John Digweed (L) & Sasha (R)
Photo: PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
For The Record: How Sasha & John Digweed's 'Northern Exposure' Broke The Mix Album Mold
In October 1994, the British DJ duo Sasha and John Digweed released Renaissance: The Mix Collection, a three-disc odyssey through the sounds they played as resident DJs at the Renaissance club night at The Conservatory in Derby, England. The three CDs--one blue, one orange, one green--came in an elaborate foldout case adorned with Renaissance art, including a detail from Michelangelo's vast Sistine Chapel ceiling painting on the cover. In every way, from the ornate design to the considered liner notes, the package was a world away from the trippy patterns and smiley faces dominating rave culture at the time.
Over three-plus hours, Renaissance: The Mix Collection blended house anthems with progressive house and trance, two interlocking genres defined by lush melodies and fluid build-ups that took hold of the U.K. in the early '90s. Expertly mixed and featuring producers of the moment like Leftfield, Fluke, Spooky and Age of Love, Renaissance: The Mix Collection was an instant sensation, becoming the U.K.'s first-ever gold-selling mix compilation. For fans of the now hallowed DJ pairing, another serotonin-spiking multi-part mix couldn't come soon enough.
As it turned out, Sasha and Digweed's next move was to swerve. Released 25 years ago this week, on Sept. 27, 1996, Northern Exposure saw the pair step out of their comfort zone to deliver a concept album that straddled home listening and dance-floor reverie. The previous year, Digweed had returned alone to mix all three discs of Renaissance - The Mix Collection Part 2, while Sasha dropped a four-track set for the Essential Mix compilation. Coming back together, they were eager to push the boundaries of the mix-CD format they'd helped create.
While Northern Exposure is now considered a classic on par with the duo's first outing, its reception in the moment was mixed. Some listeners were put off by the simmering, global music-inflected ambience of disc one, titled "0°/North," while others chafed against the darker, strobe-lit atmosphere of disc two, titled "0°/South." In an infamously scathing review, DJ Mag gave 0°/South a score of 0/10.
The confusion was only deepened by the mix coming out on Ministry Of Sound, the London club-turned-label then best known for releasing slamming house mixes from Tony Humphries, Paul Oakenfold and Masters At Work. Northern Exposure peaked at No. 7 on the UK Compilation Chart, a strong showing that nevertheless fell short of Renaissance - The Mix Collection. "It definitely wasn't what people were expecting," Digweed told Red Bull in 2019. "[DJ Mag] thought we'd disappeared up our own arses."
The cult of Northern Exposure grew over time, creating tingly associations with featured artists like Underworld, Rabbit in the Moon and The Future Sound Of London. The compilation also popularized the concept album in dance music, spawning many mix-CDs made in its image. Most significantly, Northern Exposure cemented Sasha and Digweed as true superstar DJs for a legion of fans who'd pore over their sets to tease out the subtlest differences between their styles.
Sasha and Digweed were mutual admirers before they became DJ partners. After falling for acid house at Manchester's storied Haçienda nightclub, Sasha started DJing with fewer than 50 records to his name, picking up his first residency at the Ashton-under-Lyne club Bugsy's and graduating to the legendary rave venue Shelleys Laserdome. In 1994, he appeared on the cover of dance bible Mixmag doing prayer hands and looking heavenwards above the headline "Sasha: Son of God?"
Digweed, meanwhile, honed his craft in the south coast town of Hastings under the early alias of JD. He convinced Sasha to drive five hours to play the Storm! party on Hastings Pier, and a lifelong friendship was born. After sharing the booth at Renaissance, the pair created their own niche with the Northern Exposure midweek club night, which inspired the dreamy-to-banging feel of the mix compilation and grew into a national touring brand.
Sasha and Digweed designed Northern Exposure as a departure from the glut of anthem-stacked mix-CDs at the time. Speaking to Australian radio station triple j in 1997, the pair described the 0°/North disc in particular as an after-hours affair.
"There were a lot of tunes we'd listen to when we'd come in from a night out that we wouldn't be able to play in a club, because they weren't appropriate," Digweed explained, name checking The Future Sound Of London's "Cascade (Part 1)" and The Orb's mix of Keiichi Suzuki's "Satellite Serenade." Sasha added, "We wanted to choose some stuff from our record collections that were classic records to us but perhaps forgotten classics."
To fit their home stereo favorites into the flow of a DJ set, Sasha told triple j the pair "did re-edits of certain tunes that needed them." Fans have debated just how much of Northern Exposure was created using the then-nascent music software Pro Tools, although the tech-savvy DJs have never claimed it was recorded live with only a pair of turntables and a mixer.
