It was 2003 when Paul Oakenfold found himself wandering the arid fringe of Inner Mongolia at dawn. The U.K.-born DJ-producer had just played a gig on the Great Wall of China and afterward, he and a friend thought it would be amusing to jump down to the other side. It took them hours to scale back to the top, but the party was still raging upon their return.
Last night at a cush penthouse in West Hollywood, Oakenfold told this story and others like it as he, in conversation with L.A. Weekly music editor Andy Hermann, recounted the highlights of his 30-year career. There was the time Oakenfold couldn't reach his box of vinyl because of high winds while playing the first-ever Coachella mainstage set by a DJ in 2001. (“it was terrifying,” he says). There was his gig opening for U2 on their massive ZooTV tour, and his 2002 single “Starry Eyed Surprise,” which last night he called “an annoying song.” It was nonetheless a worldwide hit, reaching peak ubiquity in a Diet Coke commercial.
Admitting that he's never really liked doing press, the 53-year-old artist last night breezed by much of his personal history by saying that he simply doesn’t remember a lot of his life on the road. While it’s certainly possible that the drugs made things blurry, the fact remains that three decades into his career, Oakenfold stands as one of the most accomplished producers in the worldwide electronic scene. His forthcoming multimedia project, Generations, will encapsulate the past 30 years of dance music — and Oakenfold’s role in its rise — via a documentary, album and world tour.
Oakenfold’s story famously starts in Ibiza, where he trekked with fellow London scenesters Danny Ramping, Nicky Holloway and Johnny Walker in the summer of 1987. On Spain’s fabled White Island, they found Balearic music and loads of ecstasy. Forever changed, the guys brought a taste for both back home to London, where Oakenfold started a electronic label, Perfecto, and a club night, Spectrum, which was soon drawing 4,000 kids every Monday. The venue was owned by Richard Branson, and while the cops and media labeled it “hell on earth,” the scene was revolutionary for the party people in attendance.
“In the early days, there were DJs, but there was no focus on the DJ,” Oakenfold says. “You would go to a bar and guys would be standing around, and girls would be dancing around their handbags. Ecstasy changed that. … It just worked very well with electronic music, and it exploded in Britain. It really changed youth culture in England. Youth culture became club culture in 1987, which led to raves, which was the birth of electronic festivals as we know them today.”
In those days DJs were spinning vinyl, which Oakenfold would pick up from friends at local record shops. There were only a certain number of copies, with the DJs all vying to get their hands on the latest tracks. Last night Oakenfold noted that in the era of downloads and Shazam, this “true art of DJing is very much dying. It's much, much easier to DJ now. Technology has changed that in a big way.”
While there has been a certain amount of contention between the dance world’s old guard and the new generation of superstar DJs who play music through their laptops, Generations will embrace every incarnation of electronic sound. Broken down into decades, the three-disc compilation will feature tracks from artists whose music has defined each era, from Balearic, house and techno to EDM and trance, a genre Oakenfold pioneered until, he says, “it got cheesy.”
A longtime Los Angeles resident, Oakenfold relocated from the U.K. to SoCal to score the 2001 John Travolta/Halle Barre flick Swordfish. (“I had never scored a movie, and I had no fucking clue how to score a movie, but I really believed I could do it,” he says.) In 2008, he kicked off a two-year residency at Rain, the nightclub at the Palms Casino in Las Vegas. Sin City had not yet transformed into one of the world’s major dance music destinations, but with his nights, Oakenfold forged the template that would ultimately give way to megastar DJs making six figures and gracing billboards along the Vegas Strip.
While mega-clubs and 100,000 people at Electric Daisy Carnival are a long way from dancing on the beach in Ibiza in 1987, with Generations Oakenfold is illuminating how the former scene might not exist without the latter. The past three decades have proven not only dance music's viability but its resilience in the face of myriad challenges. While the current state of “press play” performance might piss off a lot of purists, Oakenfold — who has been at ground zero since the beginning — is embracing the evolution.
“This project is to celebrate what we've all achieved,” he says. “We've come of age as a community.”
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