Label of the Month: Ultra Music
Label of the Month: Ultra MusicDecember 6, 2021
With numerous gold, platinum and Grammy Award-winning records under its belt, Ultra Music is one of the most influential dance music labels of all time. Jack Tregoning chats with its founder Patrick Moxey to learn more about its rich musical history.
From the vantage of 2021, the New York-based dance label Ultra Music feels big in every way. That scale starts with its discography, covering 25 years and multiple evolutions in dance music. Ultra Music releases also suit big rooms, from the trance superstars of its early 2000s roster through to its current crop of tech-house signings like Solardo and Martin Ikin.
Certainly the artists who’ve found a home on the label over the years include big-as-they-come main stage DJs like Tiësto, Calvin Harris, David Guetta and Steve Aoki. Ultra goes big on individual artists too, releasing four albums by deadmau5 and six by Kaskade in the span of five years. Last but not least, the label’s 27 million subscribers on YouTube drive billions of views, making it one of the platform’s most successful music channels.
For a label this big, Ultra Music’s origin story is as small as they come. The year was 1996 and, in his loft apartment on Bond Street in Lower Manhattan, founder Patrick Moxey had pulled together $8000 to press the label’s first 12-inch vinyl release.
When Beatportal connects with Moxey over Zoom ahead of the label’s 25th anniversary, the youthful conviction that started his label journey is still apparent. Now silver-haired and speaking with the measured authority of an industry veteran, Moxey appears on my screen against a virtual Zoom background of framed record sales plaques. I spot plaques of Ultra acts like SOFI TUKKER, Deorro and Aoki alongside pioneering hip-hop duo Gang Starr, who Moxey met through his hip-hop label Payday Records in the early 1990s. The background, Moxey jokes, ensures his work always travels with him.
Photo: Patrick Moxey (by Margaryta Bushkin)
Having now reached the 25-year milestone, the label boss is as enthused about Ultra’s future as its prolific past. In addition to the label, Moxey oversees a stable of artists, songwriters and producers under its publishing arm, Ultra Publishing. (A few weeks after our conversation, Ultra Publishing’s roster picked up a haul of Grammy nominations.) There’s one thing Ultra is not, though, and that’s the dance mega-festival that began in Miami and now travels the world — a distinction that Ultra Music makes clear in its Twitter bio.
The seeds of Ultra Music began back in 1983, when the 19-year-old Moxey was a budding radio host and DJ in Chicago. At the time, he warmed up for Joe Smooth, creator of the timeless classic “Promised Land,” at the Windy City’s house haven Smartbar. “I would go to the Warehouse to see Frankie Knuckles DJ and then after-hours at Medusa’s, which was mainly a gay crowd, but everyone who was cool and different in the city went there,” Moxey recalls. “Big chunks of Chicago were abandoned, burned out and industrial, and all the artists had moved into these amazing lofts. I met Marshall Jefferson and many great people on the scene. House music was just so exciting.”
Right in the midst of this pioneering scene, Moxey developed his fascination with record labels. Picking up knowledge wasn’t easy in a city where DJs obscured the labels on their records in black marker to thwart prying eyes. Moxey frequented two record stores in Chicago: Importes, Etc. on Printer’s Row in the city’s South Loop, and Wax Trax on the North Side. “Importes carried all the house records, and Wax Trax would carry all the European imports,” Moxey says. The two stores loomed large at Chicago’s clubs and loft parties. “At the time, the DJs from Wax Trax and the DJs from Importes would meet out at night and they’d be playing records from both [stores], so you’d hear the influence of Kraftwerk crossing into house music, and disco going back into the European records.”
Soon, the budding DJ became a label completist. “I would collect labels, buying everything on Factory Records or Tommy Boy or Def Jam,” Moxey says. “That might’ve been a road to becoming an entrepreneur myself with Ultra.”
Moxey moved to New York in the late 1980s and quickly joined the renegade party scene in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. He and his friends threw parties in olive oil factories, El Salvadoran refugee centers, Polish war veteran homes and even bread trucks decked out with a sound system and coat check. Moxey’s hip-hop night Payday was a Friday fixture, booking De La Soul’s first-ever live show, while $100,000 Bar on Saturdays was house and techno. The parties attracted a coterie of Lower East Side luminaries living large in 1989, including artist and activist Keith Haring, who died in 1990. “I went to his studio and he made me a [party] invitation there on the spot,” Moxey says of Haring.
Photo: Marshall Jefferson
Photo: Roger Sanchez (right)
Before long, PolyGram Records struck a deal to back Moxey’s burgeoning Payday Records. The major label saw the value in hip-hop acts like Jeru the Damaja and Gang Starr’s Guru, but not so much in Moxey’s other passion. “I remember going in and telling them I wanted to start a dance music label,” Moxey recalls. “They said, whatever you do, just keep it out of the building.”
That’s why the story of Ultra Music begins not in a slick uptown office, but downtown in Moxey’s loft apartment, with $8000 to press his would-be dance label’s first 12-inch. After choosing a pressing plant in New Jersey that “wouldn’t press it out the back door,” Moxey took the plunge. That first pressing was his friend Roger Sanchez’s “Release Yo’Self” under his Transatlantic Soul alias.
In 1997, Moxey traveled to the Miami Winter Music Conference with a box of “Release Yo’Self” white labels under his arm. “[WMC] was very underground and small at the time,” Moxey says. “Disco had happened, and a lot of European acts like SNAP! and Haddaway had peaked.” The label boss headed for the hotel pool at the Fontainebleau, where the DJs congregated. “Someone said, ‘That’s the DJ from London, give him a copy; that’s the DJ from Germany; that’s the DJ from Detroit,’ and so on. I walked around the pool, handing the vinyl out to these guys, and essentially broke the record. That was our marketing and promo back then.” With subsequent releases from the likes of Armand Van Helden, MK and Louie Vega, Ultra staked its claim as a true house music label.
