Oris Jay never wanted to be a producer. It might sound odd given that he’s one of the most revered beatmakers in British bass music, but all he ever wanted was to be a working DJ. Oris was steeped in amplified music from early childhood: he was brought up by his Jamaican grandmother who played records constantly in the house, and his hometown Sheffield was one of the UK’s great reggae centres, with soundsystem parties part of the fabric of life, so the idea of the Selecter as a desirable role was taken as a given before Oris was even of an age to go to clubs. Even as a schoolboy he found a powerful connection with soundsystem culture.
When he did start going out, it was at an epochal moment. In the late 80s, even as the rest of the country was swept by acid house, Sheffield created its own, massively influential dance sound. At 15, he would sneak into a club called The Limit: “I had to stand on tiptoes to make myself that bit taller and hope the doorman didn’t look to hard – but once I was in the first time, that was it for me, I was into electronic music. It would be a DJ called Winston Hazel, who’d be followed by a guy called Hooligan X, and I didn’t know what they were playing, it was just bass… huge bass… and bleeps, and strange rhythms, and I can remember saying to myself ‘from here on in, this is me, this is what I’m about’ And though I might have gone down some different roads since then, that sound really has stayed at the heart of everything I do.”
The Sheffield bleep & bass sound – which would also directly lead to the formation of the mighty WARP records – was fairly quickly absorbed into the broader currents of rave and electronica, and by the time Oris had got his head round DJing, Jungle had arrived. “Me and my friends called ourselves The Reflex Crew,” he remembers, “we’d play at reggae soundsystem events, in between all the reggae and dancehall; they’d basically let us on as the token jungle guys, for the kids.” By the age of 21 he was playing regularly outside Sheffield and it became clear that he could earn more at the weekend than in a whole week in his day job on the tills at Sainsburys – thus began the professional DJ career that has lasted to this day.
And it was here that the near-accidental fall into music production happened. Jungle was furiously competitive, and it quickly dawned on Oris that while all DJs played the big tunes of the day, rival crews would each have something others didn’t – unique “specials” and dubplate tracks they had made themselves. So it was that he got himself into a studio with a stack of samples and an engineer. Unfortunately he found himself unable to communicate his ideas to the engineer, and even though sessions with original junglist L Double (Flex Records) and Sheffield maverick Rob Gordon went better, Oris realised that if he really wanted to transfer what he was hearing in his head onto wax, he was going to have to learn to work the machines himself.
So he did, and was very happy making dubplates for his crew as the scene moved from Jungle into Garage. And here, around 1998, is where another of those chance happenings, coupled with a little bit of blagging, created opportunities for him. Oris and friends had brought garage don DJ EZ up to play, and sensing an opportunity, Oris decided to try and get him to play one of his dubplates – cheekily telling him it was a new tune by Zed Bias, who was riding high as a producer at the time. EZ played and loved “Biggin’ Up The Massive”, “even though it was just a DJ tool really, not a proper track”, and Oris ended up giving him the dubplate then forgetting about it… until a whole year later, he saw EZ play in London and thought “where do I know that track from?” It was only when EZ told him it was “that Zed Bias tune you gave me!” that Oris realised he had made a bona fide big tune.