Paul Oakenfold – Lord of the trance

Ben Osborne  Music Week  10/23/10

Record producer, trance DJ, label boss, club impresario and a top-five artist in his own right, Paul Oakenfold has lived his life through music ever since his early forays into the club scene as a teenager. More than 30 years on, his appetite for breaking new ground is still unsated

“The wonderful thing about the record industry is you can wear many hats,” says Paul Oakenfold, exhibiting a characteristic knack for understatement.

In a career that has spanned an impressive catalogue of positions, Oakenfold has worked from the post-room to A&Ring chart-topping hits, from studio novice to being a top-five artist, and from basement clubs to playing massive stadiums.

“A lot of people are good at one element,” says Korda Marshall, founder of Infectious Music, who was a label executive when Oakenfold was with RCA, Mushroom and Warner. “But he’s run around from DJ to remixer to A&R to record exec, to sales guy, to businessman, to lawyer. And he’s jumped around from Balearic to trance, to drum & bass to acid house and he’s great with artists like Madonna.”

Long-time friend and former colleague at London Records, DJ and broadcaster Pete Tong has known him since the beginning of the Eighties and is quick to emphasise the influence Oakenfold had on both the music business and DJ community. “He was a star from the first day I met him. Paul created the template; making music as a DJ and sticking with it, booking a room instead of being booked by a room, touring like a rock band; he became the first DJ to really start travelling the world. He created the superstar DJ story as we know it today.”

Oakenfold certainly has tucked a bewildering number of achievements under his belt. He was the first DJ to perform at the Great Wall Of China, sell out the Hollywood Bowl and headline the main stage at Glastonbury. He has produced a vast array of artists, including U2, The Rolling Stones, Madonna and Happy Mondays, and recorded club and chart hits as Electra, Perfecto Allstarz and under his own name. He has scored on $90m budget films and penned commercials for Coca-Cola and Toyota, as well as the theme to Big Brother. Meanwhile, his label career takes in Champion, London, Def Jam, Columbia and his own Perfecto imprint and he has worked with acts as diverse as Will Smith, Gary Clail and BT.

Born on August 30, 1963, in Mile End, Oakenfold lived briefly in Highbury but grew up in Thornton Heath, south London, and his early memories resonate with music.

“My father was a musician in a skiffle band and every weekend he would be out performing,” he recalls. “There was always music in the house.

“I don’t think people realise how important Radio 1 is in the UK. In America, if you listen to a radio station, you listen to one type of music. In the UK if you listen to the radio, then you listen to all kinds of music. It really made an impact on my life.

“As a teenager I had no interest in going to pubs. All I was interested in was music and trying to get into the nightclubs to hear music. My parents bought me a pair of double decks and I had piano and guitar lessons.”

By his mid teens, Oakenfold had secured his first DJ gigs, notably as a stand-in DJ at the Blitz. London nightlife at this stage was under the sway of the scenes bubbling out of New York’s clubs and the lure of the Big Apple was irresistible.

“New York came around because I was fascinated by what was going on there with hip hop. Coming from England you’re very aware of new trends and you’re not scared to embrace new music. So I was DJing at the Blitz club with Spandau Ballet and Culture Club and Simple Minds, then I was into dance music and from there into hip hop.

“I went for a holiday for two weeks and never came back for years. I was living at a friend’s cousin’s house trying to make ends meet as a courier and trying to get into clubs. We made a false ID; I was NME and my buddy was Melody Maker. And because we had English accents we’d get in. We went to Paradise Garage and found ourselves in the most ridiculous situations, being thrust into doing interviews when we didn’t know what we were talking about.”

That New York sojourn was brought to a close when Oakenfold’s flat was burgled, forcing a retreat to London. But the timing proved to be fortuitous. By 1985 the UK was ready for the second wave of hip hop. Oakenfold was plugged into all the right connections, but at first none of the labels would bite.

