How Did Legendary DJ and Londoner Paul Oakenfold Land in Bastrop?
The Londoner finds his way to a Texas ranch
Comets don't enjoy the luxury of choosing a landing place or time, instead burning out on their way to an ashy end. Paul Oakenfold, forever onto the next thing, decided to land in Bastrop of all places on this planet.
But how? Why?
Starting in the mid-Nineties and continuing into the early Aughts, the London native became one of the world's greatest DJs. At his white-hot heights, he ranked as the genre's No. 1 practitioner twice, 1998 and 1999, by DJ Magazine. Michael Jackson, U2, Madonna, Massive Attack, Moby, the Cure, New Order, the Rolling Stones, and the Stone Roses, to name a fistful, all employed remixes by "Oakey." He sits at the forefront of several prominent musical revolutions in Europe, from helping break hip-hop in the UK to earning Brit Award nominations for co-producing Madchester-defining 1990 album Pills 'n' Thrills & Bellyaches for the Happy Mondays.
Remember "Ready Steady Go" a decade-plus later, 2002, a song you heard everywhere after it showed up in the Matt Damon chase scene from The Bourne Identity? Same sound technician. Oakenfold famously played both the Great Wall of China and Mount Everest, but principally, he helped usher in EDM as a mainstream force worldwide, beginning with the tide-turning Second Summer of Love in Ibiza. There likely is no David Guetta, Deadmau5, or Calvin Harris without Paul Oakenfold, at least not to their ultimate extent.
Again, this singular music figure is determined to homestead on a giant, still-developing ranch in Bastrop. As soon as he can slow down.
For all of his accomplishments and landmark firsts, Oakey found himself somewhat trapped by them, often receiving as much criticism as praise. Bukka in 2002 on Madonna's Maverick label proved especially polarizing. Sell-out, overrated, done.
"The bigger I've become, the more DJs wanna have a pop," he told Rolling Stone two years earlier. "They wanna dis you, which is a shame because some of the people that said bad things I actually thought were friends."
As the writer noted, "It's hard to feel sympathy for Oakey," because one of the rewards of long-term success along the hero's journey is living long enough to become the villain – if only for a short while. The new Texan understands what he's done and who benefited, so as someone who's existed at the fore, obligation dictates he bear that cross, so to speak.
"I've paved the way for Guetta, and Calvin Harris, Avicii: I've been told that a lot," he says. "I mean, that's fine. I don't have a problem with that, but I just don't enjoy that role. I don't enjoy being in videos, let alone doing them, but I understood I needed to do it."
Of course, success doesn't exist in a vacuum. Before Marshmello or the Chainsmokers operated at warp speed, and Oakenfold paved the runway before him, Black men playing gay clubs in Chicago, Detroit, and New York City – along with co-conspirators in Europe – crawled, then walked, and finally pounded a path forward.
Burning Down the House
Born into London's East End in 1963 to newspaperman Peter and strong-willed post office employee Sheila, young Paul grew up as the eldest of three children in a working-class family. Dyslexia essentially pushed him toward creative trades but doesn't explain his becoming a Chelsea football supporter in an Arsenal family. His fandom for soccer remains legendary.
"You could yell 'fire!' when Paul's watching Chelsea, and he wouldn't move," attests record executive Dan Rosenthal in Oakenfold's authorized biography. "He'll let his house burn down before he gets up in the middle of a Chelsea match."
Oakey, "a bedroom DJ" in his youth, initially took after his father.
"My father was a musician in a rock band," he says. "A skiffle band actually, which was the form of British rock & roll. So, not even realizing it, I grew up in a house from very young listening to the Beatles and Elvis Presley. And, I think being British, English, we grew up with a wider spectrum of looking at music."
London's centrality as the first touchpoint for world music in Europe, especially sounds from America and the West Indies, remains critical contextualization here. The city owned hungry ears, able to absorb, process, and refract incoming genres into new flavors and ideas. That blended up together as Oakenfold matured.
He earned a trial with Tooting & Mitcham United FC, a lower level in the English football system, but found his first calling in the kitchen. He trained as a chef at Westminster Technical College, eventually passing his City and Guild qualifications. Possibility lay ahead.
Meanwhile, Great Britain's radio deejays acted as musical clearinghouses for both the mainstream and underground, so he kept a keen ear. He gravitated toward the "Northern Soul" movement of the English Midlands and northward, based around the music and fashion of the Sixties' Black soul musicians in, get this, Chicago and Detroit. Experimental funk and soul-inspired jazz from Herbie Hancock, Bobbi Humphrey, and Roy Ayers from the Seventies later figured into the equation as well.
