U.K. DJ Oneman Unites the Bass Music Massive
Grime, garage and funky pepper his new FabricLive mix
He may be called Oneman, but his tastes are legion: dubstep, hip-hop, grime, U.K. funky, garage, all tussling and tumbling over one another. In contrast to the linear, single-tempo mixes that are the norm from most DJs, Oneman’s sets are like many-vectored tugs-of-war played out over constantly shifting terrain — a group sport as choreographed by MC Escher.
In his sets at clubs like London’s DMZ, FWD, and Fabric, and in his Sunday-night broadcasts on Rinse FM, Oneman (Steve Bishop) has earned a reputation as one of the most versatile selectors in dance music. All the hand-wringing about DJs just pushing play, or just playing the same 10 pop-dance crossover hits as everyone else — that doesn’t apply to him. Even within the dubstep scene, he’s known for having deeper crates than most, and for his willingness to span decades in the course of a single set. “Oneman is a dubstep DJ who plays records that are neither dubplates nor even new,” wrote Martin Clark in 2008, singling him out as an exception to U.K. club music’s “newer = better” mantra. At the time, Clark noted the way that Oneman’s knack for mixing current dubstep with decade-old garage tunes was helping to push the dubstep scene in a surprising new direction. Four years later, as “bass music” has slowed its tempo, incorporated elements from house and electro, and reconnected in a big way with its 2-step roots, Oneman’s idiosyncratic style now looks positively prophetic.
Oneman’s new mix CD, FabricLive.64, doesn’t encompass every facet of his musical personality; intended as a snapshot of one of his nights at Fabric, it sticks pretty closely to peak-hour cruising tempos, with ambient bookending from Mark Pritchard and Burial to help sculpt its overall shape. Within those parameters, though, he ranges widely, taking in classic grime (Youngstar’s “Pulse Y Remix”), recent house and funky (Grievous Angel’s “Move Down Low,” Boddika’s “Soul What,” Pearson Sound’s “Untitled”), and choice morsels of vintage garage (Steve Gurley’s remix of Basement Jaxx’s “Red Alert,” Dem 2’s “Club Lonely” remix, even a Tuff Jam rework of CeCe Peniston’s “Somebody Else’s Guy”). There’s a method to his mélange, though, and he works his way through the set as through traversing a series of mountainous switchbacks, often with a single tone providing the pivot point.
I spoke to Oneman about his fondness for garage, his voracious musical appetite, and his preference for playing over producing. Read on for the full interview, and watch for his FabricLive.64 when it comes out on July 16. Fabric hosts Oneman’s CD launch party on Friday, August 3, with Oneman, Magnetic Man’s Artwork, Kode 9, Loefah, and Jon Rust with Reecha in Room 2; Pearson Sound, Pangaea, Jackmaster, Mix Mup and Kassem Mosse, Randall, Joe, dBridge, and SP:MC round out the other two rooms.
Hi, let’s start with your new Fabric mix. What did you want to do with it?
I wanted it to be the representation of a typical thing that I would have done at Fabric over the last four years. That’s the approach I went for, rather than going down the avenue of a typical Rinse set that I’d do, or a Boiler Room show. I wanted to distance the Fabric style I do from everything else.
What room do you usually play when you’re at Fabric?
Usually I play in Room 2. That’s actually my favorite room in there, because of the sound and the darkness and the placement of the booth.
How do the particularities of the venue affect the type of set you’ll play?
My Rinse show is a Sunday night, at the end of a weekend, so it’s more of a chill-out session for me — ost of the time. I do get into a bit of a harder thing on Rinse, as well, but I kind of treat that as my laid-back dance-music show. My Boiler Room showcases are more hip hop mixed with house, mixed with grime and dubstep. And a Fabric set would be more house and garage, a little bit of 140 [BPM] stuff at the end. That would be a typical club set for me in the U.K., and across Europe and at festivals. The Fabric CD would be a general sort of representation of what you’d probably see out at a club, rather than on the radio or at Boiler Room.
How many takes did it take you to record the mix?
Over two or three weeks, probably about 10 or 12 different takes. There’s one split in the middle of the mix, where it’s split into two, sort of — a cut-and-paste job — but yeah, it’s a nice flow all the way through, and it didn’t take me too long. No Ableton; it’s all done live off decks and a mixer and some audio software.
I noticed that you tend to get in and out of tracks quite fast: you use just a little bit of Doubleheart’s “Salsa” before going into Pearson Sound’s “Untitled,” and there’s just a tiny sliver of the Bok Bok and Tom Trago track — just enough to give listeners a flicker of recognition before you move on.
