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Original publisher: Muzik Magazine
Cream at Amnesia
Britain’s biggest DJ on cash, Cream and karma
“it’s not about me… it’s about us”
Paul Oakenfold is the most popular DJ in Britain. Fact. His remixes can put your record at Number One. He runs his own record company. He’s massive everywhere from Israel to Hong Kong. And he puts it all down to having good karma
words: FRANK TOPE pictures: DEAN BELCHER/HAMISH BROWN
SO much for peace and Love. People are shoving each other out of the way to get into the dark room at the back of Cream. You shoot a mini-dressed girl a look for barging an elbow into you and she just looks back like you’re some kind of idiot. “What’s your problem?” say her eyes. “Don’t you realise? Oakey’s on in a minute.” So you jostle for your own little space as the lights go down and the entire crowd turns to the darkened DJ booth and erupts into slow, measured clapping. The chant goes up: “GO OAKEY! GO OAKEY! GO OAKEY!” and the man just stands there, grinning broadly for a couple of minutes. Letting the silence build until it’s plain uncomfortable. Making us wait. Then, easing up the fader on BT’s “Flaming June”, a soft tide of sound washes out. The people rushing into the room erupt like Robbie Fowler’s just put away a belter against Man U. We’re off.
PAUL Oakenfold was the first acid house DJ I ever heard. It was in the summer of 1988 (when else?) at the Zap Club in Brighton. For me, it was a dive into unfamiliar sensory territory, the sickly sweet smell of the smoke, the Lucozade everyone was inexplicably drinking, the insane ritual arm waving and chanting. And at the core of it all was the music. Paul Oakenfold, a man sporting the longest hair and baggiest T-shirt I’d ever seen, was dancing away behind the decks, mixing weirdly European-sounding records like “Jibaro” and Mory Kante’s “Yeke Yeke” in with the twittering Chicago 303s. Raze’s “Break For Love” lifting out of the speakers at the end of the night. Although back then I didn’t know the name of the tune, I just thought it was the most outlandish, ethereal record I’d ever heard played in a club. Even in my pre-E innocence, the fact clubbing could be such an all-encompassing, communal experience was an truly overwhelming revelation. I went up to the decks and shook Paul Oakenfold’s hand. He grinned warmly and thanked me.
Cream, 3am, almost 10 years on and Oakenfold has just finished playing a trance set of carefully calculated ferocity. In 1988 there were maybe one or two grinning fools like me coming up to thank the DJ. Tonight there’s a queue. It takes Paul 20 minutes to shake every offered hand, to sign every scrap of paper, flyer, and in one case even a 10 pound note that gets thrust in his face by an idolising fan. Everyone gets a slice of his time. Ten minutes before they’d all been stamping on every available inch of podium space, ripples of applause breaking out spontaneously and engulfing the whole room, as they cheered for one more memory to keep them going when they’re back in the office on Monday morning
“That was nothing, really” said Paul as we drove back to his hotel. “A couple of weeks ago they were cheering like that for 25 minutes.” It’s been a busy 10 years for Oakey. A whole decade of dance which has seen him moving from E’d up early Balearic evangelist, to defining indie dance with the Happy Mondays, to going across the world as tour DJ for U2 and launching his own Perfecto Label.
A year ago, Oakenfold took over a residency in the Annexe at Cream. It’s a dark, low-ceilinged room which has traditionally provided a home for the harder techno DJs. When it kicks, the sweat gathers as condensation on the ceiling then falls onto the crowd in huge salty raindrops. It’s a black hole of a squat party dropped right in the middle of one of the biggest, glammest clubs in the land.
“Last year, I sensed the change in the club scene,” Paul tells me later, “Everyone seemed to be about take, about milking the scene for everything they could. I thought it was about time I gave something back.” He did it by accepting a residency in the Annexe. If it was Saturday and you wanted to hear Paul Oakenfold, you had no choice. You had to come to Cream. And in return, from midnight till three every Sunday morning, Paul has turned the room into his own little trance den. Into the most exciting corner of any club in Britain.
