Skream Looks Back on 15 Years of Doing Whatever the Hell He Wants: Interview

Eisa Bakos
Skream

It was the year 2000, and 14-year-old Oliver Jones hadn’t been to school in a month. Every morning, he’d leave the house long enough for his parents to go to work, then creep in to his seat at the family PC. He’d tweak and loop trudging bass at 140 bpm, molding his sound toward something the DJs of Croydon’s bass scene might play. He stepped outside only when his parents came home so he could walk back in as if fresh from playing with friends, right back to it.

He got caught skipping eventually, but he also unearthed an alluring dark wobble. He didn’t have £20,000 studio equipment like his friends and idols at Big Apple Records, but that meant creating a sound unlike the others. One of the youngest of the south London crew, he took the name Skream as he became a forefather of a style called “dubstep.” It was 15 years ago this summer that he and fellow teen Benga released the seminal EP The Judgement, a three-track release as notable for its prodigious producers as it was for taking the dubstep wobble around the world.

Dubstep was eventually co-opted by American drum’n’bass DJs, hybridized with electro-punk, made mainstream by Skrillex and further commercialized in pop songs. Ten years after The Judgement, Skream shocked fans by tweeting in all caps, “YES I WILL BE PLAYING TECHNO/HOUSE/DISCO AT ALL FUTURE SHOWS” -- and he has.

Jones’ story is one of passion boiled by boredom, fueled by an earnestness that edges on being selfish. It's chapters seem brilliant in hindsight, but each step in its time was perhaps foolhardy. He released two full-length LPs, seven EPs and a handful of stand-alone singles in his first decade alone. 

Now 32, his 15 years as a professional account for nearly half his life. He marks the milestone with an international Open to Close tour, wherein he literally plays clubs from the time doors open to well past last call. There are no support DJs, just hours of Skream doing whatever the hell he wants. Quite honestly, that’s all he’s ever done.

“When we was all growing up, it was all about individuality.” His southeast London accent is quick, rugged and punctured by what he calls a “rave cough.” “It really wasn't cool to sound like someone else. You didn't cut through. There wasn't many of us at the beginning. You had to bring your own sound to the table. I think a lot of people would say mine was the fact that it was always different.”

To really understand Jones, you have to go back to 1997. Like most 11-year-olds, his friends were into cars and soccer, but he only played the sport as a means to fit in. His lack of direction made school uncomfortable; a disinterest that showed in his attitude and manifested in a string of suspensions.

The one thing he truly enjoyed was listening to records, specifically the bass-heavy beats of UK garage. His older brother was a DJ called Hijak, renowned in the Croydon scene for spinning jungle and d’n’b with releases on Big Apple Records. Big Apple was the record label, shop and distributor for cutting-edge bass, and it was run by DJs and producers named Hatcha and Artwork.

“The first time I went into the record shop, I pissed them off,” Jones laughs. “They didn't know my brother was my brother. I did this thing of asking for the record at the top of the shelf that you had to climb up to get. [I wanted to listen to it] even though I already knew it. They said, 'Oh, do you want it?' and I said, 'No,' and then left, which I later learned is about the most annoying thing you can do in a record shop.”

As Jones dug deeper in the crates, he unearthed more of his hidden talents. He hung around Big Apple so much, they gave him a job. All the employees were DJs or producers, and he started DJing, too. The shop’s customers would one day become taste leaders, label heads and record executives, but in these emergent days, they were just fanatics finding their kin.

“The energy in the record store was unbelievable,” Jones says. “I didn't feel like a kid. I loved the fact that I got to spend time (with people), whether it be a young schoolboy or a 40-year-old business man. You had that connection through the records.”

Being about 13, Jones labeled and packaged record shipments for international buyers. He'd did his work in the upstairs studio where Artwork made his beats.

“He's one of the most talented producers of our time,” Jones says. “He was just making hit after hit, and I got to learn.”

It was inspiring, but for all Jones knew, electronic musicians needed rooms of equipment to make quality beats. He was 14 the day a friend showed him Music 2000. The Playstation game allowed users to make beats out of electronic sounds, and Jones’ head “exploded.” He became obsessed but quickly outgrew it. Luckily, his brother had a PC loaded with new technology, a “digital audio workstation” called Fruity Loops.

“It's all I wanted to do, all day every day,” he remembers. “At one point, I hadn't been at school for a month. The school rang and said 'is Oliver ever coming back?' I got in quite a bit of trouble, as you can imagine.”

