Described by many as the DJs DJ, Ian Ossia has carved out an amazing career as one of the premier warm up jocks in the world. Ian isn’t wired the same way normal people are. His analytical mind works overtime, and his attention to technical detail is at the same time both exacting and creative. The syntheses between the scientific and artistic facets of his character lead him to produce brilliant precision mixes that permeate the listeners mind. With regular slots alongside legends like Paul Oakenfold, Dave Seaman, Sasha & Digweed, Mike Pickering and David Morales, Ian carved out his own niche as a pioneering progressive house DJ. A&R and progressive house fan, Simon Huxtable recently spent some time chatting to a true legend of the scene about his history, his music and his plans for the future.
Hiya Ian, Its been a while. Thanks for finding time to chat with us at Decoded Mag. Hows life?
Very good thank you. Pretty bloody good at the moment. I’m feeling on very good form in my endeavours, enjoying work, time with friends, and of course being a dad to a beautiful 4 year old girl.
Now, you’ve been a professional DJ for about 20 years now. Tell us about how you started out. What inspired you to learn to mix?
Haha! its a bit longer than that now!
I suppose my interest in mixing started a very long time when I was about 11 or 12 and part of a local break dancing crew, heavily into electro, and roaming around Leeds having body popping dance-offs in the subways. Who needs New York when you’ve got Yorkshire! I loved all the original electro albums, and thats the first time I’d ever heard tracks being mixed… it was just such a new exciting sound and it blew my mind. It was really crude mixing compared to nowadays but it started my fascination… The first DJ I heard mixing that inspired me was a guy called Gary Norman who used to play in a club called Ricky’s on a Wednesday night in Leeds – before the whole dance music thing exploded.
I was out with a pal for his 17th birthday in town and we basically wandered into a very underground, very smokey acid house club by accident, dropped some acid, and we never looked back. I’m still surprised we didn’t get battered as we were suited up ready to go to Mr Craig’s and couldn’t have been more out of place in amongst the proper Leeds acid crew. The way the bass was dropped at the right time, and perfectly in sync with the other tracks and the emotional state of the crowd, was something else. That guy could really mix. There was also a guy called Boy Wonder who is a Leeds legend, whose awesome acid house tapes were hot property back in the day.
So I ended up buying a pair of (pretty shit) belt drive turntable and a cheap mixer (I think it was a ‘DJ starter kit’ from Richer Sounds) and some records… early Brothers in Rhythm piano tracks, Renegade Soundwave, that kind of thing. There were sounds and tracks at the time that were so different, so fresh you had to find them…and I just taught myself to mix them. I was spending 4 hours a day mixing for the first couple of years obsessively honing my beat matching and mixing skills.
Being smack bang in the middle of the best club scene in the world in the 90s must have been amazing. Where did you enjoy playing at that time?
Early on, before the whole Renaissance thing, I had some great times at Sunnys in Chapeltown in Leeds. It was an after hours blues club, and very, very shady, but quite an experience… The crowd were unforgiving and told you in no uncertain terms if it wasn’t working. But they also would bang on the walls shouting ‘rewind’ when you dropped a bomb. You were literally forced to spin it back to the start and drop it again…sometimes more than once.
Then Renaissance was obviously pretty fucking good. It had this magic… when you walked through the double doors at the back of the room into the club it just instantly took you over. All the girls were beautiful, everybody looked great, had style, and so did the music. I was young and in my prime… and it felt like my club. My family. Ive played all over the world but that was my home. I played more peak time sets than any other DJ during that first defining 2 years in Mansfield.
Tell us about how you came to become a Renaissance resident..
Pressure from my parents about missed opportunities led me to go to university and leave DJing behind. At least that was the plan. Then my lifelong pal PD (Paul) collared Sasha after a night out at Renaissance very shortly after it started and made him listen to one of my mix tapes in the car. Let’s just say he caught him at a good moment. The tape was passed on to his manager who got in touch with me and invited me to play a spot at a club in Nottingham called Venus. Venus was nuts – fashion designers like Galliano were there every week. It was very exclusive and prestigious. I was a young lad of 20, and Sasha’s manager was saying to me I was going to by the DJ’s DJ. They just picked me up and I was this young kid who just found myself being catapulted into the situation I ended up in. It just happened. I wasn’t even looking for it. Honestly, I was far too young and green to get a grasp of the business side of things – I just wanted to play records – but that’s just how it panned out.
You’ve DJed alongside the best in the business, and I’m sure you have a lot of great tour stories, but can you recount your experience of NYE 1999 with Paul Oakenfold at the Millennium Dome in London – probably the biggest gig in the UK that year!
Thats a funny question… I didn’t really get off on it that much. It was a sea of people and a totally different experience, but I prefer to feel a bit more in amongst it than elevated and detached. Don’t get me wrong, they responded really well, and it was a really prestigious spot but I have played clubs with a lot more atmosphere, particularly in Hungary and Slovakia around that time, which was quite magical.
In an article I wrote a while back about residents, you said “Being a resident at a good club is really the best and most satisfying place a DJ can be”. Now that the modern club scene has changed, and fewer promoters have a core group of residents, do you see clubbing and dance music declining?
