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Music journalists are largely responsible for turning Paul Oakenfold into the planet's foremost DJ -- a title he wears as if by right. But after the arrival of Bunkka, a CD that presents Oakenfold as a full-fledged pop artist, these tastemakers turned on their man in a big way. A typical notice was penned by Bill Aicher, writing at music-critic.com. Under the heading "Ready Steady Blow," Aicher declared that Bunkka "should have been left dead in the water, with the master tapes burned."
Venomous ink hasn't poisoned Bunkka in the marketplace; the disc, which is credited simply to Oakenfold (no "Paul" needed), remains near the top of Billboard's electronic-LP sales roster over four months after its release. Moreover, "Starry Eyed Surprise," a single made with Crazytown's Shifty Shellshock (the opposite of a critic's favorite), is doing extremely well on the magazine's Hot Dance Music/Club Play survey; it has also logged numerous weeks on the Hot 100 pop chart. Oakenfold's dial-twisting skills remain much in demand, too. He remixed the James Bond theme in Die Another Day, which had the biggest opening weekend of any flick in the Bond series, and he's slated to score two major films in the coming year: S.W.A.T., an update of the vintage TV show, featuring Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Farrell, Michelle Rodriguez and LL Cool J; and Psychoville, a pet project of screen stud Jude Law.
Given all that, Oakenfold can afford to display equanimity in the face of the pounding taken by Bunkka, and by his standards, he does, noting that he makes music for the general public, not reviewers. "The clubbers have embraced and understood the album," he says, "so it's the dance press that wants to keep you where they want to keep you."
Nonetheless, a certain irritability creeps into his voice when discussing the backlash. "I knew this would happen," he mutters. "I could have played it safe and made a record that some of those people would have wanted me to do, but that's not me. I had to do something that was cutting-edge and allowed me to develop and push the boundaries of music."
Whether Bunkka actually accomplishes this goal is a matter of debate, because many of the eleven tunes on hand feature standard vocal arrangements, and a majority place accessibility over adventure. But in Oakenfold's view, the opus offers a more complete portrait of his time in the music business than do previous collections and compilations. "This is a true album that represents me in a true way," he says.
A biography assembled by Oakenfold's current label, Maverick, declares that the 39-year-old Londoner entered the music business "at the end of the '70s, when he learned the DJ craft in small clubs around the city's West End." But to Oakenfold, this statement falls into the category of lily-gilding. "I didn't start deejaying in the late '70s, to be honest with you. My friend was deejaying, and I was kind of carrying his records. I had DJ equipment in my bedroom, but I wasn't a DJ."
He was, however, "an avid record collector and a huge music lover," and these characteristics led to an early-'80s post as an A&R man for England's Champion Records. Once there, Oakenfold became known for importing prominent American hip-hoppers for British fans. "I signed Will Smith, Jazzy Jeff and Salt-N-Pepa," he says. Shortly thereafter, he jumped to the U.K. offices of Def Jam and Profile, where he worked with Run-DMC and other prominent acts.
With a track record such as this one, Oakenfold could have remained a record-company insider, christening kings instead of eventually becoming one. Instead, he gravitated toward deejaying, landing what he calls "my first proper bar gig" around 1985. To him, deejaying and A&R jobs aren't all that different. "I enjoyed finding great new music; I was really excited by that. That was always what I strove to do, which is one of the reasons why I ended up being a DJ while my friends wound up being in bands. In a band, it meant that you had to play your own music -- but as a DJ, I could share the music that other people were making."
Oakenfold did so on a relatively small scale until he ventured to Ibiza, one of the Balearic Islands off the coast of Spain. Together, he and his fellows transformed this unlikely locale into a modern Neverland -- arguably the most influential dance mecca on the European continent. Not that he went there with the notion of spawning such a scene. "It makes sense now, if you think about it," he says. "But you couldn't expect something so creative and positive to come from such a small island. There was no grand plan. It was just that friends of mine were vacationing there, so I took time off and went there -- and I brought some other friends with me. That's how it started; it was very natural."
Between trips to Ibiza, Oakenfold introduced the so-called Balearic sound to his fellow Brits at portentously monikered London club nights such as Future, Spectrum and Land of Oz. These happenings became magnets for hipsters from a wide variety of backgrounds, largely because of Oakenfold's eclecticism. "In England at the time, you'd have a rock club and a rap club and a pop club. But I had this idea of playing the best of all kinds of music; I thought, 'Let's mix it all together.' And when I did, I started seeing people who'd usually never come to dance clubs. Members of bands started coming down and hanging out, because there was nothing like it."
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