Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
South London producer Bok Bok is just about to release his first full project since 2011. The 'Your Charizmatic Self' EP follows on almost exactly three years after the 'Southside' EP, though he has of course been busy producing occasional tracks, DJing, and taking care of day-to-day business for Night Slugs – the highly esteemed and increasingly influential label he set up with L-Vis 1990 in 2010.
While it's still abrasive and built on angular and sharp percussion and bass, his production style has changed direction in the time: the EP's lead track and his latest single Melba's Call with Kelela has a funky R&B sound redolent of Janet Jackson's early independent albums, a style that runs through the whole release. However, the more Bok Bok speaks, you realise that his approach strives to make it so that the most dramatic of shifts and contrasts can be understood as part of a cohesive whole. He's a self-termed "genre optimist", and looks back to the unbounded experimentation in early grime as not just a vital source of rhythms and samples but an ethos. In our conversation, he specifically pointed to Terror Danjah's Zumpi Huntah as "one of first messages to my brain to that said: 'this music can contain anything, as long as it's set like this.'"
As Night Slugs and its American sister label Fade to Mind grow, this philosophy is key to Bok Bok's vision (brought into clearer focus by the recent announcement of the Club Constructions Community), and when we met for our interview in Peckham, we talked about his and the label's present and future.
Let's start with one of the most noticable features of your new EP, the heavy influence of '80s R&B and funk. How did that develop?
Bok Bok: "Yeah. I've been listening to that kind of music for a long time anyway, but about two years ago I released a track on a Night Slugs white label called MJT. That track was slightly similar to this – it sampled a Rick James beat, and the whole idea behind it was to take all of these nice things about love and twist them in a way that the repetition almost becomes sadistic. It's the same motifs, but you repeat them over and over again and over-do them. It came about from thinking about stuff like that: that because something is pop, it doesn't necessarily have to be lovely, if that makes any sense.
"You know when a producer decides to start making pop music and they go through a dumbing down, watering down process? The project with Night Slugs has always been to prove to people that everything is everything else. So everything is house, everything is grime; anything is what you want it to be, really. It's my way of saying that industrial techno and pop are kind of like the same thing."
"You know when a producer decides to start making pop music and they go through a dumbing down, watering down process? The project with Night Slugs has always been to prove to people that everything is everything else. So everything is house, everything is grime. It's my way of saying that industrial techno and pop are kind of like the same thing." – Bok Bok
What were you listening to when making it?
Bok Bok: "Rick James, mostly. A lot of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis."
You can even notice the Jam and Lewis influence in little things like that glitter sprinkling sound.
Bok Bok: "They're just the masters of it. They have, like, the most number ones of any producers ever, and that's just amazing. And, going back to what I was saying, they have great melodies that don't have to sound nice. They're just machines for making pop that doesn't sound dumb."
Well, talking about machines, they made many of those hits using similar equipment to what you probably use today.
Bok Bok: "It's the same equipment, just that I have the computer. It took a lot of effort to… Not to sound like the type of music I was influenced by, but to use the same kit to put it together, so then you can get that sound. Except I have the computer to put it together, so I can go even further and change it in ways they couldn't."
How much does a singer like Kelela help you to realise your vision?
Bok Bok: "Well, it's lucky in the sense that, if you detach it from all of her talent and all of her ability for a second, it makes it instantly more digestable to people. Melba's Call is quite a challenging beat: there's a lot of spaces and stops and starts in it. You can put out something like that without a vocalist on top of it, of course, but it kind of like becomes a different genre with a singer.
"More than that though, with her, it's not just any vocalist. We share the same references: we talked about grime, Jam and Lewis, Janet Jackson, all those kind of things. So being able to do this with her is great."
Did the beat for Melba's Call come first, or did you make the track together?
Bok Bok: "I basically built the idea with her, but the actual beat happened way before the vocals, though she's been in the studio with me several times and she's great with production ideas, too. When thinking about what I wanted to write for her, I wanted a really juicy, funky track – the kind that would fall into the classics. That's really where we're going here."
Do you think it's retro?
