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Paul Oakenfold Biography

Last updated: 03/15/2010 12:00:00 PM

In The Beginning

Paul Oakenfold’s musical career started from admirably humble beginnings, playing soul and rare groove cuts in a Covent Garden wine bar in the late ‘seventies with mate Trevor Fung. By the early ‘eighties, having decided that NYC was the place, Paul decamped there armed only with the chutzpah to blag his way into a courier’s job in West Harlem. At that time, more than any other, New York was bursting with musical invention: hip-hop was the freshest street sound around, and Larry Levan – arguably the first ever superstar DJ, inspiring a frenzy in the crowd that some guy playing records had never inspired before - was packing out the Paradise Garage every week with the revolutionary, hypnotic mixing style that would become the acid house DJ’s stock in trade.

Returning to London, Paul became one of the UK’s leading authorities on hip-hop. During his stint as an A&R man for Champion he signed the as-then unknowns Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Salt N’Pepa. Oh yeah, and he appeared on Blue Peter with a breakdancing crew who he was looking after at the time.

In 1985 young Paul spent the summer on a beautiful Balearic island called Ibiza. Ever heard of it? Oakey is as much responsible as anyone for making it the clubber’s paradise it is today, as two years after that first trip he, alongside mates Trevor Fung, Nicky Holloway, Ian St Paul, Danny Rampling and Johnny Walker, went there for a week to celebrate his birthday. If the first visit had been good, this one changed their lives forever. Dancing in the warm night air beneath stars at the then open-air Amnesia to the oddest mix of music any of them had ever heard, courtesy of island legend Alfredo, Paul’s urge to import this incredible experience – and the Balearic sound – back to England became too great to resist.

Acid House Explosion

Prior to his Ibiza trip, Paul had been running a successful soul/jazz night at The Project in Streatham. On his return from the white island he persuaded the owner to let him run an after-hours ‘Ibiza reunion’ party. An attempt at a Balearic music policy had failed Paul one year earlier: the crowd just hadn’t been ready to hear so many musical styles mixed together in one night, let alone in one DJ’s set, but by 1987, and coupled with Paul’s sheer enthusiasm and showman’s talent for setting a musical mood, attitudes were changing. The night was a complete success, and led to what was to be – alongside Danny Rampling’s Shoom – one of London’s, and England’s, first major acid house nights: Spectrum at Heaven in Charing Cross.

Spectrum grew out of Future, a night held in The Sanctuary, which annexed the much bigger Heaven club. Many never thought Spectrum (suitably subtitled ‘Theatre Of Madness’) would succeed: a 1500+ capacity club on a Monday night? Forget about it. And at first they looked to be right. For the first few weeks, attendance was low, leaving Paul and co-promoter Ian St Paul in dire financial straits. Then, suddenly, the vibe was out and the queues were literally going around the block. And a new phase in club culture had begun.

Spectrum continued for a couple of years, changing its name along the way to Land Of Oz. New initiates to the scene (as almost everybody was) marvelled at the full-on atmosphere of the place: hands reaching up into the sweat hazed air, laser lights pulsing and washing over the smiling crowd. Alex Paterson (later of The Orb) DJed in the VIP chillout area (the White Room), while Paul created his now trademark fervour in the cavernous main room.

Alongside running a seminal club night, Paul’s production career had also begun by 1988 under the name Electra, working with long-time collaborator Steve Osborne. By 1990, with his work on The Happy Mondays’ frugadelic Wrote For Luck and then Hallelujah (on the Madchester Rave On EP), Paul had created two of the cornerstone records of the indie-dance scene, a hybrid that demystified acid house for kids who’d been raised on a musical diet of guitar, bass, and drums. Paul was one of the guest DJs at The Stone Roses’ legendary Spike Island gig, and his work with Osborne on The Happy Mondays’ classic Pills, Thrills And Bellyaches LP (NME’s 1990 Album Of The Year) won the pair the 1991 Brit Award for Best Producer.

Remix galore followed, for Mondays labelmates New Order; Massive Attack; The Shamen, and Arrested Development among others, as Paul and Steve began trading under the name Perfecto. If the name was little known at first that soon changed with the 1992 Perfecto mix of U2’s Even Better Than The Real Thing. The track, with delicious irony, attained a higher chart position on release than the original song, thus signalling a watershed in the history and growth of dance music.

Superstar DJ!

1993 saw Paul hired to provide the warm-up sonics on U2’s Zoo TV world tour, and as a result the de facto arrival of the superstar DJ. The past decade has seen Paul rack up a dizzying blur of firsts and foremosts, including, not least, his being voted the number one DJ in the world by the readers of DJ magazine, and has heard the name “Oakey!” yelled hoarsely from clubs, fields (including an epoch-making set on the main stage at Glastonbury Festival, no less) and arenas in every corner of the globe.

