By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Paul Oakenfold has no band, no instrument to play, and nothing except two turntables in front of him--OK, three--but right now he is a Rock God. High above a sweaty Chicago crowd at the legendary Crobar, the clever Brit darts, weaves, and jukes between deep cuts of spacey beats with the poise and persuasion of a legend, a rock star without the rock. And the people below fawn at every turn of the vinyl.
Right now it's hard to deny the artistry of transition, the progression of emotion on display; here, as on record, Oakenfold makes epic, heart-stopping breaks, using multiple records and dance beats to build a song to its highest, most hysterical level before cunningly feeding into the next track.
His audience, unlike a typical rock concert crowd, demands such intensity: Hardcore clubbers have a specific desire to tune out the music, and it's up to the spinner to provide sensory overload in steady doses for the better part of four hours. Needless to say, some preparation is in order.
"Arrangement is everything," says Oakenfold a few days after the show. "When you're mixing it has to feel right and it has to make sense; you just can't move from the Dead Can Dance to an underground track to Led Zeppelin without a lot of preparation."
In other words, another man can write a tune, but it takes a mixer of Jimmy Page-like ability to make it sound classic. And in that sense, you won't find a bigger star-as-DJ than Oakenfold, an international icon trying to infiltrate America (again) with a new record (Perfecto Presents Another World) and some help from Buffy Corp (Warner Bros. subsidiary London/Sire).
A double disc set from a DJ is hardly an egotistical gesture, unlike pop music; it's quite the norm for the mix community, actually. What puts Perfecto, Oakenfold's 10th remix record, in the rare company of any ambitious, grandiose effort (much less a mix CD) is its almost mind-numbing depth of content--a sprawling two hours of continuously engaging music from a variety of sources, swathed in keyboards and angelic vocals that build up and slow down to such an intensive degree that it feels like a live club mix, engulfing you in frantic shards of sound. The painstaking process of translating his live mixing to tape is more than obvious; it's almost a window into an artist's transition, as Oakenfold documents his progression from big, uplifting trance--as on 1998's Tranceport--to darker, groovier substances. Quite a thrill, especially for music you thought you already knew.
"I wanted this to really be a follow-up to Tranceport and give people an idea of where we're going with the music," says Oakenfold, "a two CD journey through different types of music that inspire me whether it's Dead Can Dance or Vangelis' Blade Runner soundtrack. When I go to record stores here in England, all I see are like 101 dance remix albums with the same beats in the same style; it's the same as when I go to the clubs and hear the same pounding mixes. I think classic records give a lot more depth and originality to the music, so I went through my own collection and was inspired by my own tastes."
Um, but Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You"? And where's the damned guitar?
"It's always been one of my favorite Led Zeppelin tunes, and it was the one I got permission to use," he explains. "The guitar in particular didn't fit the musical direction I wanted to go toward. If I wanted big, uplifting trance--like I was doing on Tranceport--I would have used guitars. But I wanted dark and groovy, not uplifting; that sound is pretty much over in the U.K. I'm on to playing more funky but still melodic tracks; the Tranceport sound has been reproduced a hundred times over--it's quite old, really."
What might be new for Oakenfold is some, shall we say, vocal response from the classic-rock crowd--there's some serious sacrilege on "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," as Oakenfold strips everything but Plant's vocals (and even that's reverbed to hell) and sends the icons on a stairway straight to the dance floor. Like all of the tracks on Perfecto, the original composition is but a template for the mix's exploration, and the Brit slathers washes of synths and hyper percussion over the vocals, toying with the dynamic of the song by carrying it to its logical, trance-induced conclusion. The track might be Zep's, but the atmosphere, the groove, and the vibe are all Oakenfold.
That said, it might surprise you to learn that the man on the 1s and 2s, the spokesperson for "club music," refutes the notion that he was purposefully out to desecrate the rock temple. "It's quite the opposite intention, really," he says. "More than anything else, I respect the integrity of the artists I am commissioned to remix. You sort of have to in my position anyway: They get to decide whether your work is satisfactory or not. It's not as if the track is unrecognizable; it's just given a new form, a new direction--which is what the artist wants anyway.