The magnitude of Paul Oakenfold’s “highest party on Earth” might sound strange in South Florida, where the tallest point is the garbage dump in Palm Beach County. In 2017, the DJ traveled to Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain. Climbing it is dangerous, and the allure of its 29,029-foot summit has killed hundreds. At 17,600 feet, mountaineers stop at Everest Base Camp for altitude acclimation on the way up. Base camp alone is a 20-day roundtrip voyage through the Khumbu Valley with stops at Buddhist monasteries and villages.
And even base camp isn’t immune to danger. In 2015, an avalanche killed 19 there. Just two years after that tragedy, Oakenfold made the ten-day trek there. Sherpas and yaks lugged turntables, speakers, and generators for a rare Himalayan DJ set. The climb raised money for charity after he released the album The Base Camp Mix. And a documentary is set to debut next month. Artists crave change and exploration — Oakenfold admits he’d become a bit bored with his schedule. More than 25 years of the nightclub and festival merry-go-round had become repetitive. More than anything, the Everest trip gave him a fresh perspective on music and life.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. Every year it’s the same cities and places. The Everest trip resparked my interest,” Oakenfold tells New Times. “I’m a city guy. I’ve never hiked or slept in a bag, and then I’m on Everest sitting with monks, finding local instruments, and recording those sounds. And then at base camp, I recorded four hours of music. No one could dance because they were out of breath — it was more of an event than a party. I love to introduce music to unique places. It’s what I do.”
Before music was digitized, DJs puts needles on records and hauled crates of vinyl. There was no sync button, seamless transitions were paramount, and master DJs operated with finesse. Few if any other DJs are better at marrying genres and mixing dissimilar tracks than Oakenfold. He’s famous for cruising through pop tracks, then weaving in house and breaks, and wrapping it up with an intergalactic trance journey.
Born and raised in London, he credits BBC Radio 1 and its diverse format for his rounded taste in music. Saturday nights on Radio 1, however, are for dance music. The station broadcasts the two-hour show Essential Mix. His “1994 Goa Mix” and “1999 Live from Joni's, Havana, Cuba” Essential Mix sets are rave hall-of-fame stuff. Also legendary is his 2001 Ultra Music Festival debut. His 90-minute vinyl set at Bayfront Park Amphitheater at then main stage included legendary tracks from the era, such as Lost It.com's “Animal (Trance Mix)," Mekka's “Diamondback,” and Solar Stone's “Seven Cities.” He laughs remembering he wore two T-shirts and jeans on that hot day in March.
“I’ve lived in America a while now and know how to dress properly for Miami in March. I’ll have a crisp short-sleeve shirt and some shorts,” he assures.
Oakenfold moved to Los Angeles 15 years ago. He runs Perfecto Records and makes music from the Hollywood Hills. Hanging above his kitchen stove, a pink neon sign reads, “Turn It Around,” a nod to the song by Alena he remixed and has played regularly since 1999.
This is the 20th edition of Ultra, and nostalgia is in the Biscayne Bay air. Oakenfold is set to play the A State of Trance stage Sunday to make more memories, but first he looks back at cherished moments from Ultras gone by:
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1. "In 2002, when I showcased my first single from my first artist album, Bunkka, 'Southern Sun' featuring Carla Werner."
2. "I remember closing the main stage on this record — CJ Bolland, 'The Prophet' — and the crowd went crazy."
3. "In 2013, when I performed my track 'I Want You.' This is when I brought Miguel on the main stage, and he performed the song with me before he became the global star that he is now."
4. "In 2008, when I wrote the song for The Bourne Conspiracy videogame. I performed it with a 15-piece orchestra and Cee-Lo Green performed alongside me. The game went along to do very well."
5. "In 2003, the Ultra Music Festival mix compilation we released with a lot of my big-name colleagues — such as Sasha, Rabbit in the Moon, Underworld, Tiësto, Paul van Dyk, and DJ Icey — donating their tracks."
Oakenfold made it clear at the outset of this conversation that any talks about the past would be positive.
“I’m into positivity and uplifting others, and I’m definitely not the person that sits there and likes to gossip about others," he says. "I want to make people feel good.”