Bok Bok: "I definitely wouldn't say that, but I'm sure other people would say that and throw that at me. I don't think about music on a timeline like: 'This is from the '80s, then this came, then the '90s, then this is from the '00s' – it doesn't work for me. There's different styles and approaches, and it's impossible to deny that certain instruments and things were very popular at certain times, but when I use DMX drums and particular synths a lot I'm not trying to recreate that. I don't think it's executed in that way.
"I was trying to do it in a way that someone who comes from the grime scene would. That's me, that's my background. My thought process comes from things like 8-bar music. You don't have to agree with me, but I don't think the music is retro, personally."
I do agree with you on that, but I do also want to know if there's anything specific, sonically, about older eras and styles that appeals to you…
Bok Bok: "Yeah. I don't like music where you can, like, hear Logic working – and you can in a lot of new music. I always like things to sound like they're real-life objects – even if it's electronic drums, they should sound believable. In all the music I like, that's the one thing across the board."
You mean that there's a weight there?
Bok Bok: "Right, you can imagine it – even if it's just an 808 or whatever. It doesn't sound like a little .WAV file sat somewhere. As long as it's like that, I think I have time for it, it can become a part of my universe."
I ask because "the future" and futurism are concepts referenced a lot in writing about you and Night Slugs.
Bok Bok: "I don't know about that because I don't think about it; it's not important to me. With futurism, I always think about, like, '70s visions from the future that fell flat and look kind of lame now. I want the music to be new, but as for futuristic – I don't know."
"I always like things to sound like they're real-life objects – even if it's electronic drums, they should sound believable. You can imagine it – even if it's just an 808 or whatever. It doesn't sound like a little .WAV file sat somewhere. As long as it's like that, I think I have time for it, it can become a part of my universe." – Bok Bok
This is your first major release since the 'Southside' EP a few years ago. Can you still think back and make links between the two?
Bok Bok: "Totally. I don't think it's disconnected, and I think anyone who knows my stuff will be able to, hopefully, connect it all. I don't see a big difference in terms of the foundations of it. You can hear a connection between something like Silo Pass and Howard because the bottom end is basically the same.
"I've always thought about grime as a template where you can put whatever you want into it. It's more like a way of making tracks than it is a style. If you think back to the original grime scene productions, they were so different from one camp to another: compare Davinche with Wiley and it's completely different. It's not like I want to be separate from anything, but I feel like those ideas are very central to me. Less than the sounds of music, it's the structure of it."
Well look at 8-bar, which you mentioned before, the blocks are right there in front of you.
Bok Bok: "That's so influential to me, and the whole edit culture of people just jumping on Fruity, getting something up, and a new track happening. That 'LEGO bricks' aspect of it."
"I've always thought about grime as a template where you can put whatever you want into it. It's more like a way of making tracks than it is a style. Less than the sounds of music, it's the structure of it." – Bok Bok
So the R&B and funk sounds in your latest tracks are your addition to the foundation?
Bok Bok: "Yeah, it's almost like when you're dealing with 8-bar; it allows you to think about all music as these bricks or modules. That's why grime is so empowering and why I still think of myself as some kind of grime producer. Even if I'm making tracks at 125bpm, it might have that grid pattern. Even if you can't pinpoint the sound, we all kind of know how it feels."
Bringing it out, how does that approach relate to the full Night Slugs picture?
Bok Bok: "All I want to do is create a community of people who are working on their own music and ideas. I think there was a time some years ago when people got really excited about house and funky and things were so wide open that it was almost like they didn't know what they were making most of the time.
"I think it's getting a little like that and crystallising again now, so this is a good time to set out some… Not boundaries, but guidelines, especially for young producers. That's something we're gonna be working on for quite a bit this year. I don't want to say anything more because they'll be proper announcements when the time comes but it's definitely looking healthy."
As healthy now when it's crystallising as it was when it was still all over the place?
Bok Bok: "I think it's more. It feels like we're in a new era where we've been around long enough for people to know what to expect, but we can move in new directions and they'll still follow it. Maybe it's different for everyone else, but from where I'm looking, it's better.
"There are also more opportunities because I think our world and the pop world are closer together now, more than ever. That's really cool, because I think a lot of us like radio music, we want to be involved in that, and it now seems more accessible than ever. In 2010, it would have been totally out of reach."
Night Slugs will release the 'Your Charizmatic Self' EP on May 26th 2014.