South London DJ Steve Bishop - aka Oneman - really needs no introduction. Bursting through in the mid-2000s with audacious blends and an exciting bag of dubstep and garage records, he’s now renowned as a seasoned selector whose astounding technical ability allows him to “make sense of” the wide-ranging music he stitches together. Having resisted the pressures that drive DJs to become producers, and vice versa, he’s long been enshrined alongside Jackmaster and Ben UFO in a ‘Holy Trinity’ of pure DJs who’ve managed to build their considerable rep solely on their skill in the booth.
Bishop is warm if easily distractible company - considered yet enthusiastic, and more than happy to “ramble on” as he puts it. He’s most animated when talking about either growing up in Streatham or the intricacies and building blocks of DJing, slapping out drum patterns on the table to illustrate his points. Our interview ends with us chatting about the importance of locality in music and, succumbing to nostalgia, Bishop pulls up YouTube footage of Crazy Titch doing an under 18s show in Bedford in 2004 (“Look at these kids, going out to some shitty little basement because they like the music, not to stunt on Snapchat. They probably all know each other, they’re just stood there listening to the bars, taking it in…”)
Last summer Oneman took on one of his biggest projects to date, holding the reins of XOYO’s residency series. Billed as “a return to original club culture”, his 13 week stint spanned dubstep, garage, grime, funky and hip-hop and saw a huge number of guests take to the decks. It was, by all accounts, a massive success. Bishop mentions, “Donae’o tweeted after the funky night we did [with Crazy Cousinz and Roska] saying ‘All of you lot complaining about London clubbing need to get down to one of Oneman’s raves.’ He came back [to the residency] quite a few times and it became a clubnight he wanted to go to. That’s something I tried to work on really hard with those lineups, and it’s something I really hope is gonna happen again with Onedance.”
Ah yes, Onedance, his latest club/radio/mix project. The inaugural event took place last month with MJ Cole, DJ Zinc, Plastician and Spooky all on the bill. Following in the vein of Bishop’s celebrated mixing style, Onedance seeks to join the dots between the various strands that make up the last 15 years of UK underground music. We met up to discuss the origins of the project, as well as the state of London club culture, the rise of internet radio and bunking off school to buy tape packs.
Tell us about the new Onedance project.
I was thinking about doing number four in my Solitaire [mixtape] series, which is a soundscape-like experience where I do loads of edits, tailored for headphone listening on train journeys or whatever. The music policy is stuff that I don’t necessarily want to be known for in a live setting, so I wanted Onedance to be more a reflection of the club sound.
What’s the reason for splitting it up like that?
I think it’s about having a few identities on the go. I always think back to people like DJ EZ and Benji B and how they made sense of everything, it’s such a challenge and a big risk. If someone gives me a pair of decks and two tracks that are the same BPM, I will take on that challenge, and really think about it as it’s happening rather than planning meticulously in advance. When an audience reacts to a big risk in a really positive way, it’s so rewarding.
That brings me onto the whole technique/selector debate which keeps popping up recently.
Selection is obviously really important, but technique is what helps everything make sense. It’s not just beatmatching either, that’s what you learn first - technique is how well you EQ, how well you control volume levels, how well you can save a mix that’s going out of time. If I hear your mix going slightly out and you fix it within two seconds, I think you’re a brilliant DJ, much better than those fucking robots. I like hearing that human element. The most important thing for me though is timing. That’s the reason everyone thinks EZ is so amazing. You know when you look at a CDJ and it’s got those grid lines? That to me is how EZ’s brain works, in a four bar loop.
How is Onedance linked to your early memories of clubbing?
Raves like Sidewinder and Eskimo Dance… they weren’t necessarily things I attended a lot, more raves I associate with tape pack culture. By the time I was 15, London had already had all these events locked off by the police, so they were taking place in Milton Keynes or wherever. I’m thinking about [So Solid Crew] Romeo’s Birthday Bash at the Astoria [in 2001] when someone popped off a starter pistol - like, a gun you use at athletics tracks. It’s not gonna hurt no one, but that comes from Jamaican culture where most of the dancehalls are outdoors! Bashment and dancehall were massive in London in the mid to late ‘90s, and so obviously that whole culture came with it. There were actually quite a lot of Yardies into garage - you had Richie Dan, Specialist Moss, Tubby T doing what at the time was called ‘raggage’ or ‘ragga garage’. My mum worked at London Records and they had a sublabel called Public Demand who used to release stuff like MJ Cole & Rodney P [starts singing “dangerous, cantankerous”]
Where would you buy tape packs?
