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Original publisher: Mixer Magazine
He's the number one DJ in the world. Now what?
SUPERSTAR DJ TAKES CONTROL
Paul Oakenfold has DJed at every corner of the planet, toured with U2, remixed and produced too many records to mention and is one of America's favorite DJs. And let's not forget the impact of his Perfecto label, his burgeoning career scoring soundtracks and his slot as the most successful DJ in the Guinness Book of World Records. This month, this icon gets ready to unveil a secret that he's been hiding from his fans for two years: His debut artist album.
story Darren Ressler · photography Joseph Cultice
IT'S 2pm Saturday on a blustery, sunny March afternoon in London. Paul Oakenfold is sitting alone at a table at the empty bar nestled inside of the posh Metropolitan Hotel, nursing a glass of freshly-squeezed orange juice on the rocks. His hair is gelled up and he's wearing a gray sweater with a collared white shirt underneath, dark pin-stripped slacks and old school Converse sneakers. Aside from a mobile phone placed on the table beside his glass, he has no coat, no hat, no nothing else with him. In dreary England, the sun shines as often as a politician tells the truth. So like most Londoners, today's presence of a few rays of sunshine is the perfect excuse to shed a few layers of outerwear or even dine al fresco, even though spring hasn't necessarily sprung yet.
In recent years, Oakenfold has shied away from the press (maybe he'd rather let the music do the talking for himself?) But today he is cordial, friendly and slightly reserved. He quizzes me on what types of music I like and wants to hear about US clubbing straight from the mouth of an American who's deep in it: "Where do you go out in New York?"
Field research is one of the tools that has helped Paul Oakenfold become the most successful DJ of our time. He listens and takes in everything. He is like a sponge, and the wheels in his mind seem like they are in perpetual motion. For instance, no matter where he travels around the world, if he's playing a set that night, he ritually stops by the best vinyl shop in town to buy records that the locals are certain to know. He learned this from his days touring with U2.
Where some DJs of his stature and wealth might try to impress you with how "mad for it" they are, Oakenfold seems comfortable in his skin and doesn't want to perform for me. When he talks about the DJ empire he's built, his eyes widen and he almost seems blown away by its success, as if it isn't real.
The guy sitting across from me is also the DJ who wears his headphones slung under his chin; the guy who slowly glides his outstretched arm in the air to the pulse of a new trance, house or progressive anthem; the guy who isn't afraid to let the music possess him like a zombie when he's in the DJ booth. He's also the guy whose been to a million different places and rocked them all. There are two not-so-different sides to Paul Oakenfold the Superstar DJ, and the one before me now speaks with the realness that you'd want your best friend to have.
AS Oakenfold sips his juice from a straw, his eyes slowly dart across the room. He sheepishly smiles and wants to admit something: He has butterflies in his stomach. In three hours, he's going to be interviewed by a CNN reporter at his home just across Hyde Park for two upcoming news specials. When a global news giant like CNN with its millions of viewers comes calling, it’s a big deal. "Yes," he grins. "I'm a little nervous. "I think that dance culture has now come to be big where CNN is interested in doing a special on it, and it's good for all of us", says Oakenfold. "I don't do a lot of press, but this is something interesting to do and so culturally different. I like that."
Drawing outside of the lines has been a recurring theme in Oakenfold's career. Sensing that he needed a change of venue, he stopped DJing regularly in England a year ago and began to concentrate more on gigs in America, where, as in the rest of the world, he often commands nightly fees that are higher than your yearly salary.
Where the English are typically reserved when it comes to the subject of money, Oakenfold has transplanted himself in America's Darwinian economy. In the land of the free and home of the brave, everyone theoretically has a shot at making the big bucks. If you're lucky enough to win the brass ring, then it's yours to do with what you like, even if it means being outlandish and excessive. Even if you are judged or criticized, this society will still respect your wealth and all that it can afford you. As Americans, cash rules everything around us.
That said, why shouldn't a talented Brit–a chef who came to New York in 1983 to work as a messenger, who embraced the Paradise Garage and fledgling hip-hop scene while sleeping on roach-infested floors in a friend's tiny apartment on 181st Street before he knew that he wanted to become a DJ–get in on the action?
"Paul commands a high fee, but he's worth it if you can afford him, his shows are always sold-out," says a talent booker. "The customers love him."
"He's always going to pack the club and bring great records," adds a peer at another revered venue. "Paul's a proper entertainer, but he doesn't come cheap. Kids show up with his Tranceport CD wanting autographs. He's a rock star."
