Oneman on growing up in Streatham and the magic of pirate radio

South London’s DJ Oneman – world-renowned for his eclectic taste and technical ability, and widely considered to be one of the most exciting DJs of the last 10 years. In light of his current 13-week residency at XOYO, I went down to his flat in Streatham to chew the fat and discover more about the man behind the mixer. We had an extended chat about growing up in London, his family, life in 2016 and of course, the art of DJing. As I’ve known Oneman for some time, and consider him to be a friend, the discussion was loose and candid, allowing the exchange to be more revealing and sincere than your average interview. We spoke for an hour and a half – here are some of the things we touched on…

Some would argue you’re somewhat of a figurehead in the analog to digital transitional period for DJs. How do you feel about how the art has changed from vinyl to something like Serato? And would you agree that selection is more important than technical ability when it comes to being a DJ?

Firstly, it was very expensive to be a DJ back when I was buying records – when I was like 13/14. We’re talking ‘99, 2000, 2001. It was like, a hundred quid for a basic set of turntables, fifty quid for a basic mixer and six or seven quid per record. I know a MacBook costs a grand, but everyone has a MacBook so they can download Serato. I’m not saying it’s easier either, because beat matching is beat matching; vinyl, Serato, it doesn’t matter.

I like the human element of hearing a DJ. I like it when they clang for a second, but then fix it straight away. And that human element isn’t really in Serato, because you can lock the key. Mistakes can be easily masked or shadowed. Vinyl is more of a challenge – you gotta work with what you got. A vinyl bag can only carry about 50 records in. You go to a club, you’ve just got those 50 records, you’ve gotta make do with that. With Serato you can have up to 10,000 tunes to go through. So if it’s not going so well, you can easily win the crowd back with a curve ball, but with vinyl you gotta make it work just by dropping a sick mix, d’you know what I mean? So I guess selection probably tips technical ability, just slightly.

Yeah, maybe that’s because of technology. If you have a thousand tunes on your laptop, you should be able to produce a better set than someone who’s limited to only the 50 records they brought with them.

Yeah. When I go back on Serato again what I’m gonna be doing is what I was doing with the USB. So, you know you’ve got rekordbox? It’s a software for USBs where it analyses the files for you. When you plug the USB in on the CDJ, it tells you exactly what BPM it is, it’s got all the loops set out. What I’ve been doing on USB keys is just putting the tracks on there so the BPM doesn’t show up, it’s just like using vinyl. It’s a challenge, init. Mixing with your ears and not your eyes. With Serato a lot of people use their eyes to mix, you can see it. They’re watching those two lines match up, and if they go out, they match ’em back up again. You can’t do that with vinyl [laughs].

Do you personally just like the challenge?

I just like the challenge. The first time I got Serato I’d very rarely have a laptop stand or would rarely have it in front of my face. I’d treat it like a rekordbox. So if the decks were here, I’d have my laptop to the side and go back to it like a rekordbox ‘cos I’m not looking at the fucking computer. To me it’s not fraudulent, but if I’m earning good money for DJing, I wanna earn it [laughs].

I did a four hour set at Sydney Opera House and I took three USB keys, three bags of records, 12”s and a bag of 7”s. It was good pay as well. I ain’t just gonna go there with Serato, that’s a cop out. Everyone’s entitled to their own opinion but I think, personally, if I went to Australia from south London and had the opportunity to do a four hour set at the Sydney Opera House, I’m taking a proper selection. I’m taking shit I bought when I was 13, I’m taking shit I bought last week.

Good thing you mentioned that – taking stuff you bought when you were 13. Do you think your age plays a role in your attitude towards DJing?

Totally. The road that I live on now, I went to the secondary school next door. There were two types of music groups in school: garage kids and hardcore skater kids, and I was on the garage side. So definitely, growing up in Streatham back then, the school I went to, the friends I had, all played a role.

And the fact that the technology didn’t exist at the time, so there was no room to even consider having a thousand tunes.

Nah. And I remember for my 13th birthday I asked for a radio, and every night after school I’d find pirate stations. Delight FM and Upfront FM were the two that I would always listen to, they were the local ones so I got the best reception and the people that called in would be from around the area. So Solid used to do the live caller show on Sundays; literally two hours of people calling in. There’d be girls saying “I wanna be on a tune”. It was a community thing and that’s something I feel that’s been lost big time – in radio especially. I mean, it’s great that you can listen to Rinse anywhere in the world…

But you like the local appeal of it?

