Having braved the blazing heat, glorious beaches and low cost of beer, I was able to take in four whole days of music (I missed the first night in my flying metal coffin/plane) at this year’s Soundwave in Tisno, Croatia. In between the delightful tunes and famously ace burgers I managed to get a couple of minutes to chat to Om Unit, who earlier in the festival provided one of its highlights – no mean feat at a festival which included two sets from DJ Yoda and DJ Kentaro, De La Soul, Ghostpoet, Teebs and Plaid.
With a musical background that includes DJ battles and teaching music production to aspiring DJs and producers, Jim “Om Unit” Coles is definitely what you’d call a DJ’s DJ. Starting out as 2tall, Coles garnered international acclaim for his eye-watering mixes and technical know-how. For the most part of the 2000′s, Coles spent his time “going back and forth between performing and producing”. But his career (in the loosest sense of the word) stretches back even further, past the 2tall cut-up records and the distant memories of his first alias Nyquist.
“I started making music in about ’94 but I wasn’t releasing anything I was just a bedroom guy, I used to chop up breaks and make jungle and techno and stuff. Basically, I started out semi-professionally as a battle DJ and making tracks using just turntables then I went into performing with it.”
And if that wasn’t enough credibility, he’s also self-taught. Having never actually been to the raves that built up what must be an encyclopedic collection of music, Coles admits he “thought they were doing it live. I never realised it was just DJs playing records.” After exploring the scene and doing his homework, as all good producers should, he learned about breaks, bought the software and started making and cutting up his own breaks.
It should be noted that during this time, he still had one of those dreaded day jobs we all hear about. Fortunately, this still fell within his love of the beat, “I was a teacher, teaching music production for about 8 years, teaching kids in youth centres. When the government cut funding it started to get hard to get work. Ironically, that gave me the kick up the arse to actually push this.” With more than a hint of a smile, Coles admits he is glad to be able to perform, produce and mix as Om Unit full time.
But one has to wonder what options there are for those unfortunate souls who find themselves DJing and producing too much too have a day job, without the paycheck to support themselves. The subject of patronage and its renewed relevance in this period of musical and financial flux we find ourselves in.
“The Red Bull Music Academy, who’ve been really supportive of me, has given me faith in a corporation actually doing something bonafide. I see them as being like a patron. My flatmate Lauren Fintoni was telling me about this idea of a patron where, back in the 1600s through the renaissance, working artists were given a room by someone very wealthy and they were supported by patrons who allowed them to live while they did their art. If it’s not going to be someone like Red Bull, then who is it gonna be? Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist world so money is what you need to survive, obviously. I see it as a necessary evil.”
An interesting solution to the current problem of how the hell an artist is supposed to support themselves on minimal record sales without touring themselves into an early grave. I have to admit my own trepidation in the early days of the RBMA, but it seems to literally be a no-strings platform for respected, and in a lot of cases underpaid, artists to get their music out to wider audiences whilst encouraging discussion between professionals and up-and-coming producers trying to hone their craft. An unexpectedly noble and altruistic venture from such a large corporation.
Fortunately, patronage and funding is not one of Coles’ main concerns right now (although there probably aren’t many artists for whom this concern completely disappears). Right now, his main priority is his career goals and making them happen. Having said that, even on this subject Coles remains typically relaxed and upbeat: “I’m gonna keep doing what I’m doing, keep making music. I might do an EP. I have to do an album. That’s in my plan. I want to work with more musicians but plans change over time, to keep getting better at putting what’s in my mind in music. There will be an album but I can’t say when.”
When pressed further on who exactly he’d like to work with, two particular names crop up that betray Coles for what he is: a beat-head of the highest order who spends as much time researching and listening to music as he does producing it, “I’d really like Shlohmo to do something. He’s got an interesting take on sonic textures but he’s got a really nice balance and a really good voice to. It’s electronic shoegaze. I’d have to get Dabrye because he’s a massive influence on me … he’s so versatile and so unspoken. He’s only really known by beat-heads, he’s this quiet dude. People don’t give him props as much as they should. He’s probably the foundation of a lot of people’s tastes these days and they don’t even know of him. I’d like to introduce him to people who like my stuff.”
And that sums Om Unit up perfectly. His teaching is as much a part of his music as performance and production, getting just as excited about introducing people to the music of others than talking about himself. Perhaps this is just enthusiasm for music, or perhaps it betrays a fundamental modesty, self-consciousness even.
“Sometimes I feel my music goes over people’s heads a bit, it’s not everybody’s cup of tea but I still don’t understand how people relate to my music. I find it difficult to understand how the listener hears it, so when I get a good reaction it’s always like this surprising moment. There’s been some amazing gigs where people have really got into what I’m doing and that’s the highlight. You create art to be accepted.
“‘Am I alright? Is this alright?’”