Remember a few years back? All that hoo-ha about nu-rave? Which sounded so promising but proved to be nothing more than a few indie kids dicking about with synths and desecrating the graves of hardcore classics? What a crock that turned out to be. Luckily, there were some for whom the rave spirit never died, only mutated and evolved into new forms, 2.0 viruses infecting the mainframe of modern electronic music.
In 2010, the landscape of dance has become so fecund with new innovations and styles merging and meshing, that genres have become irrelevant again, as they once were in the early years of rave culture, when DJs would think nothing of colliding house drums with breakbeats and ravers would barely blink at the join as they lost themselves in the free rhythms. In addition, the huge megaton riffs and breaks of that era are making a comeback, and the advent of dubstep – one of rave’s most successful progenies, which took many classic hardcore motifs and shaped them into something new – has been instrumental in this. In this light, few other producers could claim such a large influence on the current fulsome state of dance as dubstep figurehead Skream (Olly Jones).
Since DJmag last interviewed him in 2007, Skream has gone from hotly-tipped underground hero to stadium subjugating, festival sequestering, smash hit-having household name. One of the few there at dubstep’s inception in the early 2000s, working at Croydon’s garage mecca Big Apple Records, pushing the deeper, darker dubs on the flipside of UKG 12”s to soon-to-be influential, clued-up record-buying regulars, he’s since trail-blazed a path through the UK underground and onto the world stage.
Where he’s gone, others have followed, from the initial, entropic, sloping, grimy darkness and bass wobble sound into upbeat, techy future garage grooves, and now beyond into next century electronic funk and freaky new chimeras. Refusing to follow the crowd, Skream has trusted his instincts and creative drive and forged his own way. It’s paid off, and how. Last year, Skream’s ‘Let’s Get Ravey’ remix of La Roux’s ‘In For The Kill’ catapulted him out of a cannon, became an anthem that echoed from Radio 1 daytime playlists, festival fields and big room dancefloors. In short, it made him a star. He arrived.
When DJmag meets him one sunny spring afternoon in East London, Skream looks taller, a little older, his youthful face now matured. Still full of exuberant energy, and boundless enthusiasm for the music, there’s also now a different kind of confidence, a charismatic air that suggests someone in control of their own destiny, a steely determinism. He acknowledges that, with the La Roux remix, the Skream phenomenon reached tipping point, and changed his career forever.
“It was a big remix. Shit changed, I get bigger shows, the fees went up,” he concedes. “Everything got better. I struggled to get a prime time Radio 1 play before, but now it’s a lot easier. You make a lot more contacts when you make a song like that. More people know who I am now, I guess. There’s more production, it’s all just going well and things are far more high profile now. There’s a lot more eyes on dubstep.”
Indeed, dubstep is bigger. Much, much bigger. When Ministry of Sound’s new ‘Sound Of Dubstep’ compilation (once an inconceivable prospect in itself) rides high in the album charts at number six, and a glut of other similarly-themed collections are flooding the market, it’s clear to see that the music is at its zenith. And examine each of these albums’ tracklists, and you’ll see that anthemic remix appearing on them all.
“There’s like six dubstep compilations out now!” he boggles. “But it’s still just the beginning, man. There’s a bit of a shitty part at the minute. There’s a lot of shit – how do I put it? – a lot of mirrored artists, people get focused on one sound and don’t try to make it original. They’d rather make it sound like someone more popular. But also, on the back of dubstep, there’s a lot of really interesting just all round music around now, it’s good man.”
Leader Not A Follower
While many other producers have been content to jump on bandwagons, see the cool thing, mimic it and watch the money stack up, Skream has always been a leader, not a follower. Look a little closer at that infamous remix, and it’s more than the sum of its parts. The ‘Let’s Get Ravey Mix’ was unusual, not just in its pairing of electro pop enigma La Roux’s high-pitched, emotive tones with resonant sub-low basslines, but also for the uplifting breakbeat barrage of its crescendo, a flashback to the heady rave days evinced by its title. Even at his most populist, Skream remains experimental, a constant throughout his career. From the bleepy, grime techno, Detroit/Croydon electroid interface of his breakthrough, cult classic ‘Midnight Request Line’ (Tempa) in 2005, through the future garage of 2008’s ‘One For The Heads That Remember’ (Tempa), to the dropped down tempo, Amen-rolling drum & bass of last year’s ‘Burning Up’ (Digital Soundboy), he’s constantly toyed with tempos and different styles, is more into the vibes and emotions that dance music can bring than any tired notions of musical purism or allegiance to dubstep alone.
