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How do you measure a DJ's popularity? By club bookings, remix credits, solo releases, and mix CDs? By branding, sponsorship and endorsements? Through glamour quota and celebrity status? Or by radio, television and movie appearances?
By any of these criteria, Carl Cox could claim he's got the love. Ultimately, though, it's the paying public that makes or breaks and more importantly, maintains - a DJ's popularity. And in that case Carl Cox absolutely has got the love. Time and again, when music magazines print their end of year polls, it's Carl Cox who tops them. Across the globe, when club crowds are asked who they most want to have spin, it's Coxy they request. Promoters who need an arena to go off at three in the afternoon, or a club to stay full at five in the morning, know that Carl's their man. He may not be a household name, but in the scene itself, he's a living legend, as big as they come. Quite simply, Carl Cox is the People's DJ.
A musical ambassador since he was in short trousers, a professional DJ since his early teens, a veteran of acid house and a champion of techno, Carl Cox emits a love of his work that is dangerously infectious. Check him when he's behind the turntables and you can't mistake his ecstatic visage, dripping with sweat as his head bobs up and down to the beat, his hands pumping the air whenever they're not manipulating the turntables, his body swaying back and forth, frequently taking to the mike to share word on the latest underground tune he's about to break massive. You name it, Carl's been there and done it, but he's never lost sight of the point of it: playing music, breaking tunes, spreading love, celebrating life.
Now, having extricated himself from his own thriving but overly time-consuming business empire, Carl is finally set to concentrate on his solo career. The new mix CD 'Global,' a typically high-octane burst of twisted melodies, driving backbeats, funky bass lines and future-skool breaks, finds him on a major American label for the first time. Mixed live off vinyl like his all his albums, and featuring three of his own cuts alongside fifteen other tracks caught between cult status and commercial appeal, 'Global' should finally see Carl Cox reach the same level of acclaim in the USA as he already enjoys elsewhere.
Born in Manchester not yet 40 years ago, Carl and two sisters were raised in the suburbs of south London. Carl's parents had immigrated from Barbados, and brought their Caribbean party spirit with them - especially for the annual harvest festival of 'crop-over.' While mum cooked and made the punch, dad lined up music on a turntable that could drop discs on top of each other. But when the records ran out, it was young Carl who'd be by the player, checking which b-sides would work, searching other tunes to keep the parents going.
"It just hit me," says Carl of his early engagement with
destiny. "Instantly, I became 'Cox's boy,' who put on good music
wherever my mum and dad went for a party. People would say to them
'Don't forget to bring Carl.' I would go record shopping with my dad.
Carl's enthusiasm for black dance music was boosted in the mid-70s when London was granted an independent radio station, Capital, with an American soul DJ, Greg Edwards. "The first time he played 'Running Away' by Roy Ayers, I was completely in heaven," recalls Carl. "I didn't need any women in my life, not my family, not anything. I was like 'This is it. If they make more records like this, I will be so happy.' And they did! The Blackbyrds, Norman Connors. . ." On Fridays, Carl would go to a store in nearby Croydon "and just buy buy buy. All my friends thought I was nuts, because McDonalds had just come out, and they would all go out and buy double cheeseburgers, and I'd go off and get myself a record. They'd have come back and eaten it and gone 'wicked' and I'd come back and say, 'This record by Brass Construction is unbelievable!'"
Competition from American cheeseburgers notwithstanding, by 1976 soul music was everywhere, and Carl and friends, still in school uniform, would board the bus into central London for late afternoon sessions at the 100 Club and Crackers. In 1977, aged 15, Carl got a set of turntables and began working as a mobile DJ. Disco captivated him. "I liked how it was orchestrated in such a way that a record could take you somewhere," he enthuses, citing Sylvester's 'You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)' because "it had a 4/4 beat, it had energy, it had breakdowns, and it had a diva singing his heart out - or her's!"
The early 80s saw Cox playing the same music as other young London DJs - rare groove (obscure funk), New York hip-hop, and electro. He was perfectly placed to hear Chicago house music in its earliest forms, and when the epic 'Acid Trax' by Phuture (a.k.a. DJ Pierre) came out in early '87, "I was just 'This is it.' I would do my parties, and I'd play old rare groove and hip hop and soul and I would say 'Right you've got to hear this, Phuture,' and people would just stop. 'What the hell are you doing?' I was just like, 'You've got to check this out, the 303s, the 909s...' I just had to go there. It's funny because all the people who thought I had freaked out then are the people who are making the music now."
