Smouldering away in the ether of contemporary electronic music is London based DJ/producer, Jim Coles, otherwise known as Om Unit.
“Om” The supreme and most sacred syllable, consisting in Sanskrit of the three sounds (a), (u), and (m), representing various fundamental triads and believed to be the spoken essence of the universe. “Unit” a single thing or person.
Initially a fan of early 90s jungle and hardcore, before getting into house and garage, he went on to produce hip-hop and scratch music under the 2tall alias for a number of years, before a change of direction in 2009 saw him metamorphose into the guise we know now as Om Unit. Purporting a sound which he himself loosely describes as “electronic music with a soul”, Om Unit’s music resists definition, but at it’s core is deep, soulful, expertly blending an eclectic range of influences, and has garnered interest from the Plastician, Benji B, Alex Nut, Mark Pritchard, the Brainfeeder crew, and a whole host of future thinking luminaries.
Making his name under the new moniker with his incredible ‘Pop Lock’ remix of Joker’s seminal “Digidesign” in January 2010, Om Unit subsequently went on to release his debut 7” “Lightgrids/Lavendar” on All City later that month. His track, “Encoded”, was then included on the fabric Elevator Music Vol. 1 compilation in February. Having just released his next record, Searching, on Stretched Records, and, with a forthcoming EP on Plastician’s Terrorhythm imprint out later this month, Juno Plus writer Belinda Rowse caught up with Om Unit and find out what’s what…
To start off, can you tell us what an average week in the life of Om Unit is like?
Back and forth from place to place, I share a studio so when I’m not in there, I’m either doing some teaching, crashing on sofas etc.
You mentioned to me earlier that you worked with young offenders teaching them music. What is it, do you think, that makes music a healing force?
Music is a language that goes beyond cultural and language barriers. What I mean is that music is an essential part of the human being, and without music that is in tune with your spirit, you can’t really be a complete person. Music is a shared experience and that shared experience makes us feel part of something greater, which ultimately heals. A lot of young people use music as a means to represent who they are, for example in the UK, their culture is so bleached out that it’s important for them to find media to relate too. Thank god for the internet!
Does the work you do during the day inspire or inform your own productions at all?
They are so resilient and don’t even know it. Often they are in the situation they’re in because of parental issues or social conditions, generally, and because of a young perspective they just accept that’s how it is. It’s sometimes only the adults around them that see the potential for change. Often so called ‘young offenders’ are really just incredibly bright young people who were ignored or rejected at school for being misfits, and reacted by rejecting the system. I have met some old heads on young shoulders that inspire me in many ways.
So how would you describe the music you produce to someone who’d not heard it before?
I think ‘electronic music with a soul’ would come close but I find that hard to answer to be honest.
What have been your biggest releases to date and what is it about them that made them special?
My first release was the “Digidesign” remix I did for Joker – that was very well received – followed by the All City release of “Lightgrids/Lavender” which I’d say also seems to still surprise people. I’d say right now it’s the “Searching” release on Stretched Records, because it’s the newest! And one of my best friends put it out.
You used to produce under the name 2tall, right? So what caused the change in direction and moniker?
Indeed. I felt too stigmatised by what I had done previously, because I did a lot in a short space of time, people kind of saw 2tall as a hip-hop/scratch type of guy, which I was in my early 20s. But I began to explore other things and I felt the need for a clean break. I mean, I used to play house, garage and jungle and stuff back in late 90s and at university, and before that I was into hardcore. Now I’m happy to stick it all in a big melting pot and just do “me” one hundred percent.
“Music is a language that goes beyond cultural and language barriers. What I mean is that music is an essential part of the human being, and without music that is in tune with your spirit, you can’t really be a complete person.”
Cool. I’ve also read that you were a DMC finalist and turntablist – when was this? Tell us more about it…
I was, it was in the tail end of the DMC thing, back in 2003; I had this crew ‘The Truesicians’, we competed at the world final, it was nuts. I also did some solo DJ battles and stuff, b-boy stance! To be honest it was a personal hype thing, for profile. A lot of people were on that tip, I think I innovated a little but to be honest I didn’t enjoy it so I got out. I like to think I helped innovate though.
So do you see yourself as a producer first or a DJ, or do they rather go hand in hand for you?
I’m a producer first, but I can competently mix and am happy playing different styles as a DJ.
Who and what, would you say, have been the biggest influences on you – people, books, art, films, other producers?