“I came back and I couldn’t even get an interview. Then Mel Medalie gave me a break at Champion Records. It was one of those tiny little record companies, so it was only me and him and I was doing the marketing, promotion and A&R. We had a little office in Harlesden and I had a pull-out sofa. I literally slept in the office. I’d get up in the morning and pack the records. Then go out at night listening in clubs. I was literally living and breathing it and doing nothing else. I loved it.”

It was not long before Oakenfold proved himself as an A&R with enviable ears. “The first record I signed was Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince,” he recalls. “I knew what was wrong with the record and I knew how to fix it. So I went into the studio and told the engineer what to do. It became a top-five pop hit. I thought, ‘This is easy, anyone can do it.’ And, of course, it’s not.”

“He started as a chef, so he’s got that knack of knowing where something is going to go,” says Korda Marshall, connecting Oakenfold’s teenage cordon-bleu apprenticeship with his ability to develop hits. “A lot of A&R guys can buy a finished track if it’s already up and running in other territories. Paul was always able to spot things a lot earlier – and was very good at working a song element from an A&R perspective.”

“From there I started getting involved in the likes of Salt N Pepa and Columbia asked me to give some guidance with Beastie Boys. Def Jam hired me, Profile hired me to be head of A&R for Europe and when Run DMC, Beastie Boys and LL Cool J hit England, I knew all the contacts,” says Oakenfold. “Mel was really good because he allowed me to have other jobs on the side.”

Meanwhile, he continued DJing and now had a Friday night club in Streatham called The Project. Although at this stage DJing was a side project, that was about to change.

“I liked early hip hop, but I didn’t like what was coming through,” says Oakenfold. “I’d have people like LL Cool J over and I’d be running around different clubs and there’d be fights. I suppose it was because they were trying to mirror what was going on with gangsta rap in America. But I was in it for the music.

“I started to move towards house because the tempo and feel was right. And then London hired me for promotion for the big hits and I was doing Farley Jackmaster Funk, Raze’s Jack The Groove (on Champion). I didn’t want to be a DJ, I just wanted to find these bands. And thank God it was crossing over. I was signing house records by Robin S and Sybil and they were becoming big hits.”

But in the late Eighties another element came into Oakenfold’s life that was to have a profound effect.

“All my friends had been going to an island off Spain when I was working. So I had my birthday there and that led to the whole Ibiza situation.

“It was dramatic for everyone. A complete U-turn. We’d come through this jazz funk vibe. I really liked that music, but it missed the energy of moving forward. We’d gone from electronic music to hip to house. And then it was like, ‘Let’s go back 10 years and start again.’”

“It became too specialised for me. I never understood why you have to put boundaries up in music. So when you get a situation where people are saying, ‘It’s not black, we can’t play it’; I’m like, ‘Who’s saying we can’t?’

“That’s why Ibiza was a breath of fresh air. When it came along the rulebook was thrown out the window. We were listening to hip hop and were into rock and pop music. That’s when I really realised it is about the DJ. It’s if the DJ can put it together.”

Back in the UK, Oakenfold organised the infamous Ibiza reunion party and started planning the acid-house club Spektrum. “We wanted to get into something completely different and inspiring, it was so exciting and fresh and different you were kind of hooked on it. So we went and hired Heaven. We didn’t have enough money to hire it, but we did a deal where we had six weeks to make the club break even on a bar retainer. Right up until the sixth week we were £12,000 in debt and didn’t have 500 quid, let alone 12 grand. Then on that sixth week we broke even, the club exploded and from there it went crazy.

“We started a Thursday nightclub called Future, playing ‘indie dance’. I was playing The Cure and Woodentops on Thursday and then on Monday I was playing acid house. We wouldn’t go out on Friday and Saturday. At that time we’d call the commercial people ‘Teds’, so that’s when the Teds would go out. The real people, who were into music, would go out Monday and Thursdays.

With his clubs taking off, Oakenfold turned to making his own music, initially as Electra and then Perfecto. “I’d dabbled before but when me and Steve Osborne got together, that’s when we found our niche. Steve is great. I learnt so much from him.”

