WORDS BY NICK GORDON BROWN
It’s frequently the instant hit of individual tracks on the dancefloor that kick starts new scenes, so it’s no surprise that every musical genre that is at home in a nightclub has spawned hundreds of compilation albums.
The very best have more than stood the test of time, with specially commissioned artwork illustrating a carefully curated track selection with detailed sleeve notes telling its story. When we asked our community to nominate their favourite compilations, one constant jumped out that united the majority of the selections – they were DJ-mixed.
So while we doff our nattiest headgear in appreciation to several decades’ worth of genre-defining unmixed comps, let us focus here on the many and varied roads down which we have travelled with DJs as our sonic tour guides.
INNOVATORS & GAMECHANGERS
Street Sounds Electro (1983-85)
If ever there was a compilation series that wasn’t only ‘right time right place’ to reflect a vibrant new scene, but went on to all but define that scene, it was the Street Sounds Electro series. Not only did these albums showcase the freshest new sound of the era, they did so in what was billed as a “specially mixed” format, with the smallprint on volumes 1-3 stating ‘A Mastermind Mix by Herbie’. After Herbie, Irish brothers Noel and Maurice Watson, who would go on to become seminal figures in the London club scene, took the controls.
The Street Sounds golden era was 1983-85. As the electro element began to disappear from hip hop, the series began to lose its way, and gradually the marketplace got more crowded as imitators and young guns alike looked to muscle in. However, volumes 1-6 are all worth tracking down; and their role in establishing the ‘mixed’ format (albeit on vinyl) cannot be underestimated.
Mixmag / Kiss 100FM Cover Mount CD (1990)
Having started life as part of the monthly package received by subscribers to DMC’s DJ only remix service, in July 1989 Mixmag had made the bold move of launching onto newsstands nationwide. Sales were steady but far from spectacular – certainly the magazine was not the club culture powerhouse it was to become by the mid-90s.
Meanwhile trailblazing London pirate radio station Kiss FM had won a legal license in September of that year. It suited both parties to collaborate on an eye-catching promotional project and so, the December 1990 issue saw the world’s first magazine cover mount CD - previously only cassettes or 7” singles had been glued to mags.
The format was brilliantly simple – five Kiss DJs mixed together a selection of tracks from one of their favourite labels, with five different genres covered. Given CD time constrictions, the mixes were all relatively short, but looking back, it’s a fantastic snapshot of the era, and it’s surprising this disc isn’t more revered. For the record, it featured the following:
Major Force– groundbreaking Japanese proto-trip hop label – mix by Judge Jules
Warp– legendary Sheffield based techno imprint – mix by Colin Faver
Creation– acknowledging the indie stalwart’s dance music phase – mix by Danny Rampling
Gee Street– London label for both homegrown and licensed in hip hop – mix by Richie Rich
Nu Groove– one of New York’s original and finest house labels – mix by Tee Harris
Renaissance The Mix Collection – Sasha & John Digweed (1994)
Early pacesetters in the mix series stakes were Mixmag Live (launched by the magazine in 1992), and Journeys by DJ (launched in 1993 by London clubland entrepreneur Tim Fielding). Each played a pivotal role and released many a classic mix (see below), but both would agree that Renaissance took things a stage further.
Mixmag initially stayed cassette only, and by featuring two DJs per release, the mixes were relatively short. JDJ allowed solo DJs to spread their wings over a full 79 minutes, and committed to CDs from day one, but understandably revelled in being an underground, cult series.
By contrast, everything about the Renaissance release was LAVISH. A triple CD meant the dynamic duo had the best part of 4 hours to play with. The packaging eschewed the standard CD ‘jewel case’ in favour of a fold out ‘digipack’.
The timing could not have been better. Sasha had already had two Mixmag covers, the first asking “is this the first superstar DJ?”, the second christening him “son of God”. When kicking off Renaissance as resident in 1993 after a spell playing gigs nationwide every weekend, it was hyped up as “the restoration of Sasha to the north”.
Digweed had carved himself an impressive rep down south, with his own Storm parties on the coast, and warming up for Fabio & Grooverider at London’s Rage. Securing the Renaissance residency saw his standing rocket.
Above all, of course, was a peerless tracklisting. What this collection is NOT is 3 CDs of progressive house and proto trance – this is demonstrated on the duo’s 1996 Northern Exposure release, by which time they were the embodiment of that sound. This 1994 set captures perfectly one of the last times when you could easily find all different strands of house morphed together in one set by DJs with the requisite skill set and an open mind. Italian trance, Boys Own dubs and crossover vocal hits all rub shoulders, and a look at the track credits reads like a who’s who of UK, US and European dance music.
