WHP FEATURE 023
Outside a Peckham café Steve Bishop is nursing a coffee and a sore head. As ever, he’s spent the night before being Oneman, plying his trade by playing records in a darkened club to a packed dancefloor. In Oneman’s case it very often really is records; as a DJ who’s been known to turn up at a club with a couple of bags of vinyl, a couple of memory sticks, along with a laptop full of tunes, he could never be accused of not taking his job seriously. But it’s this wide ranging musical scope that keeps him engaged in making people dance- whilst some DJs get locked into one sound, and find themselves fading into obscurity as trends shift, Oneman’s DJing has always been about a vibe more than a rigid adherence to genre. This goes right back to his early days as a DJ – whilst his contemporaries were playing sets of ponderous half time dubstep wobblers – Oneman was splicing Skream records with classic 2 step, injecting a rhythm into his sets that bucked trends (and, coincidentally, pointed towards the resurgence of house music that was just around the corner).
standing up there playing a pre-recorded set, and they get paid as much as I get paid for digging through my records and reading the crowd and all of that, I do feel a bit, well, not cheated, but I think my place is slowly being taken by these producers.
Now, years on and his musical tastes are as exploratory as ever. As he battles last night’s fog with coffee and cigarettes, he starts to enthuse about the new genres that he’s been plugging into, instantly livening up as he starts talking about the music he’s currently championing.
“I’m into this Toronto washed out RnB sound at the moment – it’s very interesting to me. People like Majid Jordan, Roy Woods, Tory Lanez. Lanez’s version of the Drake song Controlla is better than the original... it’s that sexy, Weeknd style, RnB-ish sound which is mainly being made in Toronto. I love it because it reminds me of London ten or twenty years ago; they’re all about their own city, they’re trying to put Toronto on the map, they’re not trying to force anything. Toronto is definitely about their own thing which appeals to me. Then there’s a kid called Misogi from Dubai, he’s about 17, 18 and doing the same kind of stuff. It’s all coming back to the Soundcloud scene, and finding new music on an online platform that has been constructed on a grassroot level.”
To less adventurous DJs, the thought of mixing obscure, hazy new mutations of RnB into a club set would be a no-go – everything from the slower tempos to song structures emphatically not designed with DJs in mind make pulling together this kind of sound infinitely more challenging than mixing one house record into another. But this is the kind of knotty musical problem that keeps Oneman excited – in fact it seems that he’s thriving on pushing himself further and further to blend together records that defy mixing;
“A lot of records I buy now, more often than not, are older pieces. Like, there was so much disco made in Ghana from 1978 to ‘83, and so much of it only came out on tape. The Awesome Tapes from Africa guy is great for that. But every time I buy a new record I take it home, figure out what BPM it’s at then figure out how I can work it into a set. Like, there’s a track by Chick Corea called Spanish Fly – it’s a jazz fusion thing – and as with all of his tracks, it’s not quantised so it’s hard to mix, but it’s around 125 bpm, so you can mix it into some of the newer stuff I play in clubs, it’s just more of a challenge. But that’s what I’m about, that challenge of actually trying to mix two records together, rather than that ‘wax on wax off’ method of fading one track into another. That’s my main focus, mixing tracks together. I don’t mind using all the colour and filters to transition between bpm, but if I can do it through actually mixing the tracks, I’d much rather do that, that’s the most creative element of what I do. People like EZ do exactly that, I mean he’s the reason I’m a DJ, his old Pure Garage CDs, to me, were and still are masterpieces of selection and mixing.”
it’s not like Pow 2004 when it was 8 bars and 20 MCs on a track. You’ve got kids like Rocks Foe with lyrical content and stuff to say.”
EZ is, in many ways, a good comparison. Whilst Oneman wouldn’t claim to have the near supernatural skills on a CDj that have kept EZ on top of the game for over two decades, they share a couple of unique traits – both have moved between numerous styles (as Oneman points out, it’s a lesser known fact that EZ started out in the early 90s as a techno DJ, before switching through garage, house, grime and bassline), and both have become famous as DJs who are just DJs, rather than producers who also play records. After years of watching people with questionable deck skills getting bumped up into headlining slots on the back of a hit record, Oneman is philosophical about the way the skill of DJing is sometimes treated as a poor relation to the art of production.