Unlike most mix CDs, which rarely crack the sales chart, Oakenfold's Tranceport mix for Kinetic Records released in November 1998 has moved a swift quarter-million copies. Many of his other mix CDs are on target for comparable success. Word of Oakenfold's US acclaim (and the popularity of longtime US road warriors Sasha & John Digweed) has encouraged a younger crop of English DJs to come to the States and pay their dues.
"[Tranceport] has become a classic," says Steve Lau, head of Kinetic Records. "The tracks are a picture of exactly what was exciting in the end of '98 and it represents a time when the whole UK dance invasion was just beginning. There weren't a million DJ compilations at that time, so a record like Tranceport had the opportunity to develop over time. Since then, the market has changed and DJ mixes are shadowed by greatest dance hits-type compilations. 1998-'99 was the era when the superstar DJ boat was setting out to sail. Either you made it on the boat during that time or you didn't. Paul was not only on the boat, but was steering the ship."
"What we're seeing in America is a fresh enthusiasm," adds DJ/producer Alex Gold, head of the seven-year-old London-based Xtravaganza label. Like Oakenfold, Gold sees America's clubbing potential and will embark on his third national tour this month.
"If you're a man who likes a challenge, then America is the place for you," he adds. "Some of the DJs have opened the way and I was in the position to get involved. You've got to be pig-headed to launch yourself in America, because it's such a huge geographical place."
TIMES are tough for the British superclub brands who enjoyed dizzying success in the late-'90s. Colonization of America didn't work out, but well-received Ibiza club nights have kept their businesses in the black. UK superclubs have been hit hard by the post 9/11 recession and changing lifestyle choices, which include the growing popularity of the bar scene in England. While people in the UK are still clubbing, Oakenfold's plan to focus on the rest of the world's clubs begs the question–does he have a crystal ball or just a great gut instinct?
"Paul looked at the US scene and felt that it was right for him to be there," says Jake Leighton-Pope of London-based Terra Firma, the boutique management firm who represents Oakenfold, as well as ex-Verve front man Richard Ashcroft and upstarts Lemon Jelly. "He saw that other acts broke the States by regularly being there, so he made the commitment."
While regularly criss-crossing North America during his exotic global travels to China, Australia, South America and other parts of the Far East, Oakenfold says that he received offers from labels willing to sign him as an artist. But the timing, he says, wasn't right. Having been around the block a few times, Oakenfold says that he wasn't ready at the time to take the artistic plunge–the tracks just weren't there. He wanted no part of an imaginary press release announcing his signing to XYZ Records. With that would come the pressure and the inevitable question: Paul, when is your album coming out?
Rather than assign himself an unnecessary deadline for an album he felt unwilling to spit out, Oakenfold took time out and began laying down tracks in London. He worked with programmers and producers like Andy Gray and Steve Osborne, and sought additional production on "Starry Eyed Surprise" and "Ready Steady Go" from God Lives Underwater's Jeff Turzo.
"I needed to find myself and really focus on what I want to do," he says. For his full-length debut, Bunkka (which was named after the room at Real World Studios in Wiltshire, England in which he laid down basic tracks), he wrote more than 30 pieces of music. After two years of fussing and critiquing his work, he's only now comfortable with his music. When asked if the number one DJ in the world is ready to have his every note picked apart and analyzed, Oakenfold smiles nervously.
"Yeah, there's always pressure on me," he says. "All you can do in life is to do your best. The most important thing is that I've tried my hardest and did 30 pieces of music. I wrote music, scrapped it, then changed direction."
"Everyone wants to shoot someone who's on the top. Once you're on the statue, everyone wants to throw rocks at you," says Philadelphia's Josh Wink. "I felt pressure when I was working on my album, but I didn't succumb to it. The good thing about electronic music is that there aren't any rules, but people impose rules on what electronic music should be like by their own views, whether it be from the media or the people who listen. Art in general has no rules."
BUNKKA, the result of Oakenfold's hard work, is Tranceport's musical polar opposite. Dark and dubby, it's a mix of collaborations ("It wasn't a case of working with big names: It was a case of working with people who inspire me because I'm musically into what they do.") with new talents like vocalists such as the So Solid Crew's Asher D ("Ready Steady Go"), Carla Werner ("Southern Sun") and Tiff Lacy ("Hypnotised"). Indie rocker Grant Lee Phillips turns up on "Motion," while Perry Farrell fronts "Time of Your Life." Then there's "Get Em Up," which features rapper Ice Cube, whose directorial career has undoubtedly tarnished his lyrical flow.