Meeting DJ Trevor Fung proved pivotal to Oakenfold's development beyond the "bedroom DJ" who mainly went out to meet women and discover the latest trends.
"He was around mostly to listen to the music," recalls Fung. "At the time, I don't think he was interested in doing or making music. He was interested in buying and collecting it.
"I was already playing in clubs, so when we met, I got him into it in a big way."
By 1979, the teenage Chelsea pledge scoured for whatever hip-hop he could lay hands on. Anything fresh and new, he sought it out. Later, he worked at a men's shop with Nicky Holloway, a soul fan with whom he battled for store-stereo supremacy. Soon a small cadre of soul and club music lovers formed, including Oakenfold, Fung, his cousin Ian St. Paul, and sometimes Carl Cox, another future techno legend.
In 1981, Oakenfold, Fung, and St. Paul embarked on a life-changing experience, one that set the former two on a path that altered the course of dance music and electronica.
Welcome to the Pleasuredome
Having already cut his teeth spinning hard-to-find soul around London's Covent Garden, Oakenfold traversed the Atlantic to stalk post-disco/dance and burgeoning hip-hop scenes with Fung and St. Paul in New York. He found himself mesmerized by "Jellybean" Benitez, DJ Red Alert, and Chuck Chillout, who nurtured his appetite for turntablism. Unlike in his hometown, however, a "separation" of music cultures existed.
"All these different scenes were going on, but they really didn't cross over," he recalled in his biography. "Puerto Rican kids didn't mix with the gays; the gays didn't mix with hip-hop kids."
Aside from disco's monumental impact plus its very public and racialized downfall, hip-hop's overlapping expressions derive from African and Caribbean DJ culture: early break looping and proto-turntablism also detected in the birth of Chicago house music. In early Eighties "rap," the deejay held court, controlling the dance floors at clubs, park jams, and sound clashes in West Indian/Caribbean and Latino neighborhoods. It isn't incidental that the first hip-hop DJs such as primary innovator DJ Kool Herc and masters of ceremonies – formerly dub toasters, the early proto-MCs supporting the music – hailed from Jamaican or from other West Indian locales.
Since these spaces proved unfriendly to noncisgender or non-straight men, early EDM, post-disco, and its clubs served as havens for survivors and safe bases for acceptance.
The origins of house trickle down from the post-disco/Euro disco/Hi-NRG/boogie period, ushered in part by acclaimed maverick Larry Levan, who headlined 1977-87 at NYC's Paradise Garage, a legendary mostly gay Black and Latino club. Also rooted in the West Indian/Caribbean culture, Levan introduced Jamaican dub into his mixes.
"We did the landmarks," remembers Fung. "We went to Studio 54 and then down to Paradise Garage. We were probably the only ones in there at midnight, and we couldn't understand why.
"Around 2am, a few people started to trickle in. We realized the club didn't start 'til 4am in those days. It influenced us tremendously because we were looking for a change, something we could bring back to the UK."
Levan's contemporary/protégé, an openly gay Black DJ named Frankie Knuckles, moved to Chicago to become the first musical director of The Warehouse. According to fellow DJ Marshall Jefferson, the term "house music," at that time, "meant anything Frankie Knuckles would play at The Warehouse." Co-conspirator Ron "Heart Attack" Hardy took over after the venue rebranded as The Music Box and Knuckles left to start Power Plant and later Powerhouse. Hardy, a heroin addict, would open with Frankie Goes to Hollywood's "Welcome to the Pleasuredome" and play music in higher pitches and tempos because of his perceived slowness from addiction.
Part of house music's foundation, "On and On" by Jesse Saunders and Jefferson's anthemic "Move Your Body" sparked a revolution. Already recognized for his landmark single "Mystery of Love," Larry Heard, aka Mr. Fingers, converted the rest of the world with his game-changing "deep house" classic "Can You Feel It" and its application of minor 7th chords.
Acid house, in part, also yielded forth, albeit unknowingly, through Indian composer/musical tech pioneer Charanjit Singh (1982's Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat) and more formally by Chicago's DJ Pierre (Phuture's Acid Tracks in 1987). It presented an unpolished, minimalist aesthetic, while merging with house music's omnipresent four-on-the-floor.
