Bok Bok (Night Slugs / London) Dubspot Interview: Talks DJing, Production, Grime, Tom Trago +

Back in 2007 London DJ, producer, and Night Slugs label head Bok Bok (a.k.a. Alex Sushon) released a mixtape on his Lower End Spasm blog called “69 Allstars,” a mix of 69 classic grime tunes in about 60 minutes. The mix is a blistering guide through the genre’s best MCs, producers and sounds—a masterful display of Sushon’s curatorial skills, and an early sign of his rise to fastidious taste-maker, and innovative producer among London’s musical underground.

Starting as a grime DJ, Sushon quickly found himself in the midst of a major flux in the grime scene, with MCs like Dizzee Rascal and Wiley hitting major label heights while underground MCs and producers stagnated. But just as grime went into remission, sounds like bassline and UK funky came into view—four-to-the-floor club sounds that incorporated house, r&b, and hip-hop elements along with heavy basslines, and the kind of raw energy grime had come to be known for.

In another seminal Bok Bok mixtape released in 2009 for the Trash Menagerie blog, he and frequent collaborator Manara showcased an array of these emerging sounds, running from the UK funky of Lil Silva to the grime of Terror Danjah, and included productions from Night Slugs artists like L-Vis 1990 (label co-founder), Kingdom from the U.S., and Egyptrixx from Canada. The mix ultimately captured a seismic shift in London club music, where grime and dubstep were getting reinvigorated by a major cross-pollination, setting the stage for what is now a sonic landscape as amorphous as saying “future bass,” or simply “bass music.”

Bok Bok, among others, is a major player in these intersections today, due in large part to the 2010 release schedule of his Night Slugs imprint. Over the course of 9 releases that year, every one of them sounded singular in their exploration of club music’s starry future. From Mosca’s Square One, to Girl Unit’s Wut, and Jam City’s Magic Drops, the sounds of dancehall, dubstep, crunk, r&b, grime, and UK garage come together to create sounds so buoyant that, when played, they transformed a club into a sonic outer space weighted only by bass.

BOK BOK TALKS TO DUBSPOT

As far as your inspiration to start producing, do you feel like grime as a sound was what you wanted to start with?

Yeah, one hundred per cent. Well, for production I don’t know, but for DJing definitely. I was DJing a little bit, but I wasn’t taking it super seriously; I had decks in the house and I was just buying random vinyl of hip-hop and stuff like that. But then when I got into grime, that’s when I started being serious about doing what I do, and then I got a little slot on a station and stuff like that. For production that came a bit later, quite a few years later after I was DJing, so I didn’t start out as a producer at all I started out as a DJ. To be honest, when I picked up Ableton it was just to make edits because I was at a stage where I was a bit frustrated with the state of grime, and the state of dubstep—what it was before what it is here in the States—and even then I had some issues with it already, it was getting a bit samely, and in terms of the grime scene there wasn’t really much output at that point because people had started to get really jaded about how much they could make or how little they could make and how their careers weren’t really going very far, so in terms of what was coming out in London, there wasn’t really much for me as a DJ, so that’s why I got into Ableton because I wanted to branch out a bit. I was getting into club scenes from various parts of the U.S., and getting into South African stuff and Angolan stuff, and various different types of house musics from the around world, which had things in common with grime in terms of their sociopolitical roots. So I really I had this idea, and I guess it was like a mash-up mentality to some extent, where I just wanted to make new stuff that was borrowing from all these different things. I wanted to make grime, but weirdly my first real grime tune was “Silo Pass” and that only came out this year, and there is stuff I haven’t released that are attempts at grime but wasn’t properly there because, I don’t know, it’s a strange music to produce, especially if you’re first picking up some software, it didn’t really come naturally to me to be honest. So yeah, in terms of my influence in the whole of what I do, it is the foundation.

When you sit down to make a track, do you feel like you get ideas starting with melody or with drums?

Drums and rhythm and fills. Melody, you might have noticed, isn’t really my natural tendency. It’s getting more so, but of course it’s different with every track. Usually I start off with a loop of some bass elements, some kicks, and some percussion.

Do you use a MIDI controller to produce, or are you straight off the computer keyboard?

