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Night Slugs’ Bok Bok on Grime, Texture, and Moving Beyond ‘Bass Music’

Seeking new horizons: Bok Bok

On the new Netflix original series House of Cards, whenever the hotshot blogger character Zoe mentions a fictional Politico-like website called Slugline, the first thing that always pops into my mind is a conga line dancing to the music of London’s Night Slugs label. It’s nothing like that, of course; I doubt we’ll be hearing any electronic music from the inside-the-Beltway political drama, unless, I don’t know, maybe Zoe and Frank hit the U Street Music Hall for a Moombahton Massive party after a particularly intense redistricting session.

But the fact that I can’t hear the word “slug” without thinking of Night Slugs suggests the impact that the label has made in just three short years. Under the guidance of co-founders Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990, the label-cum-collective has developed one of the most distinctive sounds in U.K. dance music, a mutable hybrid of grime, house, electro, R&B, techno, hip-hop, and dubstep. Night Slugs ranks alongside outfits like Hyperdub and Hessle Audio as a label that has carved out an entirely new niche, all on its own terms. Just as impressive, though, is the diversity within the label’s catalog. No two tracks sound alike, even though they’re all readily identifiable, by some impossible-to-determine metric, as Night Slugs tracks.

That immediately becomes clear listening to Night Slugs All Stars Volume 2, the label’s second anthology of singles, remixes, and exclusive cuts. Bok Bok’s “Silo Pass” bleeps and bounces like brawling Roombas; Lil Silva’s “The 3rd” jabs daggers between the bricks of Wiley’s igloo; L-Vis 1990’s “Not Mad” interpellates “Wordy Rappinghood,” while Girl Unit and Jam City play fast and loose with freestyle. The beat patterns and stylistic tropes they draw from are all over the place, but it’s all held together by virtue of its vivid timbres and textures. Broken glass, halogen glow, torn fiberglass, brushed stainless steel, dry ice — they’re all shards of Night Slugs’ jagged kaleidoscope.

I spoke to Bok Bok (Alex Sushon) about the development of the label’s unique sound; he talked about the history of the London club scene, their recent U.S. tour, and why Night Slugs never wanted to get stuck in a “neon universe.”

Let’s start with a bit of the history of Night Slugs. Who exactly is involved?
It was started by myself and L-Vis 1990, and early on people like Jam City and Girl Unit were really involved; Kingdom was really involved from the start, and Egyptrixx was totally on board from the start too. It was just people that we had already been DJing with and whose tunes we were already playing.

Were you doing Night Slugs parties before you started the label?
That’s right, yeah. We were doing these club nights in and around London. We started doing it in South London in a really janky little squat venue, and then we moved on to more proper clubs in East London. We were playing a kind of sound that hadn’t really been — at this point, we’ve been through so many cycles that it doesn’t really sound particularly original to say that we were playing different musics from around the world alongside each other, or we were mixing up genres, because at the moment, it seems like it’s second nature to do that. But there really wasn’t a lot of people doing that, especially in London, so we were amongst this crop of people that were thinking a little bit differently about club experiences and DJing. But it was still very much informed by that kind of London underground style of music that we’d grown up with, and bringing those two influences together. So from 2008 ’til 2010 we were doing just that, and eventually we graduated to the label.

There had been an accumulation of stuff by these producers who were mostly new to the world, so we gathered a bunch of unreleased tunes by them that we were playing in our DJ sets. It just made sense to sort of legitimize everything, give it all a home, and sort of take things to the next level by starting to put out their music. Mosca was also there from the start, as well; he’s a little bit less in our crew now, but he was important for the beginning because he was the first release.

Was dubstep the dominant sound in the clubs at the time?
It wasn’t dominant in the clubs yet, not in the way that it became afterwards. I wouldn’t say dubstep itself, but definitely the wider scene that surrounded it. It’s a more complex story if you’re from London. Dubstep is the headline that made it out, but in actual fact it was a really rich scene with a lot of different sounds going on. But definitely the infrastructure for that kind of scene is something that hugely influenced me and influenced the way that I wanted to run Slugs. Particularly with Rinse FM and the club night FWD, which, as well as dubstep, also had a lot of grime down there, a lot of different styles. That’s something I started going to early on, and it was a big influence for me in the early 2000s. The way that they mixed up those styles was cool. It was a variety, but it was more about the vibe. The way you engineered tracks, the way you prioritized the bass or the way you prioritized subs, it was kind of new. Also, the kind of environments it was supposed to be played in, which wasn’t huge clubs; it was supposed to be for small, dark rooms. That was kind of new. So this aesthetic fed into what we were doing, for sure.

