Save the Last Trance
By Arrissia Owen Turner
Even British DJ superstars’ mums give them grief. They are just like you and me. They enjoy a good Sunday roast with friends, fine wine or a strong pour of Guinness, glasses clinking while musing about the day’s big game.
But then some of those regular-guy DJs star in their own Spike TV reality shows, hang with Madonna, score James Bond video games with Gnarls Barkley, perform at the Great Wall of China and not only become the first DJ to play the Hollywood Bowl—but to sell out every last seat, too, even if no one ever sat in them.
Paul Oakenfold does all of those things, plus shares the bill this Saturday alongside MGMT, Deadmau5, Dan Black, Erykah Badu, Basement Jaxx, Incubus, Nas & Damian Marley, Manu Chao and (of course) Cypress Hill at the SmokeOut Festival at the NOS Events Center in San Bernardino.
Oakenfold’s pounding bass lines are synonymous with trance music and club culture, helping bring a new element to the SmokeOut’s usual rock and hip-hop suspects. But then Oakenfold’s not one to shy away from a challenge.
Life changed for the Londoner more than 20 years ago when he went on holiday to Ibiza, a party island off the coast of southern Spain. After a week, Oakenfold was ready to rock full-time. Since then he’s sold more than 2 million recordings in the U.S. alone, was nominated for two Grammies (for 2004’s Creamfields and 2006’s A Lively Mind), and reached gold with 2004’s Another World, making it one of the biggest-selling dance recordings of all time.
Still, just like any pie-in-the-sky dreamer, Oakenfold’s mum got her knickers in a bunch when he said he wanted to follow his dream of working in the music industry. “I was in a band, and we weren’t very good, and my mum gave me great fuss,” Oakenfold says. “She said, ‘Listen, you have to get a proper job.’”
Oakenfold attended Westminster Technical culinary institute and became a trained chef.
“But I still had this passion to get into music,” he says. He made his mum a deal: If he didn’t cut it as a DJ and producer, he would return to cuisine.
Pills and Thrills
How was Mrs. Oakenfold supposed to know her son’s beats were better than any goat cheese beet salad he could whip up? Or that he would one day be tapped for soundtracks to films like Shrek II, The Bourne Identity, Planet of the Apes and Pirates of the Caribbean?
“I just kind of went for it,” says Oakenfold, who also worked as A&R during those early days for Profile Records and Def Jam. He signed the likes of Salt-N-Pepa, DJ Jazzy Jeff and Will Smith.
In 1997 and ’98, Oakenfold had a residency at the famed Liverpool nightclub Cream at Nation. These days he holds down the decks for his residency at the 25,000-square foot Rain Nightclub at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas.
“Hard work and persistence has paid off, really,” he says.
Yeah, you could say that. Within four years of his mum giving him the chat, Oakenfold made a name for himself co-producing Manchester’s Happy Mondays’ 1990 album Pills, Thrills and Bodyaches, with songs like “Step On” and “Kinky Afro.” He also released remixes of the Stone Roses, The Cure, INXS and more.
Even Better Than the Real Thing
In 1993, U2 approached Oakenfold to remix some of the band’s songs.
“That was an honor,” Oakenfold says. “I never thought in a million years I would get asked to work with a band at that level.”
His remix of “Even Better than the Real Thing” did, well, even better than the real thing, reaching No. 1 on the U.K. charts. He opened for U2 that year on the band’s world tour.
The single hit at a perfect time in England at the early height of the electronic music phenomenon. Oakenfold sees America as ripe for the electronic revolution.
“If you look at the charts, it’s all electronic bass,” says the frequent pop music collaborator. He’s since pitched in on pop projects by Madonna, Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake and the Rolling Stones, which he takes in stride giving kudos to the original works.
Electronic music doggy-paddled across the Atlantic, just like so many British acts that make it in the U.S. It’s not uncommon for a performer—think Robbie Williams—to be humongous in the U.K. only to walk amongst the people stateside without a blink. Paul Oakenfold’s name is absolutely synonymous with DJ culture in America—he’s like P. Diddy for the spin cycle. He’s the go-to guy for name recognition in the pop-club mix collab world.
It’s Only Getting Bigger
There are few DJs that are so recognizable in the mainstream thanks in part to hits like Oakenfold’s remix of Elvis Presley’s “Rubberneckin.” He recorded the song as a tribute to his father, whose Elvis records Oakenfold clung to as a child.
“I think with America, if you have a sound and you work really hard and travel all over America—it takes time—it’s well worth it,” Oakenfold says. “America is a very open country in terms of music. The difference is that in radio, it’s not. I’ve been to Alaska and Cincinnati on a Monday night and played to thousands of people. So there is a big swirl for electronic music and it’s only getting bigger.”
Persistence paid off, but it was Oakenfold’s quick thinking that secured his first big break in the U.S. during his inaugural visit to New York. Necessity was the mother of ascension.
“I went and got false ID made up and I said I was working for NME Magazine in England, and that is how I got into all the clubs free,” Oakenfold says. “With an English accent, working for an English mag and an English ID, they didn’t even question me.”
Oakenfold’s come a long way since his cloak-and-dagger club guise. In 2007, Oakenfold released his greatest hits and remixes, a 20-song strong mix of his most popular dance mixes immediately recognizable to any club kid worth his or her glow stick.
With two decades under his belt, Oakenfold attributes his longevity and success to a progressive attitude toward music.
“I think it’s important to always be open-minded to new technology with new sounds and new trends and embrace that,” Oakenfold says.
“You should at least be open-minded to embrace it and see, you know, what you do like and take those elements and those sounds and put ’em into your production,” the DJ adds.
Oakenfold looks to up-and-comers Kenneth Thomas of Detroit, Robert Vadney from Greece and fellow Londoner Adam White as the future of DJing.
Out of the Club
The most recent result of Oakenfold’s cultivated expertise is Pop Killer, the much anticipated studio album expected to hit in 2011, his first since 2008’s Anthems. “I am working with a lot of urban singers, great singers, on cutting-edge rhythms,” Oakenfold says.
“It’s just a case of pushing the boundaries,” he continues. “I’ve always been like that, and wanting to not just DJ the club, but taking DJing outside the clubs and playing at festivals and events and shows.”
Oakenfold is no stranger to the IE desert. Aside from Vegas, he’s a Coachella regular. Oakenfold plans to unleash a swirl of classics, as well as some of the stuff from the new release at Saturday’s cannapalooza.
“It will be my first SmokeOut, as they say, so I am really excited to play there,” says Oakenfold before seizing the opportunity to practice his American accent. “San Bern-ahhh-dino, right?”
Now he’s cooking.
Cypress Hill SmokeOut Music Festival w/Paul Oakenfold, Dan Black and others at NOS Events Center, 689 S. E St., San Bernardino; www.smokeoutfestival.com. Sat, Oct. 16. Doors open at noon. All ages.