Speaking to Billboard in 2013, Sasha said his early mixes were "all handmade," then polished in the computer. "By embracing the technology at the time, we were able to mix to the limits with layering and effects," Digweed told Billboard in 2020. While some attribute the boundary-pushing 0°/North disc to Sasha and the Renaissance-like 0°/South disc to Digweed, both DJs are adamant they work as a team, their roles always adapting and evolving.
The two mixes that make up Northern Exposure are distinct but inseparable. The shimmering synths, nature sounds and sampled David Attenborough narration in The Orb's remix of Keiichi Suzuki set an appropriately wide-eyed tone for 0°/North. While the disc itself is a cohesive journey, the individual tracks (most clocking in well over five minutes) also contain their own movements and mood changes.
Each selection tells a small story of '90s dance music, from the early adventures of William Orbit, who'd later make his name as a three-time GRAMMY-winning super producer to Madonna and others, to the brilliance of Bay Area pioneer Scott Hardkiss, aka God Within, who died in 2013. The mix was influenced by the duo's travels in America and especially the trance and breakbeat scene in Florida, home to acts like Rabbit in the Moon. While "timeless" is a cliché often used to describe significant dance albums, the 0°/North disc is truly of its time, which doesn't diminish its impact.
0°/South is closer to a Sasha and Digweed club set in 1996, starting at a slow simmer and building to a driving pay-off in the final third. Its tracklist is another snapshot of the moment in dance music, including a hard-hitting remix of Pete Lazonby's "Wavespeech" by U.S. house don Junior Vasquez and closing with Underworld's "Dark & Long (Dark Train)," which also appeared that year on the Trainspotting soundtrack. It was this disc's patient build and fine-drawn shifts that upset DJ Mag's reviewer at the time, who called it the "altogether duller" half of Northern Exposure that "makes the rock people think that we are all drugged-up idiots."
After Northern Exposure, Sasha and Digweed were a powerhouse team. In 1997, the duo explored trancier sounds on Northern Exposure 2, with its mixes this time divided between "East Coast" and "West Coast" discs. The third volume, 1999's Northern Exposure: Expeditions, coincided with the duo's new residency at the revered Twilo nightclub in Manhattan. In 2000, they started anew with the club-focused Communicate mix album, which led into the ambitious Delta Heavy tour across the U.S., featuring rock concert production and support from the duo's protégé Jimmy Van M.
Without hard feelings or a major divergence in sound, the DJs went their separate ways after the Delta Heavy tour. In 2002, Sasha released his definitive artist album, Airdrawndagger, kickstarting a new phase of his career. His sound evolved over time, including excursions into techier and Balearic sounds, but never so far as to alienate his fans.
Digweed, meanwhile, carried on as the steady captain of his long-running Bedrock label, reliably delivering extended sets that brought tune trainspotters to their knees. Both DJs also remained committed to the mix-CD form, from Sasha's innovative Involver to Digweed's ever-reliable Transitions series. Speaking to The Guardian in 2016, Sasha drew a direct line from Northern Exposure to his ambient artist album, Scene Delete, saying he "always looks for those melancholic heart-tugging melodies."
Northern Exposure has continued to inspire other DJs too. A host of progressive house mix series followed in its example, including Balance, Global Underground and Global Underground: Nubreed, which featured fellow genre flag-bearers like Nick Warren, Hernan Cattaneo and Danny Howells. Sasha and Digweed's outing also coincided with the emergence of DJ-Kicks, a still-active mix series that features home listening sets by house and techno DJs.
In 2016, techno DJ Nicole Moudaber raved to Insomniac.com about playing Northern Exposure "probably 500 times since it was released" and noted its influence on a new generation of melodic techno DJs like Tale Of Us, Mind Against and DJ Tennis. Notably, Age of Love's "The Age of Love," featured on Renaissance: The Mix Collection, has returned as one of 2021's biggest peak time techno tracks, courtesy of a new remix by Charlotte de Witte and Enrico Sangiuliano.
Both Sasha and Digweed have mentioned their hopes to reissue Northern Exposure for its 25th anniversary so it can finally live on streaming platforms—a plan that as yet hasn't eventuated. "Unfortunately, a lot of these compilations keep dropping off streaming because the licensing on the tracks expire and we can't track down [the rights holders]," Sasha told Billboard this year.
As consolation, the DJs are in sync and back out in the world. Their first reunion set, at Ministry of Sound's Bedrock Easter celebration in 2016, was kept a secret until Sasha appeared as a shadowy figure next to Digweed in the booth. They've since played a host of festivals alongside DJs who grew up worshipping Northern Exposure, and just wrapped a joint fall tour of the U.S. Three decades on from their first meeting, there's no separating Sasha and John Digweed.