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.
A pivotal moment for Bokeh Versions came as Opland looked to the Duppy Gun collective and label, who have released some of the most radically off-kilter tracks in modern dancehall. The brainchild of Jamaica-based MC I Jahbar and LA-based musicians Sun Araw and M. Geddes Gengras, Duppy Gun’s approach is the sweetest antidote to the tropical cosplay of Western pop iterations of dancehall, and a reminder of the sound’s playfully warped eccentricity.
Duppy Gun saw a convoluted birth; initially funded by Stones Throw Records, it soon stagnated. Fortunately, a chance meeting between Opland and Sun Araw while the latter toured the UK led to Opland helping the crew reinvigorate the project on the label side.
“It had a life before I was on the scene, for sure,” he explains. “I knew they were having some troubles and I just got chatting to Sun Araw, and we really got on. I could see it was quite a frustrating situation for them.”
With Bokeh now handling label operations alongside the LA duo, and I Jahbar recording a stable of up-and-coming vocalists in Jamaica, the team began jointly distributing projects, the first being 2017’s I Jahbar- fronted ‘Miro Tape’. Since then, Duppy Gun and Bokeh Versions have had a symbiotic relationship, showcasing homegrown vocal talent such as G Sudden and Vybz Kartel protegé Sikka Rymes, while giving Bokeh Versions production regulars such as SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL and Jay Glass Dubs a new way to flex their production chops.
“You grow through your collaborations, that’s why I really encourage people on the label to get together,” says Opland. “Just because you can do everything yourself doesn’t mean you should. It’s good to get out of those echo chambers. If we’ve just got someone who’s a bedroom producer, we’ll try and get a vocalist involved.”
The project has blossomed in the past few years. On the 2019 cassette ‘I Jahbar & Friends - Inna Duppy SKRS Soundclash’, production is handled jointly by Duppy Gun and SEEKERSINTERNATIONAL, who, having previously relied on sampled vocals, are able to distill their outlandish sonics in a more functional setting, displaying an infectious synergy with the Duppy Gun vocalists that has continued to evolve.
Looking forward, collaboration is at the heart of Bokeh Versions. The latest release, ‘SPICE’, finds rising star Grove voicing cuts from YOKEL and Robin Stewart of Giant Swan. Six tracks of seductive, forward-facing dancehall and club, it follows up on the promise of their previous project ‘Queer + Black’, cutting a distinct figure in the Bristol scene.
“When I first saw them perform, I thought they were fucking unreal, just one of the best I’d ever seen. Grove can do it all, to be honest. Absolute legend.” As vinyl pressing stalls due to endless major label reissues, supply chain problems, and Brexit causing postage and import taxes to skyrocket, Bokeh Versions have been reconsidering how to release music.
“Brexit almost killed us. We’ve never chased money, but it’s not nice to lose a third of your customers, which the EU audience represented. A lot of these people have been with the label since the beginning, and now they’re just not buying stuff. And why would they? They might get some mystery tax added to their spend.”
While a clear fix seems way off, the label has doubled down on its eccentricities; limited copies of the Grove release come as homemade fragrance brewed by the artist themself, a new direction in sensory world- building around music. “At this point, vinyl is almost like flogging a dead horse. We thought, ‘Let’s take the money we’d have spent on a record, and instead make a couple of videos, a perfume, and some T-shirts’. That seems more exciting.”
This follows the label’s wildest step within alternative distribution: a 30 minute-long virtual reality headtrip, released as a companion piece to Mars89’s 2021 sound art release ‘New Dawn’. “I like the idea of a release as a world, the idea of music as transportation. You don’t get that with a five-second clip on Instagram.”
Currently viewable on either headset or browser, the site allows viewers to navigate a hellscape of abstract digital flora, an environment that pulsates and breathes with the soundtrack. A product of two years’ work, it remains a proud achievement for Mars89, though Opland admits that the initial response to the work proved difficult to gauge through the veneer of social media. Originally scheduled to appear as an installation piece before the pandemic reared its head, ‘New Dawn’ will be presented as a physical exhibit soon.
Listen to a 100% Bokeh Versions mix below, recorded by BKV Industrial and Giant Swan's Robin Stewart.
Tradition - Rocket Repairs
Lopo - Never Play Dat 2021 [prod. Big Flyte & Genesis Hull]
Seekersinternational - TrustInDigikal
The Bush Chemists - I Came I Saw
TNT Roots - Yahweh The Redeemer
Bad Tracking - Eriksson
Grove - Shadow
Sea Urchin - Il Sonno Del Gigante
Smurphy - DesertK&QLove Riddim
Gr◯un土 + Kabamix - MIZUNOKUNI Side A
Leslie Winer and Jay Glass Dubs - YMFEES
Sunun - DRK BLNT
TNT Roots - Tears of The Righteous
Seekersinternational - TrialByFire
Sea Urchin - Asa (Tahtib Tehbat)
Jay Glass Dubs - Compound Dub
Jay Glass Dubs - Compound Dub (Kinlaw Remix ft. Dali De Saint Paul, Franco Franco & DJ Saisho)
Low Jack - Look Out Riddim
Tukinno & King G - Cyborg Riddim [prod. Feel Free Hi-fi]
Sikka Rymes - Love Di People (ft. John D) [Cakedog Version]
G Sudden - Walk & Stagger [prod. Element]
Répéter - A Lifetime Of Broken Dreams
Felinto - Sempre
SRS - Growing
Felinto - Não Tem Volta
Mars89 - Bandersnatch
Jonah Dan - Midnite
Buddy Don - Mix Over (Velkro Version)
Sunun - Dark Just
Sunun - Dark Just (Kinlaw Remix)
Leather Rats - Putting The Danger Back On The Road (live)
Voodoo Tapes - The Summoning
Sea Urchin - Hedi Dodici Luglio
Aquadab & MCA - NEW MED
Seekersinternational - LoversDedicationStation
Smurphy - Growth
Only Now - Last Gasp (feat. Rajib Karmakar)
SRS - Growing (Lawncare Version)
Sea Urchin - Pulviscolo Del Sonno, La Prossima Relatà