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Original publisher: URB Magazine
SUPERSTAR DJ PAUL OAKENFOLD GETS REAL
THE BALLAD OF EVERYMAN
Though he's a jet-setting icon for global DJ culture, you'd never know it from talking to him. Paul Oakenfold is a meat-and-potatoes type of guy and William Van Meter wants to know if it's making him happy.
Photos: Howard Huang / www.howardhuang.com
On a rooftop in Brooklyn, a photo assistant is busy sweeping up a lot of beer bottles and cigarette butts. There was a party here last night, and from the amount of debris, it looks like it was a lot of fun. Across the street, garbage trucks roar into a recycling center. Paul Oakenfold is sitting on a chair, the Manhattan skyline looming behind him. He is the most famous DJ on the planet and is posing for the cover of a magazine.
Oakenfold has just released Bunkka, his first artist album. It is a series of collaborations with vocalists such as Nelly Furtado, Perry Farrell and some unknown singers. Oakenfold is wearing jeans, a short-sleeved blue oxford shirt and his ever-present futuristic cyber sunglasses. He has a stern expression on his face like he's a Hollywood action star about to hop into a convertible BMW and chase someone who has stolen a very important microchip.
When the shoot is over, Oakenfold's personality immediately shifts. His serious expression melts into a grin, and he leaps up and jovially talks to everyone like he's just one of the guys and wasn't just the focus of an entire crew's attention. He makes sure everyone is on the list for tonight's sold-out show at Exit, the largest club in New York that holds upwards of 4,000 people. Oakenfold is now hungry, and it is time for dinner. It's settled that we will go to Peter Luger's, a celebrated steak house that has been open since 1887 with a staff that looks like they have been working there since its inception.
"This is fucking great," says Oakenfold. "I'm in New York and about to eat a steak at Peter Luger's! I can't believe I'm fucking here!" Oakenfold outstretches his arms and stares at a dreary building beneath an underpass of the Williamsburg Bridge. A fighting couple walks by pushing a screaming baby in a stroller. Oakenfold is now sitting on the stairs of a derelict bank. There is an hour-and-a-half wait for a table.
URB: Tonight you're going on at 2 a.m. Aren't you sick of keeping hours like that?
Paul Oakenfold: I really enjoy what I do. For preparation after this, I'm going to go home and take a nap and then after that, I DJ.
What I mean is, do you miss normality? Does the life of going to bed at midnight and waking up at 9 a.m. appeal to you in the least?
It does appeal to me. When I take time off I try to get into that routine.
Is it draining to be constantly surrounded by such a hedonistic atmosphere? Every time you DJ you're surrounded by such insanity and wasted kids. And this is your main outlet for work. And you've been in this atmosphere working for 10 years.
You know you are going there to give people the best possible time. You work during the week, you've had a stressful week, you want to let your hair down and enjoy yourself. You expect people to go crazy in nightclubs. It doesn't bother me.
So you just completed a tour of smaller U.S. clubs. Why did you feel the need to be back in a more intimate venue?
It's important to have a balance. I've been doing all of these big, huge shows, I just played at this Washington gig for 50,000 people, that was great. And I just decided I wanted to get back and do a real small underground tour. I really enjoyed it. Musically I can be a lot more creative. It's a lot more stimulating playing at a dark sweating nightclub and knowing it is an underground vibe. But there is a balance. I do like to play big gigs. I like the challenge. I went on right after Eminem [at a festival put on by Washington, D.C. radio station WHFS-FM]. It was a really hard gig to follow. He's the No. 1 star and I've got to go on after him. I was nervous.
Did you get to meet Eminem?
I couldn't get near him. I would have loved to have met him. I think he is brilliant.
Do you surround yourself with a phalanx of handlers so no one can get near you?
No, I like to talk to people. I think it is important to hang out. I get to the club early to talk to people.
I went to the Area: One show last year at Jones Beach in Long Island. You were supposed to play and didn't. The story has it that your guy forgot to bring your records. Do you have a manservant who always handles your records?
It was my tour manager. I presumed he put the records on the tour bus. He had something going on and left my records in his room. So I got to the show and there were no records there. So it was too far away to go back and get them. It was upsetting really.
At least you got a day off.
It's not that. I travel all the way from England because people want to hear my music. I wanted to play. People paid money to see you, and they are let down by a stupid fucking mistake that should not have happened because someone is not as professional as they should have been. People were let down. It shouldn't have happened. It is fucking simple. To put a box of records on the bus. How fucking stupid is that? The guy no longer works for me. You can't let people down.
You work with a lot of different artists on Bunkka. What was your original dream lineup?
I wanted a balance of unknown artists and known artists. Which I think I've gotten. I wanted global singers – I've got singers from Australia, Iceland, England and America. Growing up in dance music and working with hip-hop and rock I wanted to represent my experiences. I didn't want to make an out-and-out club record. I wanted a record that people could sit down and listen to and not have to dance to.
One thing that surprised me is that the Nelly Furtado track is the stand-out song on the album, and I'm not too into her.
