Label Love #70: Night Slugs
Between them, the four artists at the core of Night Slugs – that's label heads Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990 along with Jam City and Girl Unit – have been responsible for some of the most exciting electronic music of the 2010s. And that's without even mentioning the other artists who've released career highlight material on the London-based label – Kingdom, Egyptrixx, Lil Silva, Helix… the list goes on.
The most recent chapter in the Night Slugs story was Night Slugs Allstars Vol. 3, released in November last year. As a label compilation, it functions not as a consolidation effort, but rather a thrilling signpost for where the crew are headed next. Night Slugs music has often thrived on contrasts and push/pull dynamics, and here the focus tends towards the softer, sweeter side of the label's output.
In the run up to the new comp, Bok Bok spoke about feeling the need "to redress the balance of humanity, to make sure our music was compassionate [and] had a human core to it." Not that that side of Night Slugs wasn't always present in some way, but in recent years the emphasis seemed to have shifted in the opposite direction.
I caught up with Bok Bok and L-Vis 1990 on the phone to discuss Night Slugs past and future, covering everything from minimalism and colour in music to the importance of communication and organic growth.
Night Slugs began as a two year run of parties before the label itself was formed at the start of 2010. Bok Bok and L-Vis connected over their shared musical obsessions – bassline first and foremost, and then funky. If you went to a Night Slugs party back in the day, you’ll remember those UK flavours as your soundtrack for the night. You might even have held onto a flyer with the descriptor ‘4×4/Heavy Bass/Gutter House’ at the bottom.
Bok Bok describes the venue for these early parties – the fabled Redstar. “It was a really special place, on the corner of Camberwell Green. It was being squatted for a while and the guys that were staying there had a huge soundsystem and didn’t really give much of a shit. I was part of two residencies – Thursday was a dubstep night and Wednesday was a mashup-y electro night, and that was the start of my life as a DJ outside of my house. Just very local and DIY.”
The first Night Slugs party was in 2008, with 150 ravers present and Jam City in the crowd dancing. “Those early parties were just straight wheel-ups every fucking five seconds, banger after banger,” L-Vis says. “And they were a lot more based around the music happening in London at the time, working out how it all fits together. I felt like we were the only ones doing anything like that.”
“What we’re doing now with the parties is almost unrecognisable in a way,” Bok Bok adds, “the last one was 1,000 people in Village Underground, and it’s really fun doing a big rave ‘cos the energy’s unparalleled. But doing small parties is what keeps our blood pumping, so we still do Club Rez [at Rye Wax in Peckham] which keeps the DIY spirit of the old nights alive, more like a house party vibe with B2B DJs all night.”
The label itself was formed when the pair realised how crazy it was that no one was picking up Kingdom’s ‘That Mystic’, which eventually became the title track of their sixth release. “We had Egyptrixx dubs as well,” Bok Bok explains, “and we were making our own stuff, so everything was starting to accumulate. To be honest, it didn’t feel like this material could go anywhere else, so it was obvious that the next stage was a label.”
While the first two Night Slugs releases were more about those individual artists – Mosca and Egyptrixx – pursuing their own niche, Bok Bok says that Girl Unit’s ‘IRL’ was more representative of the ideas behind the label. “That nailed all the things we were trying to bring through. It was the right energy and the right combination of influences to try and communicate to people what the project was all about.”
After that huge release, the music kept coming thick and fast – a crazy 2010 run that took in releases from Kingdom, Jacques Greene and Lil Silva alongside those from the main Night Slugs crew, with all the artists pushing in the same direction and inspiring each other. The music travelled far and wide – especially Girl Unit’s epochal ‘Wut’ which is now firmly enshrined as one of the best club tracks this decade. Honestly, look at that string of releases and tell me another label that’s had such an impact in its first year. No, I didn’t think so.