Given the speed a lot of this music moves, and the speed with which the London scene has evolved over the past couple of years, I was interested that Night Slugs All Stars Volume 2 mostly gathers material from last year, and even some tracks going back to 2011.
About half of the compilation is new stuff, and about half is old stuff. There’s actually several reasons for that. First, it’s really simple: I just wanted to make sure everyone heard that music. When you put out a CD, it’s not necessarily aimed at the same people that are following us from day to day. It’s aimed at a slightly wider audience. Also, we don’t make our music with the idea that in four to six months’ time, everyone will have forgotten about it. Hopefully, it’s something that people will hold on to and keep valuing.

We wanted to put together this really playable compilation, and I’d like to think that it works — when you listen to it from start to finish, it follows on. Which is interesting, because it’s obviously tracks from various artists and various projects, so it wasn’t written to follow on from each other. Yet somehow it does. That’s kind of what we were trying to say. Some of this music may be over a year old by now. “Silo Pass” is, like, 18 months old. But it’s kind of about making it all work together, and saying, “Yeah, this might have come out awhile ago, and it might have had its time in the clubs, but it’s still valid.” We want people to listen to it in a new light, maybe alongside other tracks, and just enjoy it for listening purposes.

I think the compilation fits together really well. I didn’t know all the tracks, so there were some things that really surprised me to learn were actually a year old. It flows really well, and it gives a good sense of what Night Slugs is all about.
Awesome, thank you. Some of it is to consolidate what we’ve been doing, especially for people who aren’t following releases on a weekly basis, which is fair enough. For DJs, that makes sense, but for music fans, that’s not always how it works. People discover music late, or they sometimes sleep on a release. It’s all disparate and it’s all come out in separate places, so it’s nice to bring things together and say, “Yeah, this is what the label’s really about.” If you listen to the whole thing, you have a much more immersive experience of what’s been going on than if you listen to the EPs separately.

In the press text, you said that the compilation “charts the label’s move away from the early digital world into a more developed and more textured universe.” What were the big changes for the label, musically, between 2010 and 2012?
It’s many-fold, but I guess what that phrase is referring to is visually as well as sonically, just the changes in texture that are going on with the crew. We were pinned down after 2010 as being a certain kind of label with a certain kind of sound. In my opinion, 2010 was very diverse for us, but the impression people came away with — there were certain ingredients people thought would make a Night Slugs tune. Obviously, that’s fair enough, because it’s natural for people to try and find commonalities amongst music and draw threads there. That’s healthy; it’s the way to understand things and the way to digest it. But all the while, we’re moving forward. We didn’t want to get stuck in that whole neon universe that people seem to have ascribed to us.

I think the producers themselves have found lots of new textures and lots of new processes. There’s been a move towards hardware and analog gear and outboard recording, which always brings in new textures and takes you out of that strictly in-the-box, digital realm. But it’s more than that; it’s also the graphics and the approach. The universe that we’re trying to create, I guess, has become richer. In 2010 it was quite confined to this sort of admittedly Tron-like existence — really simple shapes and simple ingredients trying to create something beautiful. I think one of the biggest changes was Jam City’s album. He brought a lot of new textures to the table. I think that Slugs is a kind of pool for all of our creativity that individual producers bring something to. Jam City’s album brought all this stuff about chrome and metal and broken glass and all these different things that we weren’t talking about at the time. We were talking about, maybe, lights and, I don’t know, neon colors and things like that. He brought something new to the table. Since then, there’s been a bit of a phase shift.

You guys seem really focused on texture. I was reading an interview where Jam City asked Girl Unit what textures he would be searching for after Club Rez, and he described it in really vivid terms: “Big, airy, barely-there synth atmospheres, that vibrating sound you get through the walls of club toilet stalls, something that sounds like Future’s vocal fry, and beat patterns with no snares or claps, just ghost percussion.”
Absolutely. It’s trying to make it more than fairly disposable club music. Our belief is that club music shouldn’t be treated as something you’re going to hear once and forget about. It should be a slightly more rich and immersive experience — thinking about things in terms of textures and aesthetic properties.

