If there ever were a posterboy for skipping school, working in a record store, and making it all work out in the end, low-end trailblazer and BBC personality Skream would be a surefire first choice. From being a frontiersman of the Croydon dubstep movement, whose musical leaps and bounds have made him an ambassador of the genre, to his genre-defying spot as one-third of Magnetic Man, it was widely assumed that the producer (real name Oliver Jones) would live and die by the sound of his bass-heavy armory.
But with his Skreamizm tour and a recent compilation alongside Pete Tong for Defected, the tides have truly changed for this long-serving bass head. In a rampant spree of production duties and eclectic sets that take in the versatile sounds of house, techno, and disco, Skream’s music is the sound of positive, creative change—though he acknowledges some fans are unlikely to sympathize. On a rare day away from the studio, Beatport News sat down with Jones to see if the British icon could ever truly jump ship from the genre he so elegantly commandeered towards.
What was the general mood at camp Skream for the outset of 2013?
2012 was very good to me. It brought the start of the Skreamism tour, which had me playing in a dark room with no lights for three hours at a time, which was really good and took me right through to 2013. For me, that tour was a past, present, and future set, which started with my 2005-onwards catalog and ended with the house, disco, and techno sounds I have pursued over the last three months.
For those unaware of your background, what role did Croydon play in your development as an artist and to the wider dubstep community?
It was very much where dubstep formally began. That place was the home of myself, Benga, Mystikz, and from 2002 onwards, it became the melting pot of this creativity at the time. I didn’t really go to school from the age of 14, so I started going to a local record shop and ended up hanging out for so long that they offered me a job. I networked with like-minded people, word spread, and then finally Hatcha started playing my tracks and the beautiful journey began from there.
Do you think that the journey has been one of rigorous planning on your behalf, or merely a product of your environment?
To be honest, I am not a great person for planning. I don’t tend to plan more than 24 hours in advance. I guess obviously everyone is a product of their environment, but musically I have always liked to experiment and try different shades of what people do. To the same extent, I am quite stubborn in a creative way, in that I do whatever I want. It’s not that I don’t care about the outcome, but I certainly don’t worry about people not liking my sound. My music has developed alongside quite an erratic timeline that saw my productions get better, but my musical tastes have always been just as erratic.
For all your impressive solo exploits, few could have comprehended the velocity Magnetic Man would bring to dubstep and the commercial market alike. Did the sheer momentum of the project surprise you at all?
Magnetic Man was just the right thing at the right time. It was that period in which there hadn’t been a dubstep single on the radio yet, really. My La Roux remix had done really well, but nothing that solidified opening the floodgates for that sort of music on the radio. The concept just sparked some great natural momentum, but the extent of it was never planned. We had great songwriters on the vocal tracks, such as Sam Frank and Angela Hunte, who actually wrote “New York,” but generally it was a combination of hard work, the right timing, and just going for it. I was extremely surprised to have top 10 single and top five album—that was the real shocker. We knew the album would do well, but no one thought our album would be competing with Cliff Richard and Robbie Williams, who held the top two that week. Had they not been there, we probably could have hit #1. But you can’t be disappointed at that level; there is such a wider margin for styles of #1 album these days. There hadn’t been a Nero #1 or a “Harlem Shake” equivalent at that stage, so it still felt like a huge victory.
Between the Skreamizm tour and your latest compilation for Defected alongside Pete Tong, you would have to forgive fans for being a little surprised. What spurred this transition towards the sound of house, techno, and disco?
The funny thing is that it isn’t new to me. Through meeting people like Jackmaster and seeing them do these eclectic sets, I started to think, “Why am I not doing all this stuff?” It is a lot harder because of the evolution of dubstep, everyone assumes you will live and die with that sound. I wish the transition happened sooner, but I had to ease it in rather than make an abrupt change that would freak people out. That was the point of the Skreamizm tour, to go from A to B in three hours and show how naturally it could play out. I came from house and garage—those were the records I bought well up until dubstep came along and we started making our own records instead of buying others. It doesn’t feel new to me, but it will to a fucking lot of people. I am happy with what I have done to date, but this is an exciting point in my career.
Given your ability to juggle styles and sounds, does the constant need to box artists and their sound bother you?
It drives me up the fucking wall sometimes. I think the boxing of music is a more recent, producer-led thing. In the last four years, we have seen the industry become very producer-led. It used to be about a DJ playing music from across the board, whereas now it is about producers encompassing their own sound, thus the variety is often lost to personal identity and preference. Generally, those boxes have always been at play, but we are seeing a lot of club DJs now stepping back up to the mark and aiming for those all-around experiences where anything could happen. It certainly sparked a change in my own approach and to some extent I think being eclectic is more exciting. I love being able to play music that no one knows or has heard yet, let alone owns.
Without suggesting you are jumping ship on the genre you commandeered within the UK, do you see a future for dubstep in its current state?
To be honest, it’s become extremely over-saturated as a genre. A lot of people bought into it because it became an easy way to get an edgy chart record, especially major labels. That’s why there is so much shit out there now, courtesy of people with no love or care for the music. The thing is that I see people saying it’s dead because I’ve stopped playing just that. The fact that people are bringing that sound to big venues and such, I think the profile of dubstep will drop again and you will have the cycle where people start pushing a more sincere and different sound. It comes down to people just pushing the sound because they love it.
Given the considerable peaks and extensive landmarks you have reached within your career, do you believe that your own musical and professional priorities have shifted along the way?
The whole reason I chased a new direction is because I’ve always wanted to do what makes me happy. I know it sounds cheesy as fuck, but just being able to fully do things and be happy with them is the best you can hope for. It’s not that I haven’t been happy, but on the creative side I was starting to feel a bit limited; the sound I was surrounded by at clubs and festivals just wasn’t really me. I could cater for it, but it just fell out of love with what I was playing. That is no way to live. This transition has been like starting all over again—very exciting. A lot of people aren’t ready or aware of it, but that is what Skreamizm tour was about—if you don’t like this record you might like the next. Happiness is key and I am always happy in personal terms, but doing what I want again is a sure sign of things to come. Not doing something because it’s expected—I’d rather people were surprised.
Surprising starts aside, what does the rest of the year hold, for those that haven’t been left too bitter by your shift in sound?
2013, I have got a remix for Rudimental of the track they did with Angel Haze, which is a disco re-rub in the same vein as the Duke Dumont remix. There is a new track with Sam Frank called “Rollercoaster,” but otherwise I am just getting into this new side of production, really. Because I was making the same genre for 10 years, it is just about adapting to new production techniques and continuing forwards at every possible turn.