Electronica's Last Gasp
a.k.a. Revisiting Paul Oakenfold's 'Bunkka'
Back in 2002, I was working at a radio station called Live 105. It was San Francisco’s alternative rock outlet, and every summer it staged a big concert called BFD. That year’s lineup was a real hodgepodge; headlined by nu-metal acts P.O.D., Rob Zombie and Papa Roach, the bill also featured Cypress Hill, N.E.R.D. and The Strokes, not to mention alt-rock filler like The Vines and Hoobastank, breakout emo acts Jimmy Eat World and Dashboard Confessional, pop-punkers No Use for a Name, New Found Glory, Unwritten Law, Face to Face and Goldfinger, UK rock outfit Ash and Icelandic rap-rockers Quarashi. (Even looking through the lens of today’s playlist-driven, “genres don’t matter” climate, it seems bizarre that all of these acts were all in rotation at the same radio station, but 2002 was a very weird time for the “alternative” format.)
That wasn’t all. The Subsonic stage, named after the station’s Saturday-night electronic music program, included trance DJs from the Bay Area rave scene (Mystrë, Dyloot, Tom Slik, Thomas Trouble), along with LA prog duo Deepsky, drum & bass stalwart Dieselboy and NYC hip-hop turntablists The X-Ecutioners. Headlining the stage that afternoon was none other than superstar DJ Paul Oakenfold, whose debut solo album, Bunkka, was due to be released just a few weeks later.
Most people don’t remember Bunkka, and for good reason—it wasn’t very good. Although Oakenfold was already one of electronic music’s most well-known figures—he’d previously nabbed the #1 spot in DJ Mag’s Top 100 DJs list in both 1998 and 1999—the album was a clear attempt to cross over into the mainstream. Released in the US by Maverick Records—a Warner Bros. subsidiary co-founded by Madonna—the LP frequently veered away from the trance and progressive house sounds for which Oakenfold was primarily known, venturing into pop, hip-hop and trip-hop with a motley crew of all-star collaborators that included Ice Cube, Nelly Furtado, Jane’s Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, Tricky and rapper Shifty Shellshock (of Crazy Town). Someone even convinced a 60-something-year-old Hunter S. Thompson to appear on the record.
Although Bunkka was greeted warmly by a few publications—funnily enough, a nascent Resident Advisor made a point to highlight the Tiesto remix of the song “Southern Sun” in its positive review—the album was largely panned, with many of the harshest critiques coming from the mainstream outlets the record was seemingly designed to win over. Entertainment Weekly called Oakenfold “the Wal-Mart of DJs” while giving Bunkka a D grade, while the AV Club noted that the LP was “bogged down by ambitious aims that translate blindness as blandness.”
In fairness, the album wasn’t a total flop; it spent two weeks at #1 on the Billboard Top Electronic Albums chart—a chart that had tellingly only debuted one year prior—and also reached both #65 on the Billboard 200 and #25 on the UK Albums chart. Bunkka also produced two enduring singles: “Ready, Steady, Go,” a swashbuckling rave-rock anthem that has since appeared in films like The Bourne Identity and Collateral (not to mention a litany of commercials), and “Starry Eyed Surprise,” a soft-focus hip-pop number voiced by the aforementioned Shifty Shellshock.
Twenty years later, those two tracks undoubtedly continue to populate an untold number of bland playlists, but few people associate them with Bunkka, or even remember that Bunkka existed. Oakenfold never really became a household name—at least not in the US—but he’s continued to do just fine for himself; critical acclaim has remained largely out of reach, but he’s spent the past two decades touring the globe, occasionally releasing music and generally enjoying his position as one of commercial electronic music’s elder statesmen. Few would cite Bunkka as a career highlight, but despite the album’s status as a historical footnote, it’s still something of a remarkable artifact, for one main reason: its release was arguably the last time that the mainstream music industry attempted to break “electronica” in the US.