By the early 2000s, garage had become watered-down. The Croydon crew huddled around low end experiments which made their home on community radio station Rinse FM and a club night called FWD>>. Jones points to Horsepower Production’s 2002 remix of “Log On” by Elephant Man as a serious sonic shift.

“It wasn't what you'd call dubstep now, but it wasn't what you'd call garage,” he remembers. “The snares were in different places, and the bass line was so predominant. It just had a different vibe.”

Hatcha was the first person Jones remembers using the term “dubstep,” and the young producer wanted to make something those DJs might play. Jones adopted the moniker Skream. He worked alone until a man came into Big Apple looking for him. This man had a little brother about Jones’ age, and he, too, made beats on his computer. This brother went by the name Benga, and the man thought the two should meet. Hours on the phone turned to days, and soon, Skream and Benga sat shoulder to shoulder, working weird wobbles out of their bedrooms.

In 2003, Big Apple released Skream and Benga’s debut, The Judgement. It was haunting and warped, like walking through a room of carnival mirrors under strobe lights. DJs in the scene heard the tracks and started talking. “Is it true these kids are 14 and making music on their PC with no equipment?” The media picked up the story and pushed the record to new regions. This wobbly, grimy, bass-heavy groove was deliciously new; sludgy with half-time rhythms and lopsided like a psychedelic grimace.

“We were just trying to replicate what (the other artists) were doing, but we couldn't, so we ended up creating something brand new, which then turned into to dubstep, I guess,” Jones remembers. “We didn't realize how much it was being talked about. By the time we were 16, we were both on magazine covers … Next thing, I was in the club watching my records get played. That was the real changing point like, 'this is what I'm going to do.' Whenever I hear any of my records played in the club, it still makes my hair stand on edge.”

Fame is one thing. Money is another, and in 2003, DJing still wasn’t a full-time job.

“I heard DJ EZ got paid £1,000 for a set, and I was like ‘No, I don't believe that, that's impossible,’” Jones says. “My mom and dad were terrified ... I found out years later my dad went to Artwork at the record store and said ‘look, I need you to be honest with me. Is he wasting his time or whatnot?’ and he said ‘no, he's definitely not.’”

Just as The Judgement took off, the dubstep scene in south London hit a wall. Urban music clientele got a bad rep from club owners, so anything too grimy was out. Big Apple Records even shut its shop, but Skream stayed busy working on a collection of songs that would become his 2006 debut LP, Skream!

His sound was still dark and minimal, but it also welcomed a fresh kind of funk. Bass slogged under slinky synths and computerized reggae horns. It was fun but slightly sinister, and the evilest beat of all was lead single “Midnight Request Line.”

“I was on a boys’ holiday with my friends,” Jones remembers. “They had a DJ Magazine or a Mixmag rack up on a shelf, on one of the street stores in Greece or somewhere ... I see a magazine, I looked at it, and I had Record of the Month. I was like ‘shit, I need to get home.’”

“Midnight Request Line” took Skream’s fame across the Atlantic, which he further fueled with a prolific series of Skreamizm EPs, each of which infused different sonic flavors into his wobbly pallette. In 2007, he delivered a two-hour dubstep dissertation for BBC Radio 1's Essential Mix, comprised mostly of his own creations. By 2008, he was touring as much in North America as he was in Europe, sometimes alongside Benga, sometimes on his own. Jones remembers a particularly wild debut at Shambhala Festival in Canada.

“I played before Bassnectar in the Fractal Forest, I think it was, and it was insane,” he says. “I'd never seen anything like it. People were losing their absolute minds.”

That wobble struck a nerve on both sides of the scene. By the release of his second album, Outside The Box in 2010, you could hear his influence in Rusko’s “Woo Boost,” Doctor P’s “Sweet Shop,” and Flux Pavilion’s “I Can’t Stop,” (itself sampled by Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch The Throne single “Who Gon Stop Me” in 2011).

The wobble had become energetically heightened. Second wave dubstep was still filth-ridden and bass heavy, but it was also hyper, loud and technicolored. What had been demure now aimed to overwhelm, Pixy Stix music for a college kids in neon tank tops who lived to “rage.”

“Things evolve, whether they get better or worse. That's just the way of the world,” Jones says. “I'm more interested in how I could incorporate something else I liked into what I was doing. Dubstep records are basically fast techno records really, when I listen back now. The only thing that clung it together was the tempo, because that was what tempo everyone was DJing at. I'd make fucking gabber records at 140 bpm.”

