Global Underground 1996 -1999: The DJ mixes that defined the DJ as an artist

At the rate that DJ mixes are appearing online today, there’s enough music on Internet to play through a dozen life-times it seems. If a site like Resident Advisor can feature a mix a day, and radio stations like NTS have enough DJs on there to play two shows at any given time, that’s a daily number of mixes my addled brain is just not able to compute. It’s enough to match…  no, actually surpass the amount of music that’s out there already. Everybody is a DJ and every DJ needs a new mix a month to get heard above the noise, so the DJ mix is has become as trite as the op-ed piece on a music blog today. With so many noteworthy DJs amongst these and mix series like RA, Dekmantel and XLR8R all contributing to the melee on a daily basis, the DJ mix is a ubiquitous daily feature in our lives and it’s difficult sometimes to remember where it all started… until one day you start rifling through your wife’s old cd collection.

Yes I know, recorded DJ mixes have been around as long as the DJ, and mixtapes haven’t merely been the proclivity of DJ’s either, but before the 1990’s mixes recorded on the likes of camcorder, dictaphones and cassette bared little resemblance to the significance they have on popular culture today. Back then they were the propensity of the obsessive fan or the prospectus of an aspiring DJ. They were never really intended for public consumption and indulged absolutely no consideration for a consumer. The mixtape before the 1990’s was an insignificant, functional object… but that all changed when the DJ became a cultural phenomenon and a little-known concept called boxed re-defined the mixtape (or rather mix CD) for generations to come through a series called Global Underground.

The Mix CD

By the mid nineties clubs like Ministry of Sound, Mixmag and Renaissance had already been putting out mix CDs and tapes for audiences to listen to, but it had been little more than a pure promotional tactic for the club, party or publication it was promoting. “There was a huge Ministry of Sound logo on it with ‘Mixed By’, say, Pete Tong or whoever it was in tiny letters,” remembers co-founder of Boxed and Global Underground, Andy Horsfield in a Pulse Radio interview. By that time he and his business partner James Todd had been spending a lot of time in clubs already and had started sharing these experiences with new audiences, selling bootlegged tapes of mixes from their hometown of Newcastle Upon Tyne.

It was a time before DJs like Sasha and Paul Oakenfold were the name-brands that adorn the advertising billboards posing as festivals today, and a time when the DJ was still an approachable facilitator. Friendships were established early on in the firmament of the club between DJ and punter and Todd and Horsfield would make lasting bonds with the likes of the DJs that appear as enigma’s in DJ history today. Encouraged in a way by the likes of those Ministry of Sound mixtapes, Todd and Horsfield would establish the Global Underground and turned all the focus on their friends, the DJs. They opted to put the DJ front and centre rather than the club and consequently they helped establish the era of the superstar DJ in the wake of the series.

Although there were already mixes like Sasha and Digweed’s classic Renaissance mix that would establish their prowess early on, three things immediately set Global Underground apart from anything else out there at that time: The emphasis on the DJ, recording the mixes live, and the nomadic nature of each mix. Andy Horsfield again in Pulse Radio: “We thought it would be good to base an album series on flying to an international city with a DJ, throwing a party, bringing a photographer and a journalist along and capturing the whole thing in an album.” In that way they reflected the rise of electronic music on a global scale and instead of just releasing a mixed compilation where the tracks contained within were the focus of the album, the DJ, the set the venue and the people all played a role in establishing the first occurence of the DJ as a bonafide artist.

