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Credit: Vicky Grout

Bou: hometown hero

Manchester's Bou is at the pinnacle of drum & bass' push for world domination. On a tour of his adopted hometown, Dave Jenkins discovers some of the people and places crucial to Bou’s rise, and gets to know an artist who, despite multiple anthems, headline performances, a major label deal, and more under his belt, remains grounded by his family, faith and passion for the music

“This is where it all started,” says Bou, gazing around the Projekts MCR skatepark. A lively zoo of misfit energy nestled under a flyover right in the centre of Manchester, whirring wheels, crashing boards, grinding trucks, and a faint chug of heavy metal echo around us. Bou tucks his face behind the collar of his top, his friendly brown eyes bulging with nostalgia. He takes it all in.

It’s a jarring change from his last-known zoo-like location: an electrifying DnB Allstars 360° knees-up the night before. With over a quarter of a million views online within a week, you might have already seen it. One of a series of live-streamed sets from the current leading drum & bass platform, DnB Allstars, it’s a now-familiar concept where the crowd circle the DJ and beg and bray for as much filth, energy and shock-and-awe switch mixing as possible. It’s an intense situation for any DJ, but when you’re packing dubs like Bou, the crowd are pure putty in your hands. Especially when your intro is the debut of a highly-anticipated collaboration with d&b kings Chase & Status.

He shows us a clip from his Instagram. The crowd reaction is so highly charged it transmits intoxicating levels of goosebumps even through his phone speaker. Still just a matter of hours ago, the set has caused both his and his manager’s phones to go into meltdown. Bou switches his to silent and continues to soak up the scene. This concrete community hub was the backdrop to many life-changing events from the age of 11 right through his teens. “The roots of it all,” affirms Bou, real name Amine Bouguenna. “Skating, Manchester, partying, music, meeting my best mate Jamal...” — his smile becomes a smirk as more memories spring to mind.

He may not have skated for several years, but it’s abundantly clear that Bou (pronounced ‘Boo’, by the way) is entirely at home. Quite literally. Within a few minutes’ drive, you’ll find many more locations integral to both his upbringing and his current operations as one of drum & bass music’s most in-demand and influential new-generation headliners. Spitting distance behind us looms the presence of Manchester Piccadilly station. With it comes Depot Mayfield, a sprawling rave zone that’s home to the Warehouse Project, a world-renowned mega-party where he’s slapped thousands of ravers silly with his trademark full-flavour blend of jump-up, dancefloor and rolling drum & bass.

Photo of Bou wearing a blue shirt
Credit: Vicky Grout

Head just 10 minutes north and you’ll hit Heaton Park. A favoured spot for generations of legendary Manchester gigs, by the time you read this, he’ll have headlined Parklife Festival alongside friend and fellow drum & bass A-lister Hedex. Scheduled at the very top of the bill, right up against mighty rave pioneers The Prodigy, it is an undeniably massive hometown moment. Five minutes south is the Hulme estate, where the famous Bloc2Bloc is located.

An iconic, graffiti-sprayed, grassroots, working-class beacon amid an increasingly commercialised genre, Bloc2Bloc should be familiar to anyone who’s spent more than a minute following underground drum & bass culture thanks to its prolific (and usually chaotic) live streams, and the sheer amount of now-established acts who’ve broken through via the platform — including Bou. Like Projekts, Bloc2Bloc is a community-spirited hub that welcomes waifs and weirdos with wide arms and without judgement. It exists solely to empower disenfranchised, jaded youths from low-income areas, giving them the space and tools they need to even think about thriving.

Bloc2Bloc has such a reputation and influence in the city that at any given point there could be a number of Manchester’s legendary characters lurking in there — from founder Jack Banner to Chimpo or MC Trigga — but it’s quiet when we arrive. Co-runner J Bannister assures us it’s the calm before the storm, before cheekily profiling the life and times of a young Bou. “From skating we all got into this,” he explains. “I knew him before he was producing, just chilling in a spot where the skaters were. All the outcasts. I was with Bou at his first rave, an illegal one in Rivington; he was going mental, loving it.”

Bannister lists numerous now-deceased Manchester venues and warehouses where they raved during their teens, while Bou recalls the state of the ropey old CDJs at his first-ever Bloc2Bloc-streamed set back in 2014, when he was aged just 17, long before Facebook streaming became popular and blew the brand well beyond the Manchester city limits. “If it wasn’t for places like these, then fuck knows where I’d be,” Bou wonders as we return to the car. It’s an impossible scenario to contemplate; besides a short-lived apprenticeship at an IT company (where he got the sack for making beats on company time), drum & bass has been the only career the 26-year-old has ever known.

