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."
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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."
Such meetings resulted in opportunities aplenty for Oakenfold. Along with Steve Osborne, he produced a pair of platters for Manchester's Happy Mondays, the 1989 Madchester Rave Up EP and Pills 'n' Thrills and Bellyaches, a 1990 full-length that mated rock and dance in so fresh a manner that it's still being imitated more than a decade later. He also formed his own label, immodestly dubbed Perfecto, and became a remixer for the famous -- working with acts big (New Order, Massive Attack) and bigger (Madonna, U2). With a client list like that, it's no wonder that Oakenfold has aroused envy among his peers, some of whom think he dilutes the dance genre by energetically selling its secrets to the highest bidder.
"There's always jealousy, I'm afraid to say -- but it always seems to be that way," Oakenfold maintains. "I mean, the great thing about dance music, in my opinion, is that if you find something really good, you can share it. You don't want to keep it private and not tell anyone. And I've always felt dance is a great form of music. It gives off good energy. Everyone, whether you work in a bank or whatever you do, can enjoy it. You work hard all week, and on the weekends, you want to let your hair down and have a good time -- and dance music lets you share that feeling with everyone. Purists don't want that, but I do."
This populist perspective is shared by other DJs who've broken through to the mainstream: Moby, Fat Boy Slim, the Chemical Brothers. Yet these artists scored with the masses via original material, whereas Oakenfold was known primarily for his associations with others. Perfecto Presents Another World, a salvo from 2000, exemplifies his approach. The two-disc package is a house- and trance-lover's dream, filled to bursting with canny, big-beat interpretations of everything from "Rachel's Song," a Vangelis composition from the Ridley Scott cult fave Blade Runner, to, of all things, Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You." But for all its appeal to dance junkies, Another World had little crossover potential.
To step into the spotlight, then, Oakenfold needed to come up with his own stuff. He took tentative steps in this direction thanks to a pair of high-profile Hollywood flicks; he worked with Danny Elfman on the Planet of the Apes soundtrack and assembled all the background and incidental music for Swordfish, an abysmal John Travolta-Halle Berry thriller. Bunkka, though, is his coming-out party -- and appropriately enough, it's crowded with guests.
Some of those singing on the album, like Asher D, who contributes random phrases to the propulsive/derivative "Ready Steady Go," and Tiff Lacey, whose winsome crooning graces the quietly percolating "Hypnotised," are only household names in their own households. But most of the other vocalists on hand are marquee talent. The U2-like "Time of Your Life" showcases once-and-future Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell; "Get 'Em Up," a heavily atmospheric hip-hop nod, is delivered by Ice Cube; the silky-flirty "Motion" places Grant Lee Phillips, of the rootsy combo Grant Lee Buffalo, in an unfamiliar setting; "The Harder They Come" pairs Nelly Furtado and Tricky; and "Nixon's Spirit" frames a spoken-word piece by none other than Hunter S. Thompson, the Woody Creek, Colorado-based author best known for penning Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Rounding up such collaborators proved simple for Oakenfold, who's extremely well-traveled and has a Rolodex as golden as any in the business. "I was fortunate to get Nelly Furtado, because I worked with her before she became a star," he says. "I met Shifty Shellshock in a nightclub; I was playing a show in Seattle, and so was he, and he came to my show afterward and hung out. I called Perry Farrell, who I'm a big fan of, and Cube, who I love because of N.W.A. and my roots in hip-hop. And Hunter -- who's not a fan of Hunter's?"
Thompson's efforts were recorded during two comparatively sedate days spent holed up in a Los Angeles hotel. The gonzo scribe has a well-documented fondness for narcotics gobbling and random excess, but Oakenfold says, "We didn't go down that road." Instead, Thompson shared thoughts about Richard Nixon and his "ugly Nazi experiments," declaring over a semi-ambient backdrop that "Nixon's spirit will be with us for the rest of our lives, whether you are me or Bill Clinton or you or Kurt Cobain or Bishop Tutu or Keith Richards or Amy Fisher or Boris Yeltsin's daughter or her fiancé's sixteen-year-old beer-drunk brother with his braided goatee, with his whole life like a thunder cloud right in front of him."
What's any of that mean to Oakenfold's followers, many of whom were born long after Nixon faded into ignominy? "For me, it represents the American dream," Oakenfold says. "Everyone has dreams, and the younger you are, the more you think you can fulfill your dreams. The older you get, the harder it is, because generally you kind of give up. So that's what I really took from the experience, not the specifics of the dialogue that he said."
As for "Starry Eyed Surprise," it's a lightweight romp that's as catchy as it is mindless. But Oakenfold makes no apologies for it. "I wanted to make a fun summer record, and that's what it is -- and that's all it is. Whereas the Hunter Thompson song is a self-indulgent piece of music, 'Starry Eyed Surprise' is just a fun piece of music. You shouldn't take it that seriously."
This advice extends to Bunkka as a whole. Those who come to the album expecting Oakenfold trademarks, such as an incredible number of beats per minute, will most likely despise it. But folks who bring no baggage with them will probably find the disc quite listenable, if not terribly memorable. Moby doesn't have anything to worry about just yet.
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In the meantime, Oakenfold is readying his upcoming tour, on which he'll mix, spin, play keyboards and lead a band supplemented by video representations of the singers on Bunkka. "Obviously, you can't take all these singers on the road -- it would cost too much money," he says. "The idea is to give people a visual experience, and also to let people hear the music. It's an interesting concept; I hope it works."
Even if it does, Oakenfold expects a certain amount of resistance from some quarters. But he promises to keep pushing forward.
"A few people have said to me, 'Why are you trying to move on? Isn't it enough to be a DJ?' But you just have to stand up as an artist. I didn't see the point of making an instrumental album with no melody, no soul. I truly wanted to do something else, and that's what I did. But it's hard sometimes, because people want you to be what they expect you to be."