Cover Story: Bou
Cover Story: BouApril 21, 2022
“I’m trying to make everything I do bigger.” Writer Ben Hunter traces the history and evolution of Bou, the UK’s brightest star in drum & bass.
Bou is a standout graduate of drum & bass’s new generation. As Beatport has documented, the second half of the previous decade saw a renaissance in jagged, jump-up sounds that propelled a whole crop of producers to the forefront of the genre.
A vanguard of established artists — most notably the Kings of the Rollers — led the charge, but Bou and others were one row back, crafting their sound and shaping drum & bass’s roughshod evolution.
After a friend introduced him to drum & bass through the free party scene, Bou got hooked on YouTube production tutorials and the SoundCloud jump-up community from the age of 16. Now 25 years old, Bou is a highly successful artist and touring DJ, having recently remixed both High Contrast’s classic “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and DJ Fresh’s “Gold Dust.” With an upward-trending trajectory and a sound that has begun to move into more radio-friendly territory, Bou is entering the next chapter of his story.
He first appeared on radars in 2017 with “Poison,” a single on Biological Beats. Deliciously stripped-back, “Poison” was a well-balanced dancefloor number that touched on the foghorn zeitgeist rippling across the scene at that time. It was an instant hit, with a gargling heaviness that made it popular even in the sound design-obsessed neurofunk crowd.
“Poison was definitely the first proper kickstart to my career,” Bou remembers. “It got support from proper artists like Noisia and Kings of the Rollers; people from literally every corner of drum & bass were playing it.”
The crossover appeal of “Poison” is made more impressive by the fact that, as Bou points out, “at that time drum & bass was a lot more segregated than it is now, so for Noisia to play a roller was a big thing, because they didn’t normally play that kind of stuff.”
The ability for Bou’s productions to blur sub-genre divisions is possibly why “Poison” impressed Serum. Souped Up Records had by this point carved an early reputation for hybridising the emergent jump-up sound and Current Value, a German producer who merged neurofunk harshness with foghorn grit, exemplified this best.
Souped Up Records won Best Newcomer Label at the Drum & Bass Arena Awards in 2018, the same year that Bou released Habibi, his first EP on the label, which featured Current Value on the A-side grinder “Higher.” By tapping into the genre’s zeitgeist and securing a release at the optimum time on the trendiest label in the game, “Poison” was a key stepping stone.
Bou has also proven adept at using social media to turn individual wins into long-term momentum. After recognising from the earliest stages that his “Instagram game” needed to be done properly, Bou recalls that he “spoke to Jack Hedex, who was already pretty on it with the socials,” to ask for his help.
“I probably had about 5000 followers on Instagram at the time,” Bou says, “but within three months of the phone call my Instagram went to 20 or 30,000” (it is now over 90,000). He is understandably evasive about the specifics of Hedex’s advice, but he is certain that “posting the right things on social media has definitely helped get my career to the point of where it’s at right now, and I think a lot of it is down to Hedex.”
Talking about the impact of effective social media can feel outdated— Instagram is over a decade old, after all — but glossy ‘drop reaction’ videos have become a central part of drum & bass. Bou and other members of his generation have led the way in that regard, and he tells us that a cameraman is brought along to all “big shows where there is going to be good content, and the reactions are going to be mad.”
Bou’s headline show in London from last month is a good example, documented in a series of Instagram videos that are purposefully off-kilter and shaky, designed to capture the movement of the crowd and its reaction to the music. The videos are part of the trend of big crowd reaction shots shared on Facebook and Instagram, which can send a track shooting up the Beatport charts. Bou’s rise since 2018 has paralleled this trend, and he has found substantial success through videos that show off a serrated jump-up sound and its impact on the peak moment of the rave.
Bou says, however, that “there’s definitely a lot of negative effects from the social media thing.” He recalls seeing “people turn off likes and comments on their posts, probably because they’re not hitting the same kind of likes or whatever as other artists and they’re feeling sorry and feeling shit about themselves, which sucks because being an artist, you just want to make music, you shouldn’t be concentrating on stuff like that.”
This desire to focus on art not social media doesn’t detract from Bou’s belief that “people are always going to be more interested in you if you have more engagement and more following, it just makes you more valuable as an artist.”