One of the album's best moments comes when Nelly Furtado and Tricky unite on the album's dark, cinematic final track, "Harder They Come." Perhaps one of the most interesting tracks is "Nixon's Spirit," a spoken-word offering fronted by outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson, the author behind the classic Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas. Oakenfold had to submit his music, bio and press clips to Thompson in order to get an audience and waited patiently to be granted a meeting with the renegade.
"I've been a fan of his maverick ways and outlook on life. I think that [youth relate to] what he says, especially in the UK," reasons Oakenfold. "A lot of the clubs, like God's Kitchen, take paragraphs from his books and use them on flyers. I think that what he has to say is relevant to my generation and [to all] clubbers."
Last November in LA, Oakenfold finally got to meet Thompson, who was hanging with actor/director Sean Penn, who is adapting one of Thompson's books into a film. "It was an experience that will live with me forever," says Oakenfold, who admits to being slightly intimidated by the chain-smoking Penn (who didn't have a clue who he was) and Thompson's strong personality. Nevertheless, Oakenfold interviewed Thompson over several nights and did what he seems to do best–listen.
"I went back and wrote a piece of music and arranged it as a small short story. I explained how I got to meet him, spoke to his assistant, sent my music and waited to reply. I'm really pleased with that track.
"My sound is a melodic, emotional sound, whether it's uptempo, downtempo or mid-tempo," he continues. "You still know that it's my sound without a doubt. It's not all four to the floor, but I will go and do remixes that will work as singles. I'm inspired by different sounds...reggae, rock, soul, house, guitars. Dance mixes of the same tracks will work on the dancefloor. Doing a proper artist album is something I never wanted to do, but this is my progression. I kind of feel now that I'm comfortable with doing a record that's not just a DJ record."
NINE hours after the CNN interview is conducted in his kitchen, Paul Oakenfold is in Portsmouth, a seaside town about two hours outside of London that's accessible if you drive straight down the A3. He's in the DJ booth at Renaissance Suites, a two-level club with over a thousand screaming clubbers. Today is the last day of World DJ Day, a week-long series of charity events where DJs have jumped out of planes and organized various events to raise money for the Nordoff-Robbins charity, which offers music therapy to children. Tonight, Oakenfold is donating his fee from this, a rare gig in the south of England at the venue, which has two 18-year-old girls frolicking in a jacuzzi at the other end of the club.
Oakenfold climaxes his set with Josh Wink's bootleg of Radiohead's "Everything in its Right Place." The punters on the dancefloor begin to chant "OAK-EY! OAK-EY!" The roar almost surpasses the din bleating through the club's impressive sound system. Lost in the moment as clubbers try to scale the DJ booth to give their DJ hero high-fives, Oakenfold quickly regains his focus.
As I stand in the DJ booth's doorway next to Terra Firma's Jake Leighton-Pope, who's driven me to the gig from London, a swarm of fans tries to enter the booth. Suddenly, we're thrust into the position of personal bodyguards, protecting Oakenfold as he works on the decks. A 21-year-old blonde girl named DJ Emma, who announces that she has driven all the way from South Hampton (I later learned that it was only a 20-minute drive), steps up and offers me a few pounds for my pen. Emma's night won't be complete unless she gets her DJ hero to autograph tonight's flyer.
I ask Emma why she likes Paul Oakenfold so much–what's so special about this geezer? Emma's jaw drops. She fumbles to find the words to describe her feelings, and she looks like she's going to cry.
"He plays for the people," she yells into my ear. "He's influenced me to DJ, even though I haven't played out yet. It's not just the records that he plays–it's how he plays for the dancefloor. I love him!"
Oakenfold's set concludes, and he shakes a lot of hands, signs a lot of autographs, yet doesn't smile when photographers from the UK dance press ask him to pose. Within seconds, we're whisked in a convoy with several bouncers to the safety of the VIP area. The club's owner walks over and shakes Oakey's hand. As the two exchange words, the owner hands him a glass of champagne. Where some DJs may have gotten ready to party, Oakenfold takes a polite sip of the bubbly and sets down the glass on the table. Even though he's no longer in the booth, this DJ is still on duty.
Bunkka is out in June on Maverick.
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