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Original publisher: Mixer Magazine
Have headphones, will travel. Paul Oakenfold rocks Denver.
Oakey's right-hand man, Dave Ralph
"I WANT TO PUSH IT AS FAR OUT IN AMERICA AS POSSIBLE."
COMING TO AMERICA
Paul Oakenfold is loved by many and loathed by some, but when the Guinness Book of World Records names you the most successful DJ in the world, you've got to take the good with the bad. While his Perfecto label rule England and Europe with an iron fist, here in North America he's intentionally taken a step back from the spotlight to help trance take one giant step forward.
Story Darren Ressler Photography John Griffin
IT'S THE DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING and Paul Oakenfold is sitting at a desk at the mixer office, slowly picking at a garden salad from City Market Cafe, and non-chalantly perusing a tall stack of CDs. He's just had his picture taken in a makeshift photo studio in the hallway and refused to take his endorsed designer sunglasses off, maybe because he looks slightly worse for the wear. Combine a mouth infection with last night's sold-out gig he played with partner in crime Dave Ralph at New York's cavernous Roxy, and it doesn't take a brain surgeon to understand why all of the pistons in his engine aren’t exactly firing in unison this afternoon.
"People were dancing on the stage waving Union Jacks." Oakenfold beams, his voice sounding raspy, almost on the Harry Belafonte tip. He smiles, pops a leafy slab of lettuce into his mouth, and starts chewing with his eyes closed as he recollects the night. He opens his eyes and starts to laugh. "Yeah, it was good. Really good."
After taking global dancefloors by storm for the better part of the past decade, Paul Oakenfold has continually had one eye focused on America. In the same way that Sasha & Digweed and the Chemical Brothers humbly planted their seeds at early '90s clubs like Orlando's Beachem Theater, Oakey also saw the potential for clubbing to break big in America just like it did back in 1989 in Britain. After all, didn't it all start here anyway?
"I did 50 shows in America the year before," he offers. "At one point I deliberately stayed out. I felt that I'd been coming over here for a long time, touring and playing at a lot of clubs, but it really didn't work. I had to look at the timing and it wasn't right. I stayed out for five years. When I toured with U2, their manager Paul McGuiness said to me, 'The only way to break America is to tour America as a band.'"
While he comes off in conversation as pretty modest and extremely humble, the industry perception of Paul Oakenfold is that he's either the luckiest DJ in the world or someone with ruthlessly killer instincts. I'd make the argument that he's a little of both. When his career blossomed a few years back and he started earning rivers of money, like many successful English entrepreneurs, he looked to the States–that magical land of Disney, dollars and daunting possibilities. Coming here was an inevitable next step in the game. Given Oakenfold's accomplishments–he was U2's handpicked DJ for their multi-media Zooropa tour, he's done tons of well-received productions (including Grace's ubiquitous "Not Over") and remixes, and has maintained the highest profile residencies at Britain's finest clubbing institutions from Cream to the recently-opened Home–it was either go global or have his career flatline.
Having been around the world a few times, Oakenfold saw that trance could actually make some noise in the U.S. underground. Far removed from the poshness he'd become used to, working here gave him a chance to play for people who didn't know or were only vaguely familiar with him. "I'd do Dallas on a Sunday night for 700 people. There was some curiosity there, but some of the dates were really busy. Now the DJ thing has become pretty focused here in America, almost like it is in Europe, though it's much bigger. From my point of view, there's pockets of great young DJs and promoters; if I can help move it forward, it'll be good for all of us."
Why would we not believe him? After all, New York house mixologists like Todd Terry, Masters At Work and Roger Sanchez took England by storm in the early '90s and nobody complained–until they all got out of hand by demanding first-class tickets for their friends, huge spinning fees and would only play their own records in their sets. If anything has helped their acceptance in America, it's been the let's-get-on-with-it mentality which Oakenfold and all of his British peers have exuded. What's even wiser is that they've all stayed in touch with the kids–not the music industry's dead wood–and have become citizens amongst the masses.
"There's the enthusiasm there which I thrive off of. I get excited by it and I look forward to coming to America. I love America. Where I am now in my career, I've had to take a few steps back, because people don't know me here like they do in England or Europe. It's the challenge of getting out there and being part of something that is so global and ready."
EXAMINE THE CASE OF OAKENFOLD'S Tranceport I mix CD, which is arguably not the ultimate trance journey, but still a good one for its time. Over a year after its release, the record hasn't sold less than a thousand copies a week (a feat for any compilation) and sales have already topped 100,000 copies. Someone out there is buying what he has to offer, even if the guy is English.
Oakey picks up a copy of a Stateside 'zine which has soundly dissed him, calling him all sorts of malicious names, attacking his DJ skills and generally behaving "tastelessly" xenophobic. As the top man on the global DJ totem pole, he's used to this sort of treatment by the press. He shakes his head with a what-can-you-do? look expression on his face and smiles. "It's a shame, innit?" While he takes the criticism on the chin, he calls into question why the writer used this diatribe to speak out so strongly against visiting U.K. DJs.
"People are welcomed to their opinion and not everyone is going to like what we're doing," he says. "Who really cares?"
Does Paul Oakenfold want to take over America?
"I'm not coming here trying to take over America; I like it here," he roars. He pops some more salad into his mouth and starts on his cup of soup. "This culture is about sharing. This year alone I've been to Vietnam, China and Cuba. This music is truly global. Nobody's taking over anything."
"America wants to be entertained, you know. It's the land of entertainment. I ain't writing the rules, I'm just playing the game."