Either Big Apple [Records] in Croydon, or from a shop on Figges Marsh in Mitcham called A&D Sounds. I’d bunk French on a Tuesday ‘cos I hated it [laughs] and get the 201 bus down there and spend my hustle money, which was selling bootleg CDs. My parents got internet quite early on, so I’d download illegal music - DMX or The LOX or Jay-Z or whatever - and ask my mum to to bring home a spindle of blank CDs. Then at school I’d be like “Look what I’ve got, yours for three pounds!” And they’d just hand over their lunch money. And I’d go down to the record shop and spend it. The first record I remember buying from there was ‘Know We’ by Pay As U Go Cartel. Wiley’s first foray into grime. The millennium was a weird time, because the club sounds had jumped from being all sexy and dressing up and champagne lifestyle in the late ‘90s. Then everything was cyber-this and meltdown-that and the Y2K bug, and you had this mindset of ‘What the fuck’s going to happen?’ It went from jazzy, ‘musical’ garage like MJ Cole or Zed Bias into El-B and the Ghost [Recordings] sound which was really dark but very percussive, almost this shuffly Latin groove. And then you also had this 140 sound coming out of East London, which was still a very industrial area and hadn’t been regenerated yet.
It must have felt like a hard reset in many ways.
Yeah, listening to ‘Eskimo’... I don’t hear anything from the sound before, other than BPM. So I understand when Wiley says it’s not garage. But, wot do u call it? I don’t fucking know [laughs] I ain’t got a clue! At the time we were calling it FWD beats, or eski, or sublow, but it really felt as though it came out of nowhere. It wasn’t conventional at all but when you heard the devil mix of ‘Eskimo’ on pirate radio with two or three MCs going hard over it - just a bassline and no beat - that was a powerful thing.
When was the last time you heard something that moved you in the same way?
2010, when I heard ‘Wut’ by Girl Unit. I remember going to watch him play in East Village which was a terrible venue below the Hoxton Hotel, one of the first clubs that was very ‘East London’ as we know it now. I can’t remember the rest of his set, or anyone else’s set, or getting there or leaving, but I remember him dropping that track and just pulling my neck and furrowing my brow like, ‘What the fuck is that?’ I walked up and span it back like ‘Nah man, you’re taking the piss!’ And it kept getting reloaded. It’s still such a powerful tune for me today, like a burst of colour and energy.
Can you see the seeds of anything like that now?
It might be out there but I haven’t come across it, although I haven’t been out in a long while as a punter to soak everything up so I think I might be overdue that. There’s no better feeling than being on the dancefloor, hearing a track for the first time and looking around you. I feel like London clubland has struggled for a couple of years. Six years ago you’d go to a rave and there’d be so many DJs on the lineup, but now there’s too many parties going on and all the good ones have been washed out. I don’t see a weird, exciting new dance scene coming out, which is why everything I seem to be doing at the moment is more retrospective than I’d like it to be.
You’ve gotta work with what you’ve got I guess. I saw you shouting out J Hus on Twitter, are you following the Afrobeats scene at all?
Yeah, that’s something I find really exciting but isn’t something I’d play [in a club]. I might incorporate it into a Boiler Room set. The main thing is the BPM range - if it was funky house speed then yeah, I’d be playing the lot! What I want to bring to clubland now is a journey through the last 10-15 years of UK music, a reflection of what I’ve liked, what I’ve been doing. Listening to garage on pirate, getting into grime, going to dubstep raves, the whole Swamp81/Night Slugs sound.
How have your sets changed at all?
Before, when I was just DJing vinyl, I’d never practice mixing. In fact, the first few years I was DJing professionally, I didn’t even have decks at home! Which is crazy, but I’d already learnt it all when I was 15. I’d just make sure my record bag was packed then take it to a club and have fun with it. Then Serato came around and I could start fucking around with old disco and hip-hop records I’d never had on vinyl. That’s when my whole Boiler Room thing started to take off, ‘cos I was applying my whole ‘don’t give a fuck’ technique to all the different sorts of music that I liked. I’d mix really weird shit like Rick Ross with Hall & Oates. When DJing becomes a chore or when you feel pressure to play a song you’ve produced, that’s when it becomes a bit boring. That’s why I don’t make music. For example, Redlight is a fucking brilliant DJ and selector but the crowd always wanna hear ‘Get Out My Head’. I wouldn’t want that - I always like that element of surprise when they’re not sure what’s coming next.
