Red Bull Music Academy alum Om Unit gets questioned by a man who knows him better than most anybody, his music journalist housemate Laurent Fintoni.
In the ten years I’ve known him, I’ve interviewed Jim Coles in an artistic capacity twice: both during his incarnation as hip hop producer and DJ 2tall. For most of the 2000s he made his own path, working independently, spending time between the worlds of turntablism and indie hip hop, performing and releasing albums and EPs on UK and US labels and running a studio in North London. In other words, he honed his craft.
Sometime around 2008 he began a process of transformation, shedding the artistic skin he’d assumed for close to a decade and reinventing himself as Om Unit. Under that guise he began exploring more electronic aesthetics, his output slowly garnering acclaim and support from the likes of Kode 9, Mark Pritchard, dBridge and Benji B. In 2011 he attended the Red Bull Music Academy in Madrid.
Two years ago we also became flatmates, so when RBMA asked me to interview him, it was both funny and a little strange at first. As the logic goes though, who better to speak to him?
For people who’ve discovered you via your more recent work in the last few years, can you break down your artistic evolution over the past decade in your own words?
I produced as 2tall for a while, from around 2003 up until 2008. It was one phase of my life, which of course informs everything I do now.
As 2tall I produced three albums, namely Shifting Tides, Beautiful Mindz (with Dudley Perkins and Georgia Anne Muldrow) and also The Softer Diagram. I put out a couple of mixtapes and remixes and performed live using decks, FX and samplers. I was also a battle DJ for a couple of years. I hit my limit working with the turntables in about 2006 though and moved to making music using your standard keyboard, sampler, DAW setup and stopped scratching so much. Essentially I wanted to make beats that were on par with what I was listening to.
I spent a few years learning techniques from opening my ears.
I was supported for a while by a now defunct label and promotions company called Eclectic Breaks, run by a guy called Siya. He helped out quite a few people back then, was kind of a mentor. We had this hub up in Hornsey where DJs would roll through and make mixes, or record dubs in the studio. I did stuff like mixing down special vocal cuts for Mutya Buena’s carnival mixtape one week, mixing scratch beats the next. I definitely learned about studio etiquette that way. I spent a few years learning techniques from opening my ears. I did a stint with Various Production performing with their live show, which gave me stage and tour experience too.
So ultimately the journey has been pretty much 100 percent organic, and just collaborating and exploring myself through art, which lead me to Om Unit. Om is a sacred syllable, it’s Sanskrit meaning can be taken as where energy becomes matter, or potential becomes reality – manifestation essentially. Unit is a single thing or person.
I have to thank Plastician and Nomad who started playing my early demos and eventually releasing them on Terrorhythm as the Corridor EP. From there I worked with All City Records and Civil Music, who are currently the main home. And I now run my own label, Cosmic Bridge, and have collaborated with Machinedrum for Planet Mu, Sam Binga for Exit and remixed quite a lot of folks over the last two, three years. Just enjoying going where music takes me, it's a joy now as well as my job.
I’ve got this theory that scratching – as a practice – has played a key, often unspoken, role in the evolution of hip hop and electronic styles in the ’00s. It seems to me that while scratching and the scratch music “scene” that came with it was a musical dead-end, it acted as a launch pad for a generation of artists to be way more exploratory in their approach to making music, more ballsy. Now that this period is behind you, what’s your take on it all?
It's a hugely unspoken thing. The worldwide turntablist movement in the early ’00s gave birth to so much creativity. I think back then it was almost cheaper to buy turntables and learn to DJ and cut as a means of expression and maybe carve a career. Technology has given us all the option to use so many more tools at a more accessible cost, so logically people have gravitated to using all sorts of other stuff. Personally, it gave me a huge appreciation of sampling. Some of my friends were really into digging so I would learn a little from them about that art. I guess in the end I never got so into sampling as much as trying to create my own stuff, hence the move to producing and mixing and learning about all that. I can draw upon sampling records whenever I need to. I still buy old records quite a bit.
The art of scratching is quite a seriously underground thing now too, I think Joe Public got bored once the battles became too technical, and then hip hop as a movement began to expand out from the traditional golden era sound, so I think DJs didn't necessarily need to be that creative any more either, with the exception of the greats. Check out the Community Scratch BBQ guys, that whole crew are sick.
