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Original publisher: Mixmag
The Oakster - calm in the eye of the disco storm
Going 'a bit funny' at Cream
Cream - even better than La Luz
He puts his right arm in... do the Oakie coakie etc
Without doubt one of the country's most popular, consistent and relentlessly brilliant DJs. A history that spans hip hop, London's first acid club, Balearic, 98bpms and now Goa; a history that spans British dance music itself. Tours with U2 and dates all over the world. Successful. Rich. One of the biggest names in dance music, the old smoothie, Paul Oakenfold.
Words: David Davies
THE Utah Saints tell this great story about Paul Oakenfold. Very early on in U2's 1994 Zoo Tour he was doing his DJ support set to 40,000 people in Rotterdam. The rain was pouring down and out there on the open stage the wind was howling round him. He battled on. Until halfway through his set when the vibration from one of his monitors shook all his records off the stage, seven foot down onto the soaking wet grass below. 40,000 people, one record on the deck, all his records on the grass, nightmare. Somehow he got through it.
Now comes the cool bit. This is how much Paul Oakenfold loves his records. He went back to his dressing room, found a towel and gingerly wrapped it around each piece of vinyl, soaking up the wet. Then carefully he spread all his records around his dressing room floor and - this is when The Utah Saints saw him - got down on his hands and knees with a hair dryer and gently gave each of them a blow dry. The man was blow drying his records.
PAUL Oakenfold loves music. He's a mover and a shaker, a record industry bigwig, one of the establishment that has built the dance music scene in Britain. He's loaded, he's talented, he's cred, he's cool. He's got the business smarts and the front. But if you want to understand Paul Oakenfold, if you want to understand how he's done so well, you've got to understand that the man loves music.
Of course everyone in the music business starts out loving the music. It's the trappings along the way that fuck most of them. The drugs, the money and the mortgage wear a lot of people down, have them compromising and playing safe. When Tony Humphries talks about record companies being like banks it's because they're often run by people who are no more in touch with music than your local NatWest manager. They're anaesthetised from the real world of clubs and bars and record shops. Golf is their game.
DJs and artists find their niche, their 'sound' and stick with it. And flog it until it can be flogged no more. Which is fair enough, Method man is never going to be a convincing techno act. But the true survivors, the ones with really long careers are the ones who always stay a step ahead, the ones who never quite cash in.
Paul Oakenfold has never cashed in. He is absolutely 100%, ruthlessly on it. He's long since eclipsed his old acid house DJ peers. Nancy Noise and Trevor Fung are great DJs with strong musical roots but they've not kept pushing forward like Oakenfold. No one pushes forward like Oakenfold. "I'm always in touch," he says, bristling with confidence. "If I'm out of touch next year you won't find me around. There's nothing worse than someone thinking they're in touch and they're not."
He underlines the point, "70% of my DJ set is on acetate and DAT," he says. "It's hard to find music in record shops because I'm so far ahead of the game. They play me 30 tunes and I don't buy any and I think, 'Oh God, I've got to buy a couple of tunes here,' because I'm feeling embarrassed because I'm not spending any money."
PAUL Oakenfold is 31. He's always wanted to be in the music business. A fully-qualified chef by the age of 16, he started applying to all the record companies. "No one wanted to know," he remembers. "so I thought, 'The heart of dance music is New York.' So I packed my bags and went and lived there." You know, like you do.
He got a job as a courier, delivering packages around Manhattan. Every time he went past a record company he would shoot in. "I'd say, 'Got any promos? I'm a DJ.' And I'd get my friends in England to send me over stuff and I'd be going in saying, 'This is an underground tune in England, why don't you license it?'" If no one would give him a job, Oakenfold was going to hustle one up on his own.
He still had plenty to learn however. "When we first went to [legendary club and birthplace of 'garage'] The Paradise Garage we couldn't figure out how everyone could stay up all night long. At six o'clock in the morning we were sitting there going, 'How can they last until 12 the next day?' It took us a few months to figure it out."
It was the early '80s and hip hop was exploding in New York; Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa. When Oakenfold returned to London after about 14 months in New York he got an A&R job at Polo/Champion Records. He signed up Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Salt N' Pepa, Raze's 'Jack The Groove' and a series of 'Battle Of The DJs' compilations. "We were fast learners," he says, now. "Kids are."
He is sitting in a chair in the corporate swank of his Warner Brothers-owned office. His usual radiant health is rather dimmed by a 48 hour stretch in the studio but he's alert and co-operative. He can't sit still though. He's a ball of energy. Squatting in the chair, slumping down in it. Wrapping his arms around his chest and then his knees. His street London accent gives his voice an edge but there's nothing rough about his manner. Always polite.
