Artist of the Month: Even in Lockdown, The Legend of Carl Cox Grows
Artist of the Month: Even in Lockdown, The Legend of Carl Cox GrowsDecember 7, 2020
It’s impossible to describe Carl Cox without veering into sycophantic territory. His reputation is untainted. Across four decades he has maintained a level of professionalism and humility that is rare to find in someone of his stature. The chances of hearing a bad word against him are slim to none. Put simply, he’s an undisputed legend, and fans and peers unanimously agree.
“I’ve been living in this house for 14 years, so when the pandemic hit, I came here,” Carl says, sitting in his kitchen, chatting to me via Zoom. When Covid-19 spread around the world in March, Melbourne went into lockdown for two weeks, which soon became six months, and the state of Victoria (where Melbourne is located) experienced the most stringent lockdown in Australia, and one of the most restrictive in the world.
When he returned to Australia, Carl took the time to recuperate from years of consistent touring, using the downtime to reflect and figure out his next move. Unsurprisingly, music was his go-to. “In my garage here, I’ve got over 150,000 pieces of vinyl,” he says, pointing over to his right. “I’ve been collecting these records since I was 13 years old.”
Streaming became his outlet, and he set up the Cabin Fever Sessions, a weekly broadcast where Carl showcases a selection of vinyl from his mammoth collection. It gave him the chance to walk people through his history. “I’m in my slippers with my gin and tonic and I’m going to play this seven-inch record to you live on Facebook and that’s it,” he says.
The response to his sessions has been nothing but positive, undoubtedly providing a tonic for his personal and professional grief. In July, his father Henry Carlisle Cox died. A few days later, Carl hosted a deeply emotional and sentimental stream where he played records from his father’s collection. “Imagine how heartfelt that show was, I never imagined I’d be doing anything like that,” he explains, a subtle air of melancholy in his voice.
Unable to go further than a few hundred meters from his own front door, Carl had to endure the tragedy of watching his father’s funeral on YouTube while at home alone, over 10,000 miles away from the rest of the Cox family. “Alongside my career falling off a cliff, I had to deal with that,” he says candidly. Carl’s father died of dementia. Carl had visited him in the UK pre-pandemic, but never expected the situation would last so long that the visit would be the final one. He also lost his mother three years ago, but has managed to keep himself motivated despite the loss of both parents.
As is plainly obvious, Carl has a deep-rooted sense of optimism and an unwavering positive energy that holds firm even when dealing with the most painful situation imaginable. How did he cope? “In between all of this going on I’ve still been DJing and getting out there making other people happy,” Carl says. This is his way. Commendable, inspiring, perhaps unbelievable to some, but it’s the only way he knows, and it’s in the Cox genes, programmed into the double-helix strands of their Caribbean DNA.
Every Sunday for the best part of 2020 he’s been digging through his 150,000-plus vinyl collection to take viewers on a journey through his history, going right back to his roots, through disco, funk, soul, soca, calypso, reggae, and much more. Cabin Fever 17 was his most poignant, playing records from his dad’s collection in homage to the man who set him off his path to becoming a global superstar DJ. Around 20 minutes into the broadcast Carl took a Zoom call from the Prime Minister of Barbados, Mia Amor Mottley, who paid tribute to his dad and told Carl how proud she is of his success as an ambassador for his home nation. Towards the end of their chat he called fellow Bajan superstar Rihanna the “pride of Barbados,” to which Mia said, “As are you”. Visibly humbled by the whole experience, Carl saw out the rest of the stream in a remarkably composed manner, playing cuts from Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Booker T & The MGs, Barry White, Bob Marley and many more, just like his father would have done in their front room back in the day.
Asked if the sessions have been therapeutic, Carl opens up about his parents’ legacy, and what he inherited from them and Bajan culture. “I came from a very jovial family. Since they died, I know the very thing that they would like to see me do is to continue the legacy of what the Coxes were about and that’s to make other people happy based on who we are as people,” he says. “I’ve taken a lot of strength from the spirit of my mother and father. I feel like I’ve got more energy now, even though the worst has happened.”
Growing in Tooting, South London, young Coxy had a strong work ethic instilled in him by his parents, as well as that inherent jovial disposition that’s almost become a trademark. His well-known catchphrase, “Oh-yes! Oh-yes! Oh-yes!”, is an emphatically positive mantra. Whenever I hear it, I recall a story I once heard about Carl playing a vinyl set at Space Ibiza; at one point one of the records skipped terribly and, quick as a flash, Carl got on the mic and said, “Oh-no! Oh-no! Oh-no!”, sending the crowd into roars of laughter.
He’s always worked hard. Originally a builder, he juggled manual labour with DJing at weekends when people would hire him and his soundsystem for weddings, birthdays, house parties, or any other such occasions. He also carried Paul Oakenfold’s records for a while, something a lot of aspiring DJs did back then in order to earn their stripes. “It’s who I am. I’ve always rolled my sleeves up,” he says. “People ask why I’m still here after all these years, it’s because of my attitude towards what I love. I love to do this.” Still grafting to keep himself on top of things, Carl reveals that he spends time researching and watching other people’s streams to see how they do it. Amusingly, he also leaves comments when he’s impressed, which often results in total disbelief from the artists he communicates with. It conjures up memories of British TV personality Noel Edmonds popping up in people’s living rooms with his hidden camera prank show NTV back in the nineties. “I’m always watching and supporting. It’s all I’ve ever done. This stuff never leaves you, it’s in the blood. Music is in my blood,” he adds.