Photo of Bou in front of mulit-coloured shipping containers
Credit: Vicky Grout

He released his first track in 2015 (‘Movements’ with Dutta on Clawhammer Recordz) and truly began to flourish after he broke through in 2018, gradually taking over the game with a steady slew of solo singles, collaborations and regular ‘dub pack’ USB releases, packed with exclusive tracks. By 2020 he could afford to buy his dad a car, but even now — three years, one label, multiple anthems, major-league collabs with artists such as Example and Bru-C, and his own sold-out headline show later — it still feels like he’s only just cracking his knuckles and sitting down at the piano.

The week we meet, on top of debuting the previously mentioned Chase & Status collaboration, he’s also neck deep in the release campaign of ‘Closer’, his first major label-signed single. Sampling Robert Miles’ iconic, piano-tickling mid-1990s hit ‘Children’, and fused with the hooky vocal charms of MC, friend and fellow Manny operative Slay, ‘Closer’ has all the makings of a crossover success.

Made in the thick of a social at his studio, it came to life in under an hour. “My mate Ollie plays me ‘Children’ and is like, ‘Why don’t you remix this?’” Bou recalls. “I was messing around on FL Studio while everyone was chatting and drinking in the background, and Slay just goes, ‘Oh wait, I got a hook for that!’ We wrote the tune in 40 minutes. That was the tune. We put a teaser on SoundCloud and had nine or 10 major labels emailing my manager wanting to sign it.”

He eventually settled for Island, feeling the label understands the nuances and practices of drum & bass culture (the fact that their A&R produces drum & bass didn’t hurt either). “I’ve never experienced how a major label works,” Bou considers. “They concentrate on the little things. With drum & bass it’s like, ‘OK, I got a tune coming out’, put it on your social media, do a little story, and bam, you got a release out. With majors it’s so much attention to detail.”

The moment majors get involved in any underground artist’s trajectory, there’s a concern the original spirit of the music will be diluted to fit more mainstream markets, but we get the sense that Bou has his own ideas. For a start, he’s not writing to any major label brief; he’s already packing stacks of music. Over 20 tracks are currently sitting at WIP stage on his hard-drive, many of them just needing a final touch or two to be released.

He’s also got more collaborations on the go than Cupid, with some of the biggest names in drum & bass (and beyond). “The music is the easy part, man, it’s all the rest of it that’s a challenge,” he laughs. “I’m gassed that it’s all happening though. We were really specific about choosing the right label, and working with a label that understands drum & bass. I won’t do anything sell-out-y; I want to stay true to underground drum & bass.”

Photo of Bou wearing a hat in front of a black background
Credit: Vicky Grout

“People expect producers to be media friendly or be able to speak in front of cameras like it’s natural. But come on man, we make tunes on our own in little dark rooms. We don’t speak to no one!” 

They’re reassuring words for any Bou fan to hear, and it’s clear he’s in no rush to make big decisions or release any records that would upset the momentum he’s developed naturally. It’s business as usual in a sense; some of the massive collaborations he’s dropped in the last year (like 2022’s ‘Back To Basics’ with Alix Perez and Trigga) were bubbling on dub for several years before being let loose officially.

For Bou, this is the long game. It’s one he’s known for years prior to his arrival in drum & bass, thanks to the hard work and dedication of his parents. Having evacuated their young family from Algeria in the late ’90s, during the peak of the country’s brutal 10-year civil war, Bou is all too aware that his life could be wildly, unimaginably different to how it is now. Forget wondering where he’d be if places like Projekts or Bloc2Bloc didn’t exist... “What would I be doing now if we didn’t move from Algeria?” He pauses to consider such a concept.

His home country is a distant blur; his family fled when Bou was barely five years old. First to France, then to Ashford in Kent as they arrived in the UK, then Manchester in 2007. It’s been home ever since. “I can’t see myself leaving here any time soon, you know,” he ponders. “It might be nice to move somewhere with better weather, but everything I need is right here: my friends, my management, my family...”

We continue driving through the city. Shiny, gentrified structures dissonantly overshadow the gritty, neglected ends, especially as we skirt notorious estates like Moss Side en-route to his parental home in Monsall, just east of the city centre. Bou, his manager and videographer share stories and anecdotes about places he passes every day, but DJ Mag’s presence this particular sunny Friday afternoon has amplified their poignancy. Just as people never visit their local tourist attractions unless they have guests, it’s rare anyone takes the time to dig deep into their own personal journey and the significance of their environment and community unless there’s a journalist lurking around all day.