As we trawl back through his incredible career he frequently has trouble remembering dates and times. "It's hard for me to think about the past," he says, "because I don't dwell on it. I'm more interested in the future."
AS hip hop started to break in Britain Oakenfold was increasingly on top of it. Not only was he learning fast at Polo, he was also a consultant with Def Jam and on a retainer to send hot UK tracks to Profile in New York, he was DJing, he was bringing US acts in for gigs. He was working. He was in.
By 1984 Oakenfold was a key figure in the British music scene, a crucial connection between London and New York. That summer he went with some of his London DJ friends to Ibiza for the first time. The next year he started a club called Funhouse. It was based around the spirit of Ibiza. But it didn't work.
"No one could understand why we were playing Queen's 'Another One Bites The Dust'," he says. "I was a bit disappointed but I've learnt since then that one of the most important things in this business is timing. It was the wrong time, it didn't work so we knocked it on the head."
It didn't stop him going to Ibiza however and by 1987 he was prepared to give the concept another go. He already had a successful night going called The Project in South London. "It was a Kev club; soul, jazz, funk, hip hop. We had Run DMC down there, we had LL Cool J, Joyce Sims, we did alright," he says.
"Then in early '87 we started doing these late parties. The Project ended at 2am and we'd get everyone out by 2.30, shut the front doors, open the back doors and from 2.30 to 6.00 was the Balearic party."
That Summer they even went to the expense of flying in legendary Ibiza DJ, Alfredo, for the party. Only for the police to finally close them down.
Meanwhile Oakenfold was catching flak for a hip hop column he was writing in Blues & Soul. "Rap was changing and I was writing about the Beastie Boys and the rock element and there was that old school mentality of, 'No, no, you can't write about that, you've got to stay with the formula.' And that wasn't what we were into so we went and done our thing." It was a turning point. Oakenfold went Balearic.
He started Spectrum at Heaven. "There was no club in London on a Monday night that catered for 1,500 people and everyone said, 'You're gonna lose a lot of money and it won't work.' But I knew something that everyone else didn't. Which was ecstasy. We used to go to parties, seven, eight people and we were all on it. The other 700 people in the club wouldn't know what was happening. So I knew it was all going to go off. I knew it in my heart. That's why I stuck with it."
After six weeks, Oakenfold owed Heaven £12,000. Spectrum had yet to break even. He was 24, he didn't have that kind of money. It was getting tight.
And then suddenly it went off. On the sixth week it broke even. And then it went berserk. "It was so different, so exciting and you're young and you're like, 'Fucking hell, I've never experienced anything like this,' so next week you come back with two friends and this was how it would go until it got to the point you couldn't get in the club. It was ridiculous."
It was an incredible club. Acid house had arrived in Britain. Spectrum and its successors, Land Of Oz and Future, were the first to do club tours, The Orb's Alex Patterson pioneered his ambient chill out sets in the back room, the KLF recorded a live album here. Danny D turned the Spectrum club chant of "Aciieeed!" into the international chart topper 'We Call It Aciieeed', rock guitarists came down and jammed along with the DJs. One night they even had a North versus South eight deck super DJ challenge with Oakenfold and Colin Hudd at one end and Mike Pickering and Graeme Park at the other.
It was, Oakenfold freely admits, one of the most important times of his life. "I regret not focussing on it really," he reflects. "I was so wrapped up in doing what you do - it's like anything - it rushes by and when it's finished you think, 'Fuck, I missed out on this, this, this.' I know that if I knew then what I know now business-wise I would have made a fortune."
But even then, there was to be no dwelling on what might have been. In 1990, Paul Oakenfold bailed on house music. "The scene split, the scene went rave and I didn't feel comfortable with rave music. The noises were more cheesy and we were more song-oriented. Where I wanted to go was keep the energy and go downtempo. We'd be caning it for four years, we were ready to go out on a different vibe.
"That's the kind of person I am musically. I could have made a fortune out of being a big rave DJ - I played all those Biology's and Sunrise's - but it wasn't about that for me."
So began his 98bpm movement, a combination of dance grooves, indie rock and hip hop that ended up finally reappearing as indie dance with old Future regulars, the Happy Mondays and Stone Roses, at the helm. And on his releases as Movement 98, top slowed up groovers like 'Joy And Heartbreak'.
