'I Like The Music Skrillex Makes': An Interview With Skream
, December 19th, 2011 11:20
As dubstep originator Skream's most successful year yet comes to a close, Angus Finlayson speaks to him about touring the world, the changing face of dubstep and why Skrillex shouldn't be seen as a death knell for the genre
The best dance music that London produces tends to have tension built into its DNA - between infectious pop accessibility and forbidding urban experimentalism; between chart-storming appeal and gritty, from-the-streets authenticity. 25-year old South Londoner Ollie Jones embodies this tension. From 2005’s ‘Midnight Request Line’ to his 2009 remix of La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’, Skream has been responsible for some of dubstep’s biggest anthems. But, ferreted away in his discography - in the early Skreamizm releases, say - you’ll also find tracks every bit as alien and sinister as the most envelope-pushing the genre has to offer. Breaking into the then embryonic scene centred around Croydon’s Big Apple record shop in the early 2000s, Jones and running-mate Benga are widely credited with injecting some melodic vim into dubstep’s sparse, unforgiving chassis. In the process, they were instrumental in helping it reach the critical mass needed to take the world by storm.
Needless to say, Jones’ crowd-pleasing tendencies have earned him the odd critic. His regular denouncements of haters on Twitter, forums and elsewhere attained an almost legendary status a year or so back. Lately it seems he’s given up battling on all fronts, preferring to focus on the business of maintaining a globe-straddling career. Given the exponential growth of interest in both his solo work and the dubstep supergroup-cum-band Magnetic Man (with Benga and their friend and mentor Artwork), that seems a wise choice.
When I mentioned that I was interviewing Skream on various social networking sites, a common response was ‘are you going to ask him why his music is so shit now?’ Truthfully, listening to the plastic trance euphoria of recent single ‘Anticipate’, it’s a view that’s easy to sympathise with. But, when we meet in the East London complex housing London pirate institution Rinse FM, the negativity is pushed to one side. Our discussion ranges far and wide, touching on Jones’ recent flurry of releases (including the long-awaited Skreamizm vol 6) and the widespread hatred for dubstep’s current poster boy Skrillex. Throughout, Jones exudes a self-certainty and easy optimism which it feels pointless to counter. He speaks like an artist who is totally in control, rather than one cowed by the demands of a lowest common denominator audience. His aesthetic compass might be configured differently than most in the underground which spawned him, but as far as Skream’s concerned it’s still working fine.
What have you been up to lately?
Ollie Jones: I was in Abu Dhabi last Thursday with Magnetic Man. Then the Warehouse Project in Manchester on Friday, where I did a techno set. It was fucking insane. Most fun I’ve had in ages… Well, [most] scared I’ve been in ages!
Do you not usually play that kind of stuff?
OJ: Nah, it was a one-off thing. Because of mine and Benga’s party tonight [in Manchester], I didn’t want to do two gigs in the space of, what, four days. But Modeselektor persistently kept asking me to do it, I was like ‘I’ll do it but I wanna do something different’ - a set of 130bpm, there’s loads of techno and house I’ve been listening to. I think I surprised a few people, I had some gems. And a Mr. Oizo exclusive, which was pretty special.
Do you keep up with that sort of scene then?
OJ: Yeah, I listen to everything. I worked in a record shop for a while so you naturally keep an eye on everything. Especially techno.
You must be really bored of talking about it by now, but I’d like to go back to those early days and talk about Big Apple for a bit. How did you get into making beats?
OJ: Well my brother worked in Big Apple when it first opened. That was how I knew the record shop. As I got older, got into music, I started going down there. I used to be in there constantly and did work experience there when I was like 14. I was just in there all the time, so they gave me a job. The boss was like ‘If you’re gonna be in here all day you might as well actually do something while you’re here... And earn your records for free.’
Then a mate from school told me he was making tunes, and he introduced me to it on a Playstation program, Music 2000 - I think it was just called Music at the time. I couldn’t believe how easy I thought it was, I was like ‘Wow, that’s how people make tunes...’
Then I met Benga’s eldest brother Flash. He came in and was like ‘Yo, my brother’s making music’. We were really the only people we knew our age in the area that was making tunes. Weirdly I got Benga’s phone number and I rang him one day, and we just started playing each other music down the phone. And then Hatcha found out - we both knew him but we didn’t know each other, me and Beni. Hatcha sort of guided us. But we all listened to the same stuff anyway, stuff that was released by Ammunition.
