Ollie Jones is a tough guy to pin down. But since the man known as Skream is currently the exploding dubstep scene’s hottest property, that’s no big surprise. With a punishing schedule of international DJ gigs and a weekly radio show on leading London pirate Rinse FM to fit around promotion for his self-titled debut album, the 20-year-old from Croydon is in major demand. But after a month of missed phone calls and frantic emails, Clash finally tracked down the master to discover what makes him tick…
2006 is the year dubstep blew up – and not before time. Emerging from the post-2step, post-jungle sonic landscape of south London at the turn of the millennium, a darker variant of garage began to take shape in the studios of Menta, El-B and Horsepower Productions, championed by DJs like Hatcha at the long-running FWD night and fed to hungry vinyl buyers through Big Apple Records in Croydon. Stripping the garage template down to little more than bass, drums and dubwise effects, a select group of producers spent the next half-decade honing their styles with little interference from the outside world – until recently. The past 12 months has seen an explosion of interest, triggered by the scene’s first bona-fide crossover anthem – Skream’s ‘Midnight Request Line’.
Suddenly those producers who’d kept the faith through dubstep’s years in the wilderness – among them Kode9, Benga, Loefah and Digital Mystikz – found the eyes of the world upon them. Meanwhile Skream – only just out of his teens – faced the daunting task of following up the scene’s best-known tune. “I definitely felt pressure. It’s hard when a scene’s blowing up,” he admits. But if he felt intimidated, it certainly didn’t show, with two awesome ‘Skreamizm’ doublepacks earlier this year only serving to cement his untouchable rep. Now his debut album is upon us – and it’s every bit as dazzling as expected. “It’s been there since before I knew I was doing it really,” he says. “It’s been in my head for a couple of years. It was hard to decide on the final tracks, you know, thinking about how other people are going to react to them. I think that’s the internet’s fault – in the old days you didn’t get much feedback, but now you know you’ve got people listening all over the world.”
Growing up in Croydon, Ollie’s big brother Hijack – a veteran jungle DJ with legendary south London crew Internatty, alongside Grooverider and Bailey – switched him on to jungle at an early age. He reveals: “My earliest musical memory is going into my brother’s room when I was really young. I didn’t have clue what I was doing but I turned on all the amps and blasted out a jungle tune – I was a bit freaked out. But my biggest influence in terms of wanting to make tunes was Arthur Smith – AKA Artwork/Menta/Bobby Blanco – he’s a fucking badboy! There were so many tunes you didn’t realise he’d done, then you found out it was him. I met him through my brother, who worked at Big Apple. Arthur had his studios above the shop, and I used to go and sit and listen to his tunes. I heard ‘Sounds Of The Future’ from the start, before it came out, and that was THE tune. That was first big crossover tune for breakbeat garage, darker garage.” The Big Apple/Croydon hub was clearly vital for the dubstep scene, and particularly for Skream. He agrees: “If it wasn’t for Big Apple being in Croydon, then I might not even be making dubstep. But it’s not so much where it is; it’s the people that are around. It could be anywhere – it’s just a mad coincidence that so many people were on it round here.”
Most dubstep tracks are made with clubs in mind, and indeed the best way to appreciate the sheer physicality and bass weight of the sound is through a chest-rattling sound system. So it’s not too surprising that the ‘Skream!’ album – “all written at my mum’s house on my PC” – is one of only a handful of dubstep full-lengths to date. But what is surprising is just how well it works as a home-listening experience. While instrumental club anthems like ‘Midnight Request Line’ and ‘Stagger’ are present and correct, there are also vocal collaborations with Warrior Queen and JME, and live instrumentation adds a new dimension to ‘Rutten’ and ‘Summer Dreams’. “The Warrior Queen tune [‘Check It’] was written with her in mind,” he explains. “It was mad – I wrote it thinking of her vocals, and then a week later I got an email from her management saying she wanted to do something. As for the JME tune [‘Tapped’] – I think it’s easier to get to the youth with an MC, and JME is lyrically one the best MCs there is. He talks sense, he doesn’t just bang on about guns.”
There are so many strong tunes about right now and it’s great that dubstep is finally blowing up.
Skream’s work rate shows no sign slowing down any time soon. He says: “The next ‘Skreamizm’ record is done – lots of bangers – after the album I want to drop some anthems again, want to follow it up strong. And in the new year I’m going to start a label – no idea what the name will be yet though, I’m still waiting for a sign on that! I want to push new producers along with my stuff. There are so many strong tunes about right now and it’s great that dubstep is finally blowing up. Things are fucking amazing – it’s what I’ve always wanted.”