Mixmag Live! Vol 19: Laurent Garnier (1994) / Journeys by DJ Vol 8: Coldcut - 70 Minutes of Madness (1995)
The Garnier mix landed just after Renaissance; Coldcut’s a few months later. Each preceded a classic run of mid-late 90s releases which showed these two mix CD instigators to be emboldened by the way Renaissance had helped open the market up.
Garnier wanted you to listen to his “sexy techno” mix in full: “this CD mix is not idented, which means you cannot flip straight to selected tracks – this is because Laurent felt his mix told a journey as a whole and should be listened to as such.”
Coldcut’s JDJ edition, much like Renaissance’s first Mix Collection, features in every round up of classic mix CDs. JDJ volumes 1-7 had all provided a welcome peek into the record boxes of top house DJs. “70 Minutes of Madness”, however, didn’t just raise the bar for DJ mixes, it effectively invented a new mix genre.
Starting with its cheekily self-referencing title (the duo’s groundbreaking 1987 remix of Eric B & Rakim’s Paid In Full had been subtitled “7 Minutes of Madness”), the rulebook was rewritten. Before mash up/ bootleg mixes were commonplace, before anyone had heard of DJ Shadow, Yoda or Soulwax, Coldcut cut’n’pasted together artists and genres that no one thought could (or should) go together.
Arguably, it was what Coldcut had been doing for years – at their FlimFlam parties, on their Solid Steel Kiss FM shows, on their labels Ahead Of Our Time and then Ninja Tune. It just hadn’t been done on a mix CD before. Crucially, Coldcut made no secret of the fact they had utilised their mastery of the studio to create their masterpiece. The mix wizards had let us look behind the curtain.
HOUSE MUSIC ALL NIGHT LONG
#1 - I remember house when it was a spiritual thing
Ministry of Sound Sessions series (1993-98)
MoS weren’t far behind Mixmag and JDJ, with their first Sessions release, mixed by US don and club resident Tony Humphries, released in 1993. Setlist geeks may be interested to note that for a man steeped in US house/garage history, the majority of the 12 featured tracks are of UK origin.
Volume 2 was mixed by Paul Oakenfold – for a series that is renowned for being all about the ‘purist’ house sound, this might look like an aberration – but the tracklist credits, when viewed through a 2019 prism, are fascinating. MAW, Farley & Heller, Clivilles & Cole, Roy Davis Jr, Roger S, Johnny Vicious – it’s certainly more NYC than Goa.
The series then hit its stride with regular releases mixed by a who’s who of house, making it a market leader.
Hard Times (1995-6)
If Ministry ruled the roost in London, when it came to the US house & garage sound, its bastion in the north of the UK was the much loved Hard Times, which as their Facebook page tells us “moved to various locations around the Yorkshire area for one reason or another, usually arsehole club owners blah blah blah”.
Their entry into the mix CD world was shortlived, but as fondly remembered as the night itself, with Todd Terry and Roger Sanchez helming 1995 releases; followed by residents Miles Hollway / Elliot Eastwick and Jason Boardman / Dave Piccioni in 1996. The track selections dig deeper than the MoS sessions – we recommend having Shazam ready to go when you check them out.
Todd Edwards – Locked On. Inside The Mix (1996)
Still a pioneer, and now firmly ensconced in the Defected family (see here), Todd Edwards first rose to prominence in the mid-90s.
Any musical style needs risk-takers who are prepared to tweak and twist established formulas…and often in so doing create something brand new. As has been well documented, that was exactly what happened when Todd’s unique approach centred on chopped up beats and vocal samples caught fire across the Atlantic, and effectively gave birth to UK garage.
This 1996 mix perfectly encapsulates the sound that created the storm.
#2 Handbags at Dawn
Fantazia presents The House Collection Vol 3: Jeremy Healy & Allister Whitehead (1995) / Ministry of Sound The Annual II: Pete Tong & Boy George (1996)
When does underground become overground? Who decides which side of the fence a tune, DJ or club falls? Does commercial success necessarily negate credibility? What exactly is “selling out”? This debate is as old as the dance music hills, and if truth be told, there is no definitive answer.
What we do know is that the first wave of mix CD compilers placed credibility high on their agenda. Sales may often have reached a healthy (and profitable) tens of thousands, or in the case of the first Renaissance mix, gone into six figures. However, the club scene was booming, DJs were becoming household names, and with crossover chart hits aplenty, someone was always going to be tempted to risk compromising their credibility so they could aim for the sales stars.