Oakenfold’s partnership with Osborne gave them fingers in both the indie “baggy” and house music camps and positioned them at the pinnacle of the two dominant late Eighties music trends. They were a highly attractive remix proposition.

“Because indie music had live drums, it [often] didn’t work rhythmically, so we’d take drum loops and work from drums upwards. It was starting from the rhythm and the bass.

“So that’s how we ended up producing the Happy Mondays. We did a remix on Wrote For Luck and Step On. It was all club-based, even when doing U2, The Rolling Stones and INXS.”

By 1991 Oakenfold and Osborne were named best producers at the Brit Awards for their work on the Happy Monday’s LP Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches.

Meanwhile, his clubs continued their ascent: “I wanted to take Spektrum on the road, so we did a 21-date tour and the thing with Ibiza is that a lot of people go there from all over the country, so we were big on the underground. We had Spektrum in Manchester and in London on Monday. We had two simultaneous clubs going, which I don’t think anyone else does still to this day. We were also doing merchandise and London Records put out Balearic Beats – Volume 1.”

As Marshall points out, Oakenfold proved adept at developing his fanbase: “He was one of the first people I knew who, as an artist, understood the value of his own brand. From a very early stage he was strong on the Paul Oakenfold and Perfecto brand. He’s a very shrewd business man,” he says.

From Oakenfold’s perspective it was “music” that was driving him: “It was all growing and we consciously knew what we were doing, but it was driven by passion for the music. It may sound cheesy, but it really was.

“I mean, look at D Mob’s We Call It Acieed. That was born out of our club. A couple of friends were all shouting ‘acieed’ and Danny D thought, ‘I can take that chant and put it on a track.’ That became number one in England.”

As the international club scene caught on to the UK’s dance revolution, an unexpected development occurred: “Suddenly I started to get invites to go to Italy or Spain. Now it’s common, but at that time it was new. So I started to travel and I was like, ‘Man, this is great. I’m seeing the world through a box of records.’”

Oakenfold was soon seeking increasingly exotic places to play: “I’ve never seen why DJing has to be restricted to playing on a Friday or Saturday night,” says Oakenfold, before listing some of the places he has ended up, including Spike Island with Stone Roses; world tours with Madonna and U2 – playing 90,000 capacity stadiums; old and new Wembley; and the Boston Pops, with a 75-piece orchestra. “They’re the challenges I really enjoyed, taking DJing out of nightclubs and into a different world.”

Not surprisingly his current Planet Perfecto residency in Las Vegas sets out to take its audience to another world. “The club hires 50 circus performers – so there’s trapeze artists, fire eaters and you’ve got snow coming down,” explains Oakenfold.

Maria May became Oakenfold’s booking agent in 1995, at the start of his quest for exotic locations. “He wanted to work globally,” she says. “He was aware that there was a huge world out there and he always wanted to go to extreme places.

“It was like a space explorer wanting to put the British flag in – to be there first. I think we only got away with [the Great Wall Of China] because there was a member of the royal family standing there. Paul got me to book him a gig in Vietnam, which in 2000 was pretty outrageous. In Cuba these three guys sat in chairs and Paul had to play his decks while they watched, before they gave him the OK.

“And Paul was aware that if he could replicate his success in the UK, he could have a huge career in America. We were ringing all these venues across America – no-one had done that at that stage.”

Madonna’s manager Guy Oseary has not only continually been taken aback with Oakenfold’s production skills on collaborations such as Celebration but also his sheer stamina. “He was the number one DJ on the planet for many, many years and in order to pull that off your hours are insane, he really has a fantastic work ethic,” enthuses Osear“

“Paul was always good at taking a step back, assessing a situation, and making a big-picture decision. He is smart,” says Pete Tong. “When a lot of us were wrapped up in the adulation, the fame and the buzz of it all he had the ability to raise his head above the parapet and make a bold move, like relocating to the US. He knew that if you were going to break America you need to make the commitment, you needed to move there.”

