— DJ Oblig —

On grime, drill, living in New York, block parties in Rio de Janeiro, touring with Ocean Wisdom and joining the dots between people, sounds and scenes.

(All photos submitted by DJ Oblig)

DJ Oblig is a fixer, a connector, a joiner of dots. Born in New York but raised in Ealing, West London, he’s been omnipresent in grime for the last three years plus, building a reputation as one of the genre’s fiercest but also conscientious new-school DJs. “You know what bruv”, he opens our conversation with a sigh, his walls adorned with a sprawling collection of hats and gig posters. “Ealing’s a nice little area to grow up in but once you grow up, you realise nothing’s in Ealing and no one ever comes to Ealing and your whole life is just spent on trains.” 

It was a far cry from the bustling streets of New York, a city he could call home by default but one he’d not really spent much time in, despite his father’s family still residing in the States. That’d all change when he turned 23, frustrated with his life in London. “I’ve got dual nationality so I decided to move out to New York, mainly because I was bored really and wanted something new”, he reflects. “I’d just broken up with my girlfriend at the time, so it was a fresh start you know.” It was here that Oblig, who’d spent many years listening to grime as a fan — he lists ‘Konk’ by Stutta ft. Jammer and ‘Skeleton Riddim’ by Ruff Sqwad (unreleased) as two classics that first made him fall in love with the music — first started to DJ.

“The music in New York was so cool”, he says thoughtfully, “but no one knew about grime, nobody cared about grime and it was hard for me to leave London being such a big fan and realising there were no raves going on, there was nowhere to listen to it, there was nobody talking about it. The same year that I arrived in New York was actually the year Skepta started to blow with ‘That’s Not Me’ and ‘It Ain’t Safe’ and all that though, so it felt like something might change.”

Inspired by Skepta’s trajectory, Oblig felt motivated to take the plunge, starting his first ever grime party, Low Life, at a small basement venue in Manhattan, where he was given a monthly residency. “You’d walk past if you didn’t know it was there”, he says. “It was like this little, dingy basement called Leftfield with an Irish owner and he couldn’t care less. I could have four people in that rave, make no money and I’d seen him next month regardless. It was great, man.”

Armed with little more than a basic controller and his enthusiasm, it would prove his entry point into the grime scene and ultimately, the wider UK music industry  — 3500 miles away from its epicentre. “The first party I ever threw was the first time I’d ever DJ’d”, he concedes, laughing. “And of course I was cheating, I was hitting the sync button and what not.” Alongside his friend Andrew, who had moved to New York from California, they stumbled upon a formula that’d get locals dancing. “He was playing house and techno so he’d usually open and then the dubstep scene was still massive, so we’d then fill it out with 140 type shit and then I’d come on and play a full grime set.” Did it clear the room, I ask. “Sometimes”, Oblig says with a grin. “Do you know what, a lot of the trap stuff is around the same BPM, so I’d play a grime instrumental and then mix it into a 21 Savage tune, play another grime instrumental and mix it into a Skepta tune, and then a Migos tune. It was give and take. I’d get ‘em off their seats and then back into their seats. I did that for a year and a half.”

“Do you know what, a lot of the trap stuff is around the same BPM, so I’d play a grime instrumental and then mix it into a 21 Savage tune, play another grime instrumental and mix it into a Skepta tune, and then a Migos tune. It was give and take. I’d get ‘em off their seats and then back into their seats.”

At the height of Low Life’s localised success, Oblig booked Spyro and AJ Tracey — the latter had never been to the US before — to play their first birthday party, bookings that would ultimately light the touch paper for Oblig’s eventual move back to the UK. “I basically had AJ stay at my house for two weeks”, he reflects warmly. “It meant I was on my sofa for two weeks but it was fucking great. I got to see AJ develop, he got a lot of his first US contacts during that trip and I met a lot of people through people he was meeting, we ended up going on tour together. We played in Washington DC, in Denver, it was a lot of fun, man.” During his time in NYC, Reece West, GHSTLY XXVII, Snowy Danger, Logan Sama, Little Dee and Last Japan would all go onto link up with Oblig and play at Low Life and various radio sets, too. 

After three years living in New York, pangs of homesickness eventually started to set in, despite finding his niche in the city with Low Life and starting an internet radio show on a station called RWD FM, where he played almost exclusively grime music. “I was that guy playing every tune and posting every track as it played like … NOW PLAYING … this tune by such and such, live from New York”, Oblig explains. “After a while, people started thinking ‘who the fuck is this guy in New York playing our music?’ kinda thing and from there, I started getting sent loads of music and guest mixes. By the time it got to coming home to see my mum, people now had an idea of who I was, so I decided that I’d stay for three months and do the circuit, hit all the radio stations, meet people and then go back.” 

“After a while, people started thinking ‘who the fuck is this guy in New York playing our music?’ kinda thing and from there, I started getting sent loads of music and guest mixes.”