Today, the Annexe still has the same grimy, dark dirty charm. But it’s livened up by a polystyrene menagerie of glowing toy animals hanging over the clubbers’ heads. There are psychedelic projections beamed onto screens in the corners. Cream’s grubby little squat has gone fluoro. It’s all gone totally. . . Oakenfold.
Monday Lunchtime, in a pasta restaurant round the corner from Paul’s label, Perfecto on Kensington High Street, west London. Oakenfold’s looking tanned and healthy after six weeks in Ibiza, playing weekly six-hour sets at Cream’s Amnesia residency. Then flying back to Liverpool every Saturday, of course.
SO HOW’S CREAM GOING?
“Great. I’ve never been a DJ who plays two or three gigs a night, I’d rather go to a club, get there early, hang out, have a drink. Play a two or three hour set. Put everything into it. That way I enjoy it the same way the people do. So l felt l had to be a true resident, one who’s there every week. A resident isn’t someone who’s there once a month. It’s not trendy to be a resident. It’s fucking hard work.”
THE CROWD SEEM TO RESPECT THAT?
“Yeah. There’s a strong crowd of people who come every week. Last time I played at the Ministry Of Sound, the number of people who came down from Liverpool was unbelievable. I could have been resident in clubs a lot nearer to where I live, but if the crowd can make that kind of commitment, then so can I. It’s not about me. It’s about us.
“I could have made a fortune out of this scene by doing six gigs a night, by remixing everything everything under the sun. Last year I did just six remixes, and I get offered four to six remixes a week! So I could milk this scene for money, but that’s not what I’m about.”
WHAT DO YOU THINK MAKES A GOOD DJ?
“Preparation. Anyone can get the latest tunes and learn how to mix them together. Literally anyone. But that’s the difference between your Endsleigh League DJs and your Premiership. You wouldn’t believe the amount of preparation which goes into playing a six hour set at Amnesia.”
WHAT’S SO SPECIAL ABOUT CREAM?
“I was offered residencies by three big clubs. I chose Cream because I felt there was real commitment there. Darren [Hughes] and James [Barton] have the same vision as me. Clubs have been about take for too long, and they were prepared to give something back. Hence the new sound system. Darren is in that booth at the end of the night with me every Saturday. He’s just as important as me. So’s Keith the lighting man. There’s two shops in Britain that have my charts [Three Beat in Liverpool and Massive in Oxford], so you can buy the tunes from Cream. And I have total respect for the Crowd. So you see, it’s not about me – it’s always about us.”
IS THIS YOUR ACID HOUSE ROOTS SHOWING THROUGH?
“Yeah, I always felt that. Positive not negative. Too many people focus on the negative in life. But that’s down to your karma, to your balance as a person. It depends what you’re motivated by. If you’re a DJ and you want to do three gigs a night, go ahead, you’ll make money. But that’s not what I’m motivated by. I just think that if you’re good at what you do and you work hard, then money will come.”
HOWS IBIZA BEEN?
“People knock Ibiza, but they’ve never really understood the island. I thought I’d go out for six weeks, really enjoy the island. If you go for two weeks, you don’t really get to know a place. For the last three years, the north side of the island have been holding open air parties that the English just don’t know about. There’s nothing better than going to a party on a beautiful beach with people from all around Europe dancing as the sun comes up. It has to be secret because the clubs don’t like it and would report it to the police. It’s an older crowd who don’t go to the clubs anymore, but still come to Ibiza because the spirit of the island is so strong. I wanted to put across some of that vibe at Amnesia.
"If you trace back the history of the island, it’s always been a playground for foreigners. First it was the hippies, then in the early Eighties it was the European jet set. I remember Freddy Mercury had an insane party. It was an undiscovered playground with all these rich people and the hippies together. Then, of course, the Ecstacy boom hit the island and eventually it was all brought back to the UK.”BY YOU?