There’s also a sort of deconstructed approach to rhythm, especially on Classical Curves. There’s been such a narrative of “bass music” turning towards house and techno, and you’re playing with some of those ideas in your use of 808s and 909s, but Night Slugs rhythms are rarely straight 4/4. There’s a lot of start-and-stop action. On the Jam City album, it often felt like he was holding down the mute button on certain audio tracks, almost at random. There’s a sense of being thrown off your guard.
I think that was his intention in a big way. He wanted to throw you off, and I think he succeeded. The thing with the rhythms, I think I could never be comfortable in a straight 4/4. Even though, as a DJ, I play so much house and techno, and I play so much music that has a straight kick drum, I think all of us as producers have that unsteady kind of feel to our music, where we just can’t settle into that too much. Yeah, we’ve all made 4/4 tracks, but overall, it’s not something we can commit to and shut the door on syncopation once and for all. It’s not just grime — grime is definitely what brought it through for all of us, for sure, but if you listen back to ’80s funk and so many different styles of music, even R&B, the idea of this stop/start, this stuttery beat, is something that’s really important to us that we could never turn our back on. Also, speaking of the narrative you mentioned, of bass music turning into house and techno, honestly, that’s boring to me, because house and techno is house and techno. If producers want to make those kind of tracks, that’s fantastic, but I feel like there’s so much more there, and we started out with such diverse influences, so it would be such a shame for us to simplify it down to basic, Europeanized music. That’s not what this is about at all.

Having come out of a scene that’s related to dubstep, do you feel like that’s led to misunderstandings about what Night Slugs is, particularly in the U.S., where people may not understand how diverse the London club scene is?
Yeah, it has, although it’s not something I want to dwell on, because I feel like it’s our challenge to make people understand. If people aren’t understanding, then we just need to carry on putting out records and making mixes and playing for them, so we can get that message over. But there are definitely some preconceptions, definitely some stigmas. I still think the whole idea of “bass music” itself, that phrase, is a little bit damaging to us. It kind of holds us back to some extent, because people assume a certain something. It suggests there’s going to be some aggressive element pre-determined there, and I don’t think that’s necessarily true. It’s not necessarily what we’re always going to bring to the table. Sometimes we’re going to want to go deep, or sometimes we’re going to want to play R&B in the club. That’s just what we’re about. I don’t lament that there’s some pre-conceptions there or that people might have the wrong idea about us. As I say, we just have to address that issue through our output and through communicating with our audience. It’s kind of an ongoing project, I guess.

What do you think of the whole trap-rave phenomenon?
We all love rap music. I don’t know about trap music, but I know it’s one of these genres that’s around at the moment that’s kind of doing it in the clubs in America, and to some extent over in Europe; there’s definitely some of it coming over. I think that many producers’ approach — I don’t want to generalize too much — seems to borrow the tropes of southern rap, of a certain style of rap production, but the way they borrow the tropes is on a very superficial level. They put them on a beat which is otherwise quite a standard club beat for the U.S. big-room situation. And, you know, they dress it up with 808s, skittering hats and snares and whatnot. Which is fine, but it’s not really anything to do with what my interests are or what my label’s about. Where there’s crossover there between the world of “real trap shit,” so to speak, and Night Slugs, is the hip-hop influence. And I think that’s pretty much the start and end of it.

How was your recent U.S. tour?
New York was fantastic. I’ve been playing in the U.S. for years, and it’s only getting better, really. The feeling that people are there now, people are getting more and more interested in this. I just want people to come out and see us. They need to come with a slightly open mind, be relaxed and be ready to dance, and I think everyone will have a great time. It’s great to see that things are picking up over there.

New York was great — a really smoky, really dark party. Not a big room, which is how we like it. We prefer it a smaller, more intimate space. No one could see each other, which is right up my street. That’s exactly what I want out of a party. We also did Denver, which was fantastic, as well. We played start to finish with no opening acts, no support, which, again, is how we like to do it. That’s something I feel is quite different for the U.S. It takes people a second to get their head around the fact that this is it, this is the act. You don’t have to wait around: The night starts now.

