What makes an Essential Mix “Essential”?
In its 24 years, the storied Essential Mix series, hosted by British broadcasting icon Pete Tong, has offered a worldwide platform to DJs across the electronic music spectrum, from established names like Paul Oakenfold, The Chemical Brothers, and Carl Cox, to handpicked then-“Future Stars” Duke Dumont, DJ Snake, and George Fitzgerald. While a chance for artists to rinse their latest club weapons, it also serves as an outlet to showcase a different or less club-friendly side to their musical D.N.A.
This year’s Essential Mixers were a strong class: veterans such as Simian Mobile Disco, Mark Knight, and Maya Jane Coles made a welcome return to the show, and others including Mall Grab, Nastia, and Fatima Yamaha hit the EM airwaves for hopefully the first time of many.
We trawled through the year’s offerings and picked out ten Essential Mixes that perked our ears, and hopefully yours as well, whether you’re looking for a soundtrack to get lifted, boogie down, take a night drive, or maybe just do nothing at all. From introspective drum & bass to energetic electro, here’s to a mix for every mood.
Author’s note: Special event episodes (Creamfields, Glastonbury & EDC, Radio 1 in Ibiza, etc.) were excluded from consideration.
Who better to kick off 2017 than a bona fide electronic music pioneer? This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first ever acid house record, Phuture’s ‘Acid Tracks’, and we have group member and the week’s featured guest DJ Pierre to thank for that.
This marks the third time the Chicago icon has starred in the series, with past solo stints in 1997 and 2007. “To look forward, sometimes you have to look back”, says Tong during his introduction, and go back Pierre did, prefacing the mix with a brief oral history of how acid house came to be. Tucked in among the 303 goodness is some soul-lifting house and grimy techno from artists such as Cajmere, Planetary Assault Systems, Paula Temple, and Amir Alexander.
We’re already looking forward to DJ Pierre’s inevitable return in 2027.
If the most potent cold brew coffee were music, it would probably sound like Helena Hauff’s Essential Mix, which surges from start to finish with an energy that at times verges on the extreme; a jittery relentlessness that threatens to burst through your skin and out of your body. In short: it’s not for the faint of heart.
In her series debut, Hauff whips up a feisty blend of acid, techno, and electro fit to jumpstart anyone’s morning with emphasis, slamming unto listeners’ ears cuts from Drexciya, The Hacker, Underground Resistance, and DJ Stingray. The mix was just one of her major milestones this year, as the former resident DJ at hometown club Golden Pudel went worldwide as part of Radio 1’s Residency program, in addition to festival dates from Dekmantel Brazil to Estonia’s Into the Valley to LA’s FYF.
For some electronic music lovers, few things are more thrilling than looking at a mix’s tracklist and not recognizing a single song or artist. In April, Hunee delivered such delights on his Essential Mix, staging a crate-digging clinic that proves why he’s, as Tong put it, a “dance music connoisseur” and “one of the most talented DJs on the planet right now”.
Over two hours, the much-praised selector takes his mix from breezy daytime sounds to sweaty, disco-ball-adorned night, all the while traipsing through five decades of music and various genres including techno, disco, electronica, and Afrobeat.
On his SoundCloud page, Hunee shared that his Essential Mix was inspired by two things: the beginning of W.H. Auden’s poem ‘On This Island’, and June11’s song ‘White Bird’, which kicked off the two hours. “There is a beautiful background story to the song, that stayed with my during all the dreaming I was doing during the recording”, he wrote, later concluding, “This mix is dedicated to all the birds and people with dreams”.
On a Saturday afternoon in May, Soulwax took hold of the Radio 1 airwaves and transported listeners to the synth-gilded land of Deewee.
This year marked a definitive return for the Dewaele brothers, who in March released their latest album, From Deewee (named for their Ghent-based studio and record label), their first Soulwax LP since 2005’s Nite Versions. That year was also the last (and first) time they featured on the Essential Mix as Radio Soulwax.
This time around, they went big by splitting their Essential Mix into two halves. The second sees Soulwax slip into 2manyDJs mode with an eclectic mix full of their own edits. Before that, though, is an hour of entirely new and original Soulwax tracks made especially for the occasion. “This is the real deal”, says the clearly excited Tong during his introduction. “In the entire history of this show, we haven’t had that happen before from a group of this stature”.
Church is in session with Floorplan at the controls.
Detroit techno stalwart Robert Hood has many monikers to his name, including Dr. Kevorkian, Missing Channel, and Monobox, but it’s under his Floorplan alias that his usually minimal and raw productions turn warm, soulful, and funky.
