Oliver Jones aka Skream has hit the upper echelons of the DJ world twice. First, as one of the pioneers of dubstep – which he helped invent along with his mate Beni ‘Benga’ Adejumo when the pair were just 13, and which they rode all the way to global stardom – and then as a big dog house/techno/disco player. Looking at social media, though, you might be forgiven for thinking he was known as a hellraiser first: his party exploits are, after all, legendary. But anyone who knows Jones knows that for all the ups and downs, he is still the Croydon geezer he always was, and for all the video footage of him dancing on the DJ booth, he still – most of the time, at least – has both feet firmly on the ground.
On having a reputation
“I’ve never worried about going too far. Arthur (Artwork) says I’m not normal; that he’s never seen anyone like me. But I’ve never worried, never thought ‘Fuck, I’ve really done it this time.’ The way I see it, as long as your family’s cool and you’re not getting wrecked in the week, what you do at the weekend is fine. I’ve definitely calmed down, anyway – during the dubstep time I was doing a bottle of vodka straight before I played, a bottle of vodka straight during, and whatever else after. Even the thought of that now makes me feel sick. I’m nothing like even close to what I was. But the annoying thing is, no matter what I do or what state I’m in, people always say I’m fucked. There’s videos where I’m literally just enjoying a tune or having a laugh with the people I’m with, because I love what I do – but it don’t mean I’m out of my head. That pisses me off. Those comments are online forever, and I don’t want to be remembered just for being a fuckhead.”
“Being a dad is amazing. I’m not missing my son growing up, which is something I’d always worried about. OK, during the summer I’m gone a lot but otherwise it’s only weekends, so I’m with the little ’un a lot when I’m at home, and when I’m away there’s the joys of FaceTime too, so you’re never really not there. It’s mental but he’s an absolute joy to be around. Full of wisdom. One of my [tooth] veneers came off the other day, I was fuming, and he went ‘Daddy, don’t worry, there’s other people in the world got worse things, you’ll be OK’. I went ‘Wow!’ That twisted my head clean off. He understands what I do, just about. He knows I’m working to save up money for him, he knows I’m out in clubs. As he puts it at the moment, ‘Daddy’s famous’, which I’m trying to get out of his head. It’s quite sweet because he doesn’t know the stressful side of what I do, but he sort of gets it. I took him to Ibiza for holiday the other week, I took him to Café Mambo for his first sunset and he loved it, he was dancing on the table – it was pretty surreal. The owner really looked after us, gave him free ice cream, so he got to feel like a part of it.”
On Benga’s mental health issues
“I saw him one day at Radio 1, then didn’t see him for nearly two years. At first it was ‘Oh, he’s taking a break,’ – I didn’t realise how bad it was for a long time. It was a really scary and confusing time not knowing what was going on. I don’t want to be selfish and make it about my feelings, though, because what he was going through must’ve been horrific. The real confusion for me was that he was like my brother, but I was completely unaware until it [Benga’s breakdown] happened. That’s the scariest thing: I would never, ever have predicted that. It just shows you how scary mental health problems are – you might never know what someone is going through.”
“I never started out to do just one thing. I worked in a record shop, for fuck’s sake, I bought everything. I was a house and garage kid, I used to go and see my brother play at soulful house things, I was even a sucker for that Hed Kandi stuff. Dubstep was great – of course it was – but that last year going out to the States, I started to hate playing it. I was trying to incorporate other stuff into my set, I was hanging out with Boddika, and what he was doing excited me. But then that stupid cunt from The Sun said that I’d said ‘dubstep is dead’ – that basically stopped everything I was doing for six to seven months. It was pure tabloid press bullshit, but I had to defend myself everywhere I went. People would come out to see me just to question me and argue about it! It pissed me off that people would believe I’d say that about something I’d put years of my life into and some of my best friends were still doing. Even people I thought were friends were questioning me. What makes me laugh is when people say I changed for financial reasons – fucking hell, my money more or less halved when I started playing house. I was at my most famous when I played dubstep, but I made a choice to go into something unknown.”
On learning to DJ again
“When I made the decision to keep the same name but play a different tempo, I worked hard to prove myself. I wouldn’t take top-of-the-bill gigs; I wanted to build it up. I even said to Jamie Jones, ‘Look, I’ll play for you for free, just to prove I can do it.’ I needed to show it wasn’t a flash-in-the-pan thing, but what I was doing now. But now I vibe off going deep, playing people stuff they ain’t heard before – old, new, whatever. I’ve got sucked back into buying vinyl again, £500 a week gone, but now I literally love every song I play. I’m playing from my personal collection, and it’s massively made me a better DJ. I’m always thinking about what goes with what, I really think about the blend, about chord changes, about how much variety I can get in the set. I’m seeing what a great DJ – a Harvey or Villalobos – can do, taking people to other places, changing the feeling. And I can do it. I’m comfortable going back-to-back with anyone now.”
On the future
“I’ve been going back into the roots of dubstep again – the Horsepower Productions remix of Elephant Man, or El-B ‘Buck & Bury’, still with the garage swing: 2002 time. That stuff still really excites me – it was the best year’s learning of my life. I’m thinking of doing a project with just that vibe, purely because I didn’t get to make those records at that time because I didn’t know how to! But if that happens it’ll be a one-off: don’t get me wrong, I’m not thinking about changing course or anything. What I’m doing now is what I’m doing: I’m in this for the long haul, I’m really, really happy where I am now. As long as people want me, I’m there. I’m really content as a person and artistically too; I’m back in the studio and the records I’m making are becoming stand-out tracks in my set. As it goes on I want to be able to pick and choose a bit more, take the little ’un away with me if I’m doing gigs in the holidays, spend a bit more time in each place, take the time to enjoy it a bit. But what I’m doing now is what I’m going to keep doing!”
On getting on with people
"I’ve only ever had one main aim, really: don’t be a cunt. I’ve grown up around a lot of different people, I know when someone’s being a cunt, and I don’t want to be that."
Skream plays Phonox all day long on Sunday January 20
Joe Muggs is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Mixmag, follow him on Twitter