An interview with drum 'n' bass DJ Ros Atkins - Features - Mixmag

An interview with drum 'n' bass DJ Ros Atkins

Ahead of the debut set at Glastonbury, Aneesa Ahmed speaks to drum 'n' bass DJ Ros Atkins - who's also a BBC News presenter - about raving in the '90s, running club nights, and the contemporary d'n'b scene

  • Words: Aneesa Ahmed | Photos: Courtesy of BBC & Ros Atkins
  • 21 June 2024

You may only know Ros Atkins as the presenter of BBC’s Outside Source, or for his snappy yet informative explanation videos - but this summer he is billed to play a drum ‘n’ bass set at Glastonbury’s iconic Stonebridge Bar, which also welcomes dance music heavyweights Pete Tong, Annie Mac and more.

Atkins surprised many in 2022, revealing all about his former life as a drum ‘n’ bass DJ and events producer. He began DJing during his time at university and spent the late '90s and early '00s playing in Regent’s Park, Brixton, Johannesburg and more.

Since then, Atkins has been dipping his toes back into the 2020s scene. His DJing resurgence started when the Observer New Review asked about his drum ‘n’ bass days in a Q&A. Shortly after he was asked by BBC 6 Music to record a drum ‘n’ bass guest mix. “I'll be honest, I hadn't thought about DJing again,” he tells us. “But if 6 Music [asks] you to do a set, there's only one answer.”

Read this next: BBC presenter Ros Atkins reveals former life as a drum 'n' bass DJ

From there he was offered a gig by Soho venue The Social - but he needed to practice playing on some digital decks and break away from his vinyl ways. After finding his 6 Music mix on Twitter, Atkins was approached by drum ‘n’ bass icon Ray Keith, who offered to teach him the new skills. “The same Ray Keith I’ve been listening to ever since sixth form,” Atkins wrote on a Twitter thread. “He took me through everything from the kit, to mixing techniques, to tune selection. I soaked it all up.”

After a couple of gigs at The Social, Atkins was in disbelief when Carl Gosling, who works at the venue, was toying with the idea of a Ros Atkins Glastonbury set. Fast forward to 2024 and it’s happening - something that he “hasn’t remotely got used to”.

We caught up with Atkins ahead of his Glastonbury set to ask him more about his former life as a drum ‘n’ bass DJ, including his first raves in hometown Cornwall, how he got into DJing, his South African and South London parties, and about his favourite contemporary drum ‘n’ bass artists.

Firstly, how are you feeling about your Glastonbury set?

A bit daunted! But, of course, I'm really excited too. And also very grateful to have been asked.

Tell us about the first time you ever DJed, how did you get into it?

I'd been listening to dance music since 1991 when a friend came into school with a bunch of cassettes of different mixes. For a time at university, I had the 'entertainment' job on our college's student union. It was around then I thought maybe I could give this a go and started buying 12 inches. That was 1995.

When you first started to get into drum ‘n’ bass, which artists and DJs were you a fan of?

There's a long list! LTJ Bukem, Peshay, PFM, Dr S Gachet, DJ Ratty, Fabio, Kenny Ken, Ray Keith, Nookie, Photek, Omni Trio, Andy C, DJ SS, High Sense and many others. In the first few years, I was only listening on cassette so I didn't really know the tunes by name - though I knew all the DJs. It was only later when I started buying records that I went back and worked out what the DJs had been playing.

Read this next: 12 of the best late-90s drum 'n' bass tracks

You’ve tweeted about going to raves with other kids from Cornwall, what were these raves like and what’s your favourite memory from one?

I went to a few over the years. After leaving Cornwall, I went to a Temptation in Cambridge, United Dance in Stevenage, Helter Skelter in Milton Keynes - there was hardcore and drum 'n' bass at all of those, which I was very keen on as I liked them both. I went to Speed in London too to see LTJ Bukem and Fabio. Back in Cornwall, it felt like the centre of the scene was a venue called The Shire Horse near St Ives. I'd sometimes go down there with mates from school. There was a small club by the station in Penzance that put on drum 'n' bass nights too.

My favourite memory would be seeing Bukem for the first time at that rave in Cambridge. I knew his stuff so well from all the cassettes we traded - but seeing him live was amazing. And, of course, we went and bought the cassette of the set a few weeks later.

There is one, though, that got away - a lot of my friends went to the legendary Bournemouth Fantazia in the summer of 92. I can remember everyone building up to it the week before. I don't remember why I didn't go but I regret it! I know that final hour Ellis Dee set inside out - when he plays Awesome 3 right at the end, it's a moment - but one I wasn't there for!

I also bought a ticket to a multi-day Obsession in '94 in Cornwall, which got cancelled at the last minute. Never did get our money back on the tickets! So there were some twists and turns.

You moved to Johannesburg and DJed there in the 90s. What was the music and club scene like in Johannesburg – and how was it different to the UK at the time?