Despite his multi-dimensional career, Oakenfold had never pursued radio. “I was part of Kiss in the early pirate days, but radio was not what I wanted,” he recalls. “I didn’t like talking.” And so when BBC Radio 1 offered him a show he declined, but when Tong moved to Radio 1 in 1991, Oakenfold soon found an outlet as Essential Mix resident.

“He was one of the first people we put on the show,” says Tong. “Paul has a number of diverse interests such as film and that was reflected in his mixes. He was a champion of the show and one of the most influential mixes he did was the Goa mix, that was groundbreaking.”

“Paul’s Goa Essential Mix was a milestone,” agrees Richard Norris, author of Paul Oakenfold, The Authorised Biography. “He put months into creating it. It was groundbreaking in its broad palette, fusing dance with soundtrack and classical music. It became the most requested mix on Pete Tong’s show.”

Along with his studio work, Oakenfold had also launched Perfecto as a record label, drawing once again on his A&R roots.

“We got a deal at RCA through Korda Marshall and we developed from there. I started to indulge in what Adrian Sherwood was doing – who I thought was an amazing producer – and the On U Sound with Gary Clail. So we started to have pop hits with those. It was quite diverse, but we were signing things like Robert Owens’ I’ll Be Your Friend.

“The idea was to find cutting-edge talent and release music that I felt had the opportunity to develop. It really wasn’t about having pop hits. We had the top-five hit with Gary Clail, but he was never a pop artist and he wasn’t meant to be a pop artist. Suddenly there was pressure to have Top 40 pop hits and you’re like, ‘Well, I didn’t really start the label to have pop hits.’ Then everything shifts and you find yourself putting pressure on artists. That’s when I started to lose my way a bit.”

Rather than turning him away from music, the pressure propelled Oakenfold to up his game. “I suppose you have a taste for it,” he reasons. “The charts were following where I was going, so I started to specialise more on the sound. And that’s where the progressive sound came from. We signed to Warner and had hits with Grace, BT, Planet Perfecto and Perfecto All Stars.”

“We had three Top 10 pop records and then it shifted again. Warner wanted more pop records and I wasn’t making pop records.

“That’s where it became demoralising for me and I wanted Perfecto to get back to being a great label for club music. That’s what we still do. Now the pressure’s not on, Perfecto Digital does incredibly well, and the artists and label make money. When the pressure is off you can be really creative.”

Until 2001 Oakenfold’s studio productions had only surfaced under pseudonyms, but he now came under pressure to use his own name. “I was Planet Perfecto – Bullet In A Gun, I was Perfecto Allstarz, Grace with a number three hit. But I was getting pressure from my management and everyone around me that it was time to [use my name]. So I thought, ‘If I’m going to make my own record then I want to make a diverse record with a musical thread through it.’”

The result was 2002’s Bunkka LP. “It had the hits with Ready Steady Go, which was massive in America, and Starry Eyed Surprise,” says Oakenfold. “But it also had club tracks.”

“I found myself in a strange situation I didn’t enjoy. The album was a hit and the singles were hits, I had a top-five pop record in America, and I was opening for Destiny’s Child at Madison Square Garden. But there was no way I set out to be in the pop world. I just like making music.”

Despite Oakenfold’s discomfort, his success broke boundaries in the US. His tracks began cropping up in unexpected places. “My music was getting into movies anyway and that’s how I got into film (scoring), as my music was already all over films and commercials. And I’ve now done the James Bond Game and The Bourne Identity Game. That’s why I live here [in LA]. There was no plan to come here. I just ended up getting asked to score a movie called Swordfish and next minute I’m living here doing film music.

“I’m still just doing electronic music,” he concludes.

But Maria May is bolder in her summation: “I feel like he set the bar for all the other DJs – and he raised it really high.”

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One Response to “Paul Oakenfold – Lord of the trance”

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