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Dance Revolution 

Paul Oakenfold reinvented electronica. Twice.

Paul Oakenfold lets his hands do the talking.
  • Paul Oakenfold lets his hands do the talking.
Few DJs have been as influential in the spread of dance music as Britain's Paul Oakenfold.

He brought the house sound of Ibiza to Britain in the '80s and helped popularize trance in the mid-'90s. He's worked on a variety of projects, from film (Swordfish, Matrix Reloaded) to videogames (Golden Eye: Rogue Agent). He's also created remixes for the likes of Dave Matthews and U2. Oakenfold even gave a then-unknown Will Smith one of his first breaks.

"I'm a pretty forward-thinking person," says Oakenfold. "I like music in general -- whatever its form, and I like to see how you can merge these different forms and take things forward in that area. Some things work, some things don't."

A busy guy -- he's writing the scores for three films this year -- Oakenfold has just released his second album, Lively Mind, the follow-up to 2002's platinum-selling Bunkka.

Like Bunkka, which featured guest vocals by Ice Cube, Perry Farrell, and Nelly Furtado, Lively Mind is rife with special appearances. There's actress Brittany Murphy sexing up the lead single, "Faster Kill Pussycat," with her breathy delivery. Hip-hop legend Grandmaster Flash lends a dark streetwise vibe to "Set It Off." And omnipresent superproducer Pharrell Williams checks in on " Sex 'n' Money."

There was a time when Oakenfold seemed destined more for Iron Chef than Top of the Pops. When he was a teenager, Oakenfold's parents urged him to go to school to train as a Cordon Bleu chef.

"My heart was kind of set about leaving school and starting a band, " he explains. "So once I passed all my exams, I said to my mum, 'I've done this; I want to go back to music.'"

After finishing culinary school, Oakenfold took a job as an A&R rep for the U.K. label Champion. He was tasked with signing American acts on independent labels for release in Europe.

During a visit to Philadelphia, he discovered Will Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff, and made them his first signing. (Salt-n-Pepa were the second.) But his involvement didn't end there. He also cut their debut hit single, "Girls Ain't Nothing but Trouble."

"The original songs that they were sending off needed work, so I went into the studio and remixed them," Oakenfold says. "It was the first remix I'd done, and I thought, 'Oh, this is really easy.' Little did I know. I was only 19. But I really believed -- wrongly -- that this was easy to do. Of course, I didn't have another hit for many years."

It would be six years before he charted again. Inspiration came in the form of a vacation in the Balearic island of Ibiza.

The first trip occurred in the summer of '85 and was so enjoyable, he returned a couple years later for his birthday with a handful of DJ friends, including Trevor Fung and Ian St. Paul. Their weeklong experience of the eclectic, free-ranging Ibiza sound gave birth to the acid-house explosion.

"The main idea behind it was playing all kinds of music -- rock, reggae, house, rap -- and mixing it up, which in Europe was never really done," Oakenfold says.

Back in England, his new "Ibiza Reunion" club night at Spectrum took off, as did his remixing career. He produced the Happy Mondays album Pills n' Thrills and Bellyaches with partner Steve Osborne, which landed them a '91 Brit Award for Best Producer. More remixes followed, for groups including New Order, Arrested Development, and Massive Attack, culminating in the team's remix of U2's "Even Better Than the Real Thing." The Perfecto mix (the name Oakenfold and Osborne adopted for their partnership) charted even higher than U2's original.

After touring with U2 in support of Zooropa in '93, Oakenfold returned to the spotlight the very next year with his Goa Mix, a two-hour DJ set broadcast on the BBC (where it remains the most requested broadcast). Its psychedelic sound -- heavy in the use of synth and thick-limbed melodies -- would lead directly to progressive trance. The release was also noteworthy for Oakenfold's use of movie soundtracks and audio samples to flesh out the dance tracks, a practice now common today.

While some view this '94 release as the peak of Oakenfold's career, he's hardly been resting on his laurels. In 2003, the Presley estate sought him out to remix Elvis Presley's "Rubberneckin'." It was an intimidating assignment.

"Mainly, I'm hired to deliver dance-floor remixes, and they wanted a pop-radio mix. I'm not a pop-radio DJ," says Oakenfold. "There was also a lot of pressure, because it came after the Nike commercial with [Junkie XL's remix of Elvis'] 'A Little Less Conversation.' Nike made that a worldwide hit for a commercial, and suddenly I had a lot of pressure to follow that."

Oakenfold continues to seek out new challenges. The latest is a film titled One Nine -- a reference to the New York City subway line where the movie's characters cross paths, while each deals with difficult personal circumstances.

"It's very melancholy and very depressing," Oakenfold says. "It brings all these situations that happen in the world into your face, and you feel uneasy when you watch the picture. The music has to reflect that. It has to be very solemn and very down. There's no beats, there's no strong guitar riffs, there's nothing -- so to venture into this area is a big challenge for me, and that's what I enjoy about it."

Between the touring, remixes, movies, his label, and what he can cadge of a personal life, Oakenfold doesn't have a lot of free time, but that's how he likes it.

"It's just my process of working that I can have a lot of balls in the air, and I'm building the individual pearls up in my head of what fits where," he says. "That's my process of working. I'm doing a movie, then I'm jumping into some of my own production. I really enjoy going from all these different things, because I get bored very quickly."

Those attending his Saturday performance at Barcode will notice that Oakenfold remains something of a purist. While he does use CDs in addition to vinyl, he has not made the switch -- as many DJs already have -- from turntables to computer.

"DJing was always an art. It was something that you did with your hands, and to lose that art and just put it on laptop and go on the screen and pick one, and it mixes it for you as far as bpms -- that loses the art for me," Oakenfold says. "I don't use laptops, because I don't do e-mails while I'm DJing."

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