What’s your favourite space to play now? There’s so many clubs which are set up like a gig venue with a stage, and everyone’s watching the DJ like an audience…
Yeah, exactly. If no one’s looking at me then I’m doing a good job, ‘cos it means they’re dancing with their friends. That’s why Plastic People was such a magic place. With light you tend not to lose your inhibitions. They had no fucking lights in there. There was an intimacy, and the focus was on the people. You couldn’t hear each other talk over the soundsystem, so you’d just dance. I really enjoy playing at Sneaky Pete’s in Edinburgh - there’s still a stage but it’s a tiny capacity venue and the people just go for it - they couldn’t give a fuck if you’re there or not, they’re out to have a good night. I’d really like to see the warehouse party scene have another resurgence though, I think it’s about time. The last time it came around was in 2007 as a ‘fuck you’ to all the clubs when the smoking ban came in. People loved it because we didn’t really put flyers out, just a Myspace page and a phone number which you had to ring on the night to find out where the party was. We brought that whole early ‘90s M25 rave culture to the inner city. I’d love to see up and coming DJs hiring out a soundsystem and doing something in a space they’ve created themselves, rather than being told you have to do a night in some hotel basement.
As someone who’s grown up on pirates, do you feel anything has been lost with the recent burst in internet radio?
The most important thing that I think has been lost is that sense of community or locality. I still listen to old So Solid sets that I’ve got on tape, and they used to have people call in like, “Shout out Chubby D, shout out the whole fucking West Ends crew” and the reason they’d have live callers was just because the radio station wanted to know how far their transmitter was reaching! So it’d be like, “Where you calling from bruv?” “I’m calling from Kennington.” “Yeah how we sounding out there bruv?” “Crystal mate, crystal.” [laughs] I mean, it’s brilliant that the whole world can listen to Radar or Rinse FM now. Without that I wouldn’t have done a US tour, or played in Japan or Korea or fucking South Africa, so I have to thank the internet for the career it’s given me and a lot of other DJs. It’s brilliant that a kid in Seattle can make grime music, but I would much prefer if that kid was part of an interesting scene in Seattle, and that’s something I don’t really see anymore because of stuff like internet radio. I just see this internationalisation of music where everything is doing bits and bobs of all sorts of stuff. Benny Ill, Horsepower Productions, El-B - that to me is a South London sound, one that I love and grew up with. I’ve got the fucking Ghost logo tatted on me with SW16 written around it, that’s how much it means to me. I’m proud of where this sound is from.
Why do you think there aren’t really many DJs coming through at the moment who just DJ?
I think there’s people trying to do that, I just don’t think they’ll get heard. The way I got heard was by going to FWD>> and getting to know the people that went there. I was working at Warner Brothers Records at the time, so I’d tell people that and they’d take me seriously, but they didn’t know I worked in the post room! They probably thought I was an A&R but I was going back to the label like, “I heard this guy called Skream, he could be pretty big” and they’d just go, “Whatever kid, back in the post room.” I realised the music industry is just a bunch of fickle, snaky people who don’t listen to anyone who’s young and knows what’s going on. Anyway, I ended up meeting DJ Heny.G who was a huge figure in pirate radio, he’s been on a thousand rooftops fitting fucking aerials. He was looking for new DJs for React FM in West London. Before that, when I was 14, I’d been asked to go on pirate radio in a fucking tower block in Battersea, and I was too shook ‘cos I thought someone would jack my records - if I had my copy of Sticky’s ‘Triplets’ nicked that was it for me! So this time I thought, fuck it, I’ve missed the opportunity before and I wanna go out and get it now. I made a mixtape on my old Sony Hi-Fi and sent it to Heny.G who really liked it. But I didn’t wanna talk on radio, so I asked my best mate at the time to do it for me, and the Oneman & Asbo show started in 2006. I just can’t see any 19 year old kid having that window of opportunity now. It’s smaller, and harder to open.
Radar seems quite good at giving kids a platform.
Yeah there’s a lot of DJs that I’ve learnt about through Radar, people like Riz La Teef. I love The Joints Show with Big Zuu, that’s the best thing on radio hands down. It’s like figuring out a new way of broadcasting - filming a radio show with live video - but drawing on old inspirations like the live caller segment of So Solid Sundays. Reprezent is doing a great job as well, their presenters always seem to be young black kids from Brixton. Yeah, that’s the most localised radio station to me.