“Sometimes,” Bou says, “I’ll look at a post and if it hasn’t hit, you know, this many likes, I might think has my Instagram gone down or do people just not care as much anymore.”
Social media is both a blessing and a curse. The latter can apply especially when an artist tries to change the stylistic direction of their music, and Bou tells Beatport that he’s currently attempting to do just that.
“You know,” he says, “as much as people want to keep hearing the nasty, dirty tunes from me, I’m straying away from it a lot. I just can’t help but want to make proper fucking music and just want to make like, actual radio songs and songs that people can enjoy.”
There’s an imbalance between artists and their fans, as the production of music takes a greater toll on its creator than consumption does on its listeners. Fans famously dislike it when musicians stray from the sound that they like most or which they believe ‘defines’ an artist. As Bou says, “a lot of people don’t like it when an artist switches their shit up, and they might say that they like the old Bou, but you can’t stop an artist from wanting to change.”
Bou makes it clear that he wants to redefine his sound. “There’s only so many fucking foghorn tunes man can make, there’s only so many deep, bassy tunes I can do. I’m definitely feeling refreshed making more musical stuff, getting vocalists in the studio and trying to write more catchy hooks and melodies, where it’s going to clock onto people that not only like drum & bass but the general public. I’m trying to make everything I do bigger.”
This shift towards more melodic, commercially oriented music is heard best in Bou’s forthcoming collaboration with Example. Dropping next month as the first single from Example’s new album, the pair have produced a radio-friendly 170 number that combines a floating pop vocal with a rolling, club-facing bassline.
They were introduced by Bou’s manager before one of Example’s shows in Manchester, where Bou remembers being so inspired that he “went home, didn’t even sleep and just made him a tune straight away.” Example sent the vocal back in two days and the track was complete within a week of the pair’s first meeting.
Bou believes that a “lot of people are moving away” from the dominant jump-up sound of the last five years. He mentions the fact that his approachable 2021 single with Bru-C, “Streetside”, has been streamed over 33 million times, and that Luude’s “Down Under”, which covers the eponymous 1981 track by Men at Work, has been streamed over 90 million times. “It’s going to make everything bigger,” Bou says, “and I feel like people can understand it if they don’t know about drum & bass.”
But does chasing streams come at a cost? If drum & bass loses its underground identity, is an important essence of the genre lost? Some voices, especially those of the older generation, would argue that disconnecting drum & bass from its counter-culture history risks making it culturally irrelevant. I put this idea to Bou.
“Fuck all that shit,” Bou says. “I don’t come from that man, I come from the SoundCloud era, and you can — look, I’ve got respect for people who brought it to what it is, but we can’t follow what it was forever, you know, it has to move on.”
“With all due respect,” he continues, “I don’t really care what some of the elders have to say about it. I’m just rolling with it. I think a lot of the younger guys have the same perspective on that — you know, we just want to keep it moving.”
In a jungle and drum & bass scene that has often looked to the past with rose-tinted glasses, Bou’s desire for evolution on terms set by his generation is a powerful call for those who are young and most likely bored of hearing about the 1990s. Plus, the underground side of drum & bass has coexisted with its commercially oriented cousin for years: Rudimental, Sigma and Wilkinson all secured number one hits without damaging niche pockets of the scene.
“I think it’s great that we have the balance of the mainstream sounding stuff and the dutty stuff, because I’ll always be making the nasty shit at the same time,” Bou says. When asked to offer a prediction for where he believes the stylistic trends will go next, Bou argues that “everyone is going to be making mainstream-sounding kind of songs, not mainstream songs, but like, more radio-friendly.”
It’s clear that Bou wants to play as big a role as possible in this evolution, and his new label, Gossip, will be the vessel. Late February saw Unglued drop “Secret Foghorn”, the imprint’s fourth release and its first from an outside artist. However, Gossip is not Bou’s first attempt at starting his own label. Hed launched the now-defunct Diamond Audio in 2017, but admits that he “didn’t have a fucking clue how to run it. I was signing music from people and wasn’t doing a contract.”