So what kind of stuff were you making?
OJ: At the time I was trying to rip off El-B and Benga was trying to rip off Wookie, initially, and that was how we got our own sound. Then we started putting the music out for Big Apple. I remember us going to the first FWD>>, I think we both would have been at school. I had to beg my Mum to let me go, promise to be back at a certain time. There was a Christmas party actually, that was how FWD>> started - a Big Apple christmas party in Croydon, and the idea of it was all the DJs turned up and played just unreleased music. Sarah and Neil, who used to run Tempa, were invited, and that was kind of how FWD>> started. But yeah, that’s 4 years squeezed in.
A concise history!
So you said Hatcha guided you in the direction you went...
OJ: We made music for Hatcha. No one else was allowed it, that was his rule. But we made music for him. We didn’t really DJ at the time, we DJed at house parties and the local social club or hall, you know what I mean. And we were just playing garage really. I remember the first party where I played one of my records. It was at...[thinks] Bar Rendezvous in Croydon, and I played this bootleg intro for us. But the music we were making, compared to the music that was popular at the time, garage-wise, was totally opposite, it was something weird. There was only one place to play it and that was FWD>>.
So why were you making such weird stuff? Was it Hatcha’s influence, or more generally the shop?
OJ: Obviously pirate radio was a big thing in London. The majority of the shows we listened to played darker stuff, more instrumental - that was because of the MCs. The music we used to listen to on - there was a site called dubplate.net - that was basically music from [Ammunition]. And that was what Hatcha was playing, so that was what we was into, naturally. We kind of stopped listening to A-side records, vocal garage records - it was all about the B-side, with the mad basslines and that. We were always obsessed with bass sounds. At the time there were literally only a few people [making dubstep], based around that record shop: us, Artwork worked upstairs, El-B used to come in once or twice a week, Benny Ill from Horsepower was in every other day. So it was like a little school of bass or something. It’s mad now when you look back at it. Kode 9 used to come in to buy his records. I don’t know what would be going on now if that record shop was never there.
So probably every interview you’ve done has started with a question about Big Apple.
OJ: Mm... Yeah. I kind of avoid it now actually...
Well I appreciate you talking about it! Do you get annoyed by people trying to turn it into a kind of myth? Because it’s seen as dubstep’s founding myth.
OJ: Nah. There’s plenty of kids now who don’t have a clue about that, who all think it started with the Caspa & Rusko Fabriclive CD. And fair enough, they don’t need to know about all that stuff. That whole thing becomes... It’s like, if a kid doesn’t know all their history, some geek on a forum will be like, ‘You’re not true to the sound.’ But why do they need to care about it? It’s a bit like someone just turning 17 or 18 now and going out to their first techno night, and someone going, ‘Oh what, you don’t know who Jeff Mills is?’ You kind of just know it or you don’t.
So was there one point where you realised that dubstep was going to be massive?
OJ: I wouldn’t say massive, but for me the obvious one was ‘Midnight Request Line’. It was mad, like ‘So and so’s played it on Radio 1’, then all the grime MCs were going mad over it which at the time was quite a big thing. You knew it was going to be a big tune then. I guess for crossover, for me it was the La Roux remix, that went fucking insane. I was already doing shows and stuff then, all over the place, America, Australia, so we knew it was getting bigger. But I think that point was when it was like ‘There is room for this on daytime radio’.
So with ‘Midnight Request Line’, and each successive step of it getting bigger, was there any concern about suddenly having all this pressure, all this attention?
OJ: Nah. In that circle, everyone was having success in totally different ways. And through that everything that fell under the dubstep umbrella was getting recognition. There’s more pressure on it now, because it’s so big and so open. Like the fact fucking Cher Lloyd’s just got a record out that’s a dubstep... Well, I’m not even gonna say it’s dubstep. It’s fucking ridiculous, the track is fucking awful. They asked me to do it originally, they offered me so much money and I was like, ‘Fuck that, I’m not doing it... You’d have to pay me a lot more because I’d have to give up my career, that’d be it!’ [laughs] I wouldn’t have done it anyway, but that’s the sort of pressures. It’s only people losing faith because it’s so popular, there’s so much shit being put out now, some people are even scared to say they’re making dubstep.
People want to distance themselves from it?
OJ: Yeah, but it’s kind of a weak thing. Just keep on doing what you’re doing. A lot of people now are so bothered about what everyone else is doing, and what everyone else thinks. It’s so easy to fall into that forum shit. I’ve been bad for it sometimes, it’s ‘cos you know it’s there, you know there is stuff being said, you can’t help but look.
