If you refer to Paul Oakenfold as “the Godfather of EDM,” he’ll playfully brush it off. “You have some career success, and that’s what they refer to you as,” he says, humbly. For the famed producer, one of the original superstar DJs, his legacy in electronic dance music is less about his personal achievements and more about the flourishing community he helped catalyze. “It’s very close to my heart,” he explains. “Sharing and DJing and playing colleagues’ music and enjoying it, going to events, working with each other—that’s truly what it’s all about.”
Throughout the course of his career, which is almost four decades in, Oakenfold has performed on the Great Wall of China, has single-handedly shaped the Vegas dance music scene, has produced Madonna, has remixed over 100 artists, and has entertained fans with his own original music. This past April, Oakenfold hosted the “highest concert on earth,” where he and more than 300 hikers hiked 37 miles through Nepal’s remote villages and the Himalayan Mountains to perform a live concert at the base camp of Mount Everest. The milestone event marked the launch of his SoundTrek series, which aims to take the dance music experience to remote locations around the world and address critical issues facing local communities. For the inaugural event at Mount Everest, Oakenfold and crew raised funds for Supporting Nepal’s Children and Youth Music, with plans to work with new local charities for each future SoundTrek expedition. Most recently, Oakenfold teamed up with the Dreamstate team to release the Dreamstate Volume One compilation via his mighty Perfecto imprint, which serves as the trance-focused brand’s first-ever compilation album.
There is arguably no one as influential in the dance music world as two-time Grammy Award winner Paul Oakenfold. And it all started in 1987, when the stumbled into a nightclub on the sandy shores of Ibiza, where fell in love with Balearic music and brought it back to the UK.
This summer marks the 30-year anniversary of that trip and the worldwide musical aftermath that followed. Oakenfold pays tribute to the memory with his latest endeavor, Generations. The ambitious multimedia project includes a three-disc compilation album, a documentary, and a world tour. Oakenfold brings his new, immersive Generations audiovisual experience to Dreamstate San Francisco this month, where he’ll take fans on a journey through 30+ years of trance and electronic music.
We spoke to Oakenfold about Ibiza, his everlasting career, and his latest project.
It’s been 30 years since your infamous Ibiza trip. What do you
remember about that life-altering holiday?
There were a lot of mixed emotions. It was a holiday, first and foremost. I took three friends with me. I had been to Ibiza prior to that. The music that year was really good. It was amazing to go to an island where the sun is shining all the time and the nightclubs are open-air. You’re with your friends, having the time of your life on holiday. Who would ever think that 30 years later, I’d be talking about a holiday that I went on and how it changed my life and how electronic music became such a big, important part of what I do still, to this day? I could never imagine how lucky I was in that respect. I went there on holiday, and everything changed.
What was it about the music that drew you in?
I think it was the fact that they were putting all kinds of music together. You would hear various sounds that came together, and at the time, it was inspiring. When you are on holiday, you feel different to when you are at home working. You’re with your friends—having the time of your life, listening to great music, and really enjoying yourself—and you don’t want it to end. I took that spirit and energy and the style back to Britain and played it in the club [where] I was playing. It was completely different. It was fresh, it was exciting, it was new. And that was what I really found exciting.
“Generations really represents what’s going on in electronic music for all of us.”
Tell us about Generations.
It’s me shedding light on great tracks that I’ve come across over 30 years. There is some really great music out there that has been lost, and I’ll be going through my wall of music and pulling out some of those tunes. In terms of technology, I’m going to be playing on vinyl, but also incorporating brand-new CDJs. In terms of the music I’m going to be playing, it will be some of the tracks from that 30-year period and not the obvious classics; I will also be playing brand-new music. Generations is right up until today/tomorrow. It’s showing people the true art of DJing and explaining to the current generation where it came from and what it’s all about. The album comes out at the end of May. It’s a three-disc compilation spanning classic Ibiza, classic house and classic trance. Generations really represents what’s going on in electronic music for all of us. The documentary comes at the end of the year.
At this point in your career, is it hard to create something that is new and invigorating?
It’s always a challenge for me. Probably the most difficult thing for me is my own record, because I put so much pressure on myself to do it. And what it’s all about for me is not the trend in terms of music, but it’s the song and the vocalist, the lyrical context, the tone of the voice, and the meaning within the song. The true songs have been around for years. That’s really what it is. I think the trend of a style of music—whether you want to call it EDM or trance or house—the style isn’t really what I’m about; the emotion, the melody of the song, and who is singing the song is what I’m about. And that’s a difficult thing to do. It stems from me growing up in England, listening to Radio 1, and growing up on great songs. In today’s world of music, the biggest artist is Adele, and why? It’s very simple: because of the song and her voice. And that’s what inspires me in terms of music: to write great songs.
You started out spinning vinyl, but now it’s all about digital. Where do you stand in that evolution?
I think it’s important to embrace change and to embrace technology. You don’t have to necessarily like it. I don’t certainly like a lot of new things that come on the market. Every six months, society wants a new phone, a new shirt, a new this, a new that. I totally understand it, but I also think it’s important to respect the art of DJing, and taking people on a journey, and really sharing great music, and not playing the obvious songs you hear on radio and the obvious tracks you expect to hear. I think electronic music would be much stronger if we really got back to that moment and really got back to quality—great music, great stories told, true DJing. I think it would be better for everyone.
Are there any career memories of which you are most proud?
Playing Madison Square Garden, Hollywood Bowl, Red Rocks. Playing those kinds of big shows, of course, touring with big rock bands, producing Madonna. I’ve been very fortunate. Certainly, my residency in Vegas, because it really changed the landscape there. We really had our backs against the wall. It was really hard at the beginning, but as a team, we all believed in it. If you put yourself out there and at least try to do it, that’s rewarding. I think that’s probably the biggest reward for myself; I really enjoy a challenge.
You’ve recently announced a residency in Austin. What is it about that city that speaks to you?
That, for me, is a great city. I’m influenced by the music scene there. It’s much cooler than Vegas and certainly more credible in terms of music. With Vegas, it’s very commercial, but with Austin, it’s more underground, and that’s where I want to go. I start a residency there May 28 at Kingdom; it’s got a great sound system. It will give me a chance to play longer sets and more underground music. I’m really looking forward to it. At the moment, I’ve signed on for a year. In Ibiza this August, I’ll do a pop-up residency. I’ll play every Wednesday to coincide with the anniversary.
Tickets for Dreamstate San Francisco are available now.