Yeah, right. I guess the style that I play in a club would be a bit quicker than an average house or techno DJ, who would play maybe four minutes of a track. I feel like the U.K. scene is more driven towards 16-bar loops or 32-bar loops, having a slight hint of 64-, 96-bar melody flashing through it. But there’s never really that much to hang on to that keeps the dance music that I play interesting enough. I feel like a lot of the tracks coming out now are getting shorter and shorter because of that exact reason. There are a lot of DJs that don’t even get to the second drop now. Which is a shame, but at the same time, you’ve got to keep the set moving.
But then you’ve got tracks like the new stuff on Hessle and Hemlock, which are these eight-minute epics.
Exactly. The Untold stuff, even a lot of the Pearson [Sound] tracks, are like five, six minutes long. There’s a lot of the U.K. stuff now, especially since the funky scene sort of took over, I think a lot of the tracks became a lot shorter, in terms of what was actually going on. My favorite music from growing up and being in school was eight-bar grime. It was that constant switch-up. You’d hear, like, 32 bars of an eight-bar grime track, and then the DJ would mix it into another one. That sort of style of mixing heavily influenced me, as much as the house DJs did, or a DJ like DJ EZ with the garage style of mixing everything together, which is kind of where I got my main grounding. But I think I’ve adapted a lot of different styles, not just the quick mix.
Something I noticed, listening back to the Rinse CD, is that you’re not too precious about your mixes. Part of your sense of flow seems to be a willingness to change course pretty abruptly, like when you go from Martyn’s “Acid Bells” remix into Geeneus and Ms. Dynamite’s “Get Low.”
Yeah, I think it’s having the balls to actually try things like that. I think a lot of DJs are quite safe in that respect. I dunno, I think it keeps you on your toes, and it keeps you and the crowd excited, to do things like that — like mix a beatless track into a heavy, driving track. Switching the vibe in a club is something I’ll always do. In the middle of a set, I could just drop a really slow R&B track out of something really hectic. A lot of the time, I’ve found that a lot of people in the club will actually stop dancing and listen to a track, rather than mindlessly be dancing to something. You can actually break their night up a little bit by playing something they’ll actually listen to, and then you kind of bring them back in, back up again. A set’s all about going up and down for me, like a rollercoaster. I never want to be in once place the whole time. I get really bored easily.
When I saw Loefah play a few weeks ago, he went from playing house and U.K. funky into 20 minutes of hip-hop and classic dub reggae, before moving into 140-BPM dubstep. And when he shifted gears like that, people stopped, and they listened, and it was like a palate cleanser for what came next.
Yeah, yeah, exactly. I think those kind of things — you mentioned Loefah — those kind of things started at nights like DMZ, in London. Those were kind of my first clubbing experiences, at nights like DMZ and FWD. And it was DJs like Loefah and Mala and people like that who were actually doing things like that first, for me, in clubs — they were starting their sets with a dub tune, or in the middle of their set, they’d play, I dunno, a Mr. Fingers track. Things like that, just to switch the vibe up and switch people’s perception of where they are and what they’re doing. I really enjoy that. I really enjoy flipping people out.
I wanted to ask about garage and your musical upbringing. I take it that garage was your first musical love?
Yeah. I would have been 13 in 1999, and that’s when garage started getting a lot darker and a lot funner. That’s when we started listening to pirate radio a lot more. A lot of friends of mine had turntables, so I’d go around their houses and use theirs, and it kind of went from there. But yeah, it was growing up in London and being around garage that definitely got me into it first. Just hearing it all the time, everywhere you went — if you were walking down the High Street, cars would be blaring it, shops would be playing it. You’d hear it out of people’s headphones, sitting on the bus. There were tapes everywhere. You couldn’t get away from it. It was our culture. It was something that belonged to us. And I think, at that age, when you’re looking for something new in music, it’s always going to be the darkest thing. The kids would always split into factions of dark music at school. You had the goths or the garage heads or the grime heads — you always had these really dark factions of young people in school. And yeah, garage is definitely a part of that darkness for us, in South London.
Garage went from being glossy and poppy and just got darker and darker, through people like El-B and Horsepower Productions, and then it sort of morphed into grime, which was darker still.
Yeah, definitely. Grime is an example of how dark it really got. They really took the vocal aspect and darker parts of jungle MCing and even U.S. rap, and created a whole, new, totally dark style. It was just about jackin’, fuckin’ girls, the standard stuff, smoking weed — that dark, London life. I think that’s the last sort of real dark music we had. Obviously dubstep had some dark moments after that, but grime is the real darkness for me.
