Oneman interview: Something about the brokenness

Oneman spoke to Marko Kutlesa about localised music scenes, sticking with a breaks based sound, accomplishing a residency and much more.

Skiddle Staff

Last updated: 14th Sep 2017.
Originally published: 1st Sep 2017

Steve Bishop aka Oneman is one of a handful of extremely talented UK DJs to have broken through without having any production credits attached to his name. 

Having grown up in London, he absorbed the multitude of musical offerings the city held, in particular pirate radio and, as it blew up around him, the neighbouring dubstep scene.

He has combined all these influences to create a unique and (although he plays quite a bit of American music) an identifiably British sound. Having concentrated his energies on compiling and constructing sets that incorporate 2 step garage, trap and hip hop, grime and dubstep, this singular light of UK bass music has been left to become one of the capital's best loved of the last decade.

His regular Rinse FM show stays true to his club sets and, after getting early exposure at nights like DMZ and FWD>> he has gone on to play for Fabric (for whom he's also recorded one of their esteemed mixes) and for XOYO, the latter being so enamoured with his sound that in 2017 they requested he curate a 13 week residency at the club. He is only one of a very small number of DJs so far who such has been requested from.

Prior to his forthcoming gig at The Warehouse Project on 13th October for the Giggs showcase, Marko Kutlesa sat down with Oneman to ask him about his sound.

Where abouts are you?

I'm in Croatia.

Oh, nice.

Where are you?

I'm in Croydon. I live down in Croydon now. I'm moved here about six months ago.

I'm sure that's also very nice.

Pfffft. Nah, not really. Ha! Croydon's quite depressing. It's got loads of office blocks that have shut down. It's quite bleak. But that also means that it's really cheap. And there are really quick links into London, fast trains. And also there's a great record store down here called DNR Records, which is a UK garage specialists. It's a gold mine. He's got almost 50,000 records in the shop, so I just go down there. It's kinda like my local now. It's maybe half the reason I moved to Croydon. 

Does it have stuff you've never come across or heard before?

Yes. UK garage was such a big scene that, unless you lived in London or the UK at the time, you wouldn't have realised how many records came out. I've realised more recently, from going into the shop, that a lot of the tunes I was buying when I was 14/15/16 years old, is actually a typically south London sound.

Producers like El-B, Sovereign, Horsepower going into people like Skream and Benga, all of them are from South London. I never realised that before I started looking at Discogs or seeing comments on YouTube. The Ghost Studios are on the road next to the one I grew up on, in Streatham. Even though I was going to the shops and listening to the music, I don't think I really understood at the time that these people were also from the area. It's quite interesting.

I worked in a record store in the north of England at the time and we just didn't get the same records at all. I remember people, very occasionally, coming in with garage records from London and none of us even knew the labels or nothing. It was like a completely different world.

Yeah, totally. I've never worked in a record shop. It's always been a dream of mine, one that I've never actually managed to fulfil. I was always the kid who was in the record shop for four hours, listening to every track behind the counter.

With the labels, I think maybe there was a main distributor for UK garage. I've got some white labels and you just don't know anything about them. That white label culture was very heavy here. You just needed a pressing plant, you'd take it there yourself, then take it to that one, local record shop and they would sell it for you. They wouldn't have been distributed to places like Manchester because it maybe didn't even have a distributor. 

I was thinking about this earlier, about how it's a little bit similar to the dubplate culture you once had in drum n' bass. All of that is now done electronically, as promos and they are distributed more widely, to a greater number of people and over a larger area. What kind of effect do you think that has on the scene and on DJs?

I remember going to see Mala at DMZ and I think he clocked on to that really early, because he would never give out the VIPs of his tracks. If you wanted to hear a certain record you would have to listen to them on a pirate radio show or go and see them at a club. They were the only two ways. 

I think it's therefore had an impact on that element, the live element, the in the now. I do chat to some younger people who go out to drum n' bass raves and they do want to go and see the DJs who do have that one exclusive tune that no-one else plays. So, from my point of view, I've seen an impact, but to some drum n' bass fans it's maybe not so much of an issue.

