In The Beginning
Paul Oakenfold’s musical career started from admirably humble beginnings, playing soul and rare groove cuts in a Covent Garden wine bar in the late ‘seventies with mate Trevor Fung. By the early ‘eighties, having decided that NYC was the place, Paul decamped there armed only with the chutzpah to blag his way into a courier’s job in West Harlem. At that time, more than any other, New York was bursting with musical invention: hip-hop was the freshest street sound around, and Larry Levan – arguably the first ever superstar DJ, inspiring a frenzy in the crowd that some guy playing records had never inspired before - was packing out the Paradise Garage every week with the revolutionary, hypnotic mixing style that would become the acid house DJ’s stock in trade.
Returning to London, Paul became one of the UK’s leading authorities on hip-hop. During his stint as an A&R man for Champion he signed the as-then unknowns Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and Salt N’Pepa. Oh yeah, and he appeared on Blue Peter with a breakdancing crew who he was looking after at the time.
In 1985 young Paul spent the summer on a beautiful Balearic island called Ibiza. Ever heard of it? Oakey is as much responsible as anyone for making it the clubber’s paradise it is today, as two years after that first trip he, alongside mates Trevor Fung, Nicky Holloway, Ian St Paul, Danny Rampling and Johnny Walker, went there for a week to celebrate his birthday. If the first visit had been good, this one changed their lives forever. Dancing in the warm night air beneath stars at the then open-air Amnesia to the oddest mix of music any of them had ever heard, courtesy of island legend Alfredo, Paul’s urge to import this incredible experience – and the Balearic sound – back to England became too great to resist.
1993 saw Paul hired to provide the warm-up sonics on U2’s Zoo TV world tour, and as a result the de facto arrival of the superstar DJ. The past decade has seen Paul rack up a dizzying blur of firsts and foremosts, including, not least, his being voted the number one DJ in the world by the readers of DJ magazine, and has heard the name “Oakey!” yelled hoarsely from clubs, fields (including an epoch-making set on the main stage at Glastonbury Festival, no less) and arenas in every corner of the globe.
On the production front Paul began to release his own tracks as well as continuing to turn in remixes, while Perfecto expanded into a fully-fledged label. Its offshoot, Perfecto Fluoro, became the label of choice in the mid-‘nineties for the harder, trippier Goa trance sound. Today Perfecto boasts artists as diverse as Arthur Baker, Harry ‘Choo Choo’ Romero, and Timo Maas on its roster, and has gone from strength to strength by refusing to pander to only one style of dance music. Alongside the building of the Perfecto brand, Paul released a string of superlative mix CD’s, amongst them his awesome New York set for Global Underground – still the series’ biggest seller to date. And who else would have been commissioned to write the theme for what was certain to be the biggest TV show of all time? How did you guess? Paul wrote and produced the Big Brother theme, as Element 4, with Andy Gray.
On the club front, well, time for a deep breath…Ready? OK, here we go: Paul undertook a legendary two-year residence at Liverpool’s Cream that took residencies in general to another level, from the personally designed DJ booth to die-hard fans (dubbed ‘the Oakenfolk’ in the press) who would travel the length and breadth of the country week in, week out to hear him whip up a magical musical storm, that would still be ringing in the ears and exciting the mind in the office or the lecture hall on Monday morning. Ever keen to push himself further and harder, Paul decamped in 1999 to become Director of Music at home, the multi-million pound superclub built defiantly – and, as it turned out, problematically – in Leicester Square, the heart of London’s West End. That club’s immediate downturn in popularity after Paul’s departure goes to show the extent of his impact and following. There are but a handful of DJ’s in the world who attract the fervour and create the excitement that he is capable of provoking in a crowd. You only have to be there when he plays to feel the electric charge in the atmosphere, more akin to the devotional than the merely appreciative.
Leaving home was a difficult decision for Paul, but he risked his UK and European profile, not to mention turning down the certainty of serious amounts of cash, to decamp to America, one of the few places in the world – ironically, given that it all started there – where dance music is yet to be championed and grasped in the way in which it is elsewhere around the globe. But this was a move typical of the man: where others would sit on their laurels and bathe in their hard-won glory, he has always taken the tougher option, sustained by his belief that greater effort means greater rewards. It’s this attitude that saw him leave a huge fanbase in Britain to start all over again in the U.S.; that has seen him play to crowds in the low hundreds in isolated Alaska; and that led him to take a pair of Technics with him when he went on holiday to Cuba, and organise a free, unpromoted and not strictly legal party, purely to spread the word of great, life-affirming music and good, good times. This man lives, breathes and eats his art.