I was really lucky with Nelly. I recorded it a year-and-a-half ago. She didn't even have a record out then. Canada had always been very good to me and supported me and I wanted a Canadian unknown singer.
Did you approach Celine Dion?
Were you in the studio with all of the artists?
I recorded with all of the singers except for Ice Cube. Cube chose me. We were working on the music for a film called Blade II, they gave cube a list of people to work with and he chose me.
I bet you were on your high horse.
I was always a fan of NWA. We did the cut for the movie and I reworked it for my album. I ran Def Jam in the UK, I grew up on hip-hop. I wanted a cutting-edge rapper and Cube is that exact description.
What's up with the name Bunkka?
The name of the studio I recorded it in is called "Bunker." It's an underground haven. I liked the idea of emerging from somewhere and showing the world musically what I can do. Hence the title Bunkka.
I get it! It's like "bunker" but with an "a" instead of an "er"! Is your album linked thematically by motifs?
With Nelly we told her we wanted it to be dark and dangerous. The track with [aging gonzo journalist] Hunter [S. Thompson], from my point of view, is about youth and dreams. Kids around the world and [their] dreams. They want to be firemen and astronauts. The older you get, society tries to squash your dreams. "Nixon's Spirit" is all about dreams. You don't even have to know who he is. It's an American belief. In America, you grow up with this attitude that you can be whatever you want to be. In England they try to keep you down. They tell you 10 reasons why you can't. In America they encourage you.
Why do you think Israelis like trance so much?
Israelis fucking love it. They love to party. They have to do national service. When they get out of the army they go crazy. The Irish and Greeks love to party too.
You spend a lot of time on the airplane. What do you do to pass the time?
Well, I'm dyslexic, so I suffer. I watch loads of movies. I sleep, I think. I get bored. I get sick of it. But that's the only way to travel.
What kind of crew do you travel with? It could be just you and your records.
It's me and my tour manager, my assistant and another DJ. I wouldn't want to do this on my own. How lonely a life [is it]? Traveling on your own with a box of records. I couldn't do that. I'm lucky in that respect that I can have my friends around me and enjoy life and experiences and hang out.
I'm sure you are well aware of the stature of your name in this industry. Why do you stand out? Especially with a culture where the music is mostly nameless and faceless. Why do you make the crossover? A lot of DJs play your style of music. Why are you the one?
As a person you need to embrace change in your life. I don't stand still. You've got to move forward. Times change. If you say I only do this, I only do that, you will get left behind. I think in life people don't generally like change.
What were you like as a teenager?
I was on the verge of going down the wrong road – fighting and stealing cars, hanging out with the wrong people.
Were you generally happy then?
I thought I was at the time. Now I look back at it and I was [actually] annoyed and upset. They would always take the fucking piss out of you at school because you were never as fucking brainy as anybody else. Now if I went back to school and saw how everyone else was doing . . .
"Look at me, you motherfuckers!"
Especially some of my teachers that gave me a hard time. I had no interest in school. Now that I'm older I wish I learned a lot more than I know.
So are you trying to tell me that kids should drop out of school? That's fucked up, man.
No, no, not at all.
What are your vices as an adult?
I'm a fully qualified chef. I like food and wines. My night is I'll have friends over at the house, have a bottle of wine and cook. That's what I love doing.
Why don't you have an Oakey restaurant? Britney Spears has a restaurant here now.
I would do it when I've finished with music. I would have a small restaurant with a little area to play music, stuff like Frank Sinatra, The Beatles.
Please don't serve "DJ burgers" or "trance casserole."
I wouldn't do anything like that.
Are you happy with your life?
I'm enjoying it now more than ever. I'm comfortable with it. I haven't lost the heart to play music. When I do, I'll stop.
Our table is finally ready. The décor is German beer hall mixed with wood-paneled 1970s basement-turned-into-a-rec room. There is a mixture of guidos, the elderly, tourists dressed like they are about to do yard work and Mafioso types. A woman in her 70s walks by, her eyelids painted blue, wearing a bouffant wig. There is an obese family seated next to us eating the "steak for four" that the restaurant offers.
"This is a good place for people-watching," Oakenfold says. He always says things like that, observations like something one of your dad's friends would say. It is striking that this guy is so normal, level-headed and just goddamn likable. The moment you meet him you're on a first-name basis with him. If you were reading a map on the street he would come and tell you directions. You want to drink beer and watch sports with him and punch him in the arm when your team scores a point. Oakenfold eats his meal (steak, fries, salad and creamed spinach) with perfect manners and returns to his hotel for a nap before tonight's show.
At 2 a.m., the enormous discotheque Exit has its own ecosystem, similar to a Brazilian jungle. Moisture is dripping from the ceiling like an afternoon shower and the revelers are sopping wet and crammed together, undulating – they are reminiscent of a net full of tuna that is just being pulled from the sea. They are ecstatic and the music is thunderously pounding. In fact, one would say they are losing their fucking shit. From the DJ booth overlooking the swarming dance floor, Oakenfold is smiling, beaming, in fact. He is genuinely happy that he is making people have a good time.
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