You’re on Rinse FM now, but it’s since transitioned from a pirate into a legitimate station; did you play on pirate stations before that?
I started doing radio in 2006, on a station called React FM, which was based over in west London and was a pirate. I was there for like a year before I moved to Rinse. It was quite a quick turnaround before I got to Rinse. But they worked really hard at React, and since they were like west London station, they weren’t direct competition with Rinse. They had a completely different area of coverage, so there was never any animosity leaving the station and going to the other one. It wasn’t too much of a different experience, really. I think pirate radio had kind of fizzled out by then, anyway. There weren’t many pirate radio stations on the FM vibe, sort of 2007, 2008. It kind of all went, mid-2005, 2006 was the end of the pirate radio thing in the U.K., which was a shame. So I never really got the excitement of pirate radio, that whole phone line thing, about being in a dark flat or a top floor in some secret location.
You never grab your generator and go running from the cops.
[Laughs] I never did any of that, I never had to put a mast on a roof.
Did you have to develop new skills, going from playing clubs to playing pirate radio?
I think it was about the same time. I always did what I did in my bedroom. Like, that’s where you start practicing. So, from 10 years, or eight years of mixing in my bedroom, I was just taking what I’d done there and applied those skills to radio and clubs. I never really copied any other DJs, like, in terms of mixing styles. I would listen to my own mixes more than I would listen to another DJ, for example, because I’m more interested in what I do and bettering my own styles.
What would you be listening for?
If I listen back to a radio set of mine, I’d be listening to mixes that I wouldn’t have done before that might be really good that I could use in clubs, or I could use on a CD, like a Fabric CD. I’d be listening for mixes that aren’t good, so [they’re] mixes I don’t do again. I’d be looking at all sorts of things, I’d be thinking about other songs I could mix into that song — just trying to always develop as a DJ.
Back around 2008, Martin Clark mentioned that you were one of the few DJs who was playing garage at that time. It seems like your vision has been vindicated, given the general return of house and garage within the dubstep and bass scenes.
It looks that way! I never like to say that I was the reason for that, but I think that a lot of the records I was playing then were records that people didn’t really know, or they didn’t associate with garage. I think a lot of the early dubstep fans came from drum and bass, so they were more into that half-steppy, broken sound that wasn’t as swung. Garage had a lot of swing in it. Not so much a dead sort of rhythm. When I was playing those garage records, I think a lot of people realized that all garage wasn’t the glitzy, glamorous stuff; there was some darker stuff out there. And, yeah, I think DJs like Ben UFO really picked up on that and started playing a lot more garage. Eventually Hessle put out one of the first real 2-step tracks at the time, TRG’s “Put You Down.”
I think that time where I was playing garage definitely influenced a lot of what was going on then. The scene changed really quickly from then, it went really rhythmic — which is precisely what I was looking for, playing those records, because obviously I’d found something missing in mixing dubstep. That’s why I brought these garage elements through — there was a rhythm element, and there was a sort of gap I could put things in. I could put hi-hats and snares in by playing these garage records. And I think those two sounds merged really well. And the sound that came out of that style of dubstep and garage together, as well, was really good. You know, the sort of Horsepower style or El-B style, but, like, made by someone from Romania, for example, which is what TRG is like. That would have never really happened before, because of how closely knit the scene was. But dubstep’s really opened up — I’m talking about dubstep in terms of Digital Mystikz, Hatcha, N-Type, Caspa, da-da-da-da. I think the garage really took people again, which is nice.
And now things have slowed down so much, tempo-wise.
It all started with house and disco, and everything will come back there, at points. I don’t know where it’ll go next. I’m sort of happy with U.K. music as it is. I think there could be a lot more going on in the U.K. right now. I think it has slowed down a lot — not just in terms of BPM, but what’s actually going on. I’m really enjoying playing a lot of hip hop-influenced stuff. I’m really enjoying what guys like Hudson Mohawke and Lunice are doing, what the LuckyMe label are doing — a lot of new stuff which isn’t strictly dancey or housey or technoey or garagey. Like, for example, I can send you a set I did in Australia, and half of it was like 80 to 160 BPM stuff. That’s another side of me that I still do a lot, as much as people don’t hear it.
You mentioned Hudson Mohawke and Lunice — you mean the TNGHT record?
Yeah, yeah! That sort of sound, as well — what is that, like, 75 to 80 BPM, really hip hop-influenced stuff…
But also really grimy.
