DJ, producer, remixer
Legendary DJ, producer, remixer, and record mogul Paul Oakenfold contributed more than any other artist in breaking the house music scene in Great Britain. Considered the truest champion of the house/trance genre, Oakenfold, through his pioneering efforts, toured the world numerous times, manning the turntables at the most influential dance clubs and at major music festivals. In addition to remixing songs for artists ranging from the Rolling Stones to Snoop Doggy Dog, Oakenfold has also toured with pop groups like U2 and Björk. In the 1999 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records, Oakenfold was listed as the world’s most successful DJ in terms of influence and wealth. Today, because of Oakenfold’s vision, a style of music born in America serves as one of the most popular genres in Britain. Reportedly, turntables outsell guitars among a younger generation of aspiring musicians. “When I was growing up, it was about picking up a guitar and being in a rock band,” recalled Oakenfold to Richard Harrington of the Washington Post “Now, kids want to be a DJ more than they want to be in a band!”
Born on August 30, 1963, in London, England, Oakenfold turned to DJing after failures as an instrumentalist. “I was no good at guitar,” he admitted. “I always wanted to play music… I just wanted to play it on turntables. I’d seen [pioneering rap turntablist] Grandmaster Flash in a documentary and thought that was brilliant, what he was doing. It was unique and exciting. And at that time in England, rock ‘n’ roll was a little bit boring.”
Thus, at the age of 16, Oakenfold began mixing songs, hooking with friend Trevor Fung to play soul and groove tracks at a basement bar in Covent Garden while earning a paycheck as a chef. But without any significant role models in England, Oakenfold decided to move to New York City in 1983, then the heart of the dance world, where he made a living by day as a courier. Here, in addition to experiencing American night life, he observed and learned from genre-spanning DJ Larry Levan, his greatest influence.
“I spent time in New York and I used to go to the [Paradise] Garage, and I could never figure out how people would stay up all night long,” Oakenfold recalled in an interview with Dave “The Wave” Dresden for DJ Times magazine. “It took me about six or seven weeks to figure out that they were doing drugs. My friend and I would come there at six or seven in the morning virtually collapsing, drinking loads of coffee trying to stay up and Levan for me was the DJ who was very open-minded. He would play the Clash and Queen alongside dance and disco records. I felt that where I grew up, you needed to be more musically open-minded and I was. So if there was any DJ that influenced me, it was him. No English DJ did that to me.”
Upon his returned to the United Kingdom, Oakenfold worked as a club promoter for acts like Run DMC and the Beastie Boys. As for his DJing skills, after spending time in New York, he was decidedly way ahead of the game compared to other British DJs, landing him a gig from 1985 through 1986 at the Project, one of the first house music venues in England.
In 1987, during a visit to the island resort of Ibiza in Spain with Fung and another friend named Ian St. Paul, Oakenfold discovered a sound that would eventually cement his reputation. One night, he and the other DJs went to a club called Amnesia, where they experienced for the first time the Balearic sound—a colorful, upbeat mix of house, soul, rock, and Italian disco. As in New York, the music usually kicked off at four in the morning, and young patrons, often energized by a new drug called Ecstasy, danced until midday. “It was the spirit, the energy of the island,” Oakenfold told Harrington. “We just wanted to take that back to England. There was no plan to do this or that; it was just something that we wanted to take back home with us.”
During 1988 and 1989, the British DJs introduced the Balearic style to the United Kingdom at several highly publicized after-hours dance clubs such as Shoom, Trip, and, in Oakenfold’s case, Future at the Sound Shaft and later Spectrum and the Land of Oz at Heaven. In the early 1990s, on the ever-growing British club circuit, Oakenfold inaugurated the London super-club Ministry of Sound and served as resident DJ at another big venue, Cream, in Liverpool.
Meanwhile, Oakenfold and Steve Osborne started working as producers with dance converts the Happy
Born on August 30, 1963, in London, England.
Began mixing at age 16; lived in New York to learn about house music, early 1980s; discovered the Balearic sound in Spain, 1987; hosted high-profile clubs in the U.K., late 1980s; formed the Perfecto label, 1990; released Tranceport, 1997; released the musically diverse Perfecto Presents Another World, 2000.
Addresses: Record company —Sire Records, 936 Broadway, 5th Fir., New York City, NY 10010, phone: (212) 253 3900, fax: (212) 253-2950. Website— Paul Oakenfold Official Website: http://www.pauloakenfoldco.uk.
Mondays. The group’s 1989 single “(W.F.L.) Wrote for Luck,” produced by the Oakenfold/Osbome team, won the honor of Dance Record of the Year in NME (New Musical Express). After setting up his own label, the RCA-connected Perfecto, in 1990, Oakenfold and Osborne went on to mix, produce, and arrange for the Happy Monday’s 1990 full-length set Pills ‘n’ Thrills ‘n’ Bellyaches, placing them in the same territory as other top dance producers like Andrew Weatherall, who achieved similar success for his production work on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica.
Soon, record labels began lining up for Oakenfold to mix and produce for major pop acts. These included U2, Simply Red, New Order, the Cure, Massive Attack, M People, Arrested Development, the Shamen, the Stone Roses, the Rolling Stones, and even rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg. Other production work followed throughout the decade, such as projects with the Smashing Pumpkins, Radiohead, and again U2. Incidentally, in 1993, Oakenfold became the first DJ to perform at a stadium when he accompanied the Irish quartet on their 1993 international tour. Later, he became the first DJ to play the main stage at Britain’s massive Glastonbury Festival. Thanks in large part to Oakenfold’s presence, dance music is now an important part of almost every major rock festival throughout the world.