Rave promoters Fantazia cast the first stone with House Collection– and Ministry of Sound’s Annual series saw the south London giants soon take up the big tunes baton. These collections are the sound of main room clubbing in the 90s. As such, they provide unforgettable memories for a generation of clubbers. They would also serve as an entry point to the dance scene for many not yet old enough to experience the magic first hand.
Yes there are cheesy tracks, tunes that haven’t aged well…but there are also many bona fide hands in the air classics, often from small independent labels for whom such deals often meant they could survive for another year. Look beyond the lowest common denominator packaging and in yer face marketing, and you find some sterling DJ sets. The two we highlight went off the scale sales-wise.
#3 Dark & Long
Global Underground series (1997-2002)
GU launched in 1996, and only last month rebooted after its second hiatus courtesy of a well-received set from Patrice Baumel. However, what most would view as its golden years saw them straddle the change of millennium with a series of releases from Sasha, Digweed, Dave Seaman, Nick Warren, Danny Tenaglia, Deep Dish and Darren Emmerson that ruled the progressive house market.
GU’s unique selling point to DJs was that they put them at the centre of everything. Their photos adorned the sleeves, portraying them as the artists they were increasingly being compared to. They didn’t have to compete for space with brand names or scantily clad models. Similarly, no restrictions were put on their tracklistings.
Indeed by this time, DJs were frequently seeking out upfront exclusives to feature on their CD releases…and many labels soon found that allowing them to feature a track prior to its full release wasn’t the kiss of death it had previously been assumed to be. On the contrary, the seal of approval from a tastemaker only served to build demand.
The progressive sound had garnered a particularly loyal, truly international fanbase. All the leading ‘prog’ DJs were clocking up the air miles, and GU identified this as another angle. Each DJ would select a city they felt a special affinity with, and the CD would be based on a set played there – though in the vast majority of cases, this was just the starting point. Our hero would then retreat to the sanctuary of the studio to buff up the mix.
GU represented the progressive sound with both style and substance.
Renaissance Worldwide: Singapore – David Morales / Dave Seaman / BT (1998)
Realistically, having blown the doors wide open with their first release, it was always going to be hard for Renaissance to repeat the trick. However, what Mix Collection One did was elevate awareness of the brand very quickly. DJs hankered to play for them and queued up to mix their CDs; whilst it also enabled them to start touring internationally, from Mansfield to Montreal & Moscow within the space of a couple of years. Thus when they launched their Worldwide series of CDs, much as it may just have been the smallest of digs towards their progressive competitors at GU, it was a justifiable tag.
Keen to differentiate themselves from GU, this particular release saw a couple of smart moves that paid off handsomely. First, leading house DJs were still very much part of a Renaissance night. They don’t come much bigger than David Morales, so getting him on board for ‘Singapore’ was a coup. He pulled out all the stops with a mix that had oodles of funk, a dash of disco, impassioned vocal tracks, plenty of percussive power…and just a little darkness around the edges.
Secondly, one of the discs wasn’t even mixed by a DJ. Instead, cult producer Brian ‘BT’ Transeau was invited to concoct a studio mix, a challenge he happily rose to. Realising he was sandwiched between Morales and BT, Renaissance regular Dave Seaman also felt the need to raise the bar, and delivered arguably his most diverse, exclusives-laden set to date.
#4 21st Century Good Vibes
A Night at the Playboy Mansion: Dimitri From Paris (2000)
Even as late as 2000, with DJs getting booked into label release schedules and tracks being licensed months in advance, a mix CD could still appear as if from nowhere and blow everyone away. That was the case with the Playboy concept mix that took much loved Defected / Glitterbox favourite Dimitri to another level.
His Sacre Bleu artist album in 1996 on French label Yellow had been a cult hit, leading to an invitation from Mixmag Live to do his first mix CD – the acclaimed Monsieur Dimitri's De-Luxe House of Funk, released in 1997. However, the Playboy CD came about from a chance conversation at Miami’s Winter Music Conference, when Dimitri and his friends from Paris-based promoters Respect Is Burning persuaded some visiting Playboy reps to let them throw a party at the (in)famous Playboy mansion.
Playboy’s one condition was that there needed to be a reason for the party…an album launch was agreed upon…and as neither Dimitri nor RIB had a suitable release scheduled, they had the idea of creating the Playboy themed mix.
Dimitri as music selector and the graphics team both took Playboy’s 70s heyday as their starting point, whilst injecting a contemporary twist to both the sound and the visuals. With big hitting US label Astralwerks and Virgin in France on board, it was the perfect storm.
Defected Sessions series (2000-2002)
When Defected launched in 1999, it was initially in partnership with Ministry of Sound. The mutually beneficial nature of the team up is neatly illustrated by the knock-on effect on the Session series.