From the outset Carl has committed to being himself, unvarnished, authentic, and true to his upbringing. He decided to use his real name and not hide behind a pseudonym in order to represent himself to the fullest. When he started DJing in the eighties, this meant entering a world where he was playing to mostly white audiences, which remains the case today. “There’s not exactly a plethora of Black DJs that have made it. I’ve got here because of who I am,” he states proudly. You get the feeling that this is possibly one of his proudest achievements: being a success by staying true to who he is.
As a wedding DJ, he was once hired to play a gipsy wedding. But whoever booked him didn’t realize Carl was Black until he arrived to play. “I set my stuff up and one guy goes, ‘Oh Jesus, you’re not gonna play reggae all night tonight are ya?’” He shrugged it off, did the job and everyone had a great time. By the end, the same person who’d made the comment gave him a £50 tip. “Become the better person. People will appreciate you for what you stand for. I could have walked out of that event, but I said, ‘Nah, they need to see more for who I am’ and I got three more bookings because of that party.”
Although Coxy’s ethos is rooted in treating everyone equally, he’s also pleased to see discussions around Black human rights coming to the fore this year, having been through, sadly, all too familiar racist experiences as a youngster. “Growing up as a Black person in a white society as a child, going to an all-white school, we were the only minority family in the street. All my friends would get girlfriends and I didn’t, because of my skin colour,” he explains. “People didn’t know what we were like. We were just ‘jungle bunnies’ and that was it, and my family came off a ‘banana boat’. Imagine having that the whole time. It’s just unbelievable.”
Following George Floyd’s death in May, protests and civil action took place all over the world with people of all ethnic backgrounds, classes, and ages uniting to demand a fairer, more equal society. “I was in the middle of this situation here with Black Lives Matter. For the first time in my goddamn life, I hear these words, ‘Black Lives Matter,’” he says, revealing that he experienced some backlash when he posted a message in support of the movement on his Facebook page. “The amount of shit I got from people saying, ‘Yeah but all lives matter!’ I said, ‘Yeah, all lives do matter but right now, Black Lives Matter.’”
He also adopts a diplomatic view on the controversy around parties held during the pandemic. Carl himself has said he won’t play until it’s 100 percent safe to do so, backing the tough restrictions put in place by the governor of Victoria for most of the year. But he also displays compassion when it comes to those who’ve been targeted by online vigilante accounts, “If you have the opportunity to go and play at an event and you’re told that they’re abiding by the rules and it’s safe to go and do it — it’s something that you can go and do to earn money, because you’re a DJ and performer. It’s your job. Why wouldn’t you want to do that?” he says.
“On the other side of all of that, it’s been damaging. There have spikes in those regions and further lockdowns” he adds. “Wherever we are in the world we have to help other people and get through this, one way or another. Partying is probably in the lowest part of the list of things to be doing at the moment. I hope by 2021 we’ll understand the virus a bit better and get back to the dance floor at some point but it’s going to be a very difficult road.”
Another phenomenon that has arisen while Carl’s been cooped up are his forays into gardening and baking. Carl’s banana bread and his vegetable patch have picked up a ridiculous amount of engagement, with followers responding in droves to photos of broad beans (which are also called fava beans). As if people didn’t love him enough already.
“I’ll post about a new record, ‘It’s my first in two years,’ put it on Facebook and get 2,000 likes. I go out in my garden in my PJs and slippers, unshaven, and tell people about my broad beans and I’ve got 2.5 million people liking it, thousands of shares,” he smiles. “It’s because of how honest and real it is. It’s a natural thing that I haven’t been able to do because I’d normally be too busy.”
“It really helped people. You forget about the world for one minute,” he adds, revealing that his favourite dish is shepherd’s pie before pointing out the stonebase pizza oven on the kitchen counter behind him. This is another attribute that comes from his family. With his mum working night shifts as a midwife, Carl and his sisters cooked family meals during the week. “That’s who I am, I don’t have a butler here. If I can do it, you can do it,” he says.
For the last 10 minutes of our chat, Carl takes me on a mini tour of his home. First, the garage, which houses his record collection. “I come in here and find a sector of music that I’d like to give to people, put them together and play them. I haven’t played these for like 25 years. I find acetates in here that still play,” he explains. He then proudly shows off two restored classic cars — a 1965 Chevrolet Impala and a 1965 Ford Galaxie convertible. These are cars he’s lovingly restored over the last few years. Even for the uninitiated, the gleaming vintage vehicles are bound to have you cooing.
Then he walks through to the room where he started the Cabin Fever streams. “Since then I’ve been building my live setup for the future. You’re getting an exclusive right here of my live setup, and it’s ridiculous but true,” he says, pointing at a desk full of gear, which includes a couple of modular synths with a mesh of wires sure to give anyone unfamiliar with them an instant headache. “I’m not messing around when I get out of this pandemic,” he quips.
Four decades deep, and Carl Cox still has the energy and passion of someone who’s only a few years in. At one point he admits that, after such a long time, the lockdown presented the perfect opportunity to relax, (“I deserve it”), but Coxy being Coxy, the pull of the music was too strong. It’s always been there, through the parties and racial challenges of his early years in Tooting, his rise as a DJ, and all through his meteoric success from the late eighties up to now. Connecting him back to his family lineage and to his roots in Barbados, giving him the energy to connect with his fans and channel positivity to dancefloors and homes all over the world, he keeps the jovial Bajan spirit alive in everything he does.
Carl Cox will ring in the New Year twice with the Beatport x Absolut New Year’s Eve Livestream, which you can watch exclusively on Beatportal and Twitch. Learn more details here.