In 2011, Skream, Benga and Artwork released Magnetic Man, a self-titled 14-track album that incorporated dubstep rhythms with bright breakbeats and electronica melodies. It showcased its makers’ garage roots, while Jones’ sixth and seventh Skreamizm EPs, released in the same year, leaned more toward the aggressive sounds of his new American contemporaries.

“When the real U.S. sound came started to dominate, it didn't affect my career, it just affected my creativity,” Jones says. “The production became so big on the American side of things, and my production wasn't big, it sounded how I thought my sound was meant to sound. I started not to feel great about what I was doing, and I'd never felt that before.”

People close to him could see his ship turn. He dug back into his collection, revisiting the hits of his childhood and wandering toward the house and techno stages of the events he played. He went to a buddy’s house and laid down a lofi disco mix. He actually had some fun.

Skream became a project in transition. He still gigged with Benga and found himself beside emergent bass acts Baauer and RL Grime, but he also played decidedly deeper events, like Get Lost in Miami alongside techno god Carl Craig and self-proclaimed house gangster DJ Sneak. In March od 2013, he released a house mix via Pete Tong’s Defected Records in promotion of his spot on Tong’s annual All Gone Miami event. It was no big deal, really, until that headline.

Jones played a Red Bull event in NYC that celebrated dubstep’s roots. He joined Hatcha on the bill, alongside fellow old-schoolers Plastician and Mala. A reporter from UK tabloid The Daily Star caught Jones in casual conversation. Jones explained that this would probably be his last dubstep set for a while, that Daft Punk’s recent Random Access Memories and other things reignited his love of disco. He thought nothing of the comments, went back to his hotel and caught a flight to London in the morning. The article was published before he landed.

“Skream: Dubstep is DEAD”

“I never said that, and the thing that irritated me the most was people believed that I said it,” Jones says. “Are you fucking serious? I spent my entire life building this, and out of respect for my friends that are still doing it, I would never have said it. I wouldn't say it now. I was moved on, but as far as I was aware, the scene was still thriving. It was the biggest it had ever been. Fucking Britney Spears did a dubstep record. It was insane that somehow people would think I bandwagon jumped. I made my own fucking bandwagon.”

Any interview with Skream in the year that followed focused squarely on his feelings about “dubstep” and “EDM.” It became his caricature; angry lad bemoans state of electronic music.

“It's not like people aren't aware that I've been buying house and techno records since I was a kid,” he says. “People were just so quick to comment and write without knowing what the the fuck they're talking about; which we're now learning has turned into the culture of today.”

Skream was shaken but survived by doing what he does best - whatever he wants. In 2014, he released bass-heavy “Bang That” via Boys Noize’s BNR. Beneath its 120 bpm and bleeting house synths remains that signature, shadowy bump.  He was welcomed into Damian Lazarus’ Crosstown Rebels where he released the evolving tech house groove of 2015’s “Still Lemonade,” as well as the blissful breaks and hanging moods of 2016’s “You Know, Right?”

He crowns 2018 with a new BBC Radio 1 Essential Mix to fit his personal style, as well as a a quirky techno record called “Poison" that booms and whirs inside smoky bass atmospheres. "Poison" was coincidentally followed by a re-release of his 2005 track “Ain’t It Cold?,” another clanging experiment in texture and noise set against bass-heavy blackness. If you listen to both records back to back, the line between Skream’s seemingly-disparate music lives blurs as to become nearly invisible.

Skream doesn’t care what genre a record is. If it’s good, he’ll play it. Today, he spends £500 a week on records, be they house, techno, garage, disco, or straight up African tribal rhythms. The fun is in the mixing, tying all these sounds into one beautifully-woven tapestry of sound and feeling. He’s living that passion to the fullest on his Open To Close tour, most dates of which have sold out. He’s got anywhere from five to nine hours to share his boundless spirit with dancers around the world, and it’s still not enough. Just like that kid who stole away from school to play music, Jones now hides from security to keep the beat going any way he can.

“I have friends who work for the Consul, and they dig holes at 5 am,” he says. “I've never had to do that. I've been able to do something I love for most of my life. It's all I ever done, and all I know how to do. Over the last couple of years, I feel like an adult in the sense that I know what good decisions are, and I know bad decisions. I've seen a lot happening the last 15 years, personally and professionally. I wouldn't change any of it for the world.”

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