While MoS the club was still hosting leading house and garage DJs weekly, MoS the record label was increasingly focussed on more commercial crossover single releases, which in turn fuelled their more mainstream compilations such as The Annual (see above). However, they still wanted to keep the highly respected Session series going, and realised that in Simon Dunmore they had the perfect A&R man for the job; and in Defected, they had the ideal partner label to rejuvenate the series.
Slowly but surely, the series transitioned into an MoS / Defected joint venture, initially with the Subliminal and Roger Sanchez releases, then perhaps most memorably with the Magic Sessions set featuring the heavyweight trio of Louie Vega, Tony Humphries and Tedd Patterson.
At this point, Defected began to pass the baton onto a new generation of DJs and producers, all of whom were working with the label – hence releases from Sandy Rivera (Kings of Tomorrow Sessions), Full Intention / Smokin’ Jo (Defected Sessions),and Jazz’n’Groove (Soulfuric Sessions).
Defected and MoS then went their separate ways. MoS would keep the Sessions brand going for several more years, something they may not have been able to do had Defected not revitalised the concept. Defected now had the know-how to develop their own mix series, and hence the way had been paved for In The House, House Masters and so many more.
Check out our Classic Mix Collection SoundCloud page which will be updated regularly with all your old favourites.
The DJ Kicks catalogue is both immense (the 68th edition mixed by Laurel Halo was released recently) and inspirational. Launched by German label !K7 in 1995, its opening salvos from Belgian rave master CJ Bolland and Detroit’s techno don Carl Craig were a refreshing antidote to the ever-increasing number of soundalike mixes that were starting to saturate the marketplace. However, it was with the Kruder & Dorfmeister instalment released in 1996 that DJ Kicks, whether by accident or design, created a whole new world which they have inhabited ever since.
Timing and attention to detail were crucial. The Austrian duo were about as hip as it got at the time, and their mix of dub, trip hop, drum’n’bass and ambient confidently picked up the gauntlet thrown down by Coldcut, an act they admitted had been a major inspiration.
From thereon, the DJ Kicks catalogue sees them, as their website proudly states, “seamlessly tracing more than two decades of alternative, electronic culture.”
Back To Mine / Another Late Night / Late Night Tales (1999-2019)
The Back To Mine concept, kickstarted by a casual office conversation about after hours sessions, was simple. Imagine inviting all your friends back to yours after the club…and having a tastemaker DJ in tow to soundtrack it. Initial volumes were mixed by DJs Nick Warren, Dave Seaman and Danny Tenaglia, before a slight change in direction to selectors better known as artists than DJs, in Groove Armada and Faithless.
Around this time there was a twist. DMC staffer Austin Wilde, who had been heavily involved in BTM, moved on to pastures new, and helped launch a new series, Another Late Night. A (mostly) friendly rivalry thus ensued, with each series pushing the other to greater heights.
ALN initially focussed on the DJ producer angle, in their first year issuing editions by Fila Brazillia, Howie B, Rae & Christian and Zero 7. They also introduced a groundbreaking new marketing idea – each act would record a cover version of a favourite track, which would be used to promote the album.
With the ante upped, BTM responded by inviting high profile bands to curate collections – not just electronic heavyweights such as Orbital and Underworld, but acts of the status of Everything But The Girl, New Order and Pet Shop Boys. With edition 8, mixed by Nightmares On Wax, legal complications saw ALN change names to Late Night Tales, but the success story continued.
The release schedule has slowed down, but LTN is still going strong in 2019, as evidenced by the recent release by Floating Points. BTM appeared to have been laid to rest with release number 28 by Krafty Kuts in January 2008…but has just been revived with the recent, much acclaimed set by Nightmares On Wax (January 2019).
When London nightclub Fabric chose to enter the mix CD fray in 2001, they set themselves an ambitious goal – a mix CD release every month.
Two series would alternate releases – hence the Fabric series, designed to showcase the house/techno-orientated sound of their Saturday nights, kicked things off in November 2001 with a mix courtesy of resident Craig Richards; and in December 2001, a James Lavelle mix launched the Fabric Live series, geared more towards the Friday night mix of drum’n’bass, hip hop, and the outer edges of electronica.
Astonishingly, they pulled it off…for no less than a whopping 17 years, fittingly pulling the plug as each series reached edition 100. The sheer volume of releases and variety of DJs and compilers means no other series comes close to Fabric in terms of documenting nearly two decades of club culture and electronic experimentation. Given the number of hoops that need to be jumped through to get a mix from initial concept into stores, it is a phenomenal achievement.
Naturally, given the sheer number of releases, the quality control dips just a little every now and then…equally, those dips are few and far between, and relatively minor…and far outnumbered by the number of classic mixes.
