Carl Cox reflects on Miami Music Week, Ultra, and the growth of a movement
“I don’t think it’s ‘underground vs overground,’ I just think it’s pop culture versus people who actually love the music. Some of these people have no clue why they are standing in front of these DJs in the first place.”
Carl Cox needs little introduction. His name has been synonymous with dance music since its early infancy. For over 25 years he has fostered the growth of the scene, exposing millions of fans to unadulterated dance music with an ear-to-ear grin and unparalleled charisma. As an icon, he has been deified by both veterans and newcomers, disseminating a groove-driven gospel from whatever club or festival pulpit he finds himself at. A Miami veteran, Cox played an essential role in shaping the Winter Music Conference culture and Ultra Music Festival. While some of his peers may have faded into obscurity, the 55-year old DJ-auteur continues to capture the fondness of new fans in the digital age of dance.
Now in its tenth year, the Carl Cox & Friends Arena at Ultra Music Festival has embodied the vision and dedication of the man whose name it shares. Perhaps the most iconic entity in dance music, Carl Cox has made a career out of a pragmatic approach to the genre he holds dear. With his ten year anniversary on the horizon and nearly three decades under his belt as a preeminent figure in the dance music movement, Carl reflects on the past, present and future of Miami, Ultra, and everything in between.
“When this all started many many years ago, outside of WMC and the Fountainebleau there were only a few clubs hosting certain DJs on certain nights and from there it just sort of grew and grew. The festival started once WMC started to get popular and people started coming from all over the world and there wasn’t anything in the daytime happening really so Ultra decided they wanted to do something conceptual and now you’ve got the biggest dance music festival on the planet. Even before the festival I’d always gone to WMC but Ultra really brings something else to the equation. It’s the one festival that really represents itself as the world leader, in a way that it has grown into something that people mark on their calendar as THE festival to go to. I’m proud to be a part of that. It’s representative of everything that dance music has done in the past 25 years. It’s an indicator of its growth, not just for the festival but for the entire culture.”
The presence of his own arena has become a a cornerstone of the UMF experience. It is a finely-curated showcase of the most cutting edge and passionate artists that dance music has to offer. “When I first had my own arena I didn’t think 10 years later I’d still be having my input, but here I am. Ultra has allowed me to grow within their festival and establish a dominant presence as part of its culture. It’s an incredible thing to see the growth in front of your own eyes, for sure.”
When it comes to the term EDM and the culture it has begun to represent, he has an understandably dismissive opinion of the new millennial explosion: “Everything is starting to become a bit too one-dimensional,” Carl scoffs. But his mild indignation comes with a disclaimer:
“I was not involved in the growth of the commercial. I still play what I believe in. On the other side, the pop culture stuff — I don’t think it’s damaged anything. It’s opened people up to a whole new sound and eventually they will grow out of what’s commercial and pop and find the thing that keeps them coming back for years and years. As long as you have a heart and soul and a passion for what you are doing people will find you.”
While some of his peers have often expressed distaste for dance music’s recent trajectory, Cox takes a more realistic stance, recognizing that the old guard should be helping new fans grow into the genre: “We’re not just talking Miami, we’re taking basic popularity. Nearly all of America. The commercial appeal has reach. Radio play, advertisements with EDM sounds — it’s something to latch onto. A new generation is taking control and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that. We didn’t know what we were making when we started. It’s like Coca-Cola: I’m sure people didn’t think they would be the world’s drink of choice when they first made it but anything great always rises to the top and stays there.”
In an industry driven forward by artists who, for better or for worse, accidentally caught the attention of the entire world, Cox relishes in its newfound popularity, acknowledging that the criticism he received when he got his start is similar to the criticism it receives now. Relinquishing his right to having had anything to do with the commercial growth of EDM, he doesn’t hesitate to acknowledge how it has helped his career despite his personal aversion to the sound. Reflecting on the opportunity to perform on EDC Vegas’s Main Stage last year, he is both humbled by the experience and proud of sticking to his roots:
“I can’t be part of that system. I was put to the test last year at EDC Vegas when they had me play the Main Stage. I didn’t go in with a plan to play commercial records, I went in to represent who I was as a true DJ who loves this music. I saw it as an opportunity to not only play in front of 50,000 people but to show them something they weren’t expecting. I think some DJs are worried they will look like rubbish if they don’t play the same thing they’ve been playing for the last 3 or 4 years on the Main Stage. A lot of the people who were in front of me that night weren’t even born when I started DJing, I’m just some old guy giving them a new experience and that’s the beauty of it.”
His criticism of the Main Stage paradigm seems to come from a place of concern rather than disapproval. To him, the commercial DJs and the fans they support create an interesting paradox: do you come to a festival to hear what you know or experience music you’ve never known existed? “The tracks you love the most are the ones you don’t know,” he says. “It’s that experience of discovery — that’s why you go to a festival. There’s been plenty of debate about this; why would you go to a festival to hear a bunch of music you already know? If you’ve been going for the last three years and you see the same guy play the same records you’re going to want to find something else and no one wants to see that happen. Me, I’m going to be just fine, but some of these guys need to think about what they are doing and really change the status quo. This whole thing is just not sustainable if they don’t.”
Bringing everything full circle, Cox has curated a lineup for his own arena that exemplifies his personal philosophy: “Every artist you see on my stage are guys I’ve been fans of and have seen play in their own right. When you’ve got guys like Marco Carola, Luciano, Maceo Plex — they all have their own vibes and sounds. They play from their hearts and souls and that’s what makes it interesting for me. Every year I want to give people the best lineup that I know. I handpick them all and I ask them to come back every year if they can.”
With three performances at the festival itself and countless more throughout the week in South Beach, including a back-to-back set with Nicole Moudaber, Cox is poised to leave an impact on Miami Music Week for his 25th year running — and he’ll hopefully convert some new fans in the process by playing music that’s born from passion instead of popularity.
“I have always worked hard at making sure that the records I play are records you’ve never heard before because the person who made those songs made them for no other reason than to express themselves. I don’t want to be involved in making music that just makes people put their hands in the air. I want them to feel something in the first place. You can call me old fashioned, but it is this type of music that has longevity.”
To hear Carl Cox’s inspiring wisdom in action, check out his recent Axis Radio mix for Dancing Astronaut.