“[The parties around that time] were so fun, they were the best ones ever,” L-Vis says. “Especially the warehouse ones, like when ‘Wut’ was fresh – dropping that four times and rewinding it and everyone going insane.” Bok Bok adds, “Things are really freeform in the club these days, and I feel like that’s changed a lot since we started out. At that time the scene was much more dominated by stratified little genres – funky, bassline, grime, dubstep, and then house and hip-hop as completely separate things. We didn’t really have a home – even though we touched on many existing music scenes, it didn’t feel like we belonged to any single one.” L-Vis agrees, “We were the first people to bring that vibe together, and we had a really defined vision for what we wanted to do.”
I mention that a few artists I’ve interviewed recently have said that, following this period of fragmentation we’ve experienced over the past few years, they actually feel things becoming more solidified again, going back in the other direction. Bok Bok isn’t convinced. “I can’t agree with that at all. The way the world is going now, all our influences are blurring together and there’s no subculture anymore because everything has been flattened by the Internet. Everyone has access to everything, so we all have the same reference points now.” L-Vis adds, “Right now I feel like there’s a lot more colour in the music people are doing, especially with pop music in the UK, and rap and grime coming to the forefront. I think we’re gonna see a lot more interesting music happening.”
One artist whose music embodies this melting pot of collisions – in her instance, pop and hip-hop and R&B – is Kelela. For a lot of people – certainly those not locked into the movements of underground dance music at the time – their introduction to the label most likely came through her 2013 mixtape Cut 4 Me, production on which was handled jointly by the Night Slugs and Fade To Mind camps. Combining melodic dexterity and pop instincts with sonic exploration and a club mindset, it ushered in a wave of imitators and pushed Night Slugs’ profile to the next level.
Bok Bok – who recorded the tracks ‘Guns & Synths’ and ‘A Lie’ – recalls his first instances working with Kelela. “A few of the early demos came about when she just jumped on them and freestyled, and it was as visceral and raw as that. We were head over heels like, ‘Oh my god, this girl has got this incredible voice and is fully embracing the kind of beats we wanna make.’ It was just our vision being completed and then some.”
Bok Bok later worked with Kelela on the track ‘Melba’s Call’. “It’s not a particularly obvious beat to write a song over but that’s the thing I was most obsessed with in a way. She was down to try and jump on these tracks that had almost no chords or obvious progressions. It was like RnG, or that’s how it seemed to me. I’m obsessed with that ‘Pulse X’ vocal by Lorraine Cato – like, how do you sing on ‘Pulse X’, where do you find the melody? It’s that ability to grab something atonal, find these glimpses of melody and make it into a full song. Kelela has that ability, and that’s what makes it so amazing to work with her.”
I mention that, for me, that’s what I admire most of all about Night Slugs – those little fragments of melody which can be so much more powerful than something really bold and obvious. Bok Bok continues, “If you listen to a lot of the stuff in the pop charts, it’s really stripped back and using the fewest elements possible. It’s a great time for minimalism. We’ve been doing that kind of thing from the inception of the label, so that’s another reason why we gravitate to making that sort of music right now.”
The most notable side avenue of the Night Slugs catalogue has been the Club Constructions series, of which there have now been seven volumes, most of them released during the 2012-13 period. Vol. 1 came courtesy of L-Vis, after the lukewarm reception towards his 2011 album Neon Dreams – “a super dense pop record” – combined with label and management problems caused him to go underground again. “I needed to make some music that I didn’t need to think about, that I could just bang out, y’know? Something super simple and industrial. So I made a group of tracks which turned out to be the first Club Constructions. Then I had the idea to turn it into a series so that everyone on the label had an outlet to get club tracks out of their system without having to think about any big overarching artistic project. Usually we all think so much about our releases, so we needed a space where we could just smash it out and drop bangers.”
After Paul Woolford enquired about doing a release as part of the series, L-Vis took the step of writing a manifesto, in order to lay down some rules for what Club Constructions should be about. Among some of the suggestions, tracks were to be ‘as raw and stripped back as possible… stripped of emotive artefacts’, with saturation and short reverb encouraged. Then in 2014, the project expanded to encompass a wider sense of community. The label were getting inundated with demos that they weren’t really feeling – particularly Jam City and Girl Unit clones – and as such decided that they needed to address this dialogue in a structured way.
