Pete Tong: two decades of dance at Radio 1

The dance music guru looks back on an amazing career as he prepares to celebrate 20 years at BBC Radio 1

“When I arrived at Radio 1 in ’91, dance music was this massive underground movement that had infiltrated every town and city in the country,” says Pete Tong as we sit, surrounded by banks of vinyl and assorted Moog parts, in the anteroom to his west London mixing studio.

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“Radio 1 didn’t really represent that area of music that well so I was able to come in and make quite a big impact quite quickly. It was nurtured in the underground and I took it national.”

This Friday, Radio 1’s dance music guru celebrates two decades with the station, a milestone achieved by only two others before him – Annie Nightingale and the late John Peel. “It’s an honour. To be able to do what I’ve done pretty much undisturbed for that long is incredible.” But it’s a thought that stuns me more than it does him.

Fifteen years ago, Friday night 9:00pm would have found me and my like-minded friends crammed into a cell-like room in our student halls of residence listening to Pete Tong’s Essential Selection as we prepared for a night out.

And we were far from alone. Across the country, clubbers were using Tong’s show as a way to kick-start their weekends.

These days, the closest I generally get to clubbing is listening to the breakbeat soundtrack of MasterChef. But Tong is still doing what he does best – leading new generations through their formative dance music experiences and championing new talent.

Some of the musicians he’s helped nurture will be paying tribute to him during a dedicated night on Radio 1 this Friday (8 August, from 7:00pm – full details below). Electro house maestros Basement Jaxx join him for a countdown of the top 20 tracks of his tenure before The Chemical Brothers show their appreciation with their own show. And then it’s time for Pete to get on the decks.

Such has been his passion for giving burgeoning DJs a chance that Friday will mark Tong’s first live studio mix since 1993. How do you even begin to put together a set for an occasion like that? How do you choose the tunes?

“Your mind explodes and froth comes out of your mouth!” laughs Tong. “Everybody’s heard the classics and they crop up all the time, so I didn’t really want to do that. I thought about doing half of the set as new music – but I do new music every week. So it’s ended up being a two-hour show that features music that is old but not necessarily music you would know.

“Quite of lot of the tunes you might go, ‘Oh my god, I remember that but I can’t remember the name!’ It’s just off the edges of people’s consciousness. So I think it’s quite an entertaining and timeless listen.”

He should know timeless. Twenty years on, at the age of 50 (and looking at least ten years younger), Tong is still at the height of his powers. And like a top Premier League footballer, he only looks forward – he can polish his medals when he retires.

“All that matters is now. All that matters is the audience today,” says Tong. “Getting too nostalgic doesn’t really pay off. I think legacy and history is a good thing but for me the show has always been about this week, the next Friday, the next, the next one.”

But if he doesn’t exactly wallow in nostalgia, there must be some stand-out moments from a career that has taken him all over the world?

“I have places and times that always give me good feelings. Like Ibiza, obviously. I’ve worked at all the clubs there and I’ve had amazing experiences in all of them, from the most underground, like DC10, to my residencies there, like Pacha this year.

“Then there were the early days of the Love Parade in Berlin – I think I was the first English DJ to play the Monument at the end, which was a great honour. And the very first English Love Parade, in Leeds. I remember coming out on stage at the end with [fellow DJs] Darren Emerson and Sasha and looking out at 250,000 people in Roundhay Park. That was quite eye-opening.”

He may be the Ryan Giggs of DJing but having already had longer at the top than most footballers can hope for, Tong shows no signs of hanging up his boots.

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“I’m conscious of the need to grow old gracefully… But at the moment I feel more invigorated – scarily – than I’ve ever done. So I think the next few years will be fun – and then we’ll see how it goes…”