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Carl Cox is the DJ Mag Top 100 DJs 2023 Outstanding Contribution Award winner

Legendary DJ, producer, label owner and live performer, Carl Cox has kept dancefloors jumping for well over three decades. He’s been at the forefront of acid house, rave and techno, ever-present in the Top 100 DJs poll, and he’s still innovating today. Anna Wall traces his extraordinary career, and learns about what motivates him in 2023

An undisputed legend of our time, with an illustrious career in dance music that spans over 30 years, Carl Cox is one of the most-loved and most respected names in the industry. Since the moment he first started DJing 45 years ago, his passion hasn’t wavered, devoting energy and boundless enthusiasm to everything he sets his mind to. Sharing his love of music across the globe, he’s a true pioneer. He’s one of the most inspiring, warm-hearted and genuine DJs in the business, and it’s an honour to present him with the 30 Years of Top 100 DJs — Outstanding Contribution Award.

Cox played an intrinsic part in the early rave scene in Britain, a trailblazer in bringing the sounds of Chicago and acid house to the UK in the late ‘80s. He made history in 1988, hooking up three decks in front of 15,000 people into the early hours of a Sunrise rave, and became known as the inimitable three deck wizard. He held a residency at the Zap Club in Brighton, played at Danny Rampling’s first ever Shoom night in London, and was an important cog in the hedonistic wheel of Ibiza’s dance music evolution with his career-defining residency at Space Ibiza from 2001 until its final season in 2016.

We caught up with Cox in Las Vegas via Zoom amid his USA tour. “I feel old!” Cox laughs, when we ask him how it feels to receive the Outstanding Contribution award. “It’s hard to comprehend the idea of the award in some ways, because I never do anything for achievements. I’ve always done everything because I take great pleasure in sharing something that I love so much, and that’s music,” he continues. “The most outstanding achievement is I first put a needle on a record when I was eight years old, and I’m still doing that now today as a 61-year-old.

“That’s the achievement,” he smiles, “because most people don’t achieve that in their whole lifetime, based on what I’ve done, to still be relevant and where I am now today,” he says.

Cox has come a long way since his first foray into DJing, playing his parents’ records in the school canteen, countless school discos and birthday parties, and 10 years of weddings, all the while building a vast collection of vinyl. His debut single ‘I Want You (Forever)’ came out in ‘91 on Paul Oakenfold’s Perfecto label. It was a rave anthem, and over the coming decade, Cox fast became one of the most important names in techno. 

A milestone that Cox looks back on fondly is Berlin’s Love Parade in the year 2000. “Looking out from the Brandenburg Gate seeing 1.8 million people dancing, everyone moving and jumping and enjoying themselves. To know where I came from, that is a massive personal achievement. To know that I have stood for something based on what I believe in, and that’s my ability to share the love of music,” he tells DJ Mag.

Carl Cox posing in a silver/purple patterned suit

Cox began his own techno-focused imprint Intec Records in ’99, releasing EPs, albums and compilations by himself and quintessential artists of the early noughties, including Oxia, Marco Bailey, Valentino Kanzyani and Sébastien Léger. More recently, his energy has been channelled into Awesome Soundwave, a label launched four years ago with Christopher Coe that focuses on releasing artists that can perform their electronic music live. They’ve just released an album by Stimming, before that was Robert Babicz, and there are follow-up albums from An On Bast and Saytek to come.

“We are looking to tour the artists again some time next year, and that takes a lot of work to try and put that all together,” Cox says. “A thing for me with the future of the label is for people to see outside of DJ culture that there is also this embodiment of culture where some very talented people can put these machines together, and actually go out there and show their wares, show their sound, show what they do.”

Cox has also been developing his own hybrid live show, debuted earlier this year in Denver at Colorado’s iconic Red Rocks Amphitheatre. His set-up features a selection of hardware, including the Moog DFAM and Subharmonicon. “With these machines, you’ve got to work them and make them sing, pulse, and create, and basically push your buttons on the modular sounds and synthesisers. You put that together as a melting pot of your music, and what comes out is wondrous,” he enthuses. Last year, Cox released the album ‘Electronic Generations’, with many of the tracks featured on it recorded using the machines he uses in his live show.

This year has been another momentous one for Cox. Highlights of the past 12 months include a show at the ancient Pyramids of Giza in Egypt, and performing at the picturesque Cathedral of Freiburg in Germany alongside the Worakls Orchestra. “Those guys are just phenomenal in the sense of how they were bringing electronic music and classical orchestra pieces to the dancefloor. This was just an absolutely beautiful and phenomenal event that happened,” he shares. He returned to Burning Man for his 11th year to play funk, soul and disco into the early hours of Friday; it was his favourite Burn to date. 

He’s also just launched a new concept via a virtual reality platform called Sensorium Galaxy, that is somewhat of a quantum leap into the future. “My show is called Intermundium, which means ‘between worlds’... strange name, but I think it’s a strange world, so why wouldn’t it be?” he laughs. They’ve created a life-like avatar of Cox that exists in the metaverse to perform an interactive live show, and everyone is welcome. “Obviously it’ll never take over from a human perspective, but if you can’t go to see my shows or you want to be taken to another dimension in some ways, you go inside the Sensorium Galaxy through the metaverse and you experience the Intermundium show based on what I’ve created with them, and it’s just mind-blowing,” he reveals. 

As well as his unfaltering passion for sharing music, Cox is a motorsports enthusiast; his time outside of touring is dedicated to managing race teams under the banner of Carl Cox Motorsport. “I’m basically a professional drag racer and I’ve been doing that now for the last 15 years. I’ll be testing my new cars in America and racing them in Australia, so you’re going to see a lot more outside of the music industry.”

During the lockdown of 2020, Cox started a series called Cabin Fever: live sessions recorded from his home to play records from his vast collection to his fanbase. It was a way to stay connected to people, and delve deeper into his collection of over 150,000 vinyl. “I also got reacquainted with a lot of music that I’d completely forgotten about, and I really enjoyed doing that. It was also kinda nice to be able to sit back a little bit based on what was going on, and then to come forward with what I do next,” he says.

Cox calls himself ‘uncle Carl’ and the ‘techno grandfather’ for good reason. He has always been ahead of the curve, paving the way for others, constantly imagining ways that he can push things forwards, and consistently putting ideas into action. “I’m still opening the doors for people, still getting people to understand that I’ll still put my best foot forward,” Cox concludes. “I feel pioneering in that sense of what I’m doing at the moment, especially with the metaverse as well, so I’m looking forward to the future of where this can go.”

1.3 million votes were counted from 237 countries in this year’s Top 100 DJs poll. You can see the full Top 100 DJs list here.