Do you think it's possible nowadays for young DJs to assume or even create the sounds of their home city when music is not so localised anymore? For example, I'm thinking about when you only had your local radio stations, record shops and clubs for influence. Does the fact that it's worldwide now mean there are no more localised scenes? Could you have a South London sound now?

You could, but I guess it would have to stay out of easy reach of people. Things like online radio and social media help globalise a scene but perhaps don't give it time to first thrive in its local environment. All of a sudden you might have a recording of a Rinse show online and someone in Switzerland can replicate the sound. They can't replicate a scene. But, the fact that someone so far away can replicate the sound is sometimes exciting, because it brings a whole other culture into it. 

With dubstep, it was Big Apple Records, Artwork's shop, Hatcha was working there, people like Skream and Benga were always going down there. People like Distance and N-Type were buying stuff from Croydon and then they all ended up making tracks, based on Hatcha and Artwork's sets. You only heard these people on Rinse and you could only hear Rinse if you were in London. You could only go to FWD>> if you were in London. That's just my experience of the last localised scene that I was part of. I'm not sure that something like that could happen again.

In 2017, the way we live, I think it's a lot harder thing to do. But I do know there are scenes like the kuduro scene in Portugal or the kwaito scene in South Africa. I just perhaps haven't seen anything come out of London since UK funky that's grabbed me.

Do you think DJs are still responsible for breaking records? 

Yeah, to an extent. I know there are definitely tracks that I've heard one or two DJs play that have gone on to blow up, things like some of the early Joy Orbison tunes, the French Fries remix of 'Amerie'. Tracks from the era of when I was doing Boiler Room a lot I would consider that I've helped break.

But I've sort of been out of touch with other DJs in the past couple of years. It sort of hit me in around 2004, I felt like I was beginning to be disassociated with a lot of the things going on. I couldn't figure out why and I couldn't keep up with all the stuff that was going on online. I look at younger DJs that are on places like Radar and NTS and I do hear them playing really good music, but I don't often hear a record that I feel is being broken. 

Staying with that feeling of disassociation for a moment, some of your contemporaries, including some of your fellow Rinse FM presenters who similarly came from dubstep and garage backgrounds, have now gone on to incorporate house and techno into their sound. You've not done that so much, you've maintained a breaks based sound. If you agree, why does breaks-based music appeal to you so much and why does 4/4 perhaps not?

It's something I've always struggled with. Ever since I can remember. Even listening to the DJ EZ tapes that really got me into DJing, I never really liked the 4/4 tunes. There was something about the brokenness, and it wasn't necessarily breaks. There's a brokenness, that two step shuffle, that I find a lot more groove and a lot more excitement in, especially when I'm mixing two tracks together.

When I hear two 4/4 tracks mixed together in a house or techno way, when it's trying to be quite seamless, I never really enjoyed that. I always quite like the battle of two tracks when they're really broken up, they're almost fighting each other, that battle into space, how they fit in. I love when I can hear a DJ mix a track in and you can hear it's a different track immediately, not just a progression of the last one. That's what I've always heard when listening to 4/4. 

I do play 4/4 tunes, but I'll never probably play two in a row. It's just never excited me as much as the broken, skippy feel of two step garage.

Can you party to 4/4 DJs, in your down time?

Yeah, I do. Two of my favourite contemporaries would be Ben (UFO) and Jack(master). Ben's kept a lot of elements from where he's started. I really like Mall Grab at the moment too, a really good DJ. Motor City Drum Ensemble I also enjoy, because he really breaks the selection up, but he's still quite 4/4.

I'm really excited by DJs who have no palette or any idea of what they're going to play. Or have an idea, but don't have a strict set. Basically, I have no idea what I'm going to play next maybe 80% of the time. But that's what keeps me excited and I would like to believe also keeps the dancefloor excited. It certainly keeps me excited when I hear DJs like that. 