Drum machines, including the Roland TB-303, which produced acid house's signature squelch, and TR-909 models connected overlapping movements. Knuckles used them to flesh out mixes by a young Detroit DJ named Derrick May, who regularly visited the Windy City to check the burgeoning house scene. Dubbed the Belleville Three, the latter plus Juan Atkins and Kevin Saunderson birthed Detroit techno.
In the circular feed, Germany's violently diverse kosmische Musik catch-all and synth-pop (specifically Kraftwerk's influential late Seventies/early Eighties filings, including Trans-Europe Express), Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, and New Wave/electronic pathfinder Gary Numan in the UK all fed into the trio's realization that, like hip-hop, machines could devise sound as complete or minimal as one desired. More fundamentally, one could create alone and in their own home.
To the surprise and benefit of the forebears of fundamentally gay Black/Latino underground movements, techno, acid, and deep house emigrated to Europe at dizzying speeds – thanks in large part to Oakenfold and Fung. European DJs then manufactured a cascade of enduring effects worldwide. Amsterdam, Berlin, London, Manchester, and most famously, Ibiza, Spain, found Oakenfold, Fung, Carl Cox, Nicky Holloway, and their über-talented band of merry men consolidating these American sounds with those emanating out of the nations immediately surrounding them.
Even Better Than the Real Thing
As the story goes, Oakenfold, Fung, Nicky Holloway, and two other notable DJs in Danny Rampling and Johnny Walker made it to the Balearic Islands in August 1987. Working and performing in Ibiza since 1983, Fung assisted in the distribution of music from America.
"I used to sell all of the records for the main clubs, which is how I spread electronic music in Ibiza," says Fung from London. "I took Paul out to Ibiza with me because I lived there for three seasons during the summer."
At the time, a confluence of events occurred, some familiar to Oakenfold and Fung, others more specifically American. For one, HIV/AIDS began to change the club scene, claiming the lives of gay men. Black and Latino communities in large metropolitan areas also faced a severe crack epidemic. Clubs faced regular raids and closures.
Then, Europe began modulating Black American sounds, folding them into novel subgenres.
"In so many respects, we in London were beholden to what was happening in American cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit in the Eighties," ventures photographer Dave Swindells, who captured Ibiza and what became the so-called Second Summer of Love. "Then they went to Ibiza, and suddenly the focus shifted not so much away from New York, but back to Europe in a sense."
Social phenomenon as much a musical revelation, the Second Summer of Love, running 1988-89, touched off rave culture in the UK. Acid house, reared mainly in Chicago, altered the dance landscape in Europe with the help of MDMA, aka ecstasy and "Molly." Hip house by the likes of the Jungle Brothers also landed acclaim.
Several prominent clubs, including Oakenfold's Future, fostered the movement. Across the UK and other countries, empty warehouses hosted illegal raves as often as possible. After starting Perfecto Records in 1989 and remixing U2's "Even Better Than the Real Thing" up the charts, Oakenfold opened the Dubliners' Zoo TV world tour.
Oakenfold's greatest notoriety and fortune arrived during the mid-Nineties through the mid-Aughts as a mainstream trance DJ alongside fellow Englishmen Sasha & Digweed. A cadre of Dutch dominators, including Ferry Corsten, Armin Van Buuren, and Tiësto, soon took turns in the No. 1 slot. Pulling from techno, house, pop, a new chill-out subgenre, classical music, and various ambient and soundtrack music, trance, for better or worse, continued rave music's push into suburban America.
Home on the Range
"It's pastoral, but it's also very close to everything in Austin," says Kevin "Lippy" Mawby, owner of Astro Record Store in Bastrop, fellow Londoner and Chelsea supporter. "You can have the best of both worlds if you have the means, and he has the means. So he lives on a beautiful piece of acreage, but he's only 30 minutes from Downtown Austin."
Oakenfold, forever living in the future, can already envision himself as a ranch hand. "If I can be honest, I'm looking forward to spending a lot of time on the ranch," affirms the DJ, 58 in August. "I will make music, I will hang out, I will spend more time with animals than I've ever done in my life. That's going to be interesting.
"The downside is the record industry gets me down, because all I want to do is make music and share music. Not everyone's going to like what I do. I get it. That's not the point.
"The point is just to express yourself through music. Still, lawyers, especially lawyers, management, and business management, get me down because they don't understand its artistic side."
The truth is that Bastrop represents the first location of his choosing – of unattached volition.
He's from London. He reached New York as a rite of passage. He landed in L.A. because big business required his constant presence.
Bastrop represents a fire-proof parachute for a tired comet ready to cease burning at all ends. Austinites would be lucky to count another first from Paul Oakenfold.