up from underground

Credit where credit is due: before Paul Oakenfold’s mug and shades graced MTV’s cotton candy airwaves, the man was a bona-fide pioneer. As the DJ behind such culture-defining parties as Future and Land of Oz at London superclub Heaven, Oakenfold was once at rave music’s very forefront. His production work on the Happy Mondays’ Pills ‘n’ Thrills and Bellyaches foresaw Ecstasy culture’s invasion of pop art, and his genre-hopping 1994 Goa Mix broke boundaries. Let no one question the man’s reputation; he’s paid his dues.

Without his trusty shades, most of Paul Oakenfold’s celebrity sheen seems to vanish. But when I ask him how much his life actually resembles that of a glorious jet-setting DJ, he answers “80 percent” matter-of-factly enough to douse the glimpse I might have had of an everyman who just happens to enjoy spinning records. Oakenfold’s living the life of a superstar and enjoying it. I venture to wonder how he feels about being called a sellout.

“My answer to that,” he says, visibly annoyed, “is that firstly, 60 percent of the music I play is on acetate; it’s not even on promo. The other 40 percent I play is on promo. None of it is on American radio. If no one has access to the music commercially, then that is underground.” Besides the fact that America’s got too short an attention span for dance music on the radio, Oakenfold neglects to point out that as one of the world’s biggest DJs he gets access to the freshest dubplates not yet on the market.

As he goes on, it’s clear that Paul Oakenfold is sick of having righteous critics questioning his chosen path. “There’s a lot more fuckin’ issues out there than keeping a record underground. Dance music’s taken too seriously—lighten up, man,” he spits. “That’s what I think dance music misses, the fun element. It’s too much of a business now.”

The sentiments are fair enough, if somewhat confusing, coming from someone utterly immersed in the industry. When we get to his exploits, however, Oakenfold’s face brightens considerably. He cites opening to an audience of a 100,000 for U2, headlining and selling out Red Rocks in Denver and supporting the Red Hot Chili Peppers as his fondest moments. He namedrops clubs in Singapore, Buenos Aires, Miami, San Francisco and Boston’s very own Avalon as favorite places to spin. “The Irish are fucking great, man,” he muses.

Paul Oakenfold just wants to make people dance. Maybe, I think to myself, that’s why he can’t be bothered to discuss his work at any length. He’s doing his job, so isn’t that enough? “The more people globally who get into dance music, the better it is for everyone. If they’re having a good time, then great; it’s all about the people,” he says benevolently. Oakenfold also enjoys excursions into Hollywood (besides Swordfish, he’s proud of his brand-new reworking of the James Bond theme) and keeping his chin above dance music. “Hip-hop and rock are currently the two most exciting forms of music out there, not dance,” he says without a drop of irony.

Hence Oakenfold’s new album Bunkka (the title alludes to being underground), which he says is meant to represent his true sound. “It’s melodic. It makes you feel good,” he says. He’s right on one count; the album is saturated with melody—but not powerful, ethereal, or even trippy melodies, as in earlier trance before the whole genre went to corporate hell. Rather, these are the sort of cumbersome, echo-laden melodies that typify modern film scores. In fact, the whooshing sound effects, smiley-face synths and ham-fisted guitars generate a condescending muck so leaden that they even render the album’s joyless and deflated grooves a pleasant distraction—no small achievement.

But maybe that’s the point—Oakenfold wants to look above mere dancing. “Let’s be creative and original rather than jaded and boring,” he declares, sans irony once again. And so we have Perry Farrell, Nelly Furtado and a bevy of divas singing about having a good time, holding hands and dancing happily. Yet subsumed in tidal waves of studio effects, their voices ride the uncomfortable line between being reduced to cogs in the machine and struggling to stay afloat. Tricky, whose unearthly growl once spoke volumes, sounds here like an incomprehensible animal. Only the weathered grain of Ice Cube’s voice manages to triumph somewhat against Oakenfold’s ponderous vision. By the end of its 51 long minutes, Bunkka, grandiose and spotless, strikes one as the musical equivalent of Pearl Harbor—it’s the hollow, echoing sound of big budget, big names, and art-as-spectacle.

“It’s funny that in Detroit, trance is bigger than techno and in Chicago, trance is bigger than house,” Paul Oakenfold notes. Yeah, it’s a total mystery. At the end of our 30 minutes, he signals that it’s time to move on, and before I know it, he’s already whipped out his cell phone, back to work. Business as usual.

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