And you can hear a hundred positive things but it’s the one negative thing that sticks in your mind.
OJ: Yeah, yeah. To be honest, it means fuck all at the end of the day - these cunts are sitting there, behind their laptop - keyboard warriors! I’m actually out traveling and all that shit. There’s always gonna be somebody.
How have you found the shift from the relative anonymity of the dance music scene, to it being all about you, about Skream?
OJ: Oh mate, it was easy.
OJ: Yeah. I’m quite social, I’m always out, so I don’t mind. I kind of use that sometimes when I haven’t got any music! [laughs] Seeing people like Diplo - DJs are the new face, whereas before the DJ was faceless, you’d just be in the small print, you’d rarely have a ‘DJ single’. So I think it’s good. I’ve mad respect for people like Lady Gaga, who was just a songwriter, must have woken up one day and thought ‘Fuck this, I’m writing these hits’. And she’s smashed it. So the transition, it’s cool. It gives a face to the music as well, and people start to notice similarities between you and the music.
Do you get a lot of time to make music now?
OJ: Well, I just had a son five months ago, so obviously there has been a slow down. That and bouncing between gigs. When I’m at home I kind of want to be at home, not in the studio. I had 4 months off, which is the longest in ten years that I haven’t made music. I’m starting to try and find a new sound for next year - I’ve got a few days off in the next couple of weeks where I’m going to go back into the studio.
I’ve actually not been finishing anything on purpose, I don’t fell the need to finish anything. I had a free EP come out last week, Skreamizm Vol. 6 came out Monday. So I’ve kinda got music out there, and I’ve got tracks in my sets that aren’t out. Sometimes I get disheartened in myself that I haven't been in the studio for four months, but it’s not like I’ve just disappeared. I’m still out going out doing gigs constantly.
So how do you go about finding a new sound then?
OJ: The thing is, I don’t know. Music is mongrel now. It’s rare to find straight techno or... Especially in this UK bass sort of thing, everything has merged. I love that though. But then, do you go back and do a straight one-influence track? Is that going back on yourself? My sets now consist of everything, everything influenced with everything. So how I’m going to find the new sound I’ll never know. Maybe it’s just finding a new sound for me, ‘cos trying to create a new sound at the minute is mental.
Do you feel drawn to a lot of different sounds at the moment?
OJ: The thing about now is [that] I don’t listen to dubstep at home. If people send me music I listen to it, but generally if I’m traveling around - I’ve just been listening to the Drake album, before that I was listening to Prince. It’s nice to be able to incorporate all these different styles now. I listen to everything, literally. The only music I don’t really listen to is Country & Western, but you don’t really get a good selection of that in England, I think that’s probably why! [laughs]
Do you still buy vinyl?
OJ: Nah. If I see a rare vinyl then I’ll get it for the collection. But I’ve got so many, to be honest I haven’t got no room. My mum’s house is just in vinyl. I don’t even live there no more! [laughs] I fully support vinyl and vinyl buyers, that’s why I still release vinyl. That’s not just me throwing in something to keep hipsters happy. I worked in a record shop, I hate the fact that record shops are going one by one, it’s a sad fact. Because the social interaction between you and the shop, it was amazing.
That’s why you get so many rude little pricks on the internet now. Like, ‘Give me this tune!’, ‘Play my tune!’ The social interaction, you don’t get it on forums because they’re faceless. When you went into a record shop you had to be humble and polite to even last in there. If you came into Big Apple being rude or anything, you would get Mugged. Off. Seriously, you’d get sold the shittest records. That’s what I hate most that’s gone. And it is completely gone. And quality bars have dropped, because to get your record in a shop you had to get it signed, all that. Now you can make an EP at home and put it out.
Do you think for something like dubstep to be born, it needs that social interaction?
OJ: Well the weird thing, that kind of contradicts what I just said, [is that] the internet was one of the main ways that so many people found out about dubstep so quickly. That and the Radio 1 Dubstep Warz show. There wouldn’t have been a click almost, without that shop - you kind of needed that family vibe to do it. But then obviously the internet was like a megaphone.
You must play on a lot of bills with the younger generation, you could call it. How do you find that?
OJ: Over here, I wouldn’t really say there’s a younger generation - it’s more the American side.
People like Skrillex?
