Steve Bishop, AKA Oneman, is hovering a cigarette an expectant centimeter away from his mouth, pausing to tell me about a film I should watch, having just finished his main room set at Bristol's Motion. We are sat in a cold, pasty green room, attempting to conduct a conversation over a low rumbling bass so present it is rattling the walls. "It's this documentary, and it's on Youtube, called Maestro. It's Frankie Knuckles, Larry Levan, early New York guys. That's when the DJ had power."
Having emerged from dubstep, the South London DJ, real name Steve Bishop, wields considerable power himself. He showcases the sort of sets that simultaneously please and challenge his crowds, through choices that allow for both discovery and the rapture of recollection in equal measure. When we caught up with him after his set, it was clear that he sees this less as a skill, and more a responsibility. "A great DJ is someone who plays what they love, but is also given tracks and wants to try them out. It's almost an A&R role - you're discovering how to make people party."
It is this subject, the capacity to approach the decks as the primary party platform, that brings us on to Maestro. The 2003 documentary charts the rise of house from the underground, largely in New York but also Chicago, it was a time when the DJ's focus was in making, or breaking, a track. In Bishop's eyes this is a dying art. "I don't make tunes, I'm just a pure DJ. There's not many of us left." Besides himself Bishop considers a slim number of his contemporaries as similarly devoted. "I feel like the last three DJs that don't produce and have made it purely through DJing are me, Ben UFO, and Jackmaster. We are the last three that don't make tracks but can get a crowd through what we play."
Yet Bishop is also quick to recognise it is more than just having the tunes, it is knowing when and where to play them. "My mix-tapes are more about weird grime and rap. I have to to distance myself from that in the clubs. What I did tonight for example was a big mix of house, garage, grime and dubstep, which works perfectly. Nights like this are good for me in that I can be comfortable and play what I love and what I think people want to hear." Bishop returns to the idea of playing what he wants repeatedly, a softer, complimentary addition to his fiercely protective stance on the role of the DJ. "I have no guilty pleasures, I will play what I love. You heard me end with Nina Simone right? It's a great song!"
On the subject of his mixes, it is important to acknowledge that Bishop's career owes a lot to his time spent working with Rinse FM. "A Rinse mix is my practice for the clubs. I don't necessarily always play club music on my show, but I feel I can transgress between different genres." London's pirate radio culture has been a shaping influence on Bishop's craft, and his perception on the scene. Looking back on the decade he has spent DJing, and making mixes, provides him with a perspective on the changes that have taken place with the UK scene. "I'm from a time when pirate radio was a community thing. If I listened to Delight FM I knew that everyone else listening was from my area. Now it's very broken up. There's no community spirit."
Bishop feels also that this lack of community has an absence of vision, or specific identity, in British dance music. On the subject of genre DJs, he is adamant that he feels absolutely no pressure to play a certain sound to a certain crowd. While this erosion of barriers gives the selector the freedom to course across a multitude of movements, it arguably creates a scene that lacks singularity. "I don't see anything coming out of it that I really catch on to. The last big scene for me was the stuff coming out of New Jersey, like the fadetomind guys, but I even feel like they are falling away. I'm just waiting. I'm waiting for something big to happen."
This interest in all corners of dance music provokes a question around what UK audiences actually want from a big night. I suggested that our variety of interests possibly indicated a 'national open-mindedness', but Bishop was soon to call out the pluralistic listening habits as being far less considered than that. "People just want to wild out. I feel like the crowds in the rest of Europe, America and even Asia, are more up for listening; so if I have a 90 minute set like tonight I'm more likely to slow it down, and then build it up to a point where it is pretty hyped."
Bishop's suggestion that a UK crowd is more interested in wall-to-wall bangers might be hard to swallow, particularly given how much we like to look down on American EDM culture as a sugary shortcut across 'real' dance music. Perhaps this desire for high-octane hit-based sets comes from the same lack of focus that Bishop sees in the scene. In a climate where no movement dominates, we end up skimming across the top of every genre, recognising a little of everything. Conversely American, European and Asian crowds are less expectant of a British DJ so allow Bishop the space to breathe more. "I like to take people on a journey and I find myself getting bored playing the same shit all the time. So if I can really express myself in a full fashion with 90 minutes in a club setting, it works for me."
Downbeat as this quasi-apocalyptic predictions may sound, our conversation soon moves on to the hopeful signs on the horizon. "Recently, Drake there's been instagramming Skepta, then Kanye getting them all on stage. That's good for the UK scene. I can only hope it goes in the right direction." Bishop's take on the renewed international focus on grime is optimistic, willing it to be the force that galvanises the movement. "It has been ten years since grime hit and they've only just realised that the original sound is what is killing it. I really hope they capitalise on that."
The power that Drake and Kanye have in terms of pushing grime to a truly global audience brings us right back to the start of our conversation and the capacity the selector has when it comes to making a song a hit. If Bishop sees himself, Ben UFO, and Jackmaster as part of a dying breed, then he seems equally set on changing that. "It used to follow that the DJ would play a song, and if the dancefloor reacted in a good way then that song would be a hit. That's what I want to bring back." For all the concerns about the UK scene, attention spans and lost communities, there is an unshakeable positivity, and drive, in his words. For Bishop, a selector - in the truest sense - can change everything.
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Photos via Theo Cottle.