I can’t say that its necessarily the reason for the decline of the club scene, more a symptom of how it has changed. There was a time, almost an instant, a few years ago where everything changed. It felt like the slate was wiped clean. A great thing for new talent and for revitalising and refreshing. The club scene is strong in Europe and US…but the current US scene is a bastardised, Americanised version of what we built …but then as we initially stole it from Chicago I guess what goes around comes around.
It’s not for me though – it lacks subtlety or class…and particularly soul. Also, a lot of the big DJs are priced out of the club market now. I don’t see the club scene ever dying though because people still want to go out, listen to good music, and have an experience. It all just seems a bit mixed up. Maybe it needs therapy…
One of the Norths most iconic clubs was of course The Hacienda in Manchester. Tell us about playing there.
I went there as a punter first, and standing in the queue for the Hac was always really exciting; wondering if you were going to get in or not… They had a great sound system. It was a proper stereo set up, and you could pan the sound around the room with some pretty stunning results. What can you say about the Hac? It was just about as cool as it’s possible to be! Classy and seedy in just the right balance. The place was defining and its legacy is still going strong, playing there always felt very special having been an the other side of the booth, and the crowd were amazing.
You play on CDJs these days with digital files. I was interested to learn that you made an app for your iPad to catalog your music for gigs. Can you talk us through it?
Yes. How long have you got?!
At the time I made the switch from CDs to memory sticks I was writing iPad applications, and the idea just came to me. One of the things I found frustrating about using CDJs was having to work on a small screen, so not really having anything to use to provide any inspiration for set selection, as the old crate of vinyl with its individual sleeves, vinyl thickness, weight etc did so well. And vinyl is real. I mean, they actually exist, so they glued themselves into your brain more easily. Nowadays its just looking at list after list of names, and it’s very hard to get the same deep association with the tracks’ identities.
So, I was looking at my iPad and wondering how I could make the it genuinely useful for me in the DJ box – not mix for me, or do anything to ‘cheat’, but simply provide a superior interface for browsing tracks and playlists than the CDJs screen. Whilst developing the app – called Rekordkrate as it designed to partner Rekordbox – I had the idea that I could make it intelligent by instantly giving you a list of every other track in your current playlists that is a perfect harmonic match for your current track.
I already had my own algorithm for harmonic mixing, a method I’ve been using and refining since I was mixing on vinyl in 1992. You can of course get technology that helps you to do harmonic mixing but mine differs from all others in that it doesn’t rely on ‘keylock’/’master tempo’ (which keeps the pitch of tracks the same when you’re mixing). My system gives choices that work naturally, with no artificial pitch manipulation – which for me really badly affects sound quality. You lose the transients, sharp hits on drums, and I never use it. So my algorithm works just as well with vinyl. It’s my best buddy in the DJ box – and it never asks me to play Beyonce!!
Many say you are a technically gifted DJ, so what was your biggest learning curve over the years?
There are many stages to DJing. It’s layered. Like an onion (sorry). People think DJing is beat matching, which is why there is so much fuss about the dreaded sync button. Beat matching is undoubtedly a great art, and something that people expect from a DJ, and people feel robbed if technology is doing it for you. Personally I don’t use sync at all, but it can, in theory, free you up from having to spend your time getting your tempos aligned and free you up to do other, more creative things – although in general over-doing effects is not a good thing either, but in moderation for emphasis they are great.
I was a bit of a maths prodigy as a kid, so harmonic mixing and the maths behind it just kind of happened and all my old vinyl is labelled up with KEY, BPM etc. There were just a small handful of DJs using the technique back in the early 90s. Quite honestly, compared to the immense skill required to mix well with vinyl, mixing on todays CDJs or controllers is child’s play, mainly due to the perfectly tempo locked digital tracks…with vinyl the tempo continually drifts, sometimes by quite large amounts, and you have to ride the platters constantly. One other thing I learned to do though, which always amazed some of my friends, was to be able to listen to a track just once, analyse it in my head, and be able to immediately drop it on a long mix timed to drop perfectly at the end, as I can visualise the tracks structure and break it down into building blocks. It’s a really geeky party trick.
How long do you think, did it take for you to find ‘your sound’? Was it an organic process, or did you have something in mind?
Certainly back in the day it was just a case of there being tracks around that you just had to get as they were so exciting, and really I still try not to overthink things, and just keep it simply to tracks that make me bounce or draw me in. I actually find it better when you are going through a lot of tracks to put them on it the background and do something else, rather than focusing on them directly, and the tracks that work for me just pop out naturally. I’ve always found that a set of just one distinct sound really dull – the sound needs to be coherent, but at the same time without highs and lows it doesn’t go anywhere. ..for me anyway. I think for some people it’s very uncool to have a hook, melody or lift, which I have to admit I can’t quite get my head round.
We understand you’ve stepped into the studio. Can you walk us through your studio? What cool toys have you got?