Right now I’m using a lot of outboard stuff, but really the answer is no, I don’t really use a MIDI controller for anything. The two ways I work is I draw stuff in, but also I play stuff in. I’ve got a few little drum machines and things like that that I record from. But mostly it’s those two things, the native environment plus the few machines that I have.

Bok Bok – “Silo Pass”

Would you say that you’ve been well received within the grime community? Because I wonder sometimes if the “ghetto” is actually listening when we talk about this next wave of so-called ghetto bass music.

“Silo Pass” was played, and “Look” was played and is getting played by grime DJs currently, but there have been a few DJs who have taken a while to catch on to it, and there have been others who have been really quick on it. It’s mostly been people that I’m in touch with, like Terror Danjah and the Butterz crew, Spyro, and Spooky and that’s been really cool. The thing is, I came around in a really weird way because it’s like, as much as grime is my foundation, no one really knew me in that scene for many many years. For example, Scratch DVA also has roots in grime, but he came to be aware of me through mutations of house, like UK funky. To be honest, it’s a weird situation in the UK where there isn’t really that next wave of urban innovation coming from the urban side. At the moment everyone is more listening to what people like us and Ramadanman, or Hessle and Numbers, and people like that are doing. That’s really the vanguard at the moment, and it used to be the other way around, we’d always be like oh shit there is this new thing, there is grime, there is bassline, there is funky, and that would always be the trigger for our side to respond to that. In a way people are paying attention more than ever, but those separations of this is real urban music, or this is more from the electronic, or experimental side, that’s sort of disintegrating now, in London at least.

Would you talk a bit about this release you’ve done with Tom Trago for Sound Pellegrino?

Yeah, this release wasn’t something I’d do normally because I’m keeping it mostly Night Slugs, but Teki Latex from Sound Pellegrino had an amazing idea, and they’ve just started this series of crossing over artists that wouldn’t necessarily work together, but he’s got a great ear and vision for who might work together, so he paired me up with Tom Trago from Amsterdam. We’ll see what people think when they hear it. It’s a pretty housey project, and it doesn’t necessarily sound like either of us, but at the time I think it sounds like both of us. I’m really really pleased with it. I went to Amsterdam for a week and we worked in Tom’s studio space, which was a great experience, we got really really deep because we’d spend the whole day and whole night in there for four days in a row. We got shitloads done, and that was something that wasn’t necessarily given considering that we’ve never worked together. It could have just fallen flat on its face, but we vibed. It was mostly done on gear, especially all the core ideas were done externally. We had everything running along to a MIDI clock, and we had a bunch of drum machines, a bunch of synths, all running along, and we would just do these long takes and see what happened at the end.

BOK BOK & TOM TRAGO “Night Voyage Tool Kit” trailer mixed by Orgasmic by soundpellegrino

Was that a way of recording that you hadn’t done before—hit the record button and go?

Yeah, to some extent it was because I work in a much more loop-based environment in Ableton Live when on my own. But when you’re with someone else it’s pretty difficult to do that because it becomes very much like, “Oh you can you move that over here, not that just this. Or, no no click here.” And you don’t want to get into that kind of stuff when you’re sitting there and you’re both trying to jive. So that’s why it was such a great thing because we weren’t even touching the software—we had two workstations which were both able to emit sounds, but we also had all this gear around the room which meant we were autonomous but everything was going into the same place. So yeah, it was a new technique for me, but actually since I’ve come back from Amsterdam I’ve been working a bit like that my own too.

What’s forthcoming for Night Slugs right now?

The next release will be from Kingdom. No release date just yet, but it’s gonna be this year. But also there is a Jam City album for early next year. It’s in the works now, it’s written, it’s getting mixed and sounds amazing.

Is seems like the album format for a lot of folks in London is either really right, or really not.

Some people are perfect for it. Jam City is perfect for it , and that’s why I followed through with that project, me and L-Vis 1990 encouraged him to do that, and he wasn’t necessarily into the idea at first because he’s very much a club guy, but there is something about his music, whenever I listen to the stuff that he sends me, I always listen to it in batches because I feel like the tracks relate better to each other than they do to other music. He’s very multifaceted, so he’s just the perfect guy to be doing an album. Some people just aren’t right, like I don’t know if I’ll ever do it because I don’t fee like it’s relevant to what I do.