Yeah. The best example of the So Solid live caller show that I’ve got on tape is digitised, and this girl rings up – this is like 2001/02 – it’s pirate radio, it’s localised and I think Romeo’s on the mic. He asks her where she’s from and she says London. He laughs and goes, “Well, yeah, whereabouts?!” [laughs]. It was only picked up in London, that’s what made it so special. Only a certain number of people could hear this radio station because they lived in that area. And when I was listening to So Solid on Delight, I was hearing tunes like ‘Oh No’, ‘Bound For The Reload’, ‘21 Seconds’, a year before they were released.

‘Cos they were all Battersea and Clapham boys.

Exactly, and I could pick their station up. So really, me, my peers and everyone else who listened to Delight – we were the testing ground. When I was a kid I was a testing ground for all that shit. One of the first grime records I bought was Pay As U Go Cartel – ‘Know We’. I remember skipping lessons, getting on the bus and going to the record shop to get it, I remember it so vividly. Those moments were magic, absolute magic, man.

Oneman Press shot 2016 - Vicky Grout - 2

I mean, we’re talking about things that are very generationally specific. So if Oneman was born in… what year were you born in?


So if Oneman was born in ‘96, is it safe to assume that you wouldn’t have any of these views and you would be a product of the generation today?

Totally, I’m a product of my environment. I don’t mean my parents; even though my mum did work at London Records for 20 odd years, she worked from Joy Division to New Order to the birth of acid house into jungle. She left in ‘97 around the time  garage was kicking off, but my mum put out Timeless by Goldie.

Really?! Your Mum was involved?

Yeah, so when you look at Joy Division’s artwork for Unknown Pleasures – which was done by Peter Saville – my Mum would work with Peter on the art direction for the records. That was her job. So I’d be able to go to the offices when I had a sick day off school or whatever, and I was always interested in that world. So I am a product of my environment in that way as well. Not just socially, but through my parents. My Dad’s a builder. I’ve never had the desire to be in property, music was always what I wanted to do.

Taking it from the past and into the present, more specifically, grime music. How do you feel about it currently? Stormzy, Skepta and Novelist in particular, because they seem to be the three biggest at the moment.

I feel like, with the resurgence of grime, it’s weird ‘cos it’s what I call the “ten year cycle”. So, we’re in 2016, 2006 you had Slew Dem, you had JME doing ’96 Bars Of Revenge’, Risky Roadz with Stevie D. That whole era has come back again, like Novelist’s video for ‘Endz’ is basically a Channel U homage video. Stormzy… I don’t know that much about his underground credibility.

And when you say underground credibility, what do you mean?

By that I mean pirate radio – as in dubplates, warring, clashing, that’s what I mean by underground credibility. I don’t know if there’s even an underground anymore, to me the underground is what’s on Soundcloud.

But going back to Stormzy, Novelist and Skepta, I feel like Skepta will always be great. Especially this year with Konnichiwa, apart from the fact that it had four tracks that had already been semi-released or heard before. He’s got great flow, his lyrics are always relevant. Same with Stormzy. To me, Novelist is more like a ‘Pow Riddim’ MC. Though I wouldn’t say he’s a one-liner MC because of his verse on Skepta’s track ‘Lyrics’. But I haven’t heard much of him recently. The two people I’ve kept my eyes on grime-wise have been CASisDEAD and Cadell.

What is it about Cadell that you like so much? Because you are very publicly supporting him.

Because he’s focused. His writing ability is incredible for a 19 year old. He’s doing everything on his own, he’s not trying to live off his brother’s name. His DJ Cameo freestyle goes on for 12 minutes, and he just goes and goes and goes. He’s got so many bars. You can just tell his work rate’s high. Also his ear for beats. He’s got a couple Zomby tunes on his album… He’s not just getting Heavytrackerz, and Splurgeboys, and Maniac. Cadell’s getting really weird off-key producers and that’s why I rate him so highly.

Staying on the subject of grime. To me, it seems like much of London has inherited the drill sound. Before, a lot of artists who wanted to do music would’ve gone to grime. Now it seems like people are more going to drill or trap music – 67 for instance. Would you say people are leaning that way because it’s the popular sound?