A long time ago I had a massive set up of outboard gear, a monster mixing desk, and a purpose built room. Nowadays my set up is incredibly simple but holds more power than all the mountains of equipment I had put together. For DJing at home I use a reloop digital jockey 3 controller with Traktor – I’ve had a number of controllers but the reloop is great, really solid, and the clincher is the way the effects knobs work, which is different to all other controllers. It requires one touch not two to both enable and manipulate an effect. This may sounds like a minor thing but in practice it makes all the difference in the world.
When playing in a club, I use Pioneer Rekordbox, memory sticks, and of course my iPad + rekordkrate. The reloop is perfect for home but I gave up on laptop DJing a good few years ago, I just find it’s not worth the hassle when there is such good equipment there to use already.
Studio wise all I have, and all I need, is a decent mac, quality sound hardware (Focusrite), monitors (Adam), a sub (KRK), a big sound library and a digital record collection…oh and the heart of it all is Bitwig Studio on the mac, which is simply amazing.
Your first track – Acceptance has been signed to Twisted Frequency and comes with a James Harcourt remix. What was the vision for the track, and are you happy with the results?
I can’t say I’m ever happy with anything I write to be honest, but I’ve studied production more seriously of late and certainly the results are getting a lot better. With this track, I wanted to do something simple with a nice hook, not too pretentious or elaborate, and I kind of achieved that. I’ve been a fan of James’ work for many years, and wanted it out on Twisted Frequency mainly to get him to mix it. It’s all good, and it was just important for me personally to start releasing and get things moving in that area…I always say the best way to learn how to do something is just to get stuck in and do it.
Renaissance afforded you a few perks. One being a disc on the fourth commercial CD release (Mix Collection 4) back in 1996. Tell us about the process you had to go through to get that mix out to the shops..
It was a very long and difficult process back then, I would say because the ‘mix CD’ wasn’t really a thing then, so negotiations with the labels were not as established. So basically you would get a running order and then lose half the tracks due to licensing problems, and this would happen 4 or 5 times, so it was very frustrating. I seldom have the liberty of being able to spend weeks solely on compiling a mix nowadays, so looking back it was a great experience really. You don’t tend to appreciate just how good things are at times like that.
The mix is choc full of progressive goodness, and your mix is particularly special. Were there any tracks that you really liked and fought to have on the mix?
Thanks! I remember I did really want the Fade remix of ‘It’s My Pleasure’ on it, but was knocked back as the track had been on the Sasha/Digweed mix. To be fair, although it did have the vocal in it, it was in the long, epic prog style that Fade produced back then and really nothing like the original. I was happy with what I got through and the result on the whole, although honestly I think my sets at Renaissance back then week in week out were way, way better, I still don’t think it was a true representation of what I was doing back then. There was a lot of pressure on me for that mix, and that can skew your perspective if you allow it to. Actually, when I DJ nowadays, all that DJ ego stuff about who has got the very latest undiscovered tune pressed on organic vinyl from Swahililand that there’s only 3 copies of in the entire universe, is something I no longer have to concern myself with… which is great. There’s an mass of great music around at the moment, and you can just pick the sweetest fruit and make your own marmalade.
Given that the mix is now discontinued, how do you feel about the files being shared or torrented for free? The demand is clearly still there, should the record companies reissue famous older CDs?
There is a possibility that the demand is for the original items as having a kind of historic value that a re-issue would lack, and with so many mixes available for free nowadays, I would say the value of a mix has gone down considerably. Kind of hyper audio inflation. You can’t even give the things away now, never mind trade them in for a loaf of bread at the local shop. A lot of time and effort goes into putting them together, and it’s at the expense of a lot of other things. I don’t personally mind people sharing my mixes though as a rule – it’s the only way to get your sound around after all. My old tapes used to get everywhere, and they still follow me around today, and they were a really significant contributing factor in my initial success.
After your hiatus in the early part of the century, its fair to say, your back firing on all cylinders. Whats the rest of the year got in store for you?
I’m very single minded, so the music thing has to be done in waves, as most of the time my real work of building apps and websites has to take centre stage and demands my full attention. Thankfully, I’ve got enough flexibility with what I do to be able to get a couple weeks here and there to just do music stuff, which is great. It gives me my fix to keep ticking over for a while! I’m looking forward to getting a chunk of time to get on Bitwig again, but I don’t think it’s not going to be for a little while yet. I’ve just rebuilt my djossia.com website too as it was pretty shabby considering what I do day in day out…but self-promotion doesn’t come very naturally to me, so I had to deal with it as if it was for someone else. I’ll be sure to keep you posted over the year.
Photo : James Genchi
01// Derek Howell – Red Dwarf
02// Secret Cinema / Max D Loved – Martina
03// Cid Inc – Guardian (Nick Muir Remix)
04// Pentatones – Karma Game (Steve Bug Retouch)
04// Neil Browne – Clear
05// Brian Cid – Jukebox (Tom Middleton Remix)
06// Meramek – Bounce
07// Sam Paganini – Rave
08// GTO, & S-Man – 2 Close (Leftwing & Kody Remix)
09// James Harcourt – RGB
10// Alberto Blanco & Marcelo Paladini – In The End
11// FunkForm – Sequinox
12// Namatjira – Silent Silhouette (Navid Mehr Remix)