IT'S about quarter past two at Final Frontier. The caged DJ booth is an oasis of calm in a storm of trance mayhem of Paul Oakenfold's making. The club is swamped in sweat, it's ridiculously hot. Suddenly a gap-toothed gawky grin is clawing at the wire mesh. "Is that Paul Oakenfold?" he asks through the thick fog of a Glasgow accent. Yeah. He grins, nods, thumbs up. "I've come down for this." Minutes later silver wraps of chewing gum are being passed into the cage. Nods towards Oakenfold, pass it over. Thumbs up.
Oakenfold is one of the coolest people you'll ever see in a DJ booth. It's not so much his clothes; camouflage trousers, expensive white V-neck T-shirt and three stripe shell toes; it's more the aura he carries of unshakeable confidence. Some years ago he told Sky magazine that a DJ should never try anything in a club they haven't already practiced in their bedroom, tonight his set is certainly that polished. He may cue up his tunes with his headphones but when it comes to mixing the track in he does without. There's none of the crooked neck headphone hunch or the rifling through the record box, just this incredible calm.
"I absolutely love DJing, I can't express it," he says later. "I love playing music. I put so much time and effort into it, I don't want to let anyone down. Not everyone is going to like every tune you're going to play but nine times out of ten I will give people a show. And I am confident of that. I know I can deliver. I know if you put me next to Humphries and Morales, or Sven Vath and Laurent Garnier I can deliver. I know I can do it."
Oakenfold is undeniably a brilliant DJ. Not good, not well-trained, not a technical wizard but brilliant. At Mixmag, we get more letters going on about how great a DJ Paul Oakenfold is than any other DJ. And his Goa set for Pete Tong's Essential Mix series on Radio One was incredible, somehow weaving film soundtracks and everything into a trance mix like no other.
Of course Oakenfold has had about 14 years to perfect his DJing but he's also strengthened his hand by playing as official support DJ on U2's Zoo Tour. "As a DJ I've played the best clubs in the world, I've played in Dubai, Iceland, Brazil, India. I couldn't go any further so the next step was to support bands," he says. He warmed up for Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Grace Jones, Cypress Hill. Then came U2.
"It's a different world. The minimum on the tour was 30,000, maximum 95,000." Suddenly it's not about the usual clubland shenanigans of drink and drugs and having a wild time but something else completely. "You're an entertainer. It isn't about making them dance, it's about creating a vibe for the main band to go on. I would play a Cypress Hill record next to a Rage Against The Machine record, drop in a Nirvana then go to Bob Marley and a house tune. I've learnt a lot from that, I learnt the professional side." You can't wing it playing in front of 90,000 people. Deliver or die.
AT Cream in Liverpool, Oakenfold is in furious form. Playing across three decks he's got four acetate copies of a BT album track (BT being signed to Perfecto) and he's hammering the bejesus out of them. Switching and slipping them, playing all of them at the same time, for 15 minutes he spins them, completely going off. And not once does he hunch over the records, never a trace of concentration on his face, just total focus, total effortless control. Utterly in charge. "I love it," he says. "I'm totally relaxed."
PAUL Oakenfold kind of floats above dance music. He's not really to be seen these days at industry bashes like In The City and Popkomm. It's a given, as with all the scene's big hitters, that he knows how to hustle. There are others too with his DJ pull. What takes him above all that is his music. He can create.
The idea that DJs are the new producers, the artists of the future, has now been repeated so often that's it become a kind of accepted truth. But if you look closely you can see it's not quite like that. How many DJs can you think of who make great music on their own? Tony Humphries? Pete Tong? Jeremy Healy? No. If you want to find DJs with serious musical success you've got to look at outfits like Snap!, Brothers In Rhythm and Perfecto, outfits with a DJ and a musician.
Oakenfold's partner is Steve Osborne. Together they have produced some of the best remixes of the last ten years. Their Happy Mondays 'Wrote For Luck' remix practically single-handedly invented indie dance music. Their mixes of U2's 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' and 'Lemon' introduced the band to a whole new audience and their remix of Arrested Development's 'Mr Wendell' pulled off the rare trick of making hip hop playable in a house club.
And as producers of Happy Monday's 'Thrills, Pills & Bellyaches' they not only created a platinum album and got nominated for a Brits award, they brokered the best deal between dance music and rock there has been to date.
Oakenfold has never balked at a challenge. "I've always gone out on a limb," he insists. Once he'd bored of the downbeat 98 Movement he moved into rock production, back into house then trance and, most recently, Goa. Each time he's put his reputation at stake. But it's one thing to take on all these new challenges it's quite another to keep pulling them off. Platinum albums, Brits nominations, ground-breaking music. Staying ahead.