The next evolution for Ultra began across the Atlantic in the clubs of the UK. In 1996, then-ascendant DJs Sasha and John Digweed released Northern Exposure, a two-disc compilation that deviated from the anthem-heavy mix-CDs dominating the market. Ultra licensed the mix series for the US, helping to usher in progressive house and trance stateside. “It started small, but by the end we sold half a million copies in America,” Moxey says.
In the late 1990s, Sasha and Digweed took up a residency at New York’s storied club Twilo. “When they started coming once a month to play Twilo, I’d get a couple of small fanzines to talk to them,” Moxey says. “After three years, I was booking them interviews with Rolling Stone. People would drive from Atlanta to Manhattan to see them play.”
The duo also weaved the sounds of their Twilo residency into the third and final mix in the series, Northern Exposure: Expeditions. “They were influenced by Danny Tenaglia, so it was a super interesting fusion of the UK and New York vibes,” Moxey says. Sasha and Digweed’s success dovetailed with the breakthrough of trance in the US, which suited Ultra’s stature. “Somehow Ultra got at the front of that trance explosion in the early 2000s,” Moxey marvels. “At one point, we had Paul Oakenfold, Armin van Buuren and Above & Beyond all on the label.”
Further into the decade, Ultra solidified its relationships with big-name artists, investing in their careers long-term. This stable included Calvin Harris, who entered the limelight as a lanky, knockabout producer and singer before evolving into a main stage DJ headliner. Early on, Moxey recognized that Harris’s ability to “write both sides of the record” would go far: “He’s comfortable being the producer and writing all the lyrics, and can sing too. The only other guy I’ve worked with like that is Pharrell.”
Ultra was also instrumental in breaking David Guetta to the US. Moxey remembers pitching radio programmers unschooled in dance music to take a chance on “songs where the chorus was essentially an instrumental riff”. He remains proud of convincing New York radio station Z100 to pick up Guetta’s 2007 electro-house single, “Love Is Gone.” His own efforts were more than matched by the DJ himself. “There was a point when we worked with David where the only time he would sleep was on the plane,” Moxey says. “If he was on the ground, he was either recording, doing promotion or something else for a period of about three years as he was really breaking through.”
Guetta’s success on US radio marked the first rumbling of the EDM wave. In 2010, Moxey flew from New York to Los Angeles for Electric Daisy Carnival, which at the time was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. He knew immediately what was coming. “We had artists on all the stages, and there wasn’t a single major label, or a single major radio station,” he recalls. “It was like the emperor’s new clothes. There were 80,000 dance music fans coming together in the heart of LA and it had absolutely no exposure in the mainstream.”
That mainstream exposure came in the following years as the scene “broke wide open,” bringing big money and a whole lot of sharp-elbowed newcomers to the label game. For Moxey, the way through the bloat was to keep Ultra steady and true to its longstanding identity.
Photo: Patrick Moxey (by Margaryta Bushkin)
In 2011, with EDM approaching peak hysteria, Moxey helped facilitate one of the defining tracks of that era. “I got into the office on a Monday and when I opened up Beatport, eight of the Top 10 records were by a guy called Skrillex,” he says. “So I phoned up his manager and said, ‘Hey man, I see Skrillex is playing in New York on Friday, do you guys want to come by the office?’” When Skrillex got there, Moxey played Benny Benassi and Gary Go’s “Cinema” and sent the producer home with the stems. Skrillex’s thunderous, bass-splintering remix of “Cinema” went on to win Best Remixed Recording, Non-Classical at the 2012 Grammys.
A few years later, Ultra orchestrated another blockbuster collaboration by handing Jamaican singer Omi’s “Cheerleader” to German producer Felix Jaehn for a hot-right-then tropical house remix. (The remix went to No. 1 around the world and has over a billion views on YouTube.) Ultra continues to play across the dance music spectrum, with Moxey identifying tech house as a mover for the label. In a full-circle moment, Manchester duo Solardo remixed Roger Sanchez’s “Release Yo’Self” to celebrate 25 years of the label.
“I think every time something goes to the mainstream, something new bubbles up from the underground,” he adds. “That’s where I see my role — to help nurture sounds up to the next level.” Elsewhere, the Ultra stable is not easily pigeonholed, encompassing the likes of Marshall Jefferson (the house don is Grammy-nominated this year for his work on Ultra labelmate Ten City’s album, Judgement), as well as The Crystal Method, Boris Brejcha, Anabel Englund, and Nightlapse.
Moxey sees Ultra Publishing as a vital part of the label’s future. Its stable of songwriters includes Jenson Vaughan, who wrote on Purple Disco Machine’s “Dopamine,” and Neil Ormondy, who wrote on MEDUZA’s “Tell It To My Heart” featuring Hozier. Meanwhile, Ultra Publishing’s hip-hop guru Wheezy picked up his own Grammy nod for work on Kanye West’s Donda. Despite the different avenues for its songwriters and producers into pop hitmaking, Moxey stresses that Ultra remains “a dance and electronic brand.”
The label boss himself is still motivated by finding angles that others might not consider. “I could never make the record myself, but the biggest buzz I can get is putting two people together to make something fantastic,” he says. And so the Ultra story rolls on.
Jack Tregoning is an editor and journalist from Sydney, Australia, now based in New York whose worked for over a decade in music media, while also writing about movies, TV, and culture. Find him on Twitter.