should go next.

What I really find interesting about DJ sets is that give and take been the vibe, the crowd, and the DJ. One day you're playing a house set, the next you're playing a techno set, it's catering to the setting... 

Yeah, I think it's important. I mean I've grown up in the era of actually being the DJ. I've grown up playing R&B, funk, soul, rare groove, latin jazz, reggae, soca, calypso, drum and bass, hard techno, gabber, you know what I mean [laughs]. I've gone through it all. And what I like about it is the range gives you more of an idea of the scope of who you are, that if it was just one-dimensional I think I would be very bored by what I do by now, which I cannot be.

I mean I still like to play old school house music and techno, I still like to play breaks and rave-oriented records, I like to play tough techno if I can and just keep the variety of the sound moving so it's not one-dimensional, it's not just coming from one place, which becomes monotone. So I've always played music based on what I'd like to hear if I was a punter on the dance floor myself. And that's how I continue what I do, to play the kind of music I think should be happening, what you should be listening to right now.

Now that takes a bit of work. The thing about it is in a two hour set you have about 28 records, so for me just to play a two hour set I would need at least 150 records to choose from. So if I do need to go off in a different direction then I can because I basically chose a selection of music for the day that allows me to do that. So I never have anything set in any way that I can't play one more record because it's not in the set agenda.

And, you know, there's a lot of DJs that have that, where they have the set mapped out for the two hours and they can't play one more record because they don't have it. So for me it breaks a mould of DJing in some way, because if someone said to me to carry on for another twenty minutes because the other DJ isn't here yet, no problem; for me, the longer the better. I can continue my sound and my journey as long as it takes.

Obviously you've achieved success like few others. I'm wondering how you keep that connection to the vibe and the music when it switched from you DJing just for the fun of it to people seeking you out and making their night specifically about going to see you. 

I think more than anything is just that my name has become synonymous with having a good time. So you kind of have to pick and choose what your good time is because I still play, not retro parties, but I do a thing called the Mobile Disco and it's funk, soul, disco, and house music classics. That's more of a purist form of my music selection.

And then you have house music kind of Space terrace sound, sort of happier house, more house music that just makes you feel good and more groovy. And then you have the techno events that I do which is tech-house to techno music, so you have to really find where I'm going to be playing and what side you're looking for in that way.

But my approach to all of those different events is always the same. I'm always smiling, always happy to be there, always looking forward to having a good time so I think that's what's been understood more than anything else. I don't think people come to see me and have a bad time, I can't really see that happening unless you're looking for something else from me.

Taking it back a little, you put out a few singles in the early 90s and then there's a marked shift towards harder techno, towards the underground in your discography. Was that a conscious rejection of becoming really popular or just following what you were feeling?

Everything was of the time. I used to play jungle, like proper dark, underground drum and bass sounds. And I used to play that sound with techno on top of it. So it'd be drum and bass with the kick drum of techno between the two elements. There's no DJ that ever went between drum and bass and techno. I was the only DJ that ever did it, and I just loved the fact that I could swing between those two things.

I love the fact that I can push the boundaries of the music. A lot of DJs go so far, I kind of go past it and then if I find that the crowd is struggling, then I'll pull it back again and take them in another direction. So it's just because I've been doing this for so long I can feel it, I can tell where I'm going with the music and how much people can take. And I try to push that as much as I can in any set that I do.

But nothing's been a conscious decision to play the harder music or the softer music. It's always playing the conditions. I always feel like if I know they can't take the techno or hard techno, then don't play it. Because you want people to have a really good time. You still do want to be slightly educating them, but also you still want to have that party vibe – the reason why we still go out and have a good time.

You can imagine as an individual, you go to work all week and then here's the weekend and you've chosen to go to a Carl Cox event. So you choose your attire, you choose your friends to go out with, you jump in your car or train or plane, you fly all the way over, you stand in the queue with your ticket and you eventually get in and I'm playing and what you get from me is exactly what you're expecting. That is what your good time is about.

That's what makes the party for me. Because I know the process people have to go to to get to me. So if I'm playing something for myself and I'm being selfish and not giving the people an ability to enjoy themselves because I'm playing, say, hard techno because it's trendy to play right now, then I just won't do that because I know what it's like to be a punter.

I want to get into the rise of music festivals and their effect on club culture. Do you have an opinion on that?

The festivals happening now are a direct answer to nightclubs. Before there were certain festivals to go to and that was it. But it was a direct answer to what wasn't happening in the nightclubs. At the time nightclubs were finishing at 2 o'clock, weren't really playing the right music, you had to wear certain clothes to get in, you had to wear shoes, you had to wear a collar, you know all this kind of stuff. And sometimes you got rejected because you didn't look right. Once this culture started to really kick in, then the rave thing started which eventually turned into festivals. So it was a natural progression to get to where we are with these festivals.

Now you have festivals everywhere. It was never really on our agenda to end up with these festivals, but here we are. But club culture's still there. Not everyone wants to keep going to festivals, they want to see a DJ in a club environment, in a more intimate setting, playing longer. You're able to at least see the DJ playing and that kind of thing. So there's a bit of an anti-reaction to festivals now where the club culture's starting to come back.

And for me I love playing club. That's where I came from but, you know, a festival, you play two hours, you really get the crowd rocking, they love it, the production's great, good sound, easy. Play till 12, home by 2. Fantastic.

Like you said there are so many festivals now and just two you're playing this summer are Exit Festival, which is a big multi-genre festival, and Kappa FuturFestival, which is a tightly curated, electronic music festival. Do you approach those differently or prefer one?

Exit is phenomenal because the setting of the festival, but the thing about Exit is you have people who are coming from all over the world. From the Baltic States, Germany, Holland, France, England, everywhere. At Kappa, the crowd is primarily Italian, Spanish, and French. So you have a different sound, a different element of what you give to the people in that way.

Also, if you DJ on the main floor at Kappa in front of you there's at least 15,000 to 25,000 people. When you play Exit, it's a minimum of 35,000 to 40,000. So you do approach them a bit differently because the atmosphere at Exit is obviously far bigger but it's also quite mixed, where Kappa is all concentrated into a more unified type of people going there so you know what you're going to get from it. So they are two completely different parties.

Just to finish up, your albums pre-2011 aren't on streaming services, why is that?

The thing about where we are with technology, I've done so much music, so many albums, compilation albums now, streaming services weren't available when I made most of those albums. To get them onto streaming services I have to reprogram everything on the albums but I'm actually working on it at the moment.

Oh, they're going to be on streaming services soon?

Yes, absolutely.

You can find Carl Cox's full festival dates here


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