Bok Bok on pop, Grime's second wave and Night Slugs' future

After co-founding Night Slugs with good friend and frequent collaborator L-Vis 1990, Alex Sushon aka Bok Bok certainly had his plate full running the day-to-day operations for his highly influential South London label. He’s pretty hands-on with most things (occasionally extending to their sister label in Los Angeles, Fade To Mind, as well), from the growth of his roster’s trademark sound right down to the art direction for the imprint’s album designs. 

But aside from Night Slugs, Bok Bok has also been busy releasing plenty of remixes, white labels, collaborative singles and a couple of forward-thinking solo EPs in the meantime. And going by that output, Sushon’s sound has changed a lot over the years, alongside his Night Slugs compatriots. Lately his productions and mixes have seen Sushon going through everything from ghettotech to footwork to R&B, assimilating a variety of genres into his muscular, spacious, grime-based texture. 

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We caught up with the Night Slugs boss to talk about their sonic and aesthetic evolution, pirate radio, grime’s unexpected renaissance and the label’s plans to take over the pop charts.

It's been a pretty great year for Night Slugs so far. What’s stood out the most to you with the crew - either in terms of releases, club nights, touring or anything in between?

Probably Dream A Garden by Jam City. That’s been the highlight for sure because everytime he does anything, it just takes us to a new place. He’s the visionary really. He’s been doing these Earthly parties, you know? He’s also been doing a series of mixes based on that too. So we’re about to release a new 12-inch, under the Jam City name, called Earthly Versions pretty soon. It features reworks of ‘A Walk Down Chapel’ and ‘Crisis’ along a brand new one called ‘Dream ‘15’.

But further down the line he’s going to be doing a Club Constructions thing, which I can’t talk too much about yet. All I can say is, it’s going to be real slow, like 100 BPM.

And it’ll be under a new name… which even I don’t know yet!

Jam City is currently an artist under Night Slugs, who recently released the pop-centric album Dream A Garden after making a splash with his superlative electronic opus, Classical Curves, in 2012.


We can’t wait! Anything else in the Night Slugs pipeline that we should be looking out for?

Yeah I’m working really hard on Girl Unit’s album at the moment. It’s pretty far along actually, most of the beats are done, we’re just working on the songwriting side. We’re going to make a pop record, man. A Girl Unit pop record.

Interesting! From Mosca’s Square One to Jam City’s Dream A Garden, the label has obviously gone through a variety of sounds. Would you describe the future as pop?

We’ve been on a little journey. Yeah, the plan is to take over the charts, you know? It’s a slow burn though, but that’s to be expected. I just feel like things are so open at the moment, especially with the stuff that charts. It’s a more interesting time than ever in pop because everyone’s so open-minded and everyone is constantly looking at new places for production ideas.

If I were to describe our transformation, I’d say we’re going from a pure underground club label that’s UK-centric to being really open to everything, including pop music. It feels like these days, mainly due to the Internet, there isn’t even a distinction between the pop and the underground sound anymore.

That’s true. And related to the perpetual progression in sound is the change in label’s art. Since you’re Night Slugs’ art director, amongst other things, describe the aesthetic evolution for us. 

I used to do all the artwork, but yeah, lately it's been art direction. Just giving other people advice on what to do. I mean the older artwork used to be kind of in a grid — blocky and more synthetic. Last year especially, it's gotten a lot more high-res for sure because we’re thinking more about how the design can reflect the richer textures of the sound design. But from now on, I’m stepping back a little.

I’m letting each artist have more control so what you’ll see going forward is that each project will have a more unique identity. What we had before was a really unified look and feel, which is cool, because it brought us through. It helped people understand that we were a movement. But I think the label has been established and it’s been around for long enough, so I’d like to diversify a little bit. It's time to let each project be its own thing and have its own feel. I want the artists to shine in their own right.

Did you come from a graphic design background? Was there any visual work from before Bok Bok that I might recognise?

Yeah I went to art school and then went on to do graphics. I worked at an agency for a while which I didn’t particularly like. In terms stuff you may know, um, I co-directed the music video for a song by Simian Mobile Disco once. It was called ‘Synthesise’. 

Oh cool, I didn’t know you did that! Anyway, back to the music. Whichever direction your sound goes, it's all still informed by grime though. What do you think about the grime renaissance going on in the UK right now?

I think its f*cking cool! It’s about time, innit. It's huge now, it's crazy. Now I know for a fact that if I go up and down the country and just play grime, it's gonna be a crazy party. Grime is a big part of my sets and in previous years, you can never really be sure if it would connect with the crowd. Now it's just finally blown up. People just weren’t ready the first time around, there was no infrastructure, it was too new a sound… it really took people 10 years to kind of catch up. I’m just so happy that the genre’s finally there.

"When you’re in a live setting, you play whatever the room feels like. And on radio, you play whatever you feel like."