“If you’ve learnt you’re craft you’ve learnt it. When I see a ‘DJ’- in inverted commas- standing up there playing a pre-recorded set, and they get paid as much as I get paid for digging through my records and reading the crowd and all of that, I do feel a bit, well, not cheated, but I think my place is slowly being taken by these producers. But at the same time it’s a challenge for me and it keeps me on my game. Ten years later I’m still here, and there were a lot of pure DJs who didn’t make music who aren’t. But in the past producers would give the DJs tracks and the DJs and the crowd would be the ones to decide if the track was any good or not. Now a producer puts a track online, it gets a good response, and the producer becomes a DJ. It’s almost a reverse.”
Whilst this switch has long been standard, Oneman has still been making it his business to break records. This desire means he credibly claim to have helped Novelist break into the mainstream; he heavily supported the Mumdance and Novelist track Take Time on his Rinse FM show – whilst Take Time’s abrasive, deliberately awkward structure was pushing too far forward for many DJs, Oneman was an early adopter. Despite Novelist having since moved into more recognisable grime territory, Oneman still rates him as an artist who has the key factor that makes any act worth supporting; a unique style.
“Novelist is pushing his 80 bpm Ruff Sound genre; he’s not just sticking to the same formula. It’s nice to hear him not stick to these trappy beats or throwback grime remixes that every else is trying to do – especially cos he’s so young. A lot of young kids seem to just aspire to be what Wiley is – or what he was at his peak – which is not really the way to go about it. It’s almost like an imitation thing, kids are imitating older MCs. Imitation is the greatest form of flattery, but people like Dave and AJ Tracey and Nov are coming with something a bit different. It’s lyrical content, they’re not coming with a quick 8 or 16 bar fire hitter – it’s not like Pow 2004 when it was 8 bars and 20 MCs on a track. You’ve got kids like Rocks Foe with lyrical content and stuff to say.”
Talking of breaking tunes on his radio show brings him round to the subject of Rinse in general. Next year marks his tenth anniversary of playing on the station, from its early days as the pirate station shaping dubstep, to its current incarnation as legitimate FM business. It’s not a great surprise that after a decade, he’s ready to shake things up.
“Radio wise, I’m probably gonna switch to a monthly show on Rinse rather than the weekly, just to make it feel a bit more special. At the moment it feels like I’m just turning up every week. The way I want to make it is that every show you have a massive, massive reason to lock in. To be honest radio used to be as important as the club scene in London. But FM has slowly died out and the pirates have all disappeared. There’s been a big boom in the internet stations, but that takes away from that localisation of a station. I remember when I was younger and living in South London, I could only listen to Delight FM or Upfront FM – if I wanted to listen to Rinse I’d have to physically go to East London. Now I can listen to it wherever I am in the world – which is a great thing, and I’m all for it, but nostalgically I do miss that thing of, what is this station? Where does it come from? What is this music??? But, still, FM will always be there because the emergency services use it – so you never know one day we might have an FM band range full of pirate radio stations...”
This is an idea that obviously appeals to Oneman – a DJ who grew up listening to pirates, then made his name playing on them. He’s a Londoner through and through, steeped in the grimy mythology of the city. In case there was any doubt of this, as he goes to leave he reveals he’s got a rare free weekend coming up - but he has no intention of spending it chilling…
“For once I’m going to go to a club as a punter; I want to see Dizzee play Boy in da Corner live, ‘cos it’s my favourite album of all time, and it’s been made in this city. I’ve been dropping Brand New Day at the end of my sets and people are just loving it. I have to see him play in East London…”
And this is Oneman in a nutshell – even on his day off he’s there for the music, for the scene and for the culture. He’s ten years into a career of constantly re-contextualising classics by laying them alongside new rhythms, and right now it looks like there’s easily another ten to come…