Within the dance-music community, everyone will admit to the towering influence of Paul Oakenfold over the industry's direction and sound--some more grudgingly than others. Since starting his DJ career with the UK club night Funhouse in 1984, Oakenfold has helped elevate the dance-floor DJ from anonymous salaryman to bona fide celebrity. Now, you would think people would be grateful, yet some grouse that the man has strayed from his roots, embracing the pop-oriented sounds of trance and progressive house and abandoning the harder-edged sounds of his past sets to placate his crowds. As 2002 comes to a close, he has not only unveiled an artist album, Bunkka, but also a full-scale live tour to further his movement into the mainstream of pop music. No doubt, this will leave the underground heads thankful for the career-creating opportunities made possible by Oakenfold's influence. And even more conflicted.
For his part, Oakenfold approaches his music and his career as a business as well as a passion. Speaking from Los Angeles, where he is rehearsing with his band for a 25-date live tour, Oakenfold talks of his desire to make the music on his debut artist disc as accessible as possible for those who don't hold a doctorate in International Club Culture. "I wanted to do something musically that was a little bit more cutting-edge and representing me and what I've done over the last few years in music," he explains. "The club mixes are on the 12-inch singles. On the album, I wanted to do something to listen to at home or in the car or while you're doing the Hoovering."
It's been a slow and steady movement toward the music he makes alongside studio whizzes Steve Osbourne and Andy Grey, and still spins as a DJ. Oakenfold holds the distinction of signing Salt 'n Pepa and Will Smith to Profile Records as an A&R representative in the early 1980s. But a very different sound would later seduce Oakenfold once he traveled to the Spanish resort island of Ibiza in the summer of 1987. There, Oakenfold was introduced to the sounds of acid house, and he introduced it in turn to his mates, Danny Rampling, Trevor Fung and Nicky Holloway. Rampling and Holloway would import the sound over to the UK with their club nights Shoom and Trip, respectively.
Still, most point to Oakenfold's club night, appropriately titled Future, at London's Heaven nightclub as Ground Zero for Britain's revered "Summer of Love" period a year later. There, Detroit- and Chicago-derived dance tracks combined with ecstasy and Oakenfold's unwavering enthusiasm for the music to eventually transform him into one of the world's first superstar DJs.
Since America never went through the immediate cultural upheaval brought forth by the rave scene, Oakenfold's acceptance in America has been more gradual. Indications of Oakenfold's salability came with the success of his inaugural DJ mix for Kinetic Records' Tranceport series, which went on to sell 150,000 copies. Not unlike progressive jocks Sasha and John Digweed, Oakenfold has toured the States relentlessly enough to establish himself as a major player in every U.S. city with a sizable dance scene. In addition, he has also championed the careers of many American DJs and producers--including D:Fuse from Austin, who has warmed up for Oakenfold on past tours--and established himself as a budding soundtrack producer by penning the score for 2001's Swordfish.
All of this sets the stage for Bunkka, released on Maverick Records, a massive electronic pop melange of trance, hip-hop, down-tempo and breakbeat styles topped with a who's who of guest vocalists. Ice Cube, Perry Farrell, Shifty Shellshock from Crazy Town, Nelly Furtado, Tricky and Hunter S. Thompson all compensated for Oakenfold's admitted inability to sing on the album's songs. Sorry, none of these guys will be accompanying Oakenfold on tour, but they will still maintain a virtual presence through film projections behind the band. Oakenfold hired L.A.-based Mars Media to film the vocalists over a blue screen where special visuals will be keyed in behind them.
As Oakenfold elaborates, behind the singers is a visual journey. "[Each film] kind of represents each individual track, so on 'Time of Your Life,' there's Perry [Farrell] dancing and singing in various locations. We've made him the same size as the Eiffel Tower, and he's skipping and dancing around the Eiffel Tower. And he goes to Vegas and New York, and he's on Times Square. So each visual usually fits the concept to what we're doing."
Oakenfold will preface the live portion of his show with an hour-long DJ set, after which he will be joined by drummer John Tonks (Tricky) and bassist Tim Hutton (Groove Armada). As for what Oakenfold himself will be doing during the set, he jokes, "I'm playing tambourine. And making coffee." Before anyone gets the wrong idea, he adds, "I'll be playing keyboards. I'll be basically mixing the set live from a 24-track mixing board. And I'll be running rhythms over certain sections of the record, similar to what Liam [Howlett] from the Prodigy or the Chemical Brothers do."
Some out there seriously insist, however, that Oakenfold's tambourine playing is the only contribution he lends to his productions besides his name. In the November issue of dance-music magazine Mixer, trance-pop prodigy BT calls Oakenfold "a fuckin' hand puppet" who "has not participated in a single piece of music that he's put his name on." Defending his own work with Britney Spears and 'N Sync, BT goes on to say, "You have people who are considered overly commercialized that are such incredible talents and you've got some douchebag like Oakenfold taking the credit for other people's work."
When alerted to these statements, Oakenfold sounds more befuddled than enraged: "I'm surprised that he said that. I've helped him and talked about supporting his record and mixed his record...It's a bit sad, really."
This particular Celebrity Deathmatch aside, Oakenfold obviously has no fear of success. He himself would work with Britney and 'N Sync "if [the song] was creative and interesting," and has already contributed a souped-up version of the James Bond theme for the latest 007 flick Die Another Day. But for the time being, he still has his hands full with the Bunkka project and will be working on it well into 2003. "I enjoy DJing, and I will continue to DJ. [But] we haven't looked at next year. [As for] the record, we're now starting to look at the next single in the new year. And we're going to look at whether we're going to tour the U.S. or Europe. We haven't toured in Europe at all, so at one time, we're going to have to go home and work the record again."
For a man who has already earned an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records for Biggest DJ, these statements hardly add up to the legend and the detractions that Oakenfold has borne throughout his career. For that, it's best to wait until he gets onstage and starts spinning. Because one thing that hasn't changed about Oakenfold's profession is that whether a DJ is playing for thousands of people in a rock stadium or 50 people in a basement, he has to play what the crowd wants. And judging from his ever-growing audience, Oakenfold has done a fine job, indeed.
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