As iconic figures in music go, Carl Cox’s gravitas is hard to measure, let alone beat. Few artists, past or present, can lay claim not just to being at the helm of a music and cultural revolution, but driving it to evolve for three-and-a-half decades.
So how come Carl Cox is consciously humble, while simultaneously being the common thread running through a music scene that has touched almost every person on the planet?
RSNG Over the years, perhaps through performance, longevity, or a passion that has never gone away, you have achieved almost God-like status in dance music circles. How does that feel? CARL COX, EDM’s GOAT “I remember Faithless and that track God is a DJ – well, I’d rather keep it that way. I know the sense of status and kudos that DJs get and when you are that guy, it’s nice, but it kind of takes away a lot of what the music and the scene is all about… and that’s the people.”
“It was the people who started this revolution, way back in the 1980s, and it’s the people who have kept it going. The DJs are really only the conduit to that, and some of the acclaim can feel uncomfortable at times, even for someone like me who has lived through it all.”
What dance music needs to do is refocus on playing in front of crowds of people – it’s something we have missed so much
RSNG What has been your most inspiring moment as a DJ? CARL COX “I could talk about playing the Space closing party, that was an emotional one; I could talk about the early days and the real surge in people and a feeling that never went away; and then of course there are the records, and how the technology behind dance music has come on so much.”
“On one hand you’re no longer lugging around a big box of records – it can all be done on a laptop. It’s perhaps not the purest way to play music, and you can never beat mixing with vinyl, but it’s a thing and we need to accept that.”
“I could even talk about how dance music was one of the real original genres where you really could make a track in your bedroom; and because of that now the explosion of producers and bedroom DJs is a beautiful, wonderful thing – all that creativity out there.”
“But what I think is equally important and perhaps most important is the effect music has on culture, and this goes for all genres of music.”
I believe that is music’s greatest achievement – understanding and unity
"It’s everything from the way we dress to the way we behave to the way we speak to the way we embrace other cultures and tastes. So much of that comes through music, and what I’ve always loved about dance music without vocals – and I am a big vocal guy… but even so – is that it lets you make your own mind up about what a record means.”
“It leads you to interpret a track in whatever way your mind takes you – it’s not guiding you with lyrics or ideas through words, it’s just purely the emotion that’s in the synths, percussion, bass. To me that’s really special, and to have a whole movement, a whole culture, a whole way of understanding where we are the same and yet, different, to others around you, I think is incredibly special.”
‘I believe that is music’s greatest achievement – understanding and unity.’
RSNG Has the genre lost any of its edge? CARL COX “I think back in the old days there was a rawness to it, and that was great. When I first started doing clubs like Shoom and Sterns, when DJs were first learning about Chicago House or coming back from the Med playing all this Balearic stuff, it felt like you were in a special club, if you’ll excuse the pun.”
“And the people who were going out raving were the biggest part of that. You have to remember, when I first got into DJing a lot of the clubs would just expect you to play soul and funk tracks.”
“Of course there was some Eighties electro going on as well, but for the most part if you went out dancing then you knew the DJ had in his bag a load of old classic Sixties and Seventies 7” records , or at least was following that whole soul vibe.”
“So when this new sound came along, if you had access to those tunes then you could really go a long way in a short period of time. I think that was really the start and finish of a DJ being some kind of superhero.”
“What you were essentially being praised for was being able to get hold of these edgy, stripped back, much more repetitive tracks that were being played in warehouses in Chicago, or downtown clubs in Detroit, or in little clubs in Spain, and it really was a whole new genre coming out of nowhere – what we would know now as house music.”
“Obviously as everything then evolved into acid house, rave, drum ‘n’ bass and jungle, there were all these explosive genres that followed, and that's carried on. So to answer the question, do I think the genre has lost any of its edge?”
“I think it's probably lost a bit of it in exchange for high production values and an image now that's cleaner, much more polished and infinitely more commercial than it ever was before. Does that make me sad? Yes I guess so, a little.”
RSNG So where does it go from here? CARL COX “I think what dance music needs to do, first and foremost right now, is refocus on playing in front of crowds of people. It’s something we have missed so much, and no amount of home DJ mixes will ever come anywhere close to replicating that unique feeling when you're out and immersed in the music and the ambiance.
‘What comes along after that will probably evolve by itself - you can't really shape what's going to happen because it's always been an industry driven by the people, and that's exactly how it should be.’
It's late, it's long, it’s hedonistic, and there are lots of people who don't come through the other side
RSNG You are 59 now, but everything about Carl Cox suggests there’s no retirement plan? CARL COX “I think two things happen when you get to my age – firstly, it begins to dawn on you just how many people you have lost along the way. Sometimes when I give interviews I realize how many times I might say the words ‘is no longer with us’ or something similar, because what this industry does to you is it takes a lot out of you.”
“It's late, it's long, it’s hedonistic, and there are lots of people who don't come through the other side. So I've got to be grateful for being here still, and rather running away from the challenge that just makes me want to carry on and make the most of the fact that I can.”
“I think the other big thing about most people in the music industry, is the fact that what they do is a pleasure all the time. You know that because for all the challenges they are still in it, and if they weren't enjoying it they would have left a long time ago.”
“So you're right there is no retirement plan! I couldn't think of the first thing I would rather do other than this.”
WHAT NEXT? For another music fix, read why Post Malone will never sacrifice his musical freedom for success in the RSNG interview.