Grime 2.0 is what they’re calling it, I think. Which of these second generation grime artists should we be looking out for?

My favourite is a guy called Jammz. He’s an MC, producer and DJ - the guy does everything. I can relate to him a lot because he kind of grew up like me, just eating up all the sounds, so he knows his sh*t. He’s so influenced by the old school and I like that he’s bringing it to the new school. I love his stuff. But of course I’m also a big fan of Novelist and his whole The Square crew - I love what they’re doing.

You helm the Night Slugs radio show on Rinse FM. Does your mentality change depending on whether you’re doing a club set or a radio set?

Yeah for sure. Since you can’t physically see the audience when you’re on radio, you just do what you want, you know? That’s what the radio show is there for really — indulging yourself. Rinse gives you the freedom to try different sh*t out so you can get pretty deep and go as forward-thinking as you want.

As for in the clubs, I do play a different set live every night though. Especially for this Asian tour. If you had come along and seen me play, it would have been a totally different set every night. So I’m always trying to do something different. I have a pretty good collection of music and varied tastes so I’ve always had a tough time just sticking to one avenue. When you’re in a live setting, you play whatever the room feels like. And on radio, you play whatever you feel like.

Singapore doesn’t really have a pirate radio scene to speak of, and the one official station we do have that plays alternative or electronic music is always in danger of closing down. Which is why I think a lot of the populace here developed homogenous tastes. Growing up how important was independent or pirate radio to you? 

Vital! Absolutely vital. If it wasn’t for Rinse, DejaVu, Raw FM and a few others, I wouldn’t be doing what I do now, 100%. They were so key. I was into completely different music growing up, and then at one point I just started listening to pirates. After that there was no going back. It's really essential for a kid to be exposed to different forms of music, because if not, all the future musicians and DJs are just gonna grow up making the same thing, do you know what I mean?

Or even worse, they might get so bored that they decide not to pursue music at all.  

How did you go from being just a fan of pirate radio to being a host on Rinse FM? Did Rinse contact you after Night Slugs started blowing up?

Oh not at all. (laughs) They were really into L-Vis actually. I heard they weren’t really sure about me. Anyways, Rinse is like this fortress, you don’t get in without an invite. So Rinse initially approached L-Vis, and he told them, “I’m about to launch a label with this guy, so we should do it together.” They still weren’t sure, but they tried us out and ended up liking it. The rest is history, you know.

We’ve talked at length about the diversity of your sets and you varied tastes. That being said, what’s your headspace like these days? What are you into right now?

I just listen to rap. (laughs)

A lot of the new stuff. I’ve been on tour so I haven’t heard Fetty Wap’s album yet so I’m trying to get that immediately. I’m sure that’s going to be a good record. Nobody doesn’t like Fetty Wap. Other than that I’ve really been into Young Thug, Rich Homie Quan, and stuff like that. The new Sevyn Streeter EP is amazing. She’s not rap, she’s R&B, but yeah she’s sick. She’s like the new Brandy or something. That’s all I’m listening to at the moment. I just feel like the production levels in rap and R&B right now are so high because the audience is broader than ever, so they have to communicate really clearly. I’m psyched because it's so innovative but at the same time so direct.

How about your own productions? The last thing I heard from you was ‘Papaya Lipgloss’, which was outstanding by the way. Anything else forthcoming?

Oh, thanks man. I’ve been working on it, but most of the year has been taken up by Kelela’s stuff so you could look forward to her album. It should be good.

Well actually, there’s going to be an EP first, called Hallucinogen, about to drop any time now. Then there’s going to be an album out early next year. I haven’t contributed to the EP but I’ve been working a lot on the album stuff, so that’s taken up a lot of my time. Other than that, I’m just writing beats and trying to sell them — as always. But yeah as soon as all that stuff is done, I will be starting on a new record for sure. It's due.

Will the new Kelela stuff be different from the mixtape?

Yeah because the mixtape came together with existing beats. She just jumped on them and wrote whatever she could to them. So it was a kind of a haphazard, spontaneous thing. Since then we’ve all kind of been learning a lot about songwriting and actually approaching tracks from the ground up, in a way that thinks about of them as actual songs as opposed to just a beat, you know? It’s kind of new to all of us. Like, I just learnt what a pre-chorus is this year. (laughs)

You knew Kelela via Total Freedom and the whole Fade To Mind connection right? Do you still work closely with them?

Yeah they’re my family, man. But they do their own thing, I don’t have much input into it. They’ve got their culture and we’ve got our culture, but there’s a lot of overlap. Everyone’s friends, we share tracks, we share ideas and we play together a lot. I know people sort of lump us together and that’s cool because we were so similar, but at this point, they’re distinct from Night Slugs. They’re creating their own movement which is really strong. I think they’re fantastic.

You can learn more about Bok Bok and Night Slugs at their official website and follow them on Facebook.

Special thanks to No Party Here for hooking us up!