L-Vis released the manifesto into the world to see what they got back. “People like Neana – who is the ultimate Club Constructions producer – came along, but then there were a lot of producers jumping on that sound. To think we could get amazing results just from putting our manifesto out there… it was a bit of a utopian idea. Community is so important, but it’s also important that the people who are part of that community get drawn to you in an organic way.” While submissions for Club Constructions Community are now closed, the project continues – L-Vis is currently editing through and feeding back to the producers with a view to releasing some of the tracks this year.
Bok Bok draws the conversation on to the topic of communication, and the vital role it has to play in underground dance music. “We definitely aspire to a greater level of communication with our fans, ‘cos there’s maybe a little bit more emotion and colour in what we’re doing and that’s just the kind of people we are. The clarity and warmth of our communication is something that I really value highly. And that’s part of the feeling that pushed us towards making more vocal music now, because nothing communicates with people as clearly as a song or the human presence on a track. I think people have had really limited ideas of what you can achieve in the club, in terms of how much you can move someone or what spectrum of feelings they can get from hearing a DJ set – especially in certain realms of club music where it’s all very dry and functional and the hedonism overrules a spectrum of other stuff.”
Night Slugs music rarely feels like it’s been made by a machine or a program. You can always imagine the person behind the computer, feel their joy at nailing a particular rhythm or a new texture. “Night Slugs has always had the human aspect,” L-Vis suggests, “that’s what set us apart from everyone else, and that’s why we’re still here, because people can connect with it. I guess the new compilation is about connecting on a bigger scale using vocalists, and it’s also about being present in today’s society. This music is very much about being here now, not thinking about futures and different worlds.”
The new compilation does include a number of vocal contributions – namely R&B singers Ronika and Semma, as well as *legendary* grime MC Flirta D, whose ‘Unlimited’ is a clear highlight as well as not sounding quite like anything I’ve ever heard before. It’s light and woozy – the track hovers while Flirts provides the forward momentum. Bok Bok sounds surprised that he picked that instrumental out. “I thought someone was gonna write a gyal tune on it, y’know what I mean? But it became something that was personal to Flirts and also a little bit greezy still. I love how multifaceted grime can be. There’s so many different emotions and feelings you can convey within that genre.”
While the first two Allstars compilations were largely about consolidating and helping audiences catch up, the new one – which heralds what both artists describe as the “third wave” of Night Slugs – is focused on the label’s future. Looking at the artwork, the cold, abstract environments of the previous covers have been replaced by warm, decorative flower arrangements. L-Vis talks about “bringing the colour back, the flowers growing up through the concrete”, and this extends to the music too. “It’s going against all this super industrial stuff. I want songs, I want beautiful colours, I want melodies. All I listen to is pop music, rap and afrobeats, and that’s all colourful music, so it definitely has an impact on me. I feel like afrobeats could be the UK’s pop music. Guys like Mista Silva should be on Radio 1, they should have number ones, they should be stars… if only the media would let them. He’s a British artist, he should be getting repped. The press should be proud of our heritage and our culture.”
Before moving back to London last summer, L-Vis had been living in the US for four and a half years. “I totally took myself out of the London scene and buried myself in everything US, listening to a lot of rap, R&B, reggaeton, all this different stuff. Out there, radio music is rap and R&B. It’s all around you. Whereas here it’s not really like that. But now I’m back I’m bringing those US influences and combining it with more UK flavour.” He’s working on a project slated for release later this year, and based around UK vocalists – Mista Silva among them. While L-Vis isn’t sure what sort of format it’ll end up taking, he sounds energised when talking about it, and I get the sense that 2017 could be a really big year for Night Slugs.
There’s certainly some important projects on the horizon, including the long overdue Girl Unit album, which Bok Bok describes as “a pop record, with vocals.” Then there’s a whole series of album-length Helix records called Greatest Hits, as well as EPs from Bok Bok and Jersey club producer DJ J Heat. A lot to look forward to then. From visuals to fan engagement to the music itself, the thought and consideration that Bok Bok and L-Vis continue to put into every aspect of the label is so apparent. Seven years after it first burst into life, Night Slugs might just be about to have its biggest moment yet.
Night Slugs Allstars Vol. 3 is out now, cop it here.