On the production front Paul began to release his own tracks as well as continuing to turn in remixes, while Perfecto expanded into a fully-fledged label. Its offshoot, Perfecto Fluoro, became the label of choice in the mid-‘nineties for the harder, trippier Goa trance sound. Today Perfecto boasts artists as diverse as Arthur Baker, Harry ‘Choo Choo’ Romero, and Timo Maas on its roster, and has gone from strength to strength by refusing to pander to only one style of dance music. Alongside the building of the Perfecto brand, Paul released a string of superlative mix CD’s, amongst them his awesome New York set for Global Underground – still the series’ biggest seller to date. And who else would have been commissioned to write the theme for what was certain to be the biggest TV show of all time? How did you guess? Paul wrote and produced the Big Brother theme, as Element 4, with Andy Gray.

On the club front, well, time for a deep breath...Ready? OK, here we go: Paul undertook a legendary two-year residence at Liverpool’s Cream that took residencies in general to another level, from the personally designed DJ booth to die-hard fans (dubbed ‘the Oakenfolk’ in the press) who would travel the length and breadth of the country week in, week out to hear him whip up a magical musical storm, that would still be ringing in the ears and exciting the mind in the office or the lecture hall on Monday morning.

Ever keen to push himself further and harder, Paul decamped in 1999 to become Director of Music at home, the multi-million pound superclub built defiantly – and, as it turned out, problematically – in Leicester Square, the heart of London’s West End. That club’s immediate downturn in popularity after Paul’s departure goes to show the extent of his impact and following. There are but a handful of DJ’s in the world who attract the fervour and create the excitement that he is capable of provoking in a crowd. You only have to be there when he plays to feel the electric charge in the atmosphere, more akin to the devotional than the merely appreciative.

Leaving home was a difficult decision for Paul, but he risked his UK and European profile, not to mention turning down the certainty of serious amounts of cash, to decamp to America, one of the few places in the world – ironically, given that it all started there – where dance music is yet to be championed and grasped in the way in which it is elsewhere around the globe. But this was a move typical of the man: where others would sit on their laurels and bathe in their hard-won glory, he has always taken the tougher option, sustained by his belief that greater effort means greater rewards.

It’s this attitude that saw him leave a huge fanbase in Britain to start all over again in the U.S.; that has seen him play to crowds in the low hundreds in isolated Alaska; and that led him to take a pair of Technics with him when he went on holiday to Cuba, and organise a free, unpromoted and not strictly legal party, purely to spread the word of great, life-affirming music and good, good times. This man lives, breathes and eats his art.

The Future

So what now for a man at the pinnacle of his profession, the world’s premiere DJ? Why, upward, ever upward of course. 2001 has seen Paul score the Joel Silver-produced and John Travolta-starring Swordfish, remix the theme to Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes, DJ on Moby’s Arena:One U.S. tour, and make a triumphal return to his home shores with a free gig that left tens of thousands sweat-soaked and grinning like Cheshire Cats on London’s Clapham Common. October sees a club tour of the UK, and the New Year? Well, like we said before, the best is yet to come, so stay tuned and prepare to be amazed…

Paul Oakenfold: Bunkka

Two years ago, just as the new millennium was starting, Paul Oakenfold decided to get back to his roots. Oakenfold was very probably the world’s leading DJ and certainly one of the crucial figures in the relentless rise of club culture, yet there was still no album that truly represented his own personal landscape and musical vision. Despite his long and distinguished work as a re-mixer and producer, the real Oakenfold had still to be revealed as an artist.

“For the past 10 years I’ve been creating music under various different names, but I was never comfortable with putting out an Oakenfold record,” he says. “It was, however, an idea that I’d been thinking about for a long time and Steve Osborne, my colleague in some of the production work I was doing at the time, kept putting pressure on me, saying ‘you should do it, you should do it’. So eventually I felt it was time to make that record.”

The result is Bunkka, the first genuine Paul Oakenfold album, released by Perfecto Records in the summer of 2002. It is an album that will confront most people’s pre-conceptions of Paul Oakenfold. While much of the musical vocabulary is borrowed from dance technology, Bunkka is no conventional dance album. “I’d always wanted to do something that represented by own musical background,” he says. “I grew up on pop music, I love guitar bands and I was very influenced and involved in hip-hop during the early days, so I wanted to build from those roots upwards rather than doing a contemporary dance record.”

By his own admission, however, Oakenfold is no singer. To help realise his ambition he enlisted a disparate collection of talents, ranging from Jane’s Addiction vocalist Perry Farrell and Shifty Shellshock of Los Angeles rock-rap band Crazy Town to Ice Cube, Tricky and Nelly Furtado.

