“Old garage raves you’d have every kind of person there: bodybuilders, drug dealers, 9-5ers, scally kids, everyone together – and they’d all get on.”
This is how Steve Bishop, aka Oneman, remembers the London music scene of his teenage years. At 30, he is a DJ who is intensely relaxed with his current position. Or at least, he is upbeat. In fact, he tells me, as we sit outside a Peckham pub on a typically busy Friday, he suffers from a permanent injury as a result of his packed schedule (this year he ticked off his 400th show on Rinse FM, a four hour epic alongside assorted friends).
“I’ve got a bad back. My bone on my shoulder is actually bent from doing this [motions mixing]. I’ve actually got a bent fucking bone in my back. I’m so happy I can just bring a laptop these days, usually.”
If this gives some indication of his commitment, it is when we discuss his schooldays that he becomes most animated. Bishop is confident about the impact the diversity of his inner city education had.
“I went to school in Streatham. The school closest to the school I went to was called Bishop Thomas Grant, and the only reason I didn’t get in was cos I didn’t know the ten commandments. And then the other school was Graveney, and I didn’t get in cos I wasn’t smart enough. That was a predominately white school, so I was in the grant maintained sort of mixed school where everyone was. But I loved it, I fucking loved it. There were four white kids in my class. Everyone else was Bangladeshi, Chinese, Pakistani, Indian, when the war in Bosnia happened refugees came over, there were Somalians. My school was like a mix of everything, and I loved it. I think the influence of that culture back then was so important in music, and definitely for me.”
Bluntly, he adds: “If I didn’t go to the school I went to, I probably wouldn’t be a DJ.”
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“If I didn’t go to the school I went to, I probably wouldn’t be a DJ.”
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It was there that he got his first taste of the pirate radio stations, playing jungle and then garage, that would become so central to his life.
“For me, pirate radio was a community thing. If you were from south west London you could only get stations that were from there – Up Front and Delight FM. I couldn’t get Rinse; if I wanted to get Rinse I’d have to go to east London with a radio. Or one of those old Walkmans that had an FM frequency dial on, which I could obviously never be bothered to do. And if my mum knew I went to Hackney at the age of thirteen I think she’d have been a bit unimpressed!”
Eventually, though, he was old enough to explore further afield, and it was the emergent east London grime scene, as represented by his pirate (now internet) radio home, Rinse, that encapsulated these years. When he was finally able to hear Dizzee, Slimzee and Wiley, he was hooked.
“Dizzee and Slimzee was the first time I heard the east London sound, cos Delight FM was So Solid Crew, Nikki S and Nyke, a crew called SMS, Red Alert Crew. Local, local crews. So people like Slimzee, Dizzee, Wiley, they weren’t on my radar. That’s how mysterious pirate radio was compared to what we have now, with internet radio, where someone in Chengdu in China can listen to Rinse. It’s brilliant cos I wouldn’t play in Asia if that didn’t happen, but at the same time what I grew up on, the community aspect of pirate radio, is what I love more – personally.”
When I suggest that, following his two mixes for Julie Adenuga’s show, he might consider moving to Beats, he doesn’t rule it out, but replies: “I’ve got a lot of loyalty to Rinse.”
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It all started by going to DMZ…
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This is unsurprising, given the role it played in his development. “The east London sound came first so I think my first grime, or dark garage, record was ‘Know We’ by Pay As U Go, and then from that I think I only really found out about people like Essentials and Roadside Gz from Risky Roadz DVDs and Aim High and stuff, which was around 2003. I was drawn to the east London sound because of Wiley, really. His productions and delivery, Dizzee as well, it was just exactly what represented London to me at the time. The South MCs and crews I loved, but they didn’t speak to me as much as the East guys did. We chuck grenades at Scotland Yard – that says so much in a short sentence. That’s why I like Dizzee, and Titch as well, cos they can break down a thousand word essay in 64 bars. They understand, because they’ve grown up in a shit area.”
Then, just as Bishop came of clubbing age, grime morphed into something darker, and more meditative.
“I was eighteen when dubstep started happening. That was my first club experience, so for me that’s the most important part of my DJ life, because that’s where I got my chance. That’s where I come from really. I was listening to garage when I was 14, but as a DJ, or a clubber, a raver, it all started by going to DMZ.”
It is for this reason that he has chosen the south London icons to headline the closing party of his hugely successful XOYO residency, which has ranged from UK Funky godfather Roska through to hip hop royalty like Just Blaze and Tim Westwood, and also featured an hour and a half long set from Wiley (one which the MC claimed nearly killed him). It was likely the first such occasion that the grime pioneer had performed in this context for nearly a decade, and possibly the last. Having previously described this as the highlight though, Bishop has already moved on.
“My favourite night has definitely changed from the Wiley one to CASisDead and Newham Generals. It was just incredible; it was like a zoo – totally sold out. The kids were going mad. I’ve never seen D Double so on point. CAS was incredible. He was Castro from North London, but then he got cancer, and now he’s changed his name to CasisDead. He’s in remission and he’s getting better. I tip big things for that guy; he’s gonna be huge. It’s the mystery of music. It’s the Burial effect. No one knows who he is or what he looks like. The Wiley one was great but the CAS and Newhams one topped it for me, personally.”
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On this note, I ask him which London venue he most enjoys playing.
“My favourite venue to play at the moment is Phonox, which is XOYO’s other club, purely because it’s what Plastic People used to be like, almost. It’s very dark, one room, the crowd can’t really see the DJ, and the DJ can’t see the crowd. So it’s all about the music and all about the vibe. People dance, they don’t stand there and watch – which I hate. So for me that’s the best club. And Corsica, obviously, since day one man. I know it’s got two rooms, and sometimes the vibe can be split up cos it’s got two rooms, but it’s a great club to play.”
