The phrase “these trying times” has been so over-used it’s passed right through meaninglessness and into self-parody—a stock phrase which now feels too crass to even slap onto the bottom of a low-effort marketing campaign.

The sad and frustrating truth, however, is that it remains true, which is of course something you can say about most cliches. Thankfully, as the UK steamrolls ahead with what we all hope isn’t a misguided end to lockdown, we do appear to be reaching the end of this bizarro, anxiety-ridden period. For those lucky enough to have not been directly affected by the coronavirus, it’s been a time to take stock and realign priorities. For Bok Bok, co-founder of Night Slugs and stalwart of the UK’s underground club culture, it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. As is the case for a lot of us, the past year and some change hasn’t been one consistent experience for Bok Bok, who is now also known as One Bok. It began with confusion and anxiety.

“I didn’t have my shit together to think about doing releases or doing much for a few months,” he says. Bok Bok wasn’t sure there was even demand for club music without nightclubs and his club-focused label, Night Slugs—which he’d been running with fellow beatsmith L-Vis 1990 since the late 2000s—was put on pause for a moment. “I didn’t feel like the energy was really right for all the club stuff I had lined up in my mind,” he adds. “Around November time, my opinion changed about that. I thought to myself, ‘Actually, people kind of need this in their life because it’s actually beautiful.’ Now I’ve got lots of stuff lined up for Night Slugs as well that’s purely club-oriented.”

Meanwhile, as a producer, Bok Bok found himself getting more and more interested in the world of UK drill—specifically the instrumentals. He began to amass a stack of drill-oriented, 140bpm productions, not just of his own creation, but also from creative allies like Nammy Wams and Kid D. He toyed with the idea of an alias, but that wasn’t going to be enough. This is where his new label, AP Life, comes in. Now two releases deep, following Nammy Wams’ Paradise South and Kid D’s Timing EP, Bok Bok is more fired up than he’s been in years, fuelled by a new creative outlet and a new sound. We caught up with him for the full lowdown.

“I feel more inspired, more hungry than I have been since the start of Night Slugs, if I’m honest.”

bok-bok
Photography by MS0


COMPLEX: So, tell us about the new label, AP Life. What made you start this as an outlet rather than putting stuff out through Night Slugs?

Bok Bok: I kind of felt like Night Slugs should go down more of a focused avenue again, because we came from that in the first place—more of an up-front club space. Then, as the label developed, it kind of went in a lot of different directions, including more song-based stuff. Obviously, grime and hip-hop has always been a massive part of our influences, so we went to all of those places, but I’m starting to feel like it’s time again to just narrow in the focus of things a bit and get back to the roots of Night Slugs, which is really just up-front club stuff. 

As for why I separated the other stuff out, I was coming up with all this material and, to me, it seemed straight away like it wasn’t really the same mood or feeling as my normal Bok Bok stuff. The first idea was to actually have an alias. Night Slugs has been around for 13 years now and I do feel like it’s nice to just do that first initial energy again. I respond really well to that. The other thing is that I had all this material, but it would be better if it wasn’t just me. It would be better if it could be part of a community. Then I started to think, ‘Where does this music fit in?’ Then I started to think about the world of new-school 140, which is drill, rap music, that sort of thing. 

Over the last few years, the emergence of drill is something that really appealed to me, but I also felt like there wasn’t really a DJ culture around it in the same way that grime had a real DJ culture and dubplate culture where the instrumentals have a space of their own, where they could sort of breathe and be celebrated in. To me, DJs playing the beats and mixing them, that’s something that’s mostly lacking, apart from a couple of people like Oblig and Bempah. So these are the thoughts that resulted in AP Life.

You mentioned DJ Oblig there. I heard you guys on radio a little while back and you could really hear those connections between grime and drill.

He’s one of the first DJs to really have done that, because I think grime is shunned a lot by the newer generation. Grime is my first love, but I understand why people now would want to distance themselves from it because they’ve really got their own movement now. In the beats, you can hear how much it’s actually based on the foundation of grime. It’s almost like the producers have just internalised the strangeness, the rhythms of grime. It’s something they’ve come up with and almost taken for granted, but certain people can see the connections. When you look at the Groundworks cypher, for example, you can really see how this culture is specifically a UK thing. Obviously, American cyphers happen, but it’s a different thing. We have our own MC culture here and it’s nice to see Oblig bringing those connections together. I think we’re going to see more and more of that.

Do you feel like Night Slugs paved the way for that a little bit? The way that you were taking, say, UK funky over here, Ghettotech over there and stitching them together and finding these connections.