The Sound of the Cosmos: Tom Middleton (2002)
If you could pick just one DJ / electronic artist to guide you through the minefields of decades of alternative music, Tom Middleton would be a good shout. Any Middleton release, as artist, DJ or curator, is both an event and an education.
Producer and crate digger extraordinaire, the key to his genre-trashing DJ sets and mix compilations is that crucially, he never forgets he’s also here to entertain. Here we have opted to highlight a triple CD set released on Hooj Choons. Divided into Rhythm, Melody and Harmony sets, it touches on pretty much every strand of dance / electronic music. ‘Journey’ is a much over-used word when discussing DJ sets – we’ve got this far without using it, but this is a collection that truly takes you on an unforgettable one.
2 Many DJs – As Heard on Radio Soulwax Vol 2 (2002)
The ultimate mash up. 45 tracks from Kylie to the Velvet Underground, Sly & the Family Stone to Destiny’s Child, Basement Jaxx to Dolly Parton. Wanna hear Salt’n’Pepa mixed with the Stooges? Look no further, it’s right here.
Soulwax had been mashing up for fun on their Belgian radio shows for years, and eventually Belgian label PIAS persuaded them to create a CD of it – accepting that it would be a licensing jungle. Legend has it that 187 tracks were on Soulwax’s original ‘wants list’. Inevitably many were declined – and looking at that list brings a tear to the eye, when you think of how the likes of AC/DC, Talking Heads, the Clash, Daft Punk and Beastie Boys might have been knitted in.
Another load of tracks that were cleared for use didn’t make the final cut as they were set to be mixed with ones that weren’t cleared – so we also missed out on B52s, Blondie, Herbie Hancock, Jaydee, Serge Gainsbourg and many more being put through the Soulwax blender. But let’s not dwell on what might have been – the mix we have is perfect, the final word in mash up culture.
JOINING THE DOTS
While initially mix CDs aimed to be very much ‘of the moment’ releases - the more upfront the tracklisting the better - as the format came of age, more and more releases took a DJ-led approach to capturing golden eras, influential tracks and pivotal points in dance music’s rich history. Here are some of the finest examples…
Salsoul Jam 2000: Grandmaster Flash (1997)
Arguably the greatest disco label of them all, inextricably entwined with house music through remixing, sampling and shared genes…all mixed together here by a legendary hip hop DJ.
David Mancuso presents The Loft (1999)
The story of this seminal NYC night, cited by many as the birthplace of club culture as we now understand it, has been well documented.
However, for years that wasn’t the case. In their seminal 1999 book Last Night a DJ Saved My life, Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton were arguably the first to shine a deserved light on Mancuso and The Loft’s influence…and their friends at Nuphonic followed up by persuading him to compile this hugely influential set.
Azuli Choice series (2000-2007)
Azuli invited a dozen brilliant DJs to compile and mix a selection of the tracks that had most influenced and inspired them.
The best history lessons you’ve ever been given courtesy of Frankie Knuckles, Francois K, Danny Tenaglia, Tony Humphries, Derrick Carter, Louie Vega, Jeff Mills, X-Press 2, John Digweed, Danny Howells, Kenny Dope, Roger Sanchez...
Defected presents Def Mix Classics (2007)
The greatest house music collective of them all? This 3 CD / 38 track set, every track either produced, remixed, played on or written by some or all of the Def Mix quartet of David Morales, Frankie Knuckles, Hector Romero and Satoshi Tomiie presents a convincing argument.
Gilles Peterson: Worldwide (2010)
Be it as DJ, curator or label boss, Gilles Peterson has arguably been involved in more compilation releases, both mixed and unmixed, than any other DJ…literally dozens of the beauties, from the legendary Jazz Juice compilations on Street Sounds in the 80s all the way through to his current label project Brownswood.
Hard to pick just one, but we reckon the BBE-released celebration of his famous Worldwide radio show is a good introduction to Planet Gilles.
THE MIX CD IS DEAD - LONG LIVE THE MIX CD?
In recent years the viability of mix CDs has been seriously questioned. Soundcloud, Mixcloud, podcasts, Boiler Room, The Lab…every time you go online, you are but a click away from a bespoke DJ set. Want to know what one of the tracks is? Shazam it. In this climate, what part does the mix CD play?
However, with DJ Kicks, Fabric and Late Night Tales all still running (albeit with slimmed down release schedules); the likes of Global Underground and Back to Mine being revived; and the excitement generated by a release such as Glitterbox: Discotheque mixed by Purple Disco Machine, maybe we can put the obituaries on hold for just now…