I think turntablism gave me a deep appreciation of rhythm, humour, of time dedicated to an instrument or a pursuit, and so I am grateful to have been a part of that and have taken that away with me. For me it feels like I passed through jazz school!
It’s perhaps fair to say that in the four years since Om Unit was born it took you a little while to find your feet, sonically and stylistically. You played with hip hop and slow house ideas at first, before hitting what would arguably be a turning point with the Phillip D Kick “experiment,” which played a big part in kicking off the footwork jungle craze of recent years. When you killed it you said that the PDK project was “only ever meant to be fun,” yet I feel that rather than discarding it altogether you've absorbed it into your work, as exemplified by the “slowfast” approach that has characterised much of the EPs you put out following it. How have the lessons from it matured for you, and you much do you feel has really informed what came after?
Well I should say firstly, that I feel I’ve definitely found a groove right now, but like anyone I’m not trying to be too limited to one thing, all that happens if you do that is you end up making quite minimal, reductive music, which isn’t for me so much.
Early on I was definitely toying with stuff, playing with expectations on purpose to shake off a label – that was by design. I wanted to come out versatile and perhaps encourage others to do the same somehow. Check out the All City 7-inch as an example, or my remix for Shigeto on Ghostly, which are some of my favourites from that time.
What I like about footwork is the nod to Africa, which few seem to mention. People are caught up in the 808 thing, but it's the rhythm for me which is more important.
And, yes, the PDK thing definitely set it off. I have to give a big shout to Mike Paradinas at Planet Mu for putting me on to Chicago footwork music. I was very much turned onto that after hearing him play a footwork set to 20 people or so at Plastic People a few years back. What I like about that music is the nod to Africa, which few seem to mention. People are caught up in the 808 thing, but it's the rhythm for me which is more important. If you see the dancing too you can see the clear link to Africa, it's hi-tech soul again, but this time with a kind of disposable twist, with the quickly laid down tracks vibe.
I liked the link it had to jungle though, which is my first love in music essentially, I grew up with that music. I think since doing that project I've felt a need to explore this “slow-fast” feel which I got a taste of from seeing dBridge play once – he's a master of rhythm I have to add. That night flipped my head upside down. I went home and made the Aeolian EP almost straight away, taking in ideas and blending. That's what I like to do the most it seems, kind of like a creative DJ would, perhaps informed by turntablism in a sense.
That approach seems to have paid off, considering that in the years between PDK ending and now you’ve not only worked on EPs for Civil but had releases and interest from dBridge’s own Exit as well as Metalheadz, two rather foundational labels of the d&b/jungle scene. How has the move in that direction been?
PDK had mixed responses. I always try to look at music and art as “it exists,” all else is opinion. Some stuff is “better,” i.e. more well realised, while some things are functional, they are prototype, e.g. early Autonomic, No U-Turn circa '96, Logical Progression and the combo of Goldie and Rob Playford for example. That music wasn’t all polished and wasn’t all so much about production quality as much as the power of an idea. I can say that the PDK project has influenced a lot of people and brought some attention over to other sides of what I do, so overall for me and for those who feel it, it’s been very positive.
I have to say anyone that’s into the music should watch Metalheadz closely in the near future.
From that searching and blending of ideas, I have recently worked with Sam Binga, formerly Baobinga, for Exit, which was a great affirmation for me given that dBridge is one of my favourite DJs. I've also recently made a record for Metalheadz, which is an honour. It’s not your average drum & bass record, it’s an idea. I can’t go in and make drum & bass like the masters, as it’s not my world as such so I’ve done my own thing and it turns out that the headz team love it. I’ve had some great phone conversations with Goldie about the state of play in drum & bass and I have to say anyone that’s into the music should watch Metalheadz closely in the near future.
Overall, it’s great to have such a positive global response especially perhaps in such a time where a lot of people are cashing in by making quite reductive, safe 4/4 music. Every gig as a DJ is a challenge, I find sometimes people look a bit baffled, sometimes they really get into it. I enjoy carving something unique to myself generally – it means I own it and I don’t have to answer to anyone. I do try to make it work for the people, but then if I was to compromise I’d lose my individuality, which is the tightrope we walk ultimately.