Also because of Oakenfold’s efforts, house music crossed over to the mainstream in the United Kingdom. His Journey by DJ series of mix albums sold well, and his 1997 album Tranceport served as a seminal title in trance music, a movement which propelled house toward a more melodic and commercial direction. In 1999, Oakenfold retired from DJing at Cream, and Virgin Records commemorated his work at the club with the release of Resident: Two Years of Oakenfold at Cream. In 2000, the DJ returned with the double-CD for his new label, London/Sire, entitled Perfecto Presents Another World, a set that showcased Oakenfold’s versatility. Elements blended here include film scores by Dead Can Dance, techno, classical, spoken word, and a surprise reworking of the Led Zeppelin classic “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You.” This marked the first time Led Zeppelin allowed a remix of one of their songs.
“I was trying to do something that was new and original by licensing film scores and getting permission to get classic rock acts like Led Zeppelin,” he explained to Harrington. “There’s a lot of work that went into it because we were going into areas that no one has ever gone.” Exploring new areas, insists Oakenfold, is crucial to the survival of dance music. “Sometimes, I look at the scene and try and figure out how I can take a productive step forward, what needs to be done, how can I enhance this,” he added. “Sometimes, I just get on with it and try to enjoy it. The beauty of dance music is that it just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”
Journeys by Stadium DJ, Planet Earth, 1994.
Journeys by DJ Marathon, Music Unites, 1996.
Tranceport, Kinetic, 1997.
Resident: Two Years of Oakenfold at Cream, Virgin, 1999.
Perfecto Presents Another World, London/Sire, 2000.
Billboard, December 7, 1996; March 21, 1998; November 7, 1998; April 17, 1999.
Boston Globe, November 4, 1999; August 18, 2000.
DJ Times, May 1998.
Melody Maker, April 3, 1999; April 10, 1999; September 25, 1999.
Rolling Stone, July 6-20, 2000; October 12, 2000.
Washington Post, March 20, 1999; November 24, 2000.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (March 12, 2001). Billboard, http://www.billboard.com (March 12, 2001).
Born: London, England, 30 August 1963
Genre: Dance, DJ, Electronica
Best-selling album since 1990: Bunkka (2002)
Hit songs since 1990: "Planet Rock," "Southern Sun," "Starry-Eyed Surprise"
Working in a genre notorious for its velvet-rope snobbery, Oakenfold attempted to fuse upscale dance music with accessible pop and deliver it to the masses.
Oakenfold's appreciation for popular music stems from listening to his father's Beatles and Rolling Stones records as a child. He also admired glam-rockers T-Rex and R&B by Marvin Gaye and the Isley Brothers. He spent his early twenties as a promoter for a record label's rap division. However, his epiphany came in 1987, on a birthday trip to the legendary Spanish resort of Ibiza, known for its gorgeous sunsets. He found a scene that featured a melting pot of hip European dance music, but a more laid-back, people-friendly atmosphere than the urban clubs he'd frequented in London.
By then a disc jockey (DJ), Oakenfold incorporated the Mediterranean sounds of Ibiza into his club sets back in England. He also produced English dance group Happy Mondays. But his big break came in 1992, when he rescued the U2 song, "Even Better Than the Real Thing," whose original version was sliding down the charts. His innovative remix was, in fact, "better than the real thing" to British ears and made number eight on the country's pop chart. This led to Oakenfeld opening for part of U2's Zooropa tour (1993).
He went on to form his own label, Perfecto, and make remixes for British pop-rockers Boy George and Massive Attack. Beginning in 1996 he spent eighteen months as the resident DJ for Liverpool megaclub Cream. Although his rising stardom meant he could have made more money doing short stints at many clubs worldwide, he preferred introducing new music every week to a loyal audience. When he did tour, he maintained his accessible vision, revising his setlist on the fly as he took the crowd's pulse.
His album Tranceport (1998) actually comprises songs by other artists; it is an attempt to recreate what an Oakenfold DJ set would sound like. As the title suggests, the music is from dance music's trance subgenre, considered the genre's most simple and pop-oriented subset. At its worst, it can be banal and predictable, but Oakenfold avoids clichéd tracks, picking songs by genre innovators like Paul van Dyk ("Rendezvous") and Gus Gus ("Purple"). Full of square-wave synthesizer blasts, vocal sampling, and fluctuating keyboard sounds, the album features seamless between-song transitions and an unstoppable groove.
The sweeping, twenty-one-track Ibiza (2001) reflects his eclecticism and Ibiza's all-encompassing vibe, with remixes of Radiohead's "Idioteque" and U2's "Beautiful Day" among the usual trance fare. In 2001 Oakenfold toured the United States, including the Midwest, not a region known for its disco fever. However, he was well received in the region's midsize clubs.
With his egalitarian bent, a bid for pop crossover was inevitable, and it happened with Bunkka (2002). Oakenfold considers it his first real solo album, since it contains original songs instead of remixes of others' work. Guest artists include Nelly Furtado and Perry Farrell, former Jane's Addiction front man. While a competent dance/pop album in the vein of Moby, Bunkka does not possess the muscular energy of Oakenfold's DJ efforts. However, the optimistic single "Starry-Eyed Surprise," with its cheerful guitar hook and soothing rap, became Oakenfold's first mainstream hit, reaching number forty-one on the Billboard Hot 100.
Never one to worry with insular notions of genre purity, Oakenfold has been an excellent ambassador for dance music. He has helped keep the genre viable in the United States and expand it in Europe with his crowd-pleasing sets and his willingness to work with artists outside his niche.
Tranceport (Kinetic, 1998); Swordfish: The Album (Sire, 2001); Ibiza (Perfecto, 2001); Bunkka (Maverick, 2002).