Journalists and musicians tend to chase genres like toddlers do pigeons. It’s often a dizzying and frantic flap around in circles. So when history screams ambiguity it is good to relax into the understanding that ‘music is just music’ and stylistic grey areas should be paddled in, not coloured in.
This is the sensation we felt when first listening to Om Unit’s new compilation ‘Cosmology’. These tracks are so subtly stranded between genres it is easier to just listen than scrabble for a pigeonhole. ‘Cosmology’ is released on Om Unit’s (aka Jim Coles) label Cosmic Bridge. This is an imprint launched in 2011 to directly address a gap in the music scene, as the producer recounts.
“I think it was more of a case of a lack of labels that had that exact feel that I envisaged that led to its inception.”
The producer describes how two of his tracks, ‘Solar Cycle' and 'Merkabah’, still felt “very special” for him and he wanted to put them out himself, with complete control. “I think it was the right thing to do at the time, and looking back I know that so far the label has been quite influential for others and it's been fun running it too. I wanted the challenge and I'd say it's been very rewarding.”
This vigour is reflected in his boisterous discography. Nine EPs in two years was brisk business anyway, but a release schedule bottleneck caused him to fast track the nine-track ‘Cosmology’ sampler as well, a release that firmly lights up his heavens even more vividly. Cosmic Bridge output is obsessed with grimy, fractured dub expressions that ricochet around a broad tempo range.
It’s as informed by dubstep as it is by hip-hop, jungle and footwork. It features existing friends of Coles such as Kromestar and Boxcutter alongside new names such as Moresounds and Ean. “'Cosmology’ represents a kind of re-solidification of the family,” explains Coles. “Also there are a few bits that have been getting dusty on the shelf so to speak, so I wanted to collect this all together and paint this bigger picture of the sound of everyone from both ‘then and now’.
“With this release and as curator I can bring more light to what we've been doing,” the savvy producer continues, “as some people might only know me for the drum & bass work I've done recently, or some might only know me from hearing about my album ‘Threads’ from last year and might not necessarily know I run this label too, you know?”
The process of populating the label has been organic and unplanned. When quizzed about his blueprints he quickly quashes the notion that he is following anyone's template. “I have to say there’s not really been a plan,” he laughs. ‘It's just been one step at a time. No goals. Just the journey.”
Cosmic Bridge has therefore been populated via an emotional response to his immediate network. He quickly runs through a dense account of his core protagonists. “Moresounds is a dub technician with a great ear, and his live show is incredible. Danny Scrilla has a gentle energy but is rooted in bass and dub also, he has the head in the clouds/feet on the ground approach. Ean is an old mate and a stalwart mixing engineer; he’s a trusted advisor of mine! He's always trying new things with his music, for example he has a folk band called Stick in the Wheel who are currently enjoying some success in the London folk scene. Next up we have Boxcutter who is a humble legend, and somebody I have a lot of time for, his new material is really going out into deep composition territory. He never stops growing! Finally there’s Kromestar; my brother in bass music, he's one of the greatest producers to come out of London in a long time in my book.”
Interestingly all inhabit a similar signature sound, or at least a similar vibe. So when we demand to know what he looks for in a producer, Jim is quick to answer. “They all convey something not unfamiliar but also unique. They seem to be quite autonomous in their approach to making music, i.e. not following trends. They also are able to communicate their musical ideas clearly and have a good technical understanding of sound.”
PHILLIP D KICK
Whilst Om Unit is a relatively new name to the electronic ether, Jim Coles the actual man has been an overly principled producer for many a year. Originally breaking his Discogs.com duck under the name 2Tall he was engrossed at the bleeding edge of UK hip-hop, scratch culture and turntablism through the mid-2000s. His DJ CV proudly sports the phrase ‘DMC Finalist’.
Despite his dedication to such extreme manual craft, Coles found much more immediate fame under Om Unit four years ago initially releasing on Terrorhythm, Stretched and All City Records. However, shortly after launching this fresh alias, Jim Coles casually launched another nom-de-guerre — Phillip D Kick — a badly disguised anonymous façade from which he released an instinctive home brew of jungle and footwork — a stramash of 160 BPM rhythms that toyed with the hype-y nature of Chicago footwork yet stamped his own UK junglist approach upon it.
The buzz took hold and before long Coles was being celebrated as an innovator and also a grave robber who was desecrating classic tracks from Adam F, Remarc and LTJ Bukem. Things quickly got out of hand. After eight months and as much acclaim as purist disgust, he collapsed the alias and left his downloads available for as long as the internet gods would tolerate such data being free.
He penned an online autobiographical pseudo-obituary that put the project to bed and explained his reasoning. It featured such paragraphs as: “My younger self would have never wanted to hear someone man-handle my precious anthems but being a slightly less precious 31-years-old I feel that life is too short to hold the past as a precious, unchangeable artifact (sic). I had also said from the start that these would remain 100% free to download, take it or leave it, being conscious that not doing so would potentially involve some nasty encounters with the jungle police.”
Coles described the rise of footwork as being akin to a slow virus. He was fascinated by its infectious spread. He was honoured to be involved. Yet he was clearly uncomfortable being at the forefront of something so bastardised as his Phillip D Kick persona suggested. He closes off that chapter even further when he tells DJ Mag “I think it's good for the mind to open doors and close them as time goes by. I did find the notoriety around Phillip D Kick confusing. But I closed that door pretty quickly so as not to be hemmed into that world of jungle-footwork.”
And so we land back on the shores of genres and pigeonholes. In his release notes to ‘Cosmology’ this musician refers to the Cosmic Bridge label sound as ‘slow/fast’. A literal description for the use of slower (and older) fragments of dub, hip-hop, reggae and dancehall that all work around 80 to 90 BPM and the jungle, drum & bass and footwork tempos that are double at 160 – 180 BPM.
Yet it is this attempt to describe music in a fresh set of terms that can trigger narratives about genres and about scenes. Something that Om Unit, with his wilful tinkering with the grey areas between genres, is regularly pulled into debate over. “This is a can of worms!” groans the producer, aware that this conversation has happened many times before. “Labels are as useful as the paper they are printed on, but that's as far as it goes. The old adage is that when something becomes a scene it's over. A strong label really almost signals the demise of the movement. Labels bring with them shelf life. The gravity of a scene or genre brings with it the umbrella that young artists can shelter under instead of perhaps being more authentic. I don't see that as negative or positive, it's up to everyone to make their own decisions as to how they approach creativity.”
The producer continues his incisive deconstructions as we near the end of our time. “In a monetary sense it makes good business sense to fall in line and if people are comfortable there, then that is nothing to sniff at. It's really the hype that comes with it all, that can attract greed and security, that I find hard to swallow at times. These patterns seem to be part of the game every time and can't really be avoided, though. So I say ‘Live and let live after all is said and done’.”
Copyright Thrust Publishing Ltd. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.djmag.com as the source.