It’s crazy to think that this past May was the first time Hood’s hit the Essential Mix in any capacity, but this long overdue session was made even more special by the addition of his daughter Lyric, now Floorplan’s official second member. Coinciding with Detroit’s annual Movement weekender, the duo delivered a much-needed dose of uplifting house and techno.
From the mix’s opening sermon to its gospel-wailing end, it’s a testament to the spiritual nature of good, old-fashioned house. (Seriously, though: How has Robert Hood not already been on the Essential Mix?)
House and techno artists tend to dominate the Essential Mix, but 2017 proved to be an especially fruitful year for drum & bass. The last 50 weeks have seen contributions from style devotees such as Wilkinson, Camo & Krooked, and Spectrasoul (more on them later), but perhaps the most exceptional edition to represent the genre was Calibre’s.
As Tong mentioned during his introduction, a studio mix from the Belfast-bred veteran is rare, and the atmosphere of this Essential Mix felt equally as unique. Pulling mostly from his own vast catalog of remixes and albums (including the excellent Grow), as well as spoken-word pieces, Calibre’s Essential Mix is a moody sojourn full of emotion and mellower moments that feels just right for aimlessly cruising city streets at night.
Proof that drum & bass doesn’t always have to be reeling and raucous to be powerful.
inthemix named Guernsey-born beatwizard Mura Masa one to watch back in 2015, and the Essential Mix this year finally took notice — but then again, how could it not? The prodigal producer was nominated as BBC’s Sound of 2016, and his self-titled debut album, released back in July, arrived with much hype due to its wide-ranging collaborations, including Charli XCX, Christine and the Queens, A$AP Rocky, and Gorillaz’ Damon Albarn.
Mura Masa’s Essential Mix, which aired a week prior to the album’s release, provided its creator another outlet to show off his diverse taste. Throughout his two hours, he jumps from genre to genre, playing songs from Perfume Genius, James Blake, Moodymann, DJ Rashad, Migos, and even a little clubbed-up Wham! The result is an Essential Mix that feels less like dancefloor exploration and more like showing your mates your favorite records in a hot-boxed bedroom.
If you like what you hear, good news: he’s just been announced as part of Residency’s new rotation for 2018.
Honey Dijon’s Essential Mix begins with her collaboration with Seven Davis, Jr., ‘Meet Me Downtown’. “Meet me downtown / At the warehouse / But don’t tell nobody / ‘Cause it’s underground”, sings SDJ. It’s a fitting introduction to an excellent mix that sounds like it’s coming straight from a dim, red-lit basement, where the walls are dripping with condensation and the DJ booth is little more than a fold-out table in the corner of the room.
Unlike a private warehouse party, Honey Dijon is no longer a secret exclusive to in-the-know dance heads. Mentored by Chicago icon Derrick Carter, she’s since become a respected name in fashion circles and a mainstay on the club and festival circuit, as well as a spokesperson for diversity in dance music. Her sets radiate music history and joy; this one is filled with groovy house and disco cuts from Fingers Inc., Gino Soccio, Traumer, Fela Kuti, and more.
UK garage doesn’t get nearly enough love on this show. Thankfully, TQD (Royal-T, DJ Q, and Flava D) showed Essential Mix listeners what they’ve been missing.
Inspired by garage, grime, and bassline house, the trio delivered a mix heavy on their own originals (both individual and collective, namely their debut album, aptly titled UKG) and remixes, including edits of MJ Cole, Isaiah Rashad, Jack Junior, and Goldie. From start to end, cheesy vocal highs to the bassiest depths, this mix bumps.
If you’re reading this, Tongy: more UKG, please! For everyone else: you can also catch them next year on Radio 1’s Residency.
Back in July, British drum & bass outfit Spectrasoul were stoked to have one of their tracks included in Calibre’s Essential Mix. Four months later, they shared an Essential Mix of their own.
A slot in the series has been long overdue for the duo, who have been churning out killer tunes for well over a decade, including three studio albums. (This author still strongly feels one was in order following their excellent 2012 full-length debut, Delay No More, but better, well, delayed than never.)
Spectrasoul’s Essential Mix starts out serenely and moody like Calibre’s, but their melancholic strain of liquid drum & bass gradually morphs into faster, harder, darker sounds that could swallow a dancefloor whole. With additional appearances from James Blake, Mount Kimbie, Burial, The Prodigy, and the late Marcus Intalex, it’s a fine showcase of bass music’s many forms, from the comforting to core-curling.
Krystal Rodriguez is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. She is on Twitter.