His latest thing is Goa trance. He's putting everything into it. The Perfecto Allstarz 'Reach Up' single had a Goa mix on the flip, the new Perfecto Fluro label is bang off Goa, the new Grace record comes with Goa sounds.
Goa is kind of like upper crustie trance. Goa itself is a sun-drenched holiday state in India, slightly hotter, slightly richer than the rest of the country and home to a vibrant free party scene. "They do these parties, like the Tip parties, and they can put on a party for 1,000 people with a week's notice and with no flyers," says Oakenfold, impressed. "That's why it's so good because you're not reading about it and you ain't got all the trainspotters and the bods coming down slagging it and making comments."
Oakenfold is certain the scene is about to explode. "In the next five years Goa will become like Ibiza is now," he reckons. "The hippies will be kicked out and it will become Ted commercial. It will be full of sausages," he pauses, "and we'll be in Vietnam or Chile.
"What I relate to is the spirit and the energy and the openness of the people," explains Oakenfold. "It's exactly the same as Ibiza back then. I think Glastonbury has kicked it in because a lot of people got the gist and understood it and were like, "Now we know what's going on; it's a party; not everyone standing there.'"
He's already been over twice this year but already he's too hip to go over for the more mainstream Christmas parties. Hip. On it. London. Oakenfold.
He has however a dilemma. He's a record company executive, a man with a major money deal with a major record company to release big tunes. Perfecto Records needs to find new scenes to explore and, well, exploit. Oakenfold's problem is that the Goa scene is well aware of what will happen when the mainstream discovers it. Paul Oakenfold is wise enough to know that that's what he too likes about it. And yet. And yet with his own label he could be the one to do the damage.
"The scene doesn't want to be exposed," he admits. "I don't want to be the person to talk about it because the less the press know about it the better it is."
Nonetheless he's pressing ahead with the Fluro label and inevitably its influencing his own music. "I take what I want," he says, bluntly. "That's how people make music."
Still, he's careful. Virus, who nearly charted a few weeks ago with their Goa-influenced 'The Sun' on the Fluro label, kept a distinctly low media profile, obviously reluctant to talk about their influence. Especially since Virus is really a front for Paul Oakenfold himself. As, in fact, are Wild Colour, Grace, Rise and Perfecto Allstarz. He's a player alright.
AND all this must have made him rich, right? "Well," he says, with the merest hint of a smile on his lips, "if you're good at what you do, you make money." He goes on. "The less you do, the more money you make."
"In all aspects," he explains. "Like DJing; my fee is a lot more than the person who does three gigs a night. I will only do one and I will give my heart and soul." And he will make more money.
Likewise with remixing. Now, he reckons, by only doing eight remixes last year, he's so in demand that simply by agreeing to do a remix the record will automatically become a hit. Before he's even done the mix. "You become in such big demand," he explains, "that you do less and you charge more."
Radio One, for instance, are widely-rumoured to automatically make a record a priority on their playlist by mere dint of having a Perfecto mix. "Radio One know that when they get a Perfecto record they're getting quality and a song," smiles Oakenfold. "I understand that really, really well. I've grown up with songs."
And we're back to the music. It's the central aspect of all that he's done. Talk him through his decisions, his career moves and it's his love of music that's dictated them all.
It can though be hard on those around him. Perfecto Records used to be owned by another major, BMG. How many of the acts signed to Perfecto then has Oakenfold brought with him to his new major home at East West? None. There's a ruthlessness at work here. "Gary Clail? he says at one point, of his former leading Perfecto star. "Been there, done that."
You're ruthless, I say, and he nods. Doesn't smile, you'll note, nods. It's a fact of life. Been there, done that.
Better get ready for Goa.
A perfecto compilation, 'Perfection', featuring BT, Grace and Wild Colour among others is out October 16th. An Oakenfold mix is planned. Oakenfold's 'The Goa Mix' is available from Cream.
Happy Mondays - 'Pills, Thrills & Bellyaches' LP
Perfecto Allstarz - 'Reach Up'
Grace - 'Not Over Yet'
Happy Mondays - 'Wrote For Luck', 'Hallelujah'
Massive Attack - 'Unfinished Sympathy'
Frazier Chorus - 'Cloud 8'
Gary Clail - 'Human Nature', 'Beef'
Alison Limerick - 'Where Love Lives'
Simply Red - 'Freedom'
Snoop Doggy Dogg - 'Doggy Dog World'
D:Ream - 'U R The Best Thing'
Deacon Blue - 'Your Town'
U2 - 'Mysterious Ways', 'Even Better Than The Real Thing' 'Lemon'
Arrested Development - 'Mr Wendell'
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