When the club historians and audio anthropologists of the near-future turn their attention to the way things were way back in the deep recesses of the 00s, Oliver Jones' name will stand out in the annals. Better known to partygoers worldwide as Skream, Jones was an integral and instrumental part of the development of dubstep and an ambassador worldwide for the London underground music scene.
That word, "dubstep," as words have a tendency to do, has become destabilized in recent years, reworked and remolded to become a signifier of something it never really was meant to be. Think 'dubstep' now and you're likely to take yourself on a hellish tour of Call of Duty headshot compilation videos, soundtracked by the nasal whine of bedroom-bound American teenagers and horrible slabs of distorted, warbling, wobbly basslines, the kind of music that's redolent of sweat, plaque, and stunted emotional growth.
Before all that, there was the dubstep that crept out of South London enclave Croydon and snaked into clubs around the city. It was a devastatingly dark merger of dub's elementally plunging chasms of reverberating space and the sensual syncopations of 2-step garage. It was the sound of a city in greyscale and Skream was at the forefront of it. He was working at dubstep's ground zero, Big Apple Records, and releasing tunes in his teens. As dubstep infiltrated everything from the broadsheets to the lower echelons of the charts, Jones become synonymous with the genre, eventually forming a kind of supergroup with fellow bassheads Artwork and Benga.
Then something changed. "I ended up playing the same records as everyone else, playing things just to get a reaction," Skream tells THUMP. "I wasn't feeling happy, wasn't feeling creative, wasn't feeling inspired." His job as DJ had veered from tastemaker to drop jockey. Skream then famously shunned dubstep, the sound he was so closely associated with, and embraced the 4/4 thud of disco, house, and techno and never looked back. Well, nearly.
Skream picks up the phone on a Thursday morning, having not slept since Tuesday. He's "literally just finished a tune" and sounds alert, engaged. The sleep deprivation is the result of childcare rather than the kind of wild partying he may be often associated with. The sharpness, it turns out, stems from his devotion to the idea of the studio as a site of catharsis. "I had a bit of a personal shit time last year. Nothing major, but shit I was finding hard to deal with. I found myself being down a lot and that bled into music. Everything I was writing was dark, had a sense of sadness about it." The studio was, in his words, "the one place on the planet where I feel one million percent comfortable. It's the one place on the planet where no one can really judge you. It's your space and you invite who comes in it."
The album his literally-just-finished tune will appear on is Skream's first full length release on Damian Lazarus' massive Crosstown Rebels imprint. The first track to emerge from that hook up, the peak-time bleeper "Still Lemonade," is indicative of both the material Skream himself has been working on, and the kind of records we can now expect to hear when he plays out. Anyone who's heard one of his post-dubstep sets is aware of what an invigorating selector he is - rough and ready house slots in perfectly next to skeletal techno and silky, vocal deepness. He DJs like someone who enjoys it.
Skream is a self-confessed raver. A raver, he tells us, "is someone who goes out on a Friday and gets in on a Monday," whereas a clubber "gets fucked by 10 and is in bed by 4." Jones was delighted when emerging London club giants XOYO offered him the chance to join the esteemed likes of pals Eats Everything and Jackmaster in hosting a twelve week residency. Filling twelve Saturday nights with some of dance music's brightest and best might be daunting for some, but Jones relished it. "I drew up a massive list and every artist who was in my A-list I got down to play. There was obviously some who didn't…but look at it this way, I would have loved to have Aphex Twin on there. I would have loved Prince there. I even had it in my head that I was going to do an indie night with Miles Kane and Alex Turner. But it was a little too far from club culture to work though."
Those A-listers, a stable that includes Robert Hood, Dimitri from Paris and Route 94, have smashed the venue and made Jones a very happy boy indeed. He's touched on the contemporary while remaining open about the power nostalgia has over a crowd. "The garage night, where I got DJ EZ, Slimzee and Wookie down, was mindblowing because every tune reminded me of being between the ages of 11 and 14. It took me back to trying to pull girls at school, making mixtapes with those tunes on. Everyone was smiling. I was smiling all night. And that was because of the memories it brought back."
That which has passed into the past is still forever impacting upon the present. Jones' past is well documented and unavoidable. Rather than pretending that it no longer exists, he's tackled it head on with a 2001-2005 special at XOYO. Our conversation takes place a few days before he steps into the time tunnel. "That one is going to be very, very special, very emotional. It's like me going back to my hometown. My DNA is still in that music, that music is still my child. From 14 to 25 it was my life. It will feel natural. The people on the bill, the people coming…it's going to be a very nostalgic night."
And it was. The Skream dubstep experience was back in full swing this weekend as he presented a special celebration of the genre's back catalogue between 2001-2005 as part of his ongoing residency at London's XOYO. With the likes of Benga and Plastician on board, it was a party that brought back emotional memories for all those in attendance. For some, it was a homecoming of sorts, a trip down a still living memory lane. For others it was a first time to see a favourite DJ play the kind of tunes they only knew from spliffed out YouTube binges.
Contrary to a picture painted of London's nightlife falling under the glare of totalitarian policing, Jones sees positives in the UK's underground dance scene. "London's really upped its game in recent years," he says. "Something I noticed last year or the year before is that its cool again to listen to good music. Like, if you're taking control of the iPod at an afterparty you're gonna play good music. Look at Ben UFO. Loads of kids got heavily into him because he plays good fucking music, he's an incredible DJ, an amazing selector, a tastemaker. I love that. In that sense it made people more open about what they're listening to. We're seeing a return to the tastemaker DJ: Jackmaster, Joy Orbison. Ben UFO, Dixon. In my eyes, all the best DJs are tastemakers." For Jones, tastemaking comes down to something simple: finding records that resonate with people who didn't know they wanted to love them.
Jones seems to be one of those enviable people who've got life worked out. DJing around the world, producing the music he loves, partying night after night. "I try and enjoy life in general. That's common knowledge. One thing I've noticed is that you do actually have to enjoy life as much as you can. Whether thats going to a festival and getting pissed up or whatever, you've got to try and be happy. That's the key."
Skream's XOYO residency continues till March 28 - more info can be found here.