Bristol’s electronic music scene is an invigorating one, with labels, promoters, DJs and producers growing from the city’s dub reggae roots. In recent years, label crews like Timedance and Livity Sound have, broadly, adapted dubstep and other sub-bass-focused genres into new styles of UK techno. Others have come at the city’s heritage from a different angle.
Over the last six years, Bokeh Versions has drawn from myriad influences connected to Bristol’s DIY soundsystem culture, and an international roster of dancehall, reggae, industrial and noise artists, building its audience through recognisable formats like cassettes, vinyl, T-shirts and experimental merchandise like virtual reality and even homebrew perfume.
From the futurist dancehall of Duppy Gun and the dub collages of SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL, to the industrial battery of Bad Tracking and the ‘unearthed’ psychobilly recordings of the Leather Rats, Bokeh Versions is a gonzo forage of international oddities, and an ongoing experiment with how underground music can thrive in the digital age.
The label’s outernational reach has been part of its ethos since the beginning. The spark came from SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL, a Filipino-Canadian production crew whose spatial dubwise sonics on 2012’s ‘The Call From Below’, on Digitalis Recordings, caught Miles Opland’s ear.
“I just thought it was one of the best things I’d heard in forever,” Opland says. Hearing the group felt like a return to the “soul, spirituality and heart” that, for him, had been missing from dub techno for a long time: “I really connected with them for that reason.”
Still early in their career, the crew were guarded about their identities, and the intrigue and excitement around them chimed with Opland’s urge to start a label. “I’d always been involved with music, and it felt like the next step in helping the music I love have a life it might not otherwise,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘If SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL say no, then I won’t do it’. I remember that feeling vividly.”
Opland and the group connected online, and in 2015, the seven-inch single ‘TrustInDigikal / IfUWantMe’ was released on Bokeh Versions; a one-two punch of whacked-out dubwise exploration that kick-started the label. SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL’s ethereal dub techno has mutated into an anarchic soundsystem collage, harking back to the crew’s early days in the ’90s turntablist scene. Their 2016 album ‘LoversDedicationStation’ is an ode to lovers rock that pushes dub to its outer limits, an avant-garde sample montage of speech, melody and bass that’s as close to Madlib as it is to Mad Professor.
“We encourage our artists to do something different for every release, it’s all about the weirdness,” Opland says. “Not necessarily moving forwards, but pushing everything outwards.”
Another repeat offender is Jay Glass Dubs, whose second release on the label was 2016’s ‘Glacial Dancehall’ mixtape. A sludgy, DJ Screw-esque mix of dancehall cuts, it established two recurring themes for the label.
One is the use of cassette tapes as a means to release physical formats while not having to succumb to the arguably laborious and expensive process of vinyl manufacturing. The other is the mixtape as a guest-focused series. As part of ‘Glacial Dancehall’, whacked-out mixes from Time Cow, of Jamaica’s Equiknoxx crew, and Low Jack, France’s premier exporter of reconstructive dub experimentation, have tapped into the increasing prevalence of dancehall rhythms in underground Western club music; through the series, genre originators and loving outsiders have started working together for Bokeh Versions.