Do you think there is a new school of drum & bass/jungle emerging? A sort of nexus point between the music as it’s existed for over ten years now but also the energy and aesthetics that footwork has brought to the tempo, all of which has combined with the potential for flipping between full and half time, the whole “slowfast” thing. It's not just you, others like Mark Pritchard, Machinedrum, Kode9 and younger artists have seemingly found a wealth of potential in this particular spot, and yet it sort of defies traditional genre boundaries.
For sure, there’s always a new school when it comes to any genre, there’s plenty of creativity being displayed all over the place in every genre/microgenre I think. When it comes to the footwork / jungle blend I think we're really at the end of that being something fresh already. It’s like bootleg culture at the moment. We need to move beyond making edits and remixes of jungle and into something deeper. 808s will go out of fashion (again) soon and what will stand the test of time? Traditional genre boundaries in 2013 are null and void from the top down, we need to really get over that and just enjoy music for what it is. I think your average young person just takes that for granted by this point, we’re in our thirties and we grew up with boundaries so I do hear that from a lot of older people, but I think it’s no longer such a relevant thing to think about any more. In terms of working in this style of music, it’s fun. It feels like sped-up dubstep to be honest. Perhaps that’s something people should think about? Dubstep at 160, I know myself and Mark Pritchard have been on that tip for a while, it’s fun.
We’ve spoken about the search for the “new” before, something truly exhilarating and groundbreaking which seems to be lacking from a lot of a modern music, dance or otherwise. Dubstep is the last time I remember being genuinely shocked out of my system, and, since then, footwork’s explosion has had a similar effect but in different ways. What’s your personal take on it all, do you hear anything out there – whether tracks sent or heard – that hints at something new or do you think it’s more a period of transition and something has yet to emerge?
It's only lacking to us as men in our early thirties because we've seen so much. I am, at this point, quite desensitised if I'm honest. Currently you have 18 year-olds thinking deep house is shocking and new because it is to them, but that’s subjective. To me, Burial’s music is still something special, not for the composition especially but because he can effectively channel a feeling that comes out of a timeless place, which is ultimate art really. Timeless stuff that doesn’t need to be shocking. I find that more interesting. I like the shock of the OLD sometimes – finding an early ’80s synth record that sounds like footwork or that one Vangelis tune I have that has a straight up garage bassline on it. Listening to Bartók or Sun Ra. You can be shocked by something old too. Again, subjective to the culture it's presented to and ultimately the individual.
Philosophically you could argue that the potential for all things to exist was realised the moment the universe came into being. All art is just measuring the unknown that is already there. It’s a static reflection of something you already know, which can be shocking. When something hits you and you resonate with it so strong it’s because you have a feeling it speaks to you deeply, your higher self already knows it exists, the music is just an affirmation. It’s actually the last step.
There is an accepted “new hot thing” every week because linear thinking is struggling to draw a line between stuff, a lineage.
Looking at footwork? It's functional music, it’s for kids to footwork to. It’s never going to be felt in Europe in the same way as it does to a young footwork dancer in Chicago. It serves a purpose, but culturally it’s a little skewed from what we in Europe might know, hence the various re-appropriations. Obviously I’m just talking common sense here, but really dubstep resonated so hard with London because it came from here, and still encapsulates part of our social fabric, in the same way jungle did and still does. Footwork I don't think will ever reach that level of integration in the UK. I could be wrong.
You can’t look at music and say, “It’s a period of transition.” That’s too reductionist for the terrain of art now. There is no “it” when it comes to art. There are trends but those are just whatever fickle media types are pointing their scopes at, aren’t they? There is an accepted “new hot thing” every week because linear thinking is struggling to draw a line between stuff, a lineage. You might call today’s paradigm chaos, I like to think that music and art scenes and microgenres and movements are all happening in parallel now, and ideas mingle and bubble up, but really if you are trying to label or define a thing as being a thing which is new and happening, it’s probably because you're just focused on that. We have to break out of that to understand the terrain before us, it’s vast and beautiful and now it’s up to every person to create in the exact way they see fit and get really good at it, get book smarts, street smarts and self-knowledge and pour all of that into it too. Make a career out of being “insert name here” instead of being a vocational slave to someone else’s idea of what structure is. Like Sun Ra said, “History? That’s his story, not my story.”
Header photo: Jonangelo Molinari