Kicking down the door

“Tony de Vit live in Tel Aviv” was the first Global Underground release and it made a formidable statement. The creator of the Hard House and Hard NRG genres who held residencies at the infamous Trade and Heaven (at a time when it still made a significant contribution to club music), wasn’t exactly known for making concessions in music and the first Global Underground still lives on as a testament to this attitude. It’s an uncompromising Hard-House mix coming in at a nosebleed 140 beats per minute. It encapsulates that era in club culture perfectly with a style of music that took House to its functional extreme and an energy that remains unmatched except maybe in the Hardcore genre. It also came at a time when genres started splitting into sub-genres and mixes became genre-specific, but most importantly it put the DJ in the spotlight, recording Tony de Vit’s legacy for generations to come even after his untimely passing. Unlike a series like Late night Tales or the Dekmantel Selector today, in which tracks appear individually like a compilation and the DJ mix is added at the end, the individual tracks on the GU series were only heard in the context of the DJ mix with the DJ stringing them together as a personal artistic statement.

What makes it even more impressive is that GU is recorded live and during this period it was all on vinyl too! The point perfect manner of the way De Vit segues one track into the next without losing a beat, at that pace, whilst retaining that energy is still a wonder to behold. Beatmatching is clearly second nature, leaving the DJ to focus purely on the selection and pulling a narrative together from one end to the next. It seems that the limitations of just using a finite amount of records, encouraged more consideration for the tracks you played. Perfectly programmed and to a degree flawless, you’d be hard-pressed, even today to find a DJ that can hold a candle to De Vit’s mixing talent across any genre, in any format. There’s a reason these DJ’s were exalted to superstar status and Global Underground played their fair share in bringing a DJ like De Vit to the rest of the world through a very accessible format, including wish-you-were-here images from the events for the consumption of adolescent minds who would later mark the next generation of party goers.

Global Underground didn’t merely enter the room with GU001, it kicked down the door and brought the House down with it, establishing it as a dominant force not to be taken likely. Hard House was definitely on an upswing during that period and Tony de Vit, being the precursor to acts like Lisa Lashes and Anne Savage, helped establish it as genre. Although De Vit followed the induction of Global Underground with with GU005 in 1997 with more of the same, Global Underground were not be pigeon holed either. “(O)riginally I wanted GU to be the best DJ’s in their field be it hard house, trance, progressive, house, techno etc.”, says Horsfield in an Interview with Decoded Magazine “something I think we achieved with Tony De Vit, Paul Oakenfold, Sasha, Danny Tenaglia and Darren Emerson.”  

Global expansion

Following Tony De Vit, came Paul Oakenfold; first with his New York session and then, a few releases later, with the live in Oslo release. Although Paul Oakenfold moved from the balearic isles of Ibiza to establish the early sound of Trance in the UK in the 80’s, the GU mixes, especially the Oslo edition, shows an eclectic selector able to go from liquid Drum n Bass to the heady atmospheres of 90’s Trance in the same night. Where De Vit captured the energy of a room, Oakenfold captured the mood, moving through the opening phases of his set to peak time with invariable ease, and although later mixes on the GU series would feature some computer editing sorcery, these early mixes were exactly what they said on the box – live.

Where big cities like London and New York were already the favoured destinations of big room DJs and audiences by the mid 90’s, Global Underground’s decision to use exotic locations like Tel Aviv and Hong Kong became a trademark of the series. It allowed the listener to travel all over the world with their favourite DJ and it seems that model was always in affect and often dictated by the DJ. “More often than not the DJ concerned picks somewhere that’s very special to them”, says Horsfield in his interview with Decoded Magazine. Today, we’re left wondering what drew Oakenfold to the small Oslo club Cosmopolite in April 1997, but it left a definite mark in the Global Underground discography and DJ history.

Oakenfold was a regular contributor to the Global Underground series and like De Vit, Sasha, Tenaglia and Emerson, he helped usher in the era of the superstar DJ in the late 90’s. The DJ would eventually become the de-facto artist and while GU were mirroring the global effect of electronic music, it’s also true that what they were witnessing and encouraging was the eventual rise of the star DJ that continues today with the likes of Peggy Gou and Ben UFO. Highly sought-after and fetching considerable fees, DJs like Sasha and John Digweed started touring like the bands and pop-stars before them and Global Underground were on hand to capture it all on compact disc.

