WITH any given pop culture movement there’s always a ‘back in the day’ — a nebulous chain of events that ignite a scene and help forge the myth.
Then we get the year-zero pinpoint events that become the myth itself — Sex Pistols at the 100 Club, Elvis landing at Sun Studios or Jacko’s first moonwalk at the Grammys.
Any time there’s an acid house reappraisal, Paul Oakenfold’s 24th birthday trip to Ibiza in 1987 is generally put forward as the starting pistol for UK rave and the further reaches of electronic music. The abridged creation story involves Oakenfold and fellow promoters and DJs Danny Rampling, Johnny Walker and Nicky Holloway discovering a mercurial DJ called Alfredo in an unknown club on a farm called Amnesia, having a four-way epiphany and jetting back with a head full of house music and a vision that they really could be on to something.
To cut the long story of UK rave short, Rampling started iconic club Shoom and Oakenfold kickstarted Spectrum that began drawing crowds of 1,500 on a Monday within weeks, and the Londoner was on his way to becoming the first ‘superstar DJ’.
Back in those pioneering early days, few in the scene had a long-term plan beyond booking the next DJ or sourcing Chicago house imports. But I’m chatting to Paul Oakenfold just as he’s about to release his 34-track retrospective 25 Years of Perfecto Records — the UK’s first dance label of note, with an early emphasis on trance and epic progressive house, that birthed future headliners like Carl Cox, Tiesto, BT, Man With No Name and Timo Maas.
Chatting on the phone from the Perfecto office in LA, Oakenfold laughs at the idea of a 25-year strategy. “I don’t think anyone had any sort of plan,” he says. “Electronic music has just grown and grown, but back in those days it was an underground scene. Major labels wouldn’t release that music so it was a case of, ‘Let’s start a label, let’s release this music we really love’. And 25 years later we’re celebrating it. I never thought I’d see 25 years and travel the world through music.
“The label’s been on a rollercoaster. It’s always been an underground label even though we’ve sold 10 million records. We’ve always tried to stick to our roots for the love of signing new artists and letting them grow.”
Oakenfold makes no bones about stressing Perfecto’s independent credentials in a UK scene that’s lost iconic indies like Creation and Factory, saying: “As Mute is for alternative, Perfecto is for electronic music. We don’t sign an act and say we’re gonna get you a top 10 spot. We give you the roots in a strong movement, we’re one of the best labels in the world.”
Even though electronic music is now the lingua franca of pop, with crossover acts like David Guetta and Calvin Harris nicking megastar singers for guest appearances, and Lady Gaga and Rihanna hits weighed down by EDM drops, Oakenfold says there’s still an inherent sniffiness in Britain.
“America took a long time… it was seen as specialist music. They have an older approach to electronic music. But what makes house music underground and rock music not? How is Calvin Harris underground? He’s not underground. How is David Guetta underground? But America is getting it now. And why’s electronic music not recognised at something like the BRITs? Why do you have best electronic album at the Grammys, but no equivalent in Britain, where it started, where you’ve got all these pioneers of British music, why are we not recognised? Why is an independent label that’s supported this community and this scene not recognised in its own country by its own industry, by the BRITs who like to pat themselves on the back?”
While artists like Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus are pariahs in some hip-hop circles for cynical cultural appropriation, Oakenfold says he’s all for this cross-pollination. He shrugs off Gaga co-opting EDM tricks, saying: “Do you think she wants to just follow a trend? I don’t think so. I think she really likes it, she’s an incredible musician.” Reminded of techno innovator Surgeon’s support with Gaga last year, he says: “Ha, there you go.”
He’s also quick to scoff at the idea of Madonna using hip producers as her cynical way into dance music. Oakenfold has had a considerable remix and production partnership with Madge, and opened for her on her 2006 tour, but points out: “Madonna’s roots were in electronic music, she was found by a DJ, she dated a DJ, she hung out at nightclubs. If you listen to her early stuff it’s all electronic.”
With these exchanges it’s obvious that Oakenfold has no time for keeping scenes insular. His Ibiza epiphany was, after all, sealed with DJ Alfredo dropping House Nation alongside George Michael, Kate Bush and Queen records, and he is one of the great crossover remixers, taking on Happy Mondays, The Cure, Stone Roses and Smashing Pumpkins in the past.
Oakenfold’s biggest remix partnership is with U2, dating back to his Perfecto treatment of Achtung Baby choice cuts — and his version of Even Better than the Real Thing landing higher in the charts than the original. In 1993, both parties defied convention and did their own remix of a stadium rock tour, when Oakenfold was drafted in as U2’s support act on the Zoo TV tour — the satirical multimedia blockbuster that stuck its fingers up at U2’s po-faced reputation.
Oakey jokes: “I was thinking, “What do I do? Careful now! I’m there to warm up the audience so you play appropriate music. If you’re playing underground techno that ain’t gonna work. It was a big challenge to go on tour with them, a big moment for me, I had to make sure I could deliver.”
We tend to forget game-changing moments like Zoo TV every time U2 take a misstep like the iTunes fiasco or when Bono says something daft, but Oakenfold is baffled at the endless backlash against the Dubliners.
“Ah, there’s no one better than them, come on,” he says. “I don’t get people who have nothing better to do than poke fun at one of the greatest bands ever, who’ve wrote some of the best songs ever, and come up with cutting edge tours that keep setting the bar.
“I’m not saying you have to like them, if you don’t like their music fine. It’s no big deal, but why pull them apart? Put your energy into something good.”
Oakenfold’s career goalposts keep changing, and he still views his own milestones as points for the dance “community”. His Grammys, shows at Glastonbury and stadiums and Hollywood film soundtrack work are all part of “this dream born out of our club scene in London”. He said he got a “tremendous amount of stick from magazines in England” when he started a residency in Las Vegas in 2008, but he was baffled at the flak, saying: “To me it was an obvious thing to do. Las Vegas is a 24-hour party, and they had no electronic music there. I was thinking if I go every Saturday and build a night out people will wanna come, they’ll wanna dance, they’ll wanna party. What Ibiza was to Europe, Las Vegas is to America.”
- 25 Years of Perfecto Records is out now.
Original version in Irish Daily Star