It was so different and so exciting. There were parties going on in all sorts of different venues. I DJed every Friday and Saturday night at a club called 206 Live, which I adored - still the best club I think I've known. Every night was a completely different vibe and it was a scene in itself for a while. I was playing a whole range of different music at that time. Drum 'n' bass wasn't a big part of the music scene but there were the occasional nights that focused on it.

I remember a big rave at the train station in downtown Johannesburg. The main event was, I think, a big German trance DJ but there was a much smaller d'n'b room that I was booked to play. I remember showing up with my 12 inches in the old record box of my Grandpa's that I used to use and thinking - well, I didn't imagine this happening!

You ran a night in Brixton - what was it called and where was it?

It was a night called Sharp at the Brixtonian Havana Club, just by the leisure centre. I lived in the Caribbean a couple of times when I was young, and also lived in South Africa after university - and so listened to a lot of music from both places. This wasn't a drum 'n' bass night - most of the tunes were soca, calypso, reggae, house, kwaito. I remember DJ Slic who did the 1Xtra soca show at the time came along one night. He was incredible.

Read this next: “Indo-Caribbeans are underrepresented”: How Windrush migration inspired a truly global club movement

You’re still a South London dweller, do you still go out?

I do. Not as much as I used to but I do - mainly to Peckham and Brixton.

You told the Observer that your last gig before your decades-long hiatus was at Regent’s Park before the birth of your daughter - do you remember what tracks you played there?

I do remember that set quite well. I was on after Hedkandi, I remember seeing the sign with the set list quite clearly when I showed up. I'll be honest I wasn't quite sure what to play and I think my choices showed that. I played an array of different genres - good tunes in isolation but I'm not sure it was my most coherent set. I'm a soca fan and had been to Trinidad carnival a couple of years before and had come home with a load of tracks. I remember playing 'Craziness' by Machel Montano - sounded good to hear that!

What’s been your favourite gig you’ve ever played? Why?

Not long after I started DJing, my time at university was wrapping up. And just before we all went our separate ways, I organised a party on our college's sports ground (with permission!). It wasn't complicated - turntables, a mixer, an amp and some speakers. And we all danced in the dark. I remember I had a couple of new Homegrown Records 12"s I was very pleased with. There was a simplicity to the night - some of the best parties are like that.

What’s your opinion of drum ‘n’ bass in the 2020s? Are you keeping up with it? Who are some artists and DJs you’re a fan of right now?

It seems to me in rude health. Drum 'n' bass now spans such a range of styles. Some feel connected to where it all started - some feel completely new. To be honest, I'm keen on it all. I do my best to keep up - but I'm not as across every last release as I might have been years ago. I'm a big fan of Bladerunner. Nia Archives, of course. And Tim Reaper. Can't stop listening to Culture Shock's 'Discotheque' at the moment - am aware I'm several years late to that. And, needless to say, like everyone, I've watched the Chase & Status Boiler Room set.

Have you ever produced your own tracks? If so, what have they been like, and if not would you ever like to learn?

I haven't. But I watch lots of YouTube videos about how they're made. Perhaps this is the first step towards taking the plunge! I'm fascinated by how it's done. I watched DJ Zinc the other day talking about how he produces the breakbeats he uses. It was seriously impressive.

read this next: DJ Zinc: "I love technology but I wonder if we've lost something along the way"

When you DJ, are you a planner or do you prefer living in the moment and playing by ear?

Generally, I tend to try and respond to what is going down well with the crowd. In my 20s, I would very rarely plan sets. I did, and still do, work on runs of tracks that I know I can stitch together and that will work in that order. I find it helpful to have those in mind. I should say, though, with this Glastonbury set, I am plotting it out in a little more detail than normal - I want to give myself a good chance of hanging it together.

Do you DJ analogue or digital or both?

Digital only now.

As a BBC News journalist, why do you think explanation and education is important?

Public service journalism is all about explaining what's happening in our world in a way that is useful and engaging. If the first step is to decide which stories and issues matter most, and the second step is to assemble the information we need to explain those stories and issues - the final part of the equation is to make sure we can explain all of this in a way that is comprehensible and consumable. Explanation is at the heart of what we do.

Are there any transferable skills between DJing and broadcast journalism?

I wouldn't stretch this too far! But I think it helps to be clear what you're trying to do, to prepare well - and to take note of how the audience is responding to you, and to change course if it's not working for them. All of those help me both at work and when DJing.

For the sake of future University Challenge contestants, what’s the difference between jungle and drum ‘n’ bass?

I feel like this is one that Mixmag could take on!

Read this next: The gentrification of jungle

Ros Atkins will be DJing at Glastonbury's Stonebridge Bar on Saturday from 3.30:PM to 5:PM

Aneesa Ahmed is a freelance journalist, follow her on Twitter

Next Page
Newsletter 2

Mixmag will use the information you provide to send you the Mixmag newsletter using Mailchimp as our marketing platform. You can change your mind at any time by clicking the unsubscribe link in the footer of any email you receive from us. By clicking sign me up you agree that we may process your information in accordance with our privacy policy. Learn more about Mailchimp's privacy practices here.