Mr. Cook may sell the records, but Pete Tong is the name among British DJs, with his “Essential Selections” radio show on BBC Radio One the top dance music program for eight years running. Despite his stature as DJ and radio host, Tong has gone virtually unknown in the US until now, with his Essential Mix serving as a coming out party of sorts. The Mix is pretty much what you might expect from a big, mainstream DJ: a well-crafted blend of house and trance selections. No big surprises or groundbreaking material, but pleasant enough. And after cringing through Boy George’s inconsequential Essential Mix, that will have to do.
Tong eases into the mix with Rui Da Silva’s “Touch Me”, a marginally bumping affair with diva vocals that feel done to death (“You touch my body in special places, my heart races with you”). With all the talented folks working on dance music, you’d think there would be a few more decent singer/songwriters to be found, but cheesy vocals seem to be some kinds of curse on electronic music. In any case, the atmospherics set a nice tone for an all-night, “I can’t believe how fucking high I am on this E” dance session. But Essential really starts to take off with the heavy bass groove on Joey Negro’s mix of Jakatta’s “American Dream”, and kicks into high gear with DJ Lottie’s remix of M&S Presents the Girl Next Door’s “Salsoul Nugget (If U Wanna)”. It’s the sort of funky house track that feels very familiar, but has so much booty-shaking power that you won’t care if you’ve heard all the samples a hundred times before. Other tracks that score high on the “Bump-O-Meter” include the synthed-out “Sparc” by Futureshock, Steve Lawler’s Mix of Trisco’s “Musak”, and Cass’ “Genesis”. In fact, with the epic feel and vocals about Genesis (duh), the Cass track probably would have set a far more slamming tone for Essential if it had been used to open the mix.
Unfortunately, for every dance-able track there seems to be a lesser selection that kills the momentum. Offenders include the cornball reggae dub sounds of “Dubb Me Some’tin Fresh”, Dave Morales’ forgettable remix of Photek’s “Mine to Give” (“where there’s a will there’s a way, ‘cuz I’m thinking about you everyday”—argh!) and Jan Driver’s completely boring and un-funky remix of Blaze’s “My Beat”. There seems to be tendency among DJs to throw in “cool down” tracks on their albums, which is fine if it’s a brief interlude, but once it stretches out to a full length song it becomes more of a distraction than a nice break from the frantic dancing. It’s fine to ease off on the intensity occasionally, but how long can you stand around appreciating the finer points of a drum loop before you want to start shaking your ass again?
Despite the flaws, Tong offers up at least a few tracks that house and trance fans will dig, and the closing selection, Planet Funk’s lovably goofy and catchy “Chase the Sun”, leaves you in a good enough mood to forgive most of the nonsense. But the truly disappointing aspect of Essential is not so much the songs themselves, but Tong’s unwillingness to include any fresh, original sounds. The man has a reputation for sniffing out “the next big thing”, but everything on this mix has been heard a thousand times before. Perhaps he maintains his status by playing it safe and pumping out the known tunes, but it doesn’t make for a particularly inspiring CD to add to your collection. Dance fans have heard this stuff already, so this mix is hardly essential, unless you like your music bubblegum-flavored.