There are also contributions from Asher D of So Solid Crew and Grant Lee Philips, founder of 90’s LA rock band, Grant Lee Buffalo. Bunkka also provides a platform for three rising young vocalists, Carla Werner, Tiff Lacey and Emiliana Torrini, although the album’s most surprising contributor is Hunter S. Thompson, the infamous creator of gonzo journalism and the author of ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’.

This sheer diversity of this music, and his eclectic choice of contributors, shouldn’t come as a surprise. Indeed, Oakenfold’s restless imagination has been evident throughout his career. His signature can be seen in everything from the early rise of hip-hop and the re-invention of British dance culture to the Balearic explosion and the birth of ‘Madchester’.

Most recently, Oakenfold’s talents have also been recognised by the American film industry. Oakenfold scored the music for John Travolta’s 2001 movie, Swordfish, and also contributed to director Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes.

His career began in London at the end of the Eighties, when Oakenfold learned the DJ craft in small clubs around the city’s West End. Oakenfold’s rising reputation led to a job as an A&R man at the UK-based Champion Records where his first signing was Will Smith, then performing as the latter half of Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. Oakenfold’s second was Salt n’ Pepa.

From Champion, Oakenfold moved to the London offices of the Profile and Def Jam record companies. By this time, however, Oakenfold priority reverted to his DJ career, an ambition soon to be amply fulfilled.
Oakenfold changed European youth culture in the late-Eighties and early-Nineties. He was among the first DJs to start regular club sessions on the Spanish island of Ibiza, leading to a new sound in dance music and the now annual pilgrimage of European youth to the island each summer.

Oakenfold also started regular ‘Balearic’ club nights in London, attracting not only the regular London dance audience but also a cross-over of youth culture and styles, including the UK rock bands Happy Mondays and The Stone Roses which were subsequently to become pivotal in influencing British popular music.

In 1989 Oakenfold and his production partner Steve Osborne were asked to produce Happy Mondays. The result was the Madchester Rave On EP, a record that inspired a whole generation of UK artists. It preceded the biggest album of the band’s career, the Oakenfold / Osborne produced Pills ‘N’ Thrills and Bellyaches in 1990.

It was the start of a long connection between Oakenfold and rock music. He was the DJ at several significant British rock concerts and, along with Osborne, re-mixed such UK bands as New Order, The Cure and Massive Attack. Indeed, the Oakenfold / Osborne team were nominated by the BPI – the UK equivalent of the American Grammy Awards - as Best Producers in 1990.

A year later, in 1991, Oakenfold was approached by U2, who were then finishing the Achtung Baby album. He ended up re-mixing Even Better Than the Real Thing and Mysterious Ways, giving the band an entirely new dimension.
Indeed, Oakenfold’s mix of Even Better Than the Real Thing was released as a single in its own right, reaching higher in the UK chart than U2’s original version. These activities were the start of Oakenfold’s very long partnership with the band. He was, for instance, invited to DJ on the historic ZOO TV tour and, most recently, Oakenfold re-mixed Beautiful Day, a number one hit for U2 in the American dance charts.

Determined to control his own destiny, Oakenfold launched his own UK record label, Perfecto, in 1990. In the subsequent years, Perfecto has been not only a conduit for Oakenfold’s own re-mix activities but also a platform for new talent, encouraging such European DJ talents as Timo Maas and Hernan Cattaneo.

As a re-mixer, Oakenfold has been attributed with an enormous number of credits, working with everyone from Arrested Development and Snoop Doggy Dogg to Madonna, for whom he re-mixed, What It Feels Like For A Girl.

It is now probable that Oakenfold is the world’s number one DJ, if there was any precise way of quantifying such a claim. Certainly, Oakenfold has travelled the world – among the places he’s played are Anchorage in Alaska; Beijing; Bombay; Rio de Janeiro; Buenos Aires; Punta del Este in Uruguay; South Korea; Macao in China; Manila in the Philippines; Johannesburg; Egypt and Ho Chi Min City in Vietnam.

Running concurrently with his burgeoning film career, Oakenfold recently had
five albums in the American Top 50 Electronic Chart. They included Perfecto Presents Another World which, when released at the end of 2000, became America’s biggest-ever DJ mix album. Oakenfold was also the headline DJ on Moby’s massively ambitious Area:One travelling festival tour of North America last summer.

So how will the dance crew accept Bunkka? “I hope they realise that in any forms of music you need to push the boundaries,” says Oakenfold. “I’ve been inspired by all kinds of music, from hip-hop to guitars to dance, and hopefully the dance audience will understand that.”