My favorite sets in the past few years have been ones where I’ve played for seven hours. Again, it’s about immersiveness, it’s about trying to give people a richer club experience — not something disposable that they can just get drunk to. Well, they should still get drunk! They should still get crazy. Then they can come away with a feeling that they maybe have experienced something a little more interesting and deeper than your average club night, hopefully.

We did Holy Ship! as well, which was a pretty cool experience. It’s cool to be embraced by that world — I wouldn’t have expected that to happen. We definitely felt slightly like outsiders, but in a really interesting way.

Do you find yourself playing different music when you’re on a boat?
For some reason I wanted to play a bunch of garage, and I haven’t done that in a long time. But I didn’t play different music just because I was at Holy Ship! We still did exactly what we do.

I just wondered if the experience of being on an actual boat made you bust out, like, Christopher Cross or something.
Nautical vibes? Yeah, to some extent there was a bit of that. I don’t know what it is, but there’s a very specific feeling about floating like that, and it does make you kind of draw from different records. I haven’t quite got my head around it yet. I’m still puzzling about what made me choose to play certain tracks, but I think there was something in the air, for sure.

What’s going on with your own music? Will you be releasing an album this year?
I won’t be doing an album. I am in the studio and I am producing. My plan is to continue to put out hot twelves, honestly. That’s all I’ve really been interested in, personally. I’m a DJ first and foremost, and I’m an A&R and label curator second, and a producer third. When I make tracks, it’s just for me to play in my DJ sets and for me to have fun with. I’m not really intending to make an album for the time being. I am planning to put out a few EPs, and also there’s my side project with Tom Trago, which is called Night Voyage. We’re going to pick that up again this year. We’ve got quite a few twelves to put out already, and maybe even a compilation at some point. My production stuff is a little bit secondary to everything else that’s going on. But I’m fully intending to drop some heat, for sure.

I wanted to ask you about the Tom Trago collaboration — that first record is killer. How did you hook up?
We hooked up because of Teki Latex. We’d been talking a little bit before that, and we were aware of each other, but Teki noticed that, because he’s got a skill with people. So he picked up on the fact that me and Tom had some kind of connection and really brought it home by commissioning us to do this collaborative record for his label, Sound Pellegrino. So we did that, and it was way too much fun to just leave the project there, so we decided we’re going to carry on with this crossover between Tom’s thing, Voyage Direct, and Night Slugs, so when we cross it over we call it Night Voyage. We made this quite impromptu decision back then to carry on working together, and since then we’ve been doing it fairly regularly and just kept in touch. You know, we’re buds — we get on, and we share a vision. We definitely bring something out in each other. We’re pretty different artists in our solo work, in our day-to-day lives, so when we come together, the stuff we’ve got in common is really, like, jacking Chicago house, arpeggiated disco, and kind of dirty, sort of dusty, like, home-made sounding house shit. That’s the kind of stuff we end up making together, somehow.

Do you work together in the studio, or are you trading files back and forth over the net?
We trade files only once the idea for a project is there. We might pass a project back and forth once we’ve done the session, but things always come out of this one week of intense work. We’ll do one week at a time, just stay up all night, into the morning, and get it all banged out in Tom’s studio over in Amsterdam. The new batch is going to be interesting, I think. Not better, but it’s going to take it somewhere else.

Who does Night Slugs’ graphic design?
It kind of used to be me. At this point, I’m doing the art direction, but the production and the actual generation of the images comes from various people now. But it’s still my baby, I’m still looking after it. All the concepts come from me, in collaboration with the artists, and I will come up with a really detailed brief, with full descriptions and textures, and kind of plan it all out, and then hand it over to someone who would actually put it together.

That Classical Curves cover is great. It really nailed the feeling of the album.
I can’t take full credit for that; a lot of that was Jam City. He definitely had a really strong vision of what he wanted, and he brought it to me, and we ended up kind of sculpting it together. I had a hand in the art direction, but he knew what he wanted. That goes for the whole project: He knew what he wanted for that whole album when he started out. It all came together. It’s really amazing to see an artist have that kind of overarching vision from the very start.

Jam City's <I>Classical Curves</I>