“Er, yeah. Me, Nicky, Danny and Johnny [Walker] all brought it back and it all kicked off. Then everyone started going back to Ibiza and started slagging off the island. Which is why Jose, Alfredo, Pippi and Cesar all slag off the English. Because, in a way, we did go there and rape and pillage the isIand. Mind you, the British have always done that, haven’t we?”
YOU WERE IN THE RIGHT PLACE AT THE RIGHT TIME. SHEER LUCK OR GOOD JUDGEMENT?
“Well, you’ve got to be open-minded. I don’t live in the past, it doesn’t interest me. I live in the present and the future. I’ll play speed garage, 187 Lockdown is massive for me. I’ll play drum & bass, it doesn’t bother me. I remember when I got Goldie’s ‘Timeless’. It blew me away. I played it at Cream two years ago and it cleared the floor. It didn’t bother me because it made a statement. In six months time, all those people would remember where they heard it first. It makes me laugh when I see DJs who just don’t have the confidence to embrace new trends. They find it threatening because they’re worried they’ll lose work.”
IS THAT HOW DJS LOSE THE PLOT?
“People get lazy, it goes to their head. I’ve known this one particular DJ for 10 years. I saw him backstage at Tribal Gathering. We were hungry, so I went to get something to eat. He said he couldn’t go out there because he’d get mobbed. I was like, “Who do you think you are? I’m as big as you and it doesn’t bother me none. If people want to shake your hand, let ‘em”. There’s so much ego out there. Honestly, when you work with artists like U2 or the Rolling Stones there’s no ego. There’s nothing left to prove. With anyone else there’s loads of it.”
SO HOW DO YOU KEEP YOUR HEAD STRAIGHT?
“You look after yourself from within. That’s something I picked up in India, taking the the internal basics of a person rather than the external image. Not everyone’s going to like what you do. But if you’re big enough to deal with it you can cut through all of the bullshit and be really positive. My school of thought works. I’m the proof.”
DON’T YOU GET TIRED OF IT ALL?
“Of course. But I live in a totally different world to most people. They get on the tube to work, I get on a plane. I’m lucky, I fly business class and I travel in chauffeur-driven cars. But I need that space to give something back to the people when I arrive. At the end of the night at Cream, me and Darren always rate the night out of 10. Seven on a good night, eight or nine on a really brilliant one. And you know what? It’s never been 10 out of 10.”
This then is Paul Oakenfold. Self-made man. Utter perfectionist. All wrapped up in woolly New Age philosophies of karma and astrology. Half hippy idealist, half self-assured, thrusting businessman. Love and peace mashed up in the mix with naked ambition and capitalism. It’s like the very essence of Eighties acid house ethic distilled into one personality. But he’s not bothered when you point out the dichotomy, he just shrugs and explains that it’s the balance of life. He may well have a point.
Paul Oakenfold plays at the Annexe at Cream, Liverpool every Saturday from Midnight to 3am
TEN OAKENFOLD CLASSICS
1. ELECTRA – “JIBARO” (ffrr 1988)
As Balearic as it gets. An update of the Elkin and Nelson Ibiza classic soaked in innocent Mediterranean holiday vibes.
2. HAPPY MONDAY – “HALLELUJAH” (FACTORY)
The one that blew the roof of the Mondays. Shaun Ryder leers his halluci-babble through Oakenlold’s hazy, new beat-inspired mix. The soundtrack to a nation gone raving mad.
3. ELECTRA – “AUTUMN LOVE” (ffrr 1989)
Like Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” updated to soundtrack dawn breaking over the M25. A blissful record that summed up the last days of the early rave scene’s cuddly collective innocence.
4. MASSIVE ATTACK – “UNFINISHED SYMPATHY” (VIRGIN 1990)
Oakenfold’s dreamlike mix of this classic song took dance records back to levels of sophistication forgotten since the days of Chic. Beautiful.