Your mum used to work at a record label. Which one was it and what music do you remember from the label?

She worked at London Records from, I think 1979, to the mid 1990s. I was born in 1986 so I remember things like Hothouse Flowers, ha! I remember Jimmy Somerville. A big tune from my youth was 'Smalltown Boy', she got a gold disc of that which I think is somewhere in my studio. I remember her bringing Goldie's 'Timeless' album back on vinyl. I remember Ffrr, which was Pete Tong and Phil's label. I remember all the people too, like Bananarama, ha! 

Around the time she was leaving they did a label called Public Demand, which became a really important garage label. When I was 15 I ended up doing work experience there. They released 'Rewind', they released what we used to call 'ragged' in school, which was a mixture of garage with ragga vocals, so you had Elephant Man doing a tune with MJ Cole, PD Syndicate, which was MJ Cole, Rodney P and Courtney Melody. It was weird that I came across it in a place where my mum used to work. 

As my mum always told me when I was growing up, it's who you know, not what you know. I think that came from her experience in the music industry. I remember my parents never really pushing me to go to university, they were more about, go out, get a job and work. Another phrase I remember is 'the best experience is life experience'. So, I never really wanted to get a job at uni, I just wanted to get a job at the place where my mum worked. 

Warners ended up buying out London Records and James, who my mum used to work with, was head of production and I ended up doing a week of work with him, then I met my future boss Rick, who was head of facilities, and I ended up working in the post room until I was 22. 

Did your XOYO residency inspire you specifically in any way? I ask because something like that must be a truly great moment and acknowledgement for a DJ, but once it's happened it's over. What do you take away from it? 

I took away some of the best nights I've had in London in over ten years. I really wanted to create an environment similar to the one where I grew up, in London's clubland. So, we had the UK Funky night, we had the carnival garage special, the dubstep one at the end with Mala. Ones with Wiley and Newham Generals, these were all people I grew up going to see in the clubs. I used to go and see not just DJs but a lot of MCs as well. 

I took away a sense of accomplishment at the end of that 13, that people like Wiley had come to my rave and loved it. I had people like Donae'o tweeting that, if you think clubland in London is dead, you need to go to one of Oneman's raves at XOYO. Having the people there and the artists both love the vibe and the energy of the parties you've put together, that means so much, more than any statistics. 

We did a tape pack that we seeded out to people and that we gave away in competitions and I'm really proud of that as well. It's not just a MP3 on my computer, it's a physical product, something like what I used to buy as a kid when I wasn't old enough to go to these raves. So, that means a lot to me too. 

What happened to 502?

In 2011 our fourth release came out, which was Desto, Clouds and Jimi Tenor, who is an old Warp artist. The record didn't really fit with the label, not with the previous few releases which were quite heavy dancefloor tunes. It was more of a singer, jazz number. It wasn't received very well and I lost a lot of money on that release.

At the same time a lot of distributors were stopping P&D deals. A lot of labels had those deals taken away and their stock was returned to them. It just wasn't feasible for me to carry it on. It's something I've thought about doing again. I just haven't figured out yet how I want to do it.  

On your Discogs page your first production and performance credits are attributed to Rednex 2000 album Farm Out, which you are far too young to have appeared on.  

On what album?

The second album by Rednex. They are the Swedish cowboy themed pop rave act who did 'Cotton Eye Joe'

Ahahahahahahahaha. Nah, you're joking.  

Similarly, your Wikipedia page claims you are an alumnus of the BRIT school and suffer from a rare, non existent medical condition. Has someone got it in for you or do you just have some funny friends?

Well, I don't have a medical condition. The only one  that's partially true is that I did attend the BRIT school, but I'm not an alumnus because I got chucked out.  But I did go there.  I know Wikipedia can be edited by almost anybody, but no, I haven't had any of my mates tell me that it was them doing it for a laugh. I'm pretty sure it's just some troll.

Good, cause I'm pretty sure the general consensus is that Rednex first album is a lot better than the one you're credited as appearing on. 

Ahahahahaha.

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