Music News

Brand Name, House Special

Hating British trance DJ Paul Oakenfold is like hating Wal-Mart -- it's not that fun.

Like the Arkansas-headquartered superstore, Oakenfold is officially the biggest and most successful at what he does, namely playing clubs all over the world, selling mix CDs, and producing remixes for top-shelf pop artists. In fact, the Guinness Book declared him just that, the World's Most Successful DJ.

Also like Wal-Mart, Oakenfold is ubiquitous, high profile, and routinely faulted for questionable quality by critics. But Wal-Mart sells a pair of unworn blue jeans for $9. Who can hate that? Oakenfold has moved a million copies of a mix CD, something no other DJ has done.

An Oakenfold mix is often the one lonely bit of electronic music in a hard-line, "techno's for sissies" rock consumer's collection. People who know jack shit about dance music know Oakenfold. There's power in that.

Hating Oakenfold, then, is almost like wishing for the demise of electronic music itself. If Wal-Mart suddenly went Chapter 11, the GDP of the country would almost be cut in half -- or at least it seems that way. If Oakenfold called it quits, the dance industry would likewise shudder. In 2001, he signed an unknown Russian trance act called PPK to his Perfecto label, and the resulting single sold 300,000 copies and became one of the biggest club hits of the year. Oakenfold wields a trickle-down effect that provides nourishment to scores of lesser-known artists -- if he gives frequent rotation to a given producer's track, other DJs will snatch it up, too.

It's also fair to say Oakenfold has been the leading ambassador of electronic music, bringing it to far-flung markets previously closed to it. This year, he released a two-disc live mix recorded at the Great Wall of China called Great Wall. Although expat Westerners have been throwing underground raves on or around the Wall for years, his performance was the first sanctioned event by a professional DJ. The resulting product is an unremarkable sampling of the latest "hooj choons" that are causing speakers to quake in the world's mega-clubs. Woven in with Björk's "Pagan Poetry" and Oakenfold's own pretty "Hypnotised" record are a few of his remixes, most notably his take on Madonna's "Hollywood." Great Wall strays a bit off course from Oakenfold's normal fare in that it's not, well, wall-to-wall trance -- smooth-hewn breakbeats open disc two, and recognizable moments of trance's funkier cousin house pop up throughout.

And penetrating the elusive Asian market is not the farthest he's gone in disseminating his brand name. In the mid- and late '90s, Oakenfold was able to sneak his brand of completely unsubtle, towering trance tunes into the belly of the beast itself -- the rock arena circuit. He was the first DJ to play England's Glastonbury festival and he opened for the Rolling Stones and U2. This year, he was granted the right to remix Elvis (his take on "Rubber Necking" laces a fairly bland breakbeat under the King's vocal, which Oakenfold pans back and forth). It's almost gotten to the point where Oakenfold's not the biggest fish in the pond. He's the water.

And yet, both insiders and outsiders of club culture despise him with a rare gusto. A line of popular "Oakenfold Sucks" tee shirts made the rounds a few years ago, and when URB magazine, the bastion of supposedly authentic "future music," finally conceded to putting him on its cover in 2000, the letters page in the next issue was bursting with subscription-canceling threats.

Because it is so passé and implicit that serious fans of electronic music shit on Oakenfold, his detractors have to engage in gross hyperbole to make their point. "He sucks more than a Slurpee fiend sucking back a lollipop into a jet intake and then pulled out of a space shuttle airlock with a cargo of baby pacifiers," a writer with the rave culture Web site concluded.

While it's hard to disagree with the fact that Oakenfold has given new life to this still mostly niche music, it's also widely believed that's he's killed certain aspects of it, too. Part of this, of course, is the inevitable backlash that comes with any artist in any genre who holds the brass ring. But there's more to it.

Mark Bowen, 24, an amateur DJ and dance music chat room denizen, put it succinctly in an e-mail, "The problem with Oakie is he's become a jukebox. He just plays whatever the current taste is no matter how awful. A DJ should push the boundaries and educate an audience about what's out there. He doesn't seem to care about that."

Oakenfold has been asked the question numerous times in interviews -- what about the underground? -- and he told Rolling Stone in a 2001 interview that the perceptions of what he does are skewed. "Ninety percent of the music I play is not on vinyl, it's acetate." Producers put out small runs of new tracks on acetate before other consumers can get the actual vinyl version. "You can't get any more underground than that."

His argument is slightly specious, since as a superstar DJ he gets the songs that are predestined for chart success early on acetate, which doesn't necessarily make them underground by virtue of the medium. But of course, the titles of the tracks, where they come from, and how underground they are doesn't matter at all to most of the kids lost in a trance at a club, the Great Wall, or wherever Oakenfold will take his music next. The unfortunate reality that those Wal-Mart jeans were made by Burmese preteens doesn't take away from how great a deal they represent.

Oakenfold is the closest thing to a household name in dance music because he simply gives consumers what they want, and how deeply he digs to find it is ultimately immaterial to most.

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Darren Keast