As a founder of the sound, Carl rode the exploding British rave scene.
He played the opening night of Danny Rampling's legendary Shoom,
co-promoted The Project with Paul Oakenfold, held a
residency at the Zap Club in Brighton and at the Sunrise rave in
The next step was to make music, and Carl's 1991 debut single for Paul Oakenfold's Perfecto label, 'I Want You,' gave him a top 30 hit and a Top of the Pops appearance. Two more singles also made the charts. But Carl was a reluctant pop star and as the masses moved onto fluffy house and trance, and the hardcore created jungle, Cox retreated into the club world that had nurtured him and instead embraced the underground sounds of techno and hard house.
"Techno drives home somewhere," he says of his core music. "It takes you to an element of surprise, not knowing where you're going. It's scary but wonderful at the same time." A 1995 mix CD, 'F.A.C.T.', became a techno benchmark, selling over 250,000 copies. His own 1996 EP 'Two Paintings and a Drum' again broke the British top 30. With then-wife Rachel running the business side, Carl set up Ultimate Music Management, which counted Josh Wink and Laurent Garnier among 27 clients. There was the Ultimatum record label, for which Cox recorded his third top 30 UK single 'Sensual Sophis-ti-cat.' And inevitably there was a weekly London techno club, Ultimate B.A.S.E., for which Carl was resident.
Carl also started coming to America, thanks to a deal with Moonshine,
which saw the Stateside release of 1997's 'F.A.C.T. 2' (recorded live
in L.A.); 1998's 'The Sound Of Ultimate B.A.S.E.'; Carl's second studio
album 'Phuture 2000' ('At The End of the
There was also a cameo appearance in the rave movie 'Human Traffic,' and a 'F.A.C.T. 3' for Australian audiences. Carl famously brought in the Millennium in Sydney, then traversed the International Date Line to do it again in Hawaii. His most treasured performances, though, have been for the Berlin Love Parade, which he played four years in a row, often the only British DJ at this trance-European techno-fest. "I can't think of anything that comes close to when you actually stand there and you see a million and a half people waiting for you to play the best records possible to give them the best possible time," he says.
Success comes at a cost, however. His marriage collapsed ("the most hardcore thing you ever have to go through") and though he spent two years trying to maintain his empire, the constant international travel, lack of sleep, and bad eating habits ultimately overwhelmed him. "My body said to me, 'Here, have a kidney stone, have a stomach infection, and also, get gout while you're at it!'"
He was forced to slow down. The Ultimatum label and management company were disbanded. ("I now have one person managing me.") The club night continues as B.A.S.E., with Cox an occasional guest. Carl, who sensibly moved close to Gatwick airport along the way, now focuses on his performances and recordings, with America increasingly in the picture. He enlivened the day time crowds on last summer's 'Moby-headlined Area: One' tour, but prefers to play six hour night time sets "so I can really show you why I'm here." And whenever he's at home, he's working in his studio there with engineer Neil McLellan (of Prodigy acclaim) on his third studio album, which he promises "will be as important as the new Chemical Brothers or Basement Jaxx" or any other DJ turned producer "already on the train of making albums."
Some of Carl's newer productions are showcased on 'Global.' There's 'It's The Machines,' a classic minimal techno cut co-credited to his long-standing friend Josh Wink. There's ' ,' featuring Neneh Cherry on vocals. And there's 'Ain't That Funky Now,' with its Brothers Johnson vocal sample, a Cox classic from his youth. Other song titles in the mix demonstrate Carl's love of music for the sake of music, 'House Soul,' 'Drums For Better Daze' and 'Horny Hustle' being but three examples.
Unlike many a mix compilation, 'Global' showcases the underground. For while Carl Cox has the fame and the fortune of a superstar DJ, - and absolutely has got the love - the People's DJ understands that when it comes to clubbing and dancing, the whole is far more than the sum of its parts. "Even if I'm just playing records, I'm into the moment of playing," he says, "and with that, if I'm dancing, and I'm enjoying this moment, then I'm sure you guys can too, without the record having to be the focal point of why we're here. That's why I find it a lot easier to push new music on people - because I believe in what I'm playing, full stop. And everyone can feel that, and go with it, and then they can walk away with the experience of Carl Cox."
Written by Tony Fletcher