West Coast beat music – it gave me the courage to start something new. Artists like Take, Kutmah, Ras G, Dday One etc. Also over here I started going to the CDR night in London at Plastic People (burntprogress) and just hearing all this great stuff helped give me courage. The producer collective in London is strong, lots of people doing their thing, also through Soundcloud/Twitter/Ustream internet podcasts and stuff, I just keep hearing great fresh sounding beats! One of the biggest influences personally has been Joseph Campbell, he was a professor of mythology. Check him out.
Interesting. The whole music industry vibe can be pretty intense, especially when you have to work DJ gigs with studio time and a day job – how do you stay focussed?
By being healthy as I can, and paying attention because I’m a dreamer.
I know you were big in to your jungle in your youth. What artists, tracks or albums in particular from this era have influenced you and your music? What is it about them that captured your imagination?
It was just so futuristic at the time – it was like an alien ship had landed in my innocent little world when I heard it first. I remember I was on the school bus and my mate played me a mixtape; all I heard first was the sub bass and it just did something to me. After that I realised it was made with computers and I wanted to do it. I was very much a fan of V Records, the whole Bristol thing with Dope Dragon/Philly Blunt. Krust is a genius producer, his record True Stories is a masterpiece of jungle. Also the Torque album on No U Turn was deep and pretty much saw me through the last two years of school nicely – the soundscapes they created with just a sampler and a couple of drum machines, the raw energy that went into that, it was dark but beautiful. There hasn’t really been a decent social and movement in the UK since then for me either, as much as I like grime, it’s not the same thing really, jungle was about something more than the individual. Dubstep has come close though!
Can you pinpoint any seminal club or listening experiences that led on to big things or moments of creativity?
So many…Madlib continuously turned my head upside down, people talk a lot of faff about him because he does a lot of different stuff, but they need to get the unreleased beat tapes and see what’s going on, he’s incredible, I know that much. Other than that I guess hearing sub bass for the first time at 14 was the biggest thing. I used to love listening to Cypress Hill for the production – raw and dirty! Also one piece of music that really set it off was “Swords” by Leftfield – it just hit me. Also Krust and Saul Williams coded language. And when I first heard Flying Lotus’ “Spicy Sammich”, I was like, ‘finally the revolution is here!’
And where are you on this whole future garage thing at the moment, particularly as a fan of garage from back in the day?
I was a garage kid for a while myself, definitely at 17, down the pub listening to E-Z mixtapes and rocking my white polo shirt playing pool and all that. I love some of what I hear now, a good example of this ‘future garage’ (actually it’s just garage really isn’t it!?) would be “Pariah – Orpheus”, such a tune.
So can you tell us what’s on your ‘most played’ list on iTunes at the moment?
I only use iTunes to organise my Serato folder. But on the ipod it’s currently the album “Paramatma” by Mono/Poly. Also the “Arp-101” release on Eglo. I’ve been listening to a lot of Computer Jay beats these past few days, that guy is nuts. The last Caribou album got heavy rotation too.
“Jungle was just so futuristic at the time – it was like an alien ship had landed in my innocent little world when I heard it first. I remember I was on the school bus and my mate played me a mixtape; all I heard first was the sub bass and it just did something to me.”
What other artists out there do you really rate at the moment which you’d recommend we check out?
Ras G, Take, Kutmah, Flying lotus, Mr Beatnick, Model 500, Caribou, L-Vis, Girl Unit, Seiji, Computer Jay, Madlib, The Knife, Lorn, Arciteq, Lukid, Actress, Bullion, Paul White, Dam Funk, Funkineven, Floating Points, Skream, Deep Space Orchestra, Metro Area, Morgan Geist, Newworldaquarium, Mark E, Motor City Drum Ensemble, Madlib…so many!
In fact, I know you’ve been in the studio with Lorn recently – anything exciting going on there?
Yes, he’s an old friend from back in the scratch days, we got in my studio and made some fire! Watch this space.
Exciting stuff. Look forward to that. So asides from this are there any other big projects or collabs on the go?
Hopefully a track on Adult Swim’s Ghostly Swim 2 compilation. Other than that just finishing up remixes at the moment for Daedelus and Computer Jay. Another record almost done for the end of the year hopefully, as well as a collaboration with Take (aka Sweatson Klank).
Just to finish up, is there anything else I’ve not mentioned which you want to flag up?
Look out for remixes from me forthcoming for Pure Phase, Foreign Beggars, Shigeto, Take, Pixelord, Kidkanevil. “Searching” is out now on Stretched Records with remixes from EAN and Adam Freeland. The Corridor EP is out soon on Terrorhythm Records.
Interview: Belinda Rowse
Photo by Charlie Whatley