If Pete Tong hadn’t started skipping school in the 1970s, dance music would be a very different place. For whilst his school chums were writing essays, Tong was spinning discs and discovering the joys of DJing.
From there he began to play at weddings and then immersed himself in radio, and began to promote artists that he liked on the airwaves.
He then found work at Capital Records, and when 1981 hit he got his first big break by landing a slot on Pete Powell’s BBC Radio 1 show.
A decade later he began his coveted Essential Selection dance music radio show on the same station, and even after 16 years it is still the most-listened to dance radio show on Earth.
Each week millions of electronic music fans tune in to Pete Tong’s show to catch his upfront tune selection.
Pretty much every single big dance music record goes through Tong’s show before it blows up on the global dancefloors, and it’s for this very reason that he’s one, if not the most influential person in dance music.
“Am I the most influential man in dance music? I dunno, that tag has come and gone over the years,” Pete Tong tells Beatportal.
“I’m happy that people think that getting their music on the Essential Selection is important.
“I guess I’ve just been consistent all these years and I think people like consistency.
“It hasn’t come overnight, and I’ve worked hard to keep a large number of listeners.
“I’ve been walking a tightrope between the underground and the overground, and the fact that people still care about the show is great, I’m proud.”
After 16 years, how does Pete Tong manage to stay enthusiastic about the Essential Selection?
“It’s that hunger to find new music, that fidgetness to find cool new tracks that has kept me going,” he says.
“And the Internet has totally refreshed the industry.
“I sit now on top of all this dialogue going on on the net, and the process of playing hot new music on the show has become validated.
“Before the net really took off, I would have to sift through thousands of promos that I had been sent in the post and I used to play what I liked, what I thought might potentially be a hit, but now it’s more about playing what everyone else is in to.
“The highest commodity is that now I can be absolutely 100% sure that a track is off the hook.
“It’s total modus operandi to what I was doing at the beginning of the 1990s.”
Critics of Pete Tong – mainly train spotters and DJ nerds – have always complained that Tong is too commercial and can’t mix straight, but by Tong’s own admission he’s never strived to be the coolest, most technically perfect club DJ.
“My style of DJing is about new music and pleasing the crowd, I have never tried to pass myself off as a technical master or a musical genius like Sasha,” he admits.
“I did my time mixing, or trying to mix, and now I’m using Ableton Live when I play out.
“Although you don’t have to beatmatch with Ableton, it’s a whole new level of DJing, and it’s also a hell of a lot more fun.”
Back when Pete Tong started DJing, dance music didn’t exist and DJing wasn’t glamourous or thought of as exciting.
“DJs were regional and traveling wasn’t done,” reveals Pete.
“Back in the early 1980s traveling from London to Middlesborough for one night seemed like a really long trip, but now I fly to Singapore or Dubai for one night.
“I certainly never knew that it would spread all over the world and become this big global phenomenon.
“I wish I’d known then that it was going to blow up, although it has been a kind of innocent journey.”
A journey that began with young Pete waking up one day and deciding that school sucked and DJing was more fun.
Imagine what could have happened if his parents had found out he had skipped school.
Mr and Mrs Tong probably would have grounded Pete, confiscated his records and turntables, and forced him to do something boring like accounting or picking up dog poo in parks.
And then his mates would have called him Pete Pong.
Then there would be no Essential Selection, perhaps no electronic music on mainstream radio at all, and no dance music records in the charts.
Some might argue that dance music’s rise into the mainstream was inevitable, but like the late John Peel, Pete Tong has tirelessly championed new electronic music on BBC Radio 1, Britain’s flagship youth radio station.
The success of his Essential Selection has proven that there is a huge audience out there wanting to listen to electronic music, and Pete Tong’s show has persuaded many a fat bloke in a suit that they don’t need to necessarily push manufactured pop or r&b on their station to get young people to listen.
It’s for that reason that he’s done more than any other DJ in the world to promote dance music to a wider audience.
“During 6th form at school I was in a band, then I got into DJing and started skipping school to concentrate on DJing,” Pete Tong says.
“My parents probably would have been upset, had they known what I was up to.”