In the end, that never happened. Not intent on spending three months at home and needing to make money while he was back in London, Oblig started interning at Rinse FM after being put in touch by a friend who worked at the station. “I was just helping out with whatever needed doing and at the end of the three months, everything was just going so well, both at Rinse and outside”, he recalls. “I’d been on every station, the sets were going well, working at Rinse was going well. I was getting more responsibilities and it just felt good. I decided, do you know what, let me extend this stay to six months. And then I got offered a producer role, a paid job. I’d also lost my show on Radar Radio at the time, so it just got me thinking … there’s actually no need for me to go back at this point. In New York, I was a stock room manager at Ted Baker in Manhattan, folding clothes and telling other people to fold clothes and now I was at Rinse, doing what I want to do. I’d still planned to go back, but then I got a dream job offer via LinkedIn to work at YouTube Music. And that was it, I never went back. I think there’s still people waiting for me over there!”

With everything falling into place within a matter of months, Oblig now had a base — and the financial security — to launch himself into grime at full tilt; it soon became an unshakeable passion. “The fact that I have a career outside of everything else is really beneficial. Like, for example, I don’t need to take bookings for bookings sake anymore. I do this because I love it and if I do something because I love it then I’m gonna do it properly. It’s little things like, if I’m booking anyone from outside of London to come on a radio show, I’ll pay for their travel. I remember I had the Nottingham boys down on Rinse once and I gave Jay Eye 50 quid for petrol and he just looked at me and said, ‘Bruv, no one has ever done this before, ever’. It’s helped me build a rapport with people and I recognise I’m in a position to help and to invest in the music. I enjoy seeing people thrive.”

“I do this because I love it and if I do something because I love it then I’m gonna do it properly.”

“I also just think some people deserve money for what they do”, he continues, now impassioned. “I get that in the grime scene it’s quite easy to give free labour, like I get it, but that’s disheartening. You’re 20 years old and you’re spitting your heart away on mic and you don’t get anything from it … I think it’s why people stop making grime to be honest. I can see how difficult it would be, as a young man, to go to grime over drill or UK rap. What is gonna make these kids wanna do it anymore?”

It’s a polarising question and one that has come up time and time again over the last few years. But where others see the potential for conflict, Oblig — now as much a drill enthusiast as he is grime — sees a space for collaboration and diversification. “I think the only real difference between the two is money at this point”, he explains. “The question is how do you get a drill artist with a grime artist when essentially, they’re seen as a lesser? Technical ability wise, the grime MC is probably equal or better on mic, so it’s always been a dream of match up different MCs. I really wanna put on something with Kwengface and Lyrical Strally. I think the skippy-ness and bounciness of their flows, the wordplay, I think it’d be amazing. But how do we break those barriers down? How do we make people want to work together? I’ve done it once before in my life, when I had Kwengface going b2b with Faultsz on a drill set and I thought, ‘this is it, bruv’. I’m gonna have to do it again.”

Whether it’s flying grime artists out to the US, curating sets on both his Rinse FM show and for Tim & Barry’s Just Jam series or trying to mesh grime and drill together, Oblig’s penchant for moving between scenes and sounds is perhaps best encapsulated by his links with Brasil and the Brasil Grime Show. “Playing UK music in America sparked my interest in foreign scenes”, he explains, “and because I’d got to a certain place as one of the new wave kinda DJs, people were becoming aware of me. For some reason, they love me over there bruv. I started getting so many notifications in Portuguese early last summer and people in Brasil seemed to be really interested in me, you know. They were reposting my clips and retweeting my sets, so I just thought, what better excuse than to go to Rio? I’d wanted to go anyway but I looked at my calendar, checked when Carnival was and knew that I’d have people who’d be able to house me, so I made it happen in February. I flew myself out there and stayed for two weeks with the people who run The Brasil Grime Show. They showed me around, showed me their scene, their parties, their MCs, their DJs … it was amazing to see that.”

The Brasil Grime show, a YouTube channel established in 2019 and run out of Rio De Janeiro by a group of local grime enthusiasts, has become an important touch point for grime overseas, as local scenes in Japan and Australia did a few years before. Now boasting over 20k subscribers, the channel spotlights Brasilian MCs and DJs via filmed sets, the majority of which clock in at no longer than 30 minutes; fast and furious snapshots of a sound that carries the same absorbing, chaotic energy as UK grime. Oblig’s trip, combined with the channel’s increased visibility over the last 12 months, has inevitably opened doors and helped combat negative media stigma attached to Rio; “people see it as a dangerous place, but the vibes are so good”, he attests.