[In unison] Grimy. Yeah, yeah, yeah, really grimy! The synth sounds they use, I love the gloopiness of it. That sort of Zomby style, as well. I am a DJ at the end of the day. I play music that I like. I’m not like a house DJ or a garage DJ or da-da-da-da. I am a DJ, and I enjoy mixing. I enjoy trying to find relations between different kinds of music.
Are you still exclusively a DJ, or are you also making tracks now?
I mean, I’ve been playing around with Logic for five years. I’m not producing, no. I’m not making beats, finishing beats to play out. I might get to that stage, but I’m just messing around at the moment. I’m still exclusively a DJ.
Do you simply prefer playing records to making them?
Yeah, totally, totally. Every time I try and make a record I end up just getting on the decks. I much prefer that. I think a lot of people will think the FabricLive CD, is, like, that’s my style. It was really hard to just break off and do one thing, but I felt it was important to do that. If people have never heard of me before and they like it, and they research me, they’ll find that I do other stuff as well.
Are you still playing Serato?
Yeah, that’s my main way of DJing, even though my laptop died a few days ago. I’m DJing this weekend, and it’s going to be an all-vinyl set, which I’m actually quite looking forward to.
Why did you choose Serato — so you could stick with Technics, instead of CDJs?
Yeah, because I was slowly playing a lot more stuff I was getting sent online, so I was burning a lot of CDs, and I don’t really enjoy using CDJs as much as Technics. I like the way that it moves, I like the big pitch [fader]. Everything’s bigger, and it’s more comfortable. That’s what I’ve learned on. The Serato software with timecode vinyls, for me, is perfect. It’s one of the best things that’s happened to DJing.
Did shifting to Serato affect your playing style at all?
Yeah, I think it did. I think it made a lot of my mixes shorter, which is something I’ve sort of had to think about. I think I’ve slowly gotten over that. It was the garage and the dubstep I was mixing together that was really capturing the long-mix thing for me. I wasn’t getting that so much with a lot of the house stuff I was playing. It did kind of change the mixing style. And then doing back-to-backs with people, as well, it changes what records you play, because you’re not limited to anything. You’ve got your whole digital record collection on a hard drive. You’re not limited to a box of records that has, I dunno, a maximum of 60 records in it. If you’re limited to that, you’re going to think more about what tracks you’re going to play and how long you’re going to play them for. If you’ve got a hard drive full of 12,000 tunes, and you’ve got an hour-long set, and you know you want to play, fucking, 100 of those tunes, or at least fucking 40, you’re going to mix a lot quicker. I think that’s what it comes down to — how much of a selection you’ve got on the night.
Have you had trouble keeping your digital music organized? For me, the biggest shift in going from vinyl to Traktor has been figuring out how to sort my collection. Mainly, I create playlists by BPM.
Yeah, I’ve had the same problem, and it’s one of the questions I get asked the most — how do you create playlists or crates. I don’t really do that. I might do one for a night I play out, or for a radio show, and then skip through them if I’m at a party, but mainly I’ll do what you just said — tag the BPM and then sort all my tracks by BPM, so I can look through them that way. I guess that’s kind of the closest you’re going to get to a box of records. That way it’s as randomized as you can get it — just filtering through BPM, and then you’ve got all the tracks that are, say, 124 to 128, and you can figure out what will work. I think a random-track feature on Serato would be great: You press the button, and it just creates this random crate for you. That’d be really cool.
What’s going on with 502 Recordings?
Yeah, I’m still doing that. The last release was Desto in December, so it’s been sort of slow. I haven’t really done anything this year. But I’ve got a mixtape from Teeth that’s gonna come out this year, very soon. We’re just sorting the logistics of that out now. And then there’s a Fist-T double-pack. He did “Night Hunter,” our first, and he’s got a new double-pack coming out. And another new Jay Weed 12-inch soon; it’ll be the same camp. I think there’s one new signing from Australia which will be sorted out soon. But it’ll be the same camp, really. Keep it that sort of family vibe.
I just listened to a promotional mix you did for SRSLY in Italy; you did an all-night set for them, right?
Yeah, that was on the 11th of the 11th, 2011, and I played from 11. So it was all ones, basically, for Oneman.
How long did you play?
Five hours? Four hours? But that’s easy for me, as long as you give me enough drink. As long as I’ve got enough alcohol in, I’m rolling.
I thought you were going to say 11 hours, just to round out the numerical theme.
That would’ve been great. I could probably do that, if I prepared.