Not even just ‘cos it’s popular, I feel like most of the reasons behind it are because it’s a sound that can crack America and that’s where a lot of the money is in music, across the board. I agree that 67, Trappin Tremz – who’s just come out of Liverpool – it’s very based off, like, Chief Keef… It’s gangster music. Gangster music’s always been popular. People like stuff that’s illegal. That’s part of why I liked pirate radio and used to graff – because it’s illegal.

What stopped MCs back in the day from doing more gangster rap in your opinion? Since that was popular at the time. Why did they choose grime? 

With the grime thing, especially with pirate radio, it was like a platform for war… And they were just putting it into music. The whole clashing thing was great because it came from DJs doing sound clashes in Jamaica and battle rapping. So it’s the US battle rap thing and the UK’s take on sound systems battling each other. That’s the main reason. Riko, for example, he sent for everyone. I think that was the appeal for those guys.

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So with the resurgence of UK funky, you have Donaeo making waves again and it just seems like it’s bubbling. You’ve even had the funky edition of your residency. Would you agree there’s a funky resurgence?

As for the funky resurgence I haven’t seen too much of it, but I reckon that’ll come next year and that’s mainly because Drake sampled Crazy Cousinz. I feel someone that big seeing something in a tune like that is going to put people into gear.

So, the EU referendum. We haven’t actually seen anything change yet, but as a global DJ are you concerned? And how do you feel it’ll affect music? If, say, it’s more difficult for UK acts to perform in the EU.

Obviously the music itself won’t be affected, but having to get a visa to play in Spain, or flying to an airport and not being able to use the EU queue. So for example, if I land in Spain, and three flights have just come in from Nigeria, China and Russia, and I’m behind every single person that’s been on that flight that’s going to be annoying. I’m not complaining ‘cos I don’t take my job for granted at all, but to answer the question, that will be something that will affect it.

Say travel became less easy, so you felt less inclined to leave the UK, do you think that promoters would invest more in the UK?

I’m not sure if there’d be more activity in the UK. But time will tell. I can’t really make a judgement on that, it’s a difficult one. It’s very hypothetical. It’s not even a question of whether I’d like to see it or not. I feel like there are enough good dances.

So we’re not starved for dances across the country…

London ain’t the greatest at the moment, there’s not as many great clubs as there used to be. But then you go out to student towns that have all got venues, so I don’t think there’s a lack of activity.

It’s 2016 and photo sharing culture is rife. We live in an instant messaging, instant upload era. Because of that, people share areas of their lives that are quite intimate. How do you feel about the idea of sharing relationships publicly, based on your personal experiences?

I think it’s very thin ice. People love to make up their own ideas of what’s going on and a personal relationship is something that no one should have an idea about. But then, from my personal experience, where I had a relationship that was lived out online in a way, it was because I was a DJ and she was a photographer. So we were both naturally online anyway, and as she was a photographer she was always on Instagram so it kinda made sense at the time because we were helping each other out on a work level, and that’s how I treated it. I never treated it as showing off or “here’s us on holiday”, it was more candid. But it can become very damaging, very quickly.

Based on your experiences, would you recommend trying to avoid that?

I just believe they should be two separate things. Business and pleasure don’t mix, they never have. It’s a well known saying. If you’re a DJ, as much as your other half might want to come to every rave ‘cos they think it’s a party and they’re going to have fun, they might not realise that it’s actually your job. It’s like, I wouldn’t wanna go to your photo shoot unless I could help you – you know what I mean?

It’s different if you’re on the level of Brad and Angelina. But look at Kurt Cobain’s relationship for example. They were both on heroin, then she was on heroin whilst pregnant and all this was in the press, and it’s like, “Ah, you’re such bad parents!”. It must kill you… on that level. Let alone the level that I was doing it on, which was basically 30,000 Twitter followers. This is millions of people. But yeah, it’s fucking driven people to suicide.

Yeah, that idea of other people being too aware of your personal life, especially areas that are quite intimate. Your advice to young people on the come up, or experiencing some social media success, is to try to avoid sharing those aspects of your life?

Yeah. Instagram’s made for shit like that in a way, but if you’re going to do it, just limit it. For example, my work Instagram is my work Instagram, I don’t have a personal Instagram. I deleted my Facebook. I don’t even like living my life online anymore. I just don’t feel like it’s necessary. It is to a degree, but I don’t think it’s necessary to bare all. I’ve never been one to wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m quite a hard person to crack.

Thirteen Weeks Oneman takes place every Friday until September 23 at XOYO. More info at 13weeksoneman.com

Words: Timi Ben-Edigbe

Images: Vicky Grout

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