GU’s most featured artist Nick Warren, stopped off at Prague, Brazil, Budapest and Amsterdam through the first four years of the series, and if we consider each GU release took six months to create, from logistical planning to release, that should be some indication of just how much travelling a DJ like Warren would’ve done between the Global Underground releases. The Global Underground series had a pendulum effect: They would follow their DJs around the world, recording mixes for the consumption of an international audience, who would hear these mixes and then create the demand for the DJ to come their, new location, starting the whole process over again and keeping a momentum going through the series.

By the time we get to Tony De Vit in Tokyo, Global Underground had brought this western notion of the superstar DJ to the furthest reaches of the world, all at a time before the global expansion on the Internet. Even though dance music had already been huge by the time Tony De Vit landed there, Japan had its own DJs and there were “just no western influences at all” according to Horsfield on Pulse Radio. “Back then nobody spoke English” remembers Horsfield, “there were no signs in English and you were very very much aware you were somewhere completely alien.” It’s unsure whether Tony De Vit came to Tokyo via Global Underground or via some other route, but the chances are good that a Japanese audience might have been turned on to De Vit through the GU001 initially.

John Digweed in Hong Kong; Darren Emerson in Uruguay; Paul Oakenfold in New York and Digweed in Sydney, literally covered the four corners of the globe with a DJ roll call that still earmarks festival line-ups all over the world, and amongst them one DJ would lead them all as the penultimate superstar DJ of the late 90’s, and yes he too would feature on the Global Underground series.

Sasha in Ibiza

Sasha in Ibiza, GU013 wasn’t just a mere entry, but stood on its own in the Global Underground catalogue and the history of DJing today as one of those timeless DJ mixes, and Andy Horsfield is in agreement. “We did the Sasha record back in 1999 and it still stands up and sounds amazing, it really does.” Although Horsfield didn’t originally want to do Ibiza because he thought it too “cheesy” according to a Red Bull Australia interview, he was persuaded by Sasha and has absolutely no regrets today. “We did the opening and closing of Space that year [1999] and the parties were just fucking phenomenal.”

A progressive House/Trance mix by the iconic DJ, there’s a particular visceral dimension to the British DJ’s mix that places you in the middle of a dance floor when everything – the music, the lights, the people and the venue – finds some perfect harmony with the other. And listening to it today, almost twenty years on from when it was recorded, you’d have to agree with Horsfield when he says it still stands up. Yet another flawless mix in the series, and although probably edited on this occasion it would have still been a vinyl mix and almost surely recorded from one end to there other with only the slightest post-production editing to complete it.

Sasha in Ibiza it seems is just the perfect combination of DJ, sound, and venue. Something just clicks on this mix that makes it one of those universal mixes, holding its own amongst anything that came after it too. Like Sasha and Digweed’s Renaissance mix that came a few years before it, it really defines the recorded mix and the DJ as an artist during this period. There’s a thread that ties the entire mix together from one end to the other, and even though the individual tracks might have aged somewhat, the way Sasha pulls them together for the mix puts them in a space beyond their time.

The Global Underground series only gathered momentum from there, with highlights like Deep Dish in Moscow and Felix Da Housecat in Milan continuing the series up until the present day where artists like Solomun and James Lavelle continue to bear the torch, but as electronic music, club culture and DJ’s expounded, Global Underground’s presence would become less so too. As the Internet established a new era of the social-media-lite DJ, where Soundcloud and Mixcloud are absolutely saturated with hour-long sporadic expositions at the decks, the Global Underground series would have to fight for its position. Today GU is something tawdry and cheesy and for younger audiences who today hold DJs like Ben UFO, Marcel Dettmann and Peggy Gou in the same esteem as the previous generation venerated the likes of Sasha, it has become an irrelevant dinosaur unfortunately.

There’s no space for a Global Underground in today’s market share, but everything the DJ is today and the DJ mix has become, is all down to those first four years of the Global Underground series.