What were the parties like, I ask. “Ah so good, I went into one of the favelas on the first night”, he says, beaming. “It’s basically a mix of women dancing everywhere and guys holding guns. At first it’s bizarre, but the vibe … I can’t even describe it. I’ll never forget when I left the guys I was with to find a toilet in this favela. There was this little shop that stayed open just for people to use the toilet. I went in and spoke to the guy and was asking like, ‘banheiro, banheiro?’ and I hadn’t clocked, but he was cleaning his strap on the counter. He pointed me in the direction of the toilet with his strap and I was like, ‘okay this is mad’. As I went out, I noticed this kid, he must have been about 17, with some big Call Of Duty strap but he was just dancing and vibing along. It felt like a different world but the guys explained to me that nobody was there to hurt anybody at the party, it’s purely to protect it from an opposing gang or the authorities. Everybody was there for a good time.”

“There was this little shop that stayed open just for people to use the toilet. I went in and spoke to the guy and was asking like, ‘banheiro, banheiro?’ and I hadn’t clocked, but he was cleaning his strap on the counter. He pointed me in the direction of the toilet with his strap and I was like, ‘okay this is mad’.”

The sonics weren’t lost on Oblig during his trip either. As well as MCs, he notes that a lot of the people he spoke to would look to certain DJs and hyper-specific beats that would bleed into the more traditional sounds of the favelas. “They’re big fans of specific DJs. They love General Courts, Grandmixxer, Trends, the DJs that play sets with a bounce and a skippy-ness to them. They’d familiarise those kind of instrumentals and those patterns with Baile Funk. It’s like Baile Funk but slowed down a little bit, and I think that’s how they see it.”

Armed with this first-hand knowledge of the scene in Brasil, Oblig returned to London as a DJ with numerous strings to his bow; he’d become a fixer, a connector, a joiner of dots. “I’m actually really glad you’ve noticed that”, he says warmly. “That’s always been my aim. I’ve noticed that there are a lot people doing a lot of similar things and in the DJ game, especially when you don’t produce, you need to find a niche, something that you’re good at. For me, that’s always been curation. Whether it be a party or a putting together a sick set, putting things together and finding out what works is key. My next goal is to actually go out to Australia and meet the ONEFOUR drill lot, because I’m obsessed. Little things like flying yourself out to places to meet people and chill with them are important because it shows that people care.”

As a standalone DJ, Oblig — influenced by his favourite grime DJs in Spyro, Grandmixxer, Logan Sama and Spooky — has also flourished since his return to London, quickly becoming one of grime’s most active technicians behind a pair of decks, a reputation emboldened his weekly Friday night show on Rinse FM. It also led him to being drafted in as High Focus rapper Ocean Wisdom’s official tour DJ in 2019, which he recounts as of one of his defining highlights to date. “I did all of his festivals last summer and we headed out on his album tour at the end of the year”, he says proudly. “Doing those festivals opens your eyes to opportunities. Bruv, we did Glastonbury. Looking over at thousands of people, it was incredible, and by the end it was light work. I’ll never forget the first time I played with him, my leg was shaking under the table and I was fighting to keep it still, but by the end of the set I was up there skanking, chopping, going ham. Realising that you’re capable of doing that rearranges your mind set, it really does.”

“I’ll never forget the first time I played with him (Ocean Wisdom), my leg was shaking under the table and I was fighting to keep it still, but by the end of the set I was up there skanking, chopping, going ham.”

Further highlights including persuading legendary Birmingham MC, Sox, to come down to London and jump on set with him on Rinse — “I grew up listening to him and recalling his bars verse for verse, so the minute he walked through the door, it was a realisation of how far I’d come” — and playing a closing set for Rinse FM at The Moat at Outlook Festival last summer. “The Moat has always been my favourite stage and Outlook my favourite festival so to play it … ah bruv I’ll never forget it. My set was 5-6am and I’d been drinking non-stop, I was so waved. All day I’m thinking, ‘ah it’s 5am, people aren’t gonna stay’, forgetting what Outlook is all about, everyone is licked and ready. I just felt like I smashed it, Trilla was on set as a host for me as well which made it special. I remember at one point looking back behind me and seeing so many culturally important people and people that I respected just on the stage, jamming. Slimzee was there, Spyro was there, Oneman was there, MC Grindah was there … even Alhan was there. It was just the best set I’ve ever played and one of my favourite memories.”

With so much under his belt already, it could be difficult to roadmap where Oblig can take things next — but not for him. “I’m gonna be starting a label”, he says coyly. “It’s gonna be centred around the sounds you’d expect, mainly drill and grime, but I wanna put stuff out there that people won’t expect.” Although he continued to talk in more detail about plans for his imprint, readers will have to keep their eyes peeled for more soon.

As our conversation begins to wind down, Oblig leaning back on his chair and fixing his hat, I get the sense that his career so far is not only a testament to hard work, but also character. Details are clearly important to him, but so is making sure that people feel valued, looked after. His dreams too might be big — especially the prospect of bridging the cultural and financial gap between drill and grime — but if anyone can realise them, it’s him.

DJ Oblig plays on Rinse FM every Friday night (19.00-21.00 GMT):

https://bit.ly/oblig_rinse_fm

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