How do you feel about being a label manager at this point, and having that be a part of your day-to-day aside from your production work?

It’s definitely a conflict of interest to some extent because a lot of the time I’m involved in mixing a lot of the records on the label too, and I don’t know if people are really aware of that, but that’s something that I do for most of the label. Lately it’s been somewhat of a frustration because I’ll need to be doing something for myself that’s self-set, and I know this needs to be mixed and ready for a certain time. Or even just beyond the mixing, it’s just a curatorial process that takes up a lot of time.

Girl Unit – “IRL (Bok Bok Remix)”

Do you spend a lot of time listening to demos as part of that curatorial process?

I don’t really. I try not to. To be honest the motivation to listen to new stuff that’s coming in is getting less and less. A lot of that has to do with the kind of stuff that is coming in because a lot of is either derivative or irrelevant. And I don’t want that to seem like I want to discourage people, they should be trying to do what they’re doing, but from my perspective it’s also a time issue.

It seems like the success of the label is that there is a strong editing process.

Yeah, I would say so. Especially with certain artists on the label, there is a lot of stuff sitting there that probably isn’t going to see the light of day. And that’s not a decision that just I make. But yeah, the label has slowed this year. Last year was flat out, and I didn’t get any music done, and just for that reason we’ve slowed things down a little bit, so that I could actually do some writing myself.

How much time do you spend with music that’s coming out of the States? There are obviously people like Kingdom who you are in touch with, but it seems like even Fade to Mind is cool way of having his taste run some stuff over here.

I don’t want to speak on Kingdom’s behalf too much, but the idea with Fade to Mind is that it’s similar to Night Slugs to some extent, but it’s also their own vision. And it is quite U.S.-centric, where even though Night Slugs puts out international artists it is still rooted in London culture, and our dance music heritage. But I mean, to answer your question, we just signed this guy Helix, who’s from the South. I’m listening out for stuff, and I still listen to a bunch of rap, and I still listen to a bunch of R&B, and tons of juke.

What rap are you listening to?

I don’t know, (laughs), you’ve put me on the spot because I’ve been in a bubble for the last 6 months. I’m not super in touch, but do still have a huge soft spot for Soulja Boy. Everything he does is so adorable. There is a few new people that Jam City that has me interested in like, A$AP Rocky, but honestly the only reason I’m checking that stuff out is he because he’s telling me to check it out. I really have been in my own little world. And this is partly to do with the fact that I’ve needed to do my own music, so I’m not super on the ball with hard new rap. So it’s more like old favorites, like I’ll never stop listening to Crime Mob, so there is certain southern rap that will always be timeless for me. But I guess this is the way that I pluck influences from stuff, because it’s like my grime influence is from up until 2005, and it’s not to say I don’t like any new stuff, but in terms of the stuff that’s been really key to what I like, and it’s really the same with the U.S. rap stuff too where my core influences are from a certain era in the crunk sound. But I’m really on the ball with Jersey club, that’s something I follow closely. And other things, like I’m in touch with Rashad and Spinn, and the stuff that their doing with their youngers as well like Manny.

It’s interesting because the U.S. isn’t as cohesive as London, so we don’t have the same kind of mutations going on, but it’s because people aren’t in proximity and are more isolated in some ways.

Yeah and that’s what I find interesting about it. All these scenes exist in their little micro-universe, and the confines of their own city, and that’s what makes the music unique in a way. As much as cross-pollination is interesting, in a way what we’re seeing at the moment is cross-pollination to a point where it’s running so rampant that you can’t even really tell what’s what anymore, and sometimes that’s good and sometimes that isn’t. Like there are producers out there who have keyed into one particular little thing, like if you take Pearson Sound for example, the way he’s keyed in to club stuff is with a particular sound, like his Rod Lee influence, and you can see how he’s taken that influence and run away with it and made it his own. But there’s other producers who sound, to me, much more naive in their attempts at this whole cross-pollination thing, where they’re just new to music in general and because they’re on the internet they’ve just heard UK garage, and juke, and grime, and club and r&b and fuck knows what else, all at the same time because they’ve just woken up to music, and that’s, in a way, kind of dangerous. Ask yourself what you like the best, what speaks to you the best, and make that your own, rather than necessarily trying to do everything at once and then just becoming this really post-modern music that doesn’t feel good.

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