He credits releasing music on Kasra’s Critical in 2019 for showing him how things are done “properly,” and he describes the experience as a “big transition for me in wanting to learn how to make my own label.”
It appears that the lessons learnt have been put to good use, as three out of the four releases on Gossip have reached the Beatport top spot. Bou sees the label as “a place to release my own music and have my own creative decisions on what it’s going to look like.” He also hints that there’s “loads more” in the pipeline, and he has “some big, big tunes coming out,” describing the next release as two club-focused tracks that “people have been asking about for a while.”
When asked whether he’s made any movement in the direction of any majors, Bou explains that he has “a couple of tunes that might be coming out on majors, but nothing yet, I’m kinda happy just releasing on Gossip at the moment.”
“I feel like in drum & bass when you’ve got your own fan base and you’re running with that, you don’t need anyone but your own fans,” he says. This DIY mentality remains widespread in drum & bass, with Lenzman, Alix Perez, Workforce and others offering examples of what can be achieved by an artist with a strong following. In this case, Bou tells Beatport that the goal is to get Gossip co-signed by a major label in the future, but that they “don’t need to take any deals right now.”
This talk of co-signing with a major label (“Warner Brothers or whoever”) is evidence of how far Bou has come, and how much the drum & bass scene has grown in recent years. Looking back to his early days playing jump-up gigs, he remembers that, “back then, me and my mate would travel to Belgium for like 100 euros. It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about any of that. We were just happy to go out and play. I kind of miss those times to be fair.” This sense of nostalgia comes in part from the structure imposed by success.
“Back then it was fun and exciting, whereas now everything is planned, and you know what’s going on, you know where you’re playing next week.” He laughs as he expresses at least a touch of nostalgia for “fucking waiting at the end of the rave to find the promoter so you could get your little 100 quid. It was definitely good times.” There is a lot more pressure to make sure everything is done the right way now. “You can’t just get drunk and go to some random party after your show,” he jokingly laments.
Although success brought constraints to the afterparty, it’s clear that Bou feels a real responsibility towards his growing fanbase. “If the fans aren’t happy, then you know that you are not doing well,” he says. “You have to keep the people that liked your music interested in your music, and that’s the most important thing. It’s not ticking off boxes on a checklist, it’s making sure that what you’ve built, you can keep.”
“I want to make more musical music, but at the same time, I want to keep what I’ve built and keep the people that are listening to my music happy,” he continues. “The more I’m getting into this, the more I’m thinking that I don’t want to make too much of this or that, because then the people that follow me might not like it. It’s definitely a bit of pressure.”
It’s difficult not to be impressed at the clarity and forethought with which Bou discusses the contours of his career and where he hopes it will lead him. Every decision is well thought through and fits into a broader strategic vision. When asked whether he’s always analysed his own future in this way, Bou confirms that he has.
“The biggest reason for why I am where I am is not because my music is so great or whatever, it’s because I’ve always thought about what I’m going to do with my music before it’s even made. I’ve always thought about music kind of as a businessman. One of my main focuses has always been the strategies and the things I need to do to get myself to where I want to be.”
“You can’t just let the wind take you. You’ve got to make the most out of every situation that you’re in,” he continues. There are some people, he thinks, who “have always been afraid to look like the begging guy, whereas I’m like fuck that, I’m going to go straight through, I’m going to make things happen.” He suggests that everyone should be forward. Especially if you want to work with people. “Don’t be shy — just go for it.”
It seems like solid advice from someone who has enjoyed a rise within drum & bass that’s been this meteoric. It was the collaboration with Serum on his first Habibi EP that put Bou on the map; his collaboration with Trigga on “Veteran VIP” that landed him his first overall Beatport number one, and a collaboration with Critical that gave insight into how a label should be run. And, after getting his beginnings as a DJ at free parties, it could be a forthcoming collaboration with Example that propels Bou into radio stations up and down the land.
Bou’s trajectory has matched the rising fortunes of the genre as a whole, and it’s impossible to deny that he has played a central role in the rough-and-tumble jump-up sounds that have defined the genre. Should drum & bass take a turn toward the mainstream, it seems likely he’ll help write that chapter too.
Ben Hunter is a freelance journalist living in London. Find him on Twitter.