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“I don’t even see it as dubstep any more, I just see it as this big community of UK bass music. It’s really interesting and it’s running shit at the minute,” he froths. “Look at [NYC electro DJ] Drop The Lime, a lot of the stuff he plays is from the UK. The club nights are getting really good now, because it’s all blurred lines between the music, you can’t really get bored at a night out anymore. I get bored going to one style of music, but the Fabric line-ups are really cool. Zinc, then me, then Andy C, then Scratch Perverts, it’s wicked. It’s more fun for everyone - and it keeps people on their toes. There’s more music to look out for rather than everything being the same.”
Bringing Rave Back
Skream’s been partially responsible for the seismic shift in musical tastes and the blurring of genres recently, and sees it as a return to the free, euphoric sonic pluralism of the warehouse days. That period’s become a creative muse, and the inspiration of rave’s euphoric, double-dropped, pilled-up chemical love is scrawled all over his game-changing, expansive new album ‘Outside The Box’, out August on Tempa.
“I’m trying to bring rave back!” he affirms. “I just want to bring that rave element back – pre-jungle, hardcore, where it’s big room music, but it’s around 140BPM. A lot of the old Ratpack stuff. It was just vibes as well, I’ve been getting into the euphoric feelings, I want to make big room music again.”
If that all sounds at odds with many people’s perceptions of dubstep – particularly those of the naysayers and haters - then be assured, ‘Outside The Box’ will prove once and for all that this new evolved form of music is anything but the dark, grimy stuff designed for bobbing your head to. First single ‘Listening To The Records On My Wall’ is an endorphin rush of lightning quick jungle breakbeats, constantly elevating melodies, rushing – figuratively and literally – to a bleep-ridden, trance house breakdown that Armin Van Buuren would blush at. Meanwhile, ‘The Epic Last Song’ is, naturally, just that – another impossibly joyous stab at neo hardcore brilliance, packed with parallax layers of oscillating acid squelch, broken drums, Manasseh-style earth-quaking bass and light, Balearic pads, washy atmospherics and stepping pianos. Both point at Skream’s absorption of the hedonistic, emotive spirit of the escapist, galvanic power of rave at its height. Indeed, they seem light years away from the grimy, dark chainsaw bass riffs of his previous dancefloor hits like ‘Fick’, but Skream is adamant that he wants to steer ravers away from the aggression of some dubstep and towards a more transcendent feeling.
“With tunes like ‘Listening To The Records On My Wall’, I want to get kids raving again. They go out and go mad now. You know they’re enjoying themselves, obviously, but it’s hard to see how the music is affecting them, they’re just getting aggressive, not getting lost in the music. But I think that might be down to the drugs, you don’t really get the £10 pill any more do you?” he jokes.
Beyond these two dancefloor destined, laser-guided bombs, the album reveals itself to be a kaleidoscope of different styles, sees Skream flexing a new, more musical side of his persona. ‘Fields Of Emotion’ begins with a slow, dark sub-low skank, but becomes a nostalgic, ghostly dub of plangent bells and cinematic melodic majesty; ‘How Real’ with vocalist Freckles, marries true trance riffs to cut up vox and shattered two-step rhythms. ‘8 Bit Baby’ is like a malfunctioning, smoking Nintendo console coughing out a digital hip-hop beat, with LA rapper Murs spitting roughneck lyrics; and ‘Where You Should Be’ is phuture R&B with deliquescent heat haze synths, P-funk melodies and an anthemic, robo-altered vocal from Sam Frank. It seems to throw down the gauntlet, asks the hot R&B producers of yesterday to step down and make way for the new generation. All seems calculated to demonstrate his range and musicality, a showreel for the uninitiated and the doubters to prove once and for all that he’s one of the most exciting and versatile producers in the world.
“I’m not sure if it’s gonna surprise people. It’s what I’ve always done, but a lot of people haven’t heard. Now I’m in a position to show people all the different stuff that I can do. I hope it surprises people, I’ve surprised myself with what I can do. There’s a lot of songs on there. When you touch on the mainstream - I prefer making vocal tunes now, or things with some kind of vocal in - it can take a tune a lot further. The vocal doesn’t even have to make sense, as long as someone can make some sort of lyric out of it. There’s loads of garage tunes like that.
“There’s loads of important tunes for me on the album. There’s a song I made for my friend who died last year, ‘Song For Lenny’. I’ve got Freckles on there, she’s a dancer, and I’ve written songs with Sam Frank, and have a song with Sam called ‘Where You Should Be’ which is sort of P-Funk. It’s good the album is dropping in summer as well, there’s a lot of summer stuff on there.
There’s gonna be a lot of people who hear that there’s a Skream album out and what they’ll expect is what they hear me play in clubs. I play all the stuff off my album in clubs, but I find a space for it, whereas at some parties you can’t do that, you have to play intense, heavy music. I would say to those people, just listen to it. Listen at home on a good system indoors, and give it a chance!”