OJ: Yeah. We’ve known the people who throw the parties for a long time, it’s just they’re higher up on the bill now. Everyone’s still cool, we all party together. We get a lot of love from people like Skrillex. He’s doing amazing at the minute, he’s a phenomenon, really, when you look at it - he’s only been about for a year and he’s like the fourth most popular dance act in the world.
A lot of people would say with the Skrillex stuff, that it’s damaging to dubstep, it’s perverting the sound.
OJ: But what are we gonna do, form a united front against Skrillex? Honestly, it’s pathetic, I think, it’s ridiculous. Either listen to it or don’t listen to it. There’s still nights playing the stuff those people want to hear. It’s just bitchiness, it really is. You haven’t got to like his music, you don’t particularly have to like him, but there’s no reason you can’t like what he’s done - he’s smashed it. He’s up for five Grammys. He must be doing something right, you know what I mean?
I think it hurts a lot of people over here because it’s a UK sound, but it’s been someone with influences outside the original sound that has made it a lot bigger. The bad side of that is that a lot of people will just say ‘dubstep equals Skrillex’.
But in all honesty it genuinely doesn’t bother me. I like the music he makes. People will fucking burn me for saying that [laughs]. There’ll be effigies out in the fucking street! It just is what it is man, you’ve just got to keep yourself moving. The fact that dubstep, the word - you know I hate saying the word, I love what it is but I just hear it so much now. But even though it’s so big now, that means that everybody else is earning a bit more money. Even if you’re playing the deepest deepest sound, you’re still earning that little bit more money because you’re playing dubstep. Whether you want to admit it or not, you are.
There’s a trickle down.
OJ: Yeah, so everyone moans, but it is kind of benefiting everyone, although it may fuck everyone up in a little while. You can look at it in positives or negatives. I haven’t really got any negatives about it but I know some people will have. What are you going to do? You can’t give up your career right now just because someone else is doing better or whatever.
You mentioned you think things might get a bit fucked up soon...
OJ: I could never have foreseen that it would get this big, but everything that hits its peak has to fall down at some point. My main focus is that I’m still standing after it drops from that peak, that’s the main thing, right? Still being here after the hype dies down. That’s when you find your true fans. That’s the reason why there’s people like Jeff Mills still playing out regularly, week in week out. Obviously it’s going to happen, it happens with everything.
I wanted to talk about ‘Anticipate’. It’s quite a ‘big room’ sound.
Who were you writing for with that track, what kind of audience did you have in mind?
OJ: I did the riff for it, the chord stab, a week after I got back from Ibiza. I passed it to Sam [Frank] and he wrote the song. We were both expecting kids at the time. The feeling of the track reflects how I felt, how we both felt. And it’s dedicated to my son and his daughter. I could never have made a dark track [about that], really. There’s a lot of positive emotion in the track. Which I think is great in clubs after you’ve been playing quite intense in-your-face bass. I probably won't make another track that sounds like that. I know it caused fucking controversy that tune, everyone’s going [shaking head] ‘Oh... Skream’. But then, I’ve also just released six tracks [on Skreamizm Vol. 6] that are the total opposite, more true to my original sound than ever - but because that one track’s still in the mix everyone’s like ‘He’s lost it!’ People are so quick to fucking shoot you down for one thing.
I’ve never made just one sound. But because there’s so many people on dubstep now, and because some people hold me highly, it’s like I have to make an original dubstep-sounding track every time - that’s bullshit. I’ve just had techno tracks signed to Turbo. Outside The Box [Skream’s 2010 album] was kind of a message to people who are obsessed with single-genre sound. If I made the same sounding shit forever I’d probably top myself! That’s why most pop producers hate their lives, ‘cos they have to make similar sounding stuff all the time.
To me, there’s always a flip with you between a melodic, poppier sound and the darker stuff. Do you like to keep a balance between those two sides?
OJ: I don’t know, when it comes to dubstep, I like all spectrums of the sound. I’m never told to make anything - I make everything off my own back. And I don’t make something for it to become mainstream. The fact that it becomes popular... There’s certain methods you can use, so you know certain tracks will get better reactions in different situations. But I think that’s just from me being a DJ, I kind of know the aesthetics of DJing. I just like making everything. And ‘Anticipate’, that’s one of my favourite records I’ve ever made, ‘cos out of everything, that genuinely will stay with me forever. I get to play that to my son when he’s old enough to understand it. And to be honest I’d rather him listen to that as the first thing he hears of mine, than some other things that might freak the shit out of him!