Paul Oakenfold has always believed in his own hype. By his own proclamation, he was the “greatest D.J. in the world,” atop the pecking order for the past 15 years.
Of course, many DJs and club goers deny that claim. Is it a natural rebellion, dissidence caused by jealousy or resistance to one dominant force?
Either way, the top dog usually falls. And in the realm of popular culture, they usually fall quickly. So why, then, is everyone still talking about Oakenfold?
Let's begin with the pedigree. Oakenfold began his musical career as an A&R man at U.K.-based Champion Records. His first signing was Will Smith. His second was Salt 'n' Pepa. Men with such hit-sniffing talents usually don't leave their posts.
Yet Oakenfold's next hit was not an artist, but an island. He seemingly led a mass exodus to Ibiza (pronounced “Ibitha”) in the late-'80s and early-'90s when he joined the first wave of DJs to start regular club sessions on the Spanish island. To this day, Ibitha remains an electronic holy land.
Like many DJs, Oakenfold began his musical involvement by producing others, like Manchester's Happy Mondays. As his renown grew, he remixed tracks for the Cure, New Order and Massive Attack with the support of his remix production partner, Steve Osborne. Determined to control his own destiny, Oakenfold launched his own record label, Perfecto, in 1990. His huge break as a performer came in 1991 when he was asked-in unprecedented fashion-to DJ as the opening act for U2's infamous “Zoo TV” world tour.
Ultimately, Oakenfold parlayed his 15 minutes of fame into 15 years, driven by a relentless pursuit for more. Now, at the tender age of 36, the DJ has released Bunkka, the first album to feature his own songs, as opposed to the two dozen or so that showcase his remixes and live DJ sets.
“It's an album full of a variety of sounds,” Oakenfold vaguely imparts. “I've been inspired by all kinds of music, from hip-hop to guitars to dance, and hopefully the dance audience will understand that.”
Eschewing the boringly traditional “can't choose between my children” answer, Oakenfold admits to a personal favorite on Bunkka.
“My most self-indulged and favorite track... is ‘Nixon's Spirit,' which involved my six-month recordings and collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson,” he says.
“The younger you are, the more dreams you have and the more you feel you could succeed. The older you get, the harder it gets to fulfill those dreams. That's really what's ‘Nixon Spirit' is about for me.”
Oakenfold is a huge fan of Thompson, the famed gonzo journalist and author of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. For the DJ, the collaborations not only allowed him to pay homage, but it introduced Thompson to a completely different sect of the new generation.
“This is the first time Hunter has ever agreed to being on anyone else's record,” he says, “which makes it even more personally rewarding.”
Where the Hunter S. Thompson track fulfills the underground appeal, there is definitely no shortage of star power in the Bunkka project. Guest vocalists such as Perry Farrell, Tricky, Nelly Furtado, Ice Cube and Shifty Shellshock of Crazytown contribute marquis cameos, something for the album's “featuring...” sticker. Though Grant Lee Phillips contributes a solid performance, it's the lesser-known guest vocalists who really shine: Asher D of the So Solid Crew and dreamy female vocalists Carla Werner, Tiff Lacey and Emiliana Torrini.
Behind every massive star, there's a machine of talented people supporting the vision; other sets of eyes on creative direction. For Oakenfold, it's his longtime programming partners-Andy Gray and Steve Osborne-who helped with the daunting task of writing and producing music to accompany Bunkka's diverse vocalists.
Now, for the first time, Oakenfold will also bring a support team for his live show. The tour for Bunkka marks Oakenfold's first with a full, live band. He says the show will feature an hour of his traditional DJ set; for the second hour, he and his band will perform all of the tracks from Bunkka.
The band will consist of bassist and guitarist Tim Hutton (Groove Armada), drummer John Tonks (Tricky) and Oakenfold on keyboards and Pro Tools for track sequencing. Oakenfold will also orchestrate a series of filmed guest vocalists on a blue screen behind the live ensemble.
“We will basically be doing what we do in the studio in a very free-flowing manner,” he concludes. “So the live set will be like having the audience sitting in on a session.”