5. HAPPY MONDAYS – “PILLS THRILLS & BELLYACHES” ALBUM (FACTORY 1991)
The definitive statement of baggy intent, of the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle lived to the full and beyond with a Salford swagger. It sounded good too.
6. ROBERT OWENS – “I’LL BE YOUR FRIEND” (PERFECTO 1992)
Already a classic when Paul signed it to Perfecto and mixed in the building crescendo of strings that enlightened a new generation of clubbers.
7. U2 – “EVEN BETTER THAN THE REAL THING” (ISLAND 1991)
Not the first Oakenfold/Osbourne U2 respray, but the first one to storm the dancefloors, reinventing Bono as a Latterday Sly Stone by re-editing his cries of “Take me higher” into an irrepressible mantra.
8. U2 – “LEMON” (ISLAND 1993)
A full-on house remix that was later reborn as Grace’s “Orange” (geddit?), this progressive pulser recast Bono as a falsetto disco queen.
9. GRACE – “NOT OVER YET” (PERFECTO 1995)
When Perfecto’s original deal with RCA went sour, this dreamy tranced-out pop song was lost in the fuss. Sasha & Digweed championed it for a year before the newborn Perfecto Mark Two took it into the Top Five.
10. OLIVE – “YOU’RE NOT ALONE” (RCA 1997)
Let’s face facts. Olive are not much cop. It was the Oakenfold/Osbourne version and nothing else that sent it straight to Number One.
ANNEXE YOU UP
PAUL OAKENFOLD TALKS TO US THROUGH HIS SET AT CREAM
“The set is based on the my remixing: the length of the set is the same as the range of a song. There’s a starting point, a middle and an end. It’ll start off at around 125bpm, and it could end up anywhere around 145 to 150.
“It’s not about beat mixing, most of the mixes are quite short really. It’s about keys and arrangement. I always try and incorporate a bit of variety, perhaps some speed garage at the beginning then into the more mainstream Perfecto stuff. About halfway through I drop into some of the harder, more progressive sounds. When I drop it down l might drop in some film music from a CD. ‘Once Upon A Time In America’ by Ennio Morricone or ‘Merry Christmas Mr Laurence’ always go down well.
“Because the system at Cream is so good and the crowd have real confidence in what I do, I can get away with all kinds of things. I’ll turn the volume off and let everyone hear it on the monitors. Then gradually turn it up. Or I use silence. Silence is a very powerful thing, but you’ve got to have confidence to stand there with no music and the crowd going absolutely nuts. I’ve got some jet noises on CD, so I might play them, so it sounds like three jets landing on your head. I’ve played Opera in there!
“There are certain new records that I’ll try and break, so I’ll play two mixes of it in the night. Or I’ll keep mixing a string break under the other records, using the third deck. Then, in the last hour, I’ll play the full record. And then the crowd will get it and recognize the tune.
“If I want to introduce a totally new tune, I won’t just mix it in, I want it to have more effect. So I’ll let the last record play to the end, then have a couple of minutes silence before starting the new tune, play the whole record and leave some silence at the end. So now I’ve showcased the new record and next week, when I start to work it, you’re already familiar with it.
“In the last hour I move into the Fluoro kind of sound, the full-on trance stuff. Sometimes at the end I’ll play jungle. Mickey Finn has done me a special dub plate of Natural Born Chillers’ ‘Rock The Funky Beat’ with my name on, which people go mad to.”
ANNEXE IN LINE: OAKEY’S KEY RECORDS FOR AUTUMN 1997
Tilt – “Butterfly” (Perfecto)
Nalin & Kane – “Beachball” (Hooj Choons)
Spacefrog – “X-Ray” (Sony)
DJ Scot Project – “Why” (German Test Pressing)
Johnny Shaker – “Pearl River” (Low Sense)
Tour De Force – “Alright” (east west)
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