I don’t take any responsibility for anything! What I will say is, in terms of DJ culture, we were definitely part of a time and a movement when we started. So I wouldn’t say Night Slugs did that single-handedly at all—far from it. We were inspired to do that by older DJs. There’s a lot of hate on Diplo, but shout out Hollertronix because, I’m not gonna lie, those early mixtapes were an influence. They would do strange mash-ups and grab a bunch of genres. It was crass, but it really worked. It was definitely a moment of being able to do things that weren’t really allowed before. Someone like Oblig will say we were an influence when he started out, which is sick to hear. For us to go back-to-back and for me to get ideas back from him, that’s what it’s all about.

I’m certain he’s not the only one to be influenced by Night Slugs. Do you ever see there being an overlap or collaboration between Night Slugs and AP Life?

I think there’ll probably be stuff like joint events, but right now we don’t even really know how that would happen. The optimist in me is already trying to plan a few things that will show the crossover. Night Slugs has built up like a decade’s worth of following so it would be silly if I didn’t try to build on that, and it’s not like AP Life is a completely unconnected thing. Stuff like “Silo Pass” and my Salvage EP from 2017 are the foundation of what has come to be AP Life now. It kind of takes an aspect of Night Slugs and specialises in that, which is more of a sort of grimey, moonlit kind of place and then, hopefully, Night Slugs can flourish as quite a happy place now. We’ll see what happens anyway. 

The other thing I wanted to ask you was about Kelela. Obviously, that collab was one of the few examples of you guys working with “songs” and an artist, so to speak. Are there any plans to do more things like that, working with singers or MCs?

So, even with AP Life, obviously I’m not closed off to it at all, but my focus was getting back to this culture of instrumentals. The beautiful thing about instrumentals is that they’re wide open for someone to jump on; whether it’s on a set or on a sample or by someone licencing it in that way, I’m open to it. It’s definitely something that I’m not ruling out, but I wanted to specifically focus on instrumentals because there’s a lot of really, really cool vocal music coming out at the moment and I wanted to narrow it down, just in my own focus, to figuring out how this could work as an instrumental thing.

Even with my EP, you’re going to hear how I tried to make it as listenable as possible, considering it’s loops and beats. There’s a lot of vocal samples to keep a hook in there and this type of stuff. We definitely will be doing more stuff like that because even if you look at Girl Unit’s album, that’s a perfect example of how we would want our music to actually be when it’s in a final form and it’s a song that could turn into. The Song Feel LP was the perfect way to see how that comes together. Obviously, there’s two Kelela features on there as well. Hopefully we’ll do more stuff, but right now my focus is really just back into the trenches.

The first two releases you sent me—one from Nammy Wams and one from yourself—they’re both longer projects. Is AP Life focusing more on those longer projects than singles and EPS, or is that just a coincidence?

It won’t be limited to that, but I think it’s a good format for showcasing a bunch of beats because, with instrumentals, I think it’s nice to give people more at once. But in a way, that was an accident because Nammy had so much material and we couldn’t quite narrow it down so we thought, “Let’s just do a longer project.” It was the same with me, in a way. I mean, this is the longest project I’ve actually done. I’m not really much of an album artist, but it wasn’t something that was 100 percent intentional, although I do think it’s a good format to showcase beats. It’s more like a beat tape. But with release number two, which is a Kid D EP, that’s four tracks. So it’s going to be a mixture of things—maybe even singles. I’m just going to let it be organic. 

How do you feel about lockdown lifting in June? 

It’s hard to know. When [lockdown] started, people would say stuff like, “Oh, it’ll be over in a month.” That used to really piss me off, because it doesn’t help to have false optimism. So when Shoreditch started trending when the 21st of June got announced, people were saying it’s going to be like the Marbella strip and stuff like that. All of that is really anxiety-inducing. Even last summer, when I was around the small crowds at that point, I was just so not used to it it almost made me freak out. For example, one time I was in Shoreditch and people were in Boxpark in a way that was like, “Okay, we’re doing up festival on-road now?”

Having been on my own or very isolated for this long, it’s a complicated feeling. I’m just trying to focus on the practical and optimistic part of it, because if things do open up, I want to get involved. I’ve got a ton of material coming out on two labels. I feel more inspired, more hungry than I have been since the start of Night Slugs, if I’m honest. I’ve talked to a few venues and not everyone is saying that they’re going to open up this summer. So, I think it will be gradual and who knows how we’re going to feel when we get out there? It might feel booky, to be honest. I mean, I’m hoping for the best.

At least you’ve been able to put the time to good use.

For some of it, at least. I really envied artists that were able to say, straightaway, “Well, good. This is just down time for me to start creating.” At the time, I was not thinking that way. There were definitely some struggles there. Maybe it’s the weather, maybe it’s the music coming together, but it’s definitely starting to feel like we’re coming out the other side of something.