WHERE HOUSE BUILT ITS OWN STRONGHOLD initially through mostly gay underground parties and clubs in New York and Chicago, techno and drum 'n' bass haven't truly been able to break through on any level to the commercial mainstream. In what has surprised many, trance–which has existed beneath the radar for years in some form or another–exploded on these shores in 1999, just like Oakenfold and several of his British and European peers always knew that it would. "The people like the energy and they thrive off of it," he explains, trying to find the answer for the music's success. It's a question he seems to always get asked, but he has a hard time answering it. "For me, the connection is very important. The trance sound was dissed for years in England, but the people wanted it anyway."
In the same way that English magazines initially dismissed hardcore and jungle, only to do a quick about face in both circumstances when the clubbing public demanded to read about it, Oakey knows that a similar thing has happened at home. He laughs when he's reminded how one monthly magazine tried for months to champion happy hardcore to no avail. "The same thing happened with trance. A lot of DJs dissed it, a lot of the media dissed it, but the people wanted it. I've always seen trance as a global sound and now the British media has jumped all over it until they find something else."
Does he agree that a partial reason for trance's success is that it's drug music? "I don't necessarily agree. The one thing that I do see is that people take a lot of drugs in America. Drugs are a problem in society. In England, they try to blame us–our industry–for the drug problem. It's unfair, 'cause there's drugs everywhere. With trance, you don't have to be off your head on drugs. We can sit here now, I can play you a few tunes and I could explain to you how I see it and you'd get it. I think it's the connection, the energy and the melodic sound that makes people feel good and there's nothing wrong with that."
Just as Sasha & Digweed have done in their interviews, Oakenfold knows that there's plenty of great American talent, ones who don't get marketed and promoted, but talented DJs who have been on the frontlines waving the trance flag. "I like what Chris Fortier is doing on the remix front," he points out. "Jerry Bonham is great, as is John Debo. There's this guy Patrick Scott who's making some music in Atlanta and he's trying to get a little something going down there. I encourage young DJs to give me CDs; if I like it, I'll play it. For the Winter Music Conference, I'm flying a DJ in from Argentina named Hernann Catting for the Perfecto night. I also flew Mark Lewis in from L.A. to play with me."
With this Oakenfold's tour manager walks in, looking a bit panicked and lets his boss know that they've got twenty minutes to catch the next Amtrak to Washington DC where Oakenfold and Ralph are scheduled to play at Buzz. By the time you read this, his next mix CD Oakenfold 2000 will be out domestically on London. He says that it'll have movie scores and tracks that were made exclusively for him. Of course, he'll support it with another marathon tour, this time intentionally going to smaller cities which he says are truly up for his brand of music. With the opening of superclubs like the newly-renovated Cameo in South Beach and talk of others to launch in LA and Detroit, perhaps he'll visit these venues on his next U.S. jaunt?
"We'll do some clubs in 2000, but it's the rave scene and festivals which I really want to play at. I want to come back to America with a band. I want to go to Alaska and push it as far out in America as possible." His eyes roll around and he leans his head back. For a moment you can see him on stage, his signature headphones around his neck and a baggy massive losing it on the dancefloor. if Oakenfold's learned anything over the years, the future is a lot closer than you think.
Oakenfold 2000 is out this month on London.
Paul Oakenfold could've picked any DJ to tour America with, but he chose Dave Ralph. Why?
"I HAVE a simple approach," says Oakenfold. "I have my warm-up DJ Dave Ralph and my tour manager. We fly in, do some press and promotion, play the show that evening, and then we're off to the next show. We did 50 shows in '98; in '99 we did around 36. But I love it and we get on with it. I started really small and I didn't think that many people really knew me over here. We built it and now we're seeing the fruits.
"I recognized Dave's talent early on. He wasn't a high profile DJ, but I wanted to approach America with a great warm-up DJ. I didn't want the DJ before me to just bang it and then I'd come on and the music was all over the place. I felt that the concept was about the night and not just me. Like last night, Dave went on from 10pm to 12:30am, then Hybrid played for an hour, and then it was me until the end of the night so it was all musically programmed. I told Dave that I'd pay him, look after him, and we've done it. So his deal is that he tours with me and now he's been getting work on his own. His profile is big, he has an album deal with Kinetic, and he's a good DJ."
Dave Ralph's Tranceport II is out now on Kinetic.
Oakenfold vs. Twilo
Paul Oakenfold reveals why won't play at the New York superclub.
"I DID a Perfecto night at Twilo five years ago and we agreed that we could put our banners up. When I got into the club, they took all of our banners down, and they were very rude to my manager because she's a girl and they wouldn't allow her to see me in the DJ booth. My girlfriend got pushed around. There's no need to be rude or disrespectful. They wanted me to go back and DJ and I won't do it. I don't want to be another British DJ playing on a Friday night, building Twilo's name up after they were rude to my girlfriend and my manager. I'm not that kind of person. There was no need for it. I like [Twilo manager] Mike Bindra and what Twilo's done is great, but I'm not going to play that game and be part of Twilo. I'm gonna do my own thing in New York, starting small with the Bowery Ballroom, Irving Plaza and Vinyl. It's working and I'm just taking a different approach. But the next time I come back to New York, we're going bigger!"
Twilo's manager Mike Bindra did not return phone calls asking for his side of the story.
Oakey Rates U.S. Clubs
"SPUNDAE is a great night," declares Oakey. "People were hanging off the bloody roof when I played there! The energy is incredible. They're very geared toward the sound that I play, because of the other DJs they bring in and the type of music they normally play."
And what about his other favorites? "I like Buzz in Washington D.C. and Shadow Lounge in Miami. But I'll tell you which is the nearest experience to English clubbing, and that's Boston. All of the Irish come in there and go mad. It's crazy and I love it! I like the challenge of going to Tallahassee, Salt Lake City and playing San Diego on a Tuesday night to 700 people because it's underground. In Denver, there were 1300 people on a Monday night–a Monday night! We don't get that in London!"
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