La Roux pops up to return the favour on the intense, layered, filmic ‘Finally’, offering an intriguing sequel to what was for many the definitive version of ‘In For The Kill’. But for many, one of the most exciting collaborations is ‘Metamorphosis’, a link up with drum & bass futurists dBridge and Instra:mental. A track in the style of the latter’s unique Autonomic sound – a kind of stripped bare, skeletal deebee influenced by Detroit techno and ’80s synth pop alike, it shows Skream at his most ambient and experimental, and comes in the wake of previous link ups with them on ‘Acacia Avenue’ and ‘Detroid’, which appeared on Instra:mental’s Non Plus imprint, and an EP on dBridge’s label, Exit.
“I met Instra:mental and dBridge in Belgium, and then I toured with dBridge in Australia. They, I don’t want to say reinvented d&b, cos it’s kind of their own thing, I just like the space of it, the musical element, and the hardware factor. Working with them was really good because it opened my eyes up to more outboard gear. We worked on a track and it was like jamming, everyone had their own keyboard, and it felt like a whole new way of working. They are inspirationalists! dBridge especially left behind playing headline drum & bass, like in Bad Company, he turned his back to do his own thing and has brought people to it, and it’s totally different to what he was doing. Instra:mental have been around for years but they’ve come back in and set their own space which is really cool. It’s the blurring of the lines.”
The Force Is Magnetic
For many, one album of this breadth and range would be enough, but Skream is already making preparations for his first album as part of supergroup Magnetic Man – him alongside Benga and former techno producer and Big Apple Records don Artwork – for Columbia Records. The contents of the album are a closely-guarded secret (Fort Knox would have nothing on this), and Skream isn’t allowed to discuss the album without the presence of his comrades, but DJmag has been able to glean that it will feature some very big special guests.
“It’s a mix of three of us, that’s the only way you can put it!” is all he’ll say. “Me, multiplied by Benga, multiplied by Artwork, with a bigger budget!” he grins. It seems reasonable to surmise that there’ll be some big MCs and vocalists on the album, and if a live gig that DJmag witnessed back in 2008 is anything to go by, it will be a intense mixture of Skream and Benga’s rhythmic and bass nous and Artwork’s techno expertise. In the meantime, one track, which Skream has previewed on his Twitter, reveals a tantalizing taste of what we can expect from the album.
Weird And Wonderful
Production, of course, is only one aspect of Skream’s huge popularity. As a DJ, he’s a constant club and festival fixture across the globe, particularly in the States, where dubstep continues to grow in size and stature. On his travels, he’s seen some weird and wonderful things at gigs, and particularly likes the far-out vibes of hippy fests in the US and Canada.
“We play a lot of hippy festivals over in California, and people get naked. There was some girl who was painted head to toe, raving! I won’t go to Burning Man, I won’t chance it, it’s too crazy! Shambala, is weird, it’s just a load of people in a forest getting mashed, that’s in British Columbia, in a place called Nelson. They’re the weirdest ones, but they’re great, there’s never any trouble, people are on a spirit thing. If you play a tune where you’ve really crafted a bassline, that’s the one they’ll love, it proper pulls their mind in and out.”
What’s bound to be one of his biggest gigs in the UK this summer, though, is when he plays SW4 in the capital’s Clapham Common on 28th August, for an exclusive London festival date alongside Benga.
“Loads of my mates have been asking me for tickets, so I’m gonna make ’em come and watch me! It’s meant to be really good and I’m glad they’re keeping the SW4 tag for the whole weekend. It should be wicked, mine and Benga’s sets at the moment are kind of untouchable. Between us we’ve got so many good tunes from ourselves and other people. We’re on a mad vibe onstage, and we’re well used to playing together now. You can’t get a better relationship working together than with someone who is your best mate, who you’ve worked with for 10 years.
“There’s always a bit of crowd surfing when we play,” he smirks. “If there’s a stage we get as many girls on stage as possible. We both played in Copenhagen a few weeks ago. I stupidly said, ‘Can we get the crowd up onstage’, and we had 300 people up there, dancing on the monitors! We were pouring vodka in their mouths and that’s in the club! So if the security are cool at SW4 we’ll see how wild we can make it!”
Juggling his production and DJ commitments, Skream seems to like both aspects of his work equally, although he admits that sometimes the gig schedules can be grueling.
“It’s a weird one, ’cos I get excited when I’m producing at the thought of playing it out. Producing is my original love. Sometimes I dread DJing because it’s like your fifth gig in five days and you’re like, knackered.”
Looking to the future and with his own album and the Magnetic Man record to promote, as well as a constant stream of live gigs, he’s got his hands full. But, in addition to kick-starting several new projects and releases for his Disfigured Dubs label, the current dreamscape of the rave revival has him inspired, and he’s been working with a legendary act from hardcore’s first flush of chemically assisted bliss.
“I’ve been talking to Altern 8, the old rave guys, and I want to do some stuff with them, but that’s purely out of love. It’s what I’m delving into at the moment, their era.”
Let the rave-olution commence…
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