As a pure DJ, I suggest, the widely publicised state of London’s clubbing scene, brought into sharp relief by the recent closure of Fabric, must worry him.
“In London especially, it’s all coming down to gentrification: clubs being turned into million pound flats. I can’t see much of a bright future for London in terms of clubs. There’s not that many big clubs left now. The End went, then SE One, then Cable went. I can’t think of one big club in London. Oval Space, but they’re not clubs, they’re like event spaces. They look like a warehouse; there’s no clubs that are set up to be mainly for the sound, or the experience. It’s just an open room and you’ve got some railings and a coffee table with the decks on. There’s hardly any left, Egg in King’s Cross, but I can’t think of many, and I can’t really see it happening again.”
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I can’t see much of a bright future for London in terms of clubs…
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Fortunately, he has a plan to save the city.
“I’ll definitely stay here. If it means I’ve gotta save up a million pounds, or win the lottery to open a club, I’ll do it. My idea I’ve had for a while is to buy an old tube station. It’ll never happen, cos it’s a fucking fire hazard. But you enter: you’ve got your ticket booth, you buy a ticket, it looks like a train ticket, you put it in the barrier, it opens, you go down the escalators, and then the platforms got a half cut train. So you’ve the whole platform and the train, and then the DJ’s somewhere in the middle, or at the end. No access to the tunnel, obviously. That’s my dream. It’ll never happen. I actually wrote to Dragons Den with that idea, cos I needed the funding. Peter Jones might have taken it.”
We laugh, but it is this willingness to constantly think of the next step that has enabled Bishop to remain at the forefront of the UK club scene for so long. And, while he is known for his deep knowledge of the sounds coming out of the capital at the turn of the century, culminating with the emergence of dubstep, he keeps one eye firmly on the future.
“Two friends of mine work for Nandos Corp and they had an idea to do a competition. Basically it’s promo for them and a chance for me to bring in some new talent and get them some shine. They set up this page on DJ Mag’s website where people could submit a mix. I think they got 500 submissions. So Nandos whittled it down to seven. I couldn’t for the life of me listen to 500 mixes, so I listened to the top seven and chose my winner.”
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There is definitely good young talent still coming out of London it just doesn’t grab me as much as the old stuff does.
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He is also not someone who is silent about the more serious aspects of London’s current rap scene.
“The road rap stuff is something you can mix, but I won’t. I like the music and I listen to it at home, but I can’t play it out. There was a period when it wasn’t there for a bit. When Nokia phones came out, kids were coming to our school, or making you jump, hear the change in your pocket – give it, kinda thing. But now it’s literally gangs against each other. It’s not music related, it’s not school related, it’s not even postcode related, really. It’s just like kids tryna kill each other. They’re making good music, but I’m not gonna play it out. I could play it out, but I’m not gonna, because I just don’t wanna be seen as a DJ that’s advocating fucking killings, you know.”
In fact, I sense that he is a little nostalgic for the more club-centric grime that he grew up on. “There is definitely good young talent still coming out of London it just doesn’t grab me as much as the old stuff does. It just doesn’t. Music either grabs me or it doesn’t. It was the whole package – Channel U videos, kids in Akademiks tracksuits, Nike dog ear hats. That whole thing for me was the attraction. And now it’s almost like an imitation of what it used to be. It’s unfair, and I get it, the younger kids, they love it. And they can love it because it speaks to them, but I’ve already been spoken to by Dizzee and Wiley. I like it, and it’s hype, but people like AJ Tracey, and Big Narstie even, they’re the people I look to for content. The rest of it for me is just imitation.”
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More often I won’t do reloads, because I like hearing what the MC will do after…
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This underlies a key element of Bishop’s unique appeal as a DJ – he understands the essence of how grime works in a rave.
“When it comes to having MCs on the set more often I won’t do reloads, because I like hearing what the MC will do after. Sometimes they’ll stop and not know what to do, but someone like Footsie or D Double, there’s a Boiler Room I did with them where I think I reloaded two tracks. There’s moments in there that the track could have been reloaded, because it was a massive moment, but I’ve let it carry on, and then it’s got better and better. So my preference is I don’t reload the tracks. I’ll just keep mixing and then play another one, I think that’s way more interesting.”
Autumn will bring the opportunity to return to Manchester, where he will play two Warehouse Project nights, both of which boast formidable lineups.
“I’ve got two shows, which are probably the two biggest things before Christmas. One of them’s the Kurupt FM Champagne Steam Rooms night, and then the other one’s the Ape birthday. Which is Danny Brown, Section Boyz, and I think Wiley.
So there’s two great nights. Warehouse obviously only do stuff in the Winter, so it’s something for me to really look forward to. Store Street’s amazing, such a good venue. I’m so happy it’s back because the other one was too big. The main room was like being at a festival. You can’t gauge the crowd. You can’t gauge anything, and they’re all throwing rubber dingies about – it’s like being at a festival. Store Street’s a car park, so it looks like a fucking Warehouse. It’s dark, low ceilings, red lights – I love it there, can’t wait.” So, despite all the shows, his enthusiasm hasn’t abated. And while his opinions on other DJs might occasionally contain an element of mischief (of Westwood he says “bless his heart, bless his little cotton socks. He was on Kiss FM when it was a pirate,” while Trevor Nelson is “an absolute legend”) he is clear about his own identity.
“Wax on, wax off, that’s not me at all.”
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Oneman’s XOYO residency closes this Friday (September 24th)
Words: Alex McFadyen
Artist In Residence: Oneman Interviewed