Club class

DJ Paul Oakenfold has come a long way since playing jazz-funk in a wine bar. The founding father of club culture is in demand the world over. Including the Shetland Islands. Sheryl Garratt went along for the ride
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The Independent Culture
Once, not so many years ago, DJs were people who played records. They did it for the love of the music, for the respect of their peers, and few of them earned enough to give up their day jobs. But times have changed. Take Paul Oakenfold. Ten years ago, he was a soulboy with a bouffant hairdo, a gig playing records to New Romantics at the Blitz club and another playing jazz-funk in the basement of a wine bar. Then he went to Ibiza on holiday and returned to open The Project, a Friday-nighter in a small South London venue that tried to recreate the eclectic music policy and all-night abandon he'd enjoyed in the Balearics. Several others did the same, starting the scene that became acid house and so laying the foundations for a club culture that has spread across the globe. Which is why, in the past two months, Paul has played in Buenos Aires, New York and Tel Aviv as well as touring British colleges with his own massive sound system, lights and live sets from acts signed to his Perfecto label. As you read this, he'll be off on another trip to Singapore, Bangkok, and then South Africa, but on the weekend we met, his obligations were closer to home. On Friday night he played in Stoke alongside the New York DJ David Morales, and on Saturday he's the main attraction at Lerwick Music Factory. In the Shetland islands.

Originally, this meant staying the night in Manchester, travelling down to catch a 10am flight from Luton to Aberdeen and then a long wait before flying on to Shetland. Faced with such a punishing schedule, Paul did what any name DJ would do: he borrowed a mate's private plane. So instead of rushing down the motorway, we meet up with Mike Pickering and go to see Paul's beloved Chelsea beat Manchester United. Mike is another DJ who started out with a passion for soul and helped kick off the house scene. Now his hugely successful band M-People are busy recording a new album before their singer, Heather Small, has her baby next spring (rugby player Shaun Edwards is the proud father). A Man City fan, he remarks during the match that the last time he was at Old Trafford was when his band played a massive concert there.

At the airport, we're ushered straight through to the gate, shake hands with our friendly pilot Ian, and 10 minutes after jumping out of our cab we're rising above Manchester in a plush little plane that was once owned by Meg Ryan and Dennis Quaid but which now belongs to the owner of Glasgow's Tunnel Club. En route, we are entertained by a feature in Company magazine about the lifestyles of the DJ famous. The big stars, it tells us, can earn up to pounds 30,000 a night and have groupies galore. "They're paid good money," laughs Paul, "but not that much. There's a lot of whingeing about DJs at the moment, and a lot of them aren't helping when they're running around doing three gigs a night and not putting anything back. We're performers now, we're supposed to set an example, and saying silly things like you're earning pounds 30,000 a night and getting blow jobs under the table doesn't help."

And the private plane?

"People might think it's flash, but there was no other sensible way of getting here. So if you've got the contacts to do it, you do it."

If this all seems too rock 'n' roll, Paul Oakenfold has earned it more than most. He played Spike Island with the Stone Roses, Glastonbury with the Happy Mondays, and has toured the stadiums of the world with U2, helping to bridge the once-yawning gap between rock and dance music.

"When I toured with U2, a lot of the crew were so blinkered that they couldn't grasp the concept of a DJ warming up for the band. They treated it as incidental music. By the end of the tour they got their heads around it and turned the sound up, but it took a long time.

"Times are changing. All of the big festivals have a dance tent. I honestly believe that a band like the Prodigy will become the equivalent of a rock 'n' roll band by the turn of the century. I mean, they were four kids who did a rave tune called Charlie, and now they're supporting Oasis to 120,000 people at Knebworth. M-People have done 2 to 3 million albums. Eternal have done 2 million. OK, Oasis have done 12, but I'm sure in four years' time there'll be a dance band that can do 10. And my money's on the Prodigy."

Not everyone agrees. Rather than signing and developing artists like Oakenfold's label Perfecto, many of the dance labels financed by the majors simply license tunes on a one-off basis. It can cost up to pounds 60,000 to acquire the rights to a hot dance single now, he says, and even if it is a hit, labels can't hope to recoup through single sales alone. They need to put it on as many compilations as possible, hence the current deluge of mix tapes and CDs. Oakenfold's own new CD Flouro is rather different. You might even play it at home. When you haven't taken drugs. The music is mainly trance instrumentals. But there are also tracks by Bjork and Terrorvision alongside Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" and snatches of film soundtracks and dialogue. The original version also featured Led Zeppelin and several more film bits, but they couldn't get permission to use them.

Next year, he'll be opting out of the Saturday night scramble to become the resident DJ in the back room of the Liverpool superclub Cream, hoping to be able to introduce some of the ideas on Flouro on to the dancefloor, to build a rapport with a regular crowd. But for tonight, there's the Shetland Islands.

Nothing much happens in Lerwick (population: 7,500; nearest town, Bergen in Norway). A couple of months back Pulp came and played to a capacity crowd of 1,200 at the Leisure Centre. The Music Factory had applied to host a party afterwards, but was turned down by the local council, who were worried about crowd control. The club manages to bring over such DJs as Billy Nasty and has its own local turntable star, DJ Gerbil, as well as a second resident who works as a fisherman and plays at the club as long as his boat isn't out at sea. But Paul is the biggest star they've enticed over so far. The 500 tickets sold out pretty much as soon as they had been printed, and even when he's installed behind the decks, some seem unable to believe it. "I thought he'd look different somehow," says the club's foghorn-voiced MC. "I thought he'd be taller, older. And I didn't think he'd talk to us."

It would be easy to be rude about Lerwick Music Factory. Once a haven for off-duty oil-rig workers, it's a dilapidated building in the middle of an industrial estate. It smells slightly, that bouquet of stale beer and rotten carpet you often get in neglected pubs. The toilets are flooded. The sound system continually distorts. "We don't dress in the latest styles," says one clubber shyly. "You can't get the stuff you see in the magazines round here."

But the point is that it is here at all, that club culture has spread to even the remotest corners of the British Isles just as it has spread across the world. And if the decor and sound system can't quite match the pounds 1m-plus refits that are now common in big clubs on the mainland, then there is much that is familiar too: the sweaty smiles, the saucer eyes, the arms punching the air for joy. In the manager's office afterwards, Paul gently suggests a few improvements, and people hang on his every word. "They were really keen," he says later, "and it's nice to come and support something that's underground and for the right cause." And with that he's back to the airport, and on the way home