It’s a unique moment, and Bou’s embracing the process and asking questions, while his team are filming clips and discussing the best ways to post about this feature to his fans on social media. “I know it used to be a lot more just about the music, but social media has become such a vital part of the game now, whether you like it or not,” admits Bou, who is nowhere near as spammy on his socials as many of his contemporaries. He’s the first to admit that he’d rather social media wasn’t such a huge influence on dance music, and how he’s naturally a much more private person.

Photo of Bou mixing behind some decks with a red strobe background
Credit: Sam Wright

In the past he’s only ever revealed the odd peep or two into his life beyond the music. One particularly memorable post a few years ago was an awesome picture of his father — a proud man with the same endearing grin as his son — standing next to his brand-new Mercedes, which Bou had bought him. Another more recent post showed a sparkly decorated living room (arranged by his award-winning wedding decorator sister) in which he’d proposed to his girlfriend. But these are fleeting flashes in an otherwise private life, poking through an internet output that is almost exclusively music, rave and humour-based.

“People expect producers to be media friendly or be able to speak in front of cameras like it’s natural,” he explains. “But come on man, we make tunes on our own in little dark rooms. We don’t speak to no one! I’ve had to learn how to speak publicly and do interviews. I’m naturally much more introverted.” It helps that Bou and this writer have previous. Our first interview was in late 2018 for UKF. Even back then, just three years into his release history, it was abundantly clear that he was destined for exciting things. His early sound — an unkempt, unpredictable and tongue-in-cheek take on the jump-up style of the time — stood out like a mischievous middle finger. His breakthrough track ‘Poison’ was still a hugely popular anthem too, even though he’d made it several years before.

First a big smash among jump-up DJs in 2016/17, then a more universal anthem across the techier, rolling and neuro sides of drum & bass in 2018, the raw, energetic sound of ‘Poison’ was a dominant influence in a much wider movement happening in drum & bass at the time, as the all-too-rigid walls between subgenres were crumbling down. It’s a movement that continues to this day, as drum & bass continues to rise in popularity both in the underground and commercially, and one that Bou remains very much at the front of.

We also spoke over Zoom in early 2021, when he was among the first wave of DJs to tour New Zealand while most of the world remained on lockdown. He spoke from his hotel room quarantine to discuss his new label Gossip, a vehicle he created for his more underground tracks and more immediate bangers. The label launched with the absurdly bumpy funklet ‘Cous Cous’ (with Inja) and has since been responsible for many of Bou’s anthems, ranging from his High Contrast collab ‘Don’t Need You’ to heavier club tracks like ‘Camels’. Often naming Gossip releases with references to his Algerian roots highlights just how personal the label is to Bou.

Photo of Bou holding his hand partly in front of his face in front of a green background
Credit: Vicky Grout

“If you ain’t got the passion you won’t want to do these things. Even if you’re an outgoing person and like talking to new people, if your heart isn’t in it then you won’t be able to do it. Me? I love this music, I want to know everyone who’s involved, I want to involve myself in the scene"

Other interviews and encounters have occurred since then. One focused on his hugely successful DNB 4 PEACE project, a charity V/A album that weighed in at over 60 tracks, featuring some incredible names from across the genre and raising over £30,000 for Médecins Sans Frontières in Palestine. An early sign of Bou’s cross-genre appeal, it came about through a Facebook post: he asked if anyone would get involved in a charity album... and was consequently bombarded with bangers from the likes of Alix Perez, Halogenix, Workforce and many more.

It’s a perfect example of Bou’s love for working across the d&b spectrum; his sound is incredibly versatile, something that’s been obvious since his early work with old sparring partners like Dutta, right through his extensive collection of high-level collaborations. Current Value, Alix Perez, Serum, Mefjus and High Contrast were some of his earlier top-tier link-ups, while yet-to-be-released tracks see him alongside the likes of Shy FX, Camo & Krooked, Sub Focus, Netsky, and of course the aforementioned Chase & Status.

“That’s one thing I’ve always tried to do with collabs,” he adds. “Random combinations that make people say, ‘Why is he doing that with that guy?’ Stuff you might not think goes together. If you’ve got two similar artists working together then you kinda have an idea of what to expect. But when you’ve got something like High Contrast and me, then that’s where you get originality.” It’s proof of how healthy drum & bass can be in the right hands, and something he carries across to the performance side of his career. Last year, he even stepped in at the last minute, giving up a rare Friday night off and travelling the length of the country to replace a secret headliner at this writer’s small Boomtown stage.

His and MC Haribo’s set is still talked about to this day, and is testament to his willingness to help others and his passion for underground culture. “Every rave is an opportunity to meet up with people, get inspired, talk about collaborating, share ideas,” he fizzes. “If you ain’t got the passion you won’t want to do these things. Even if you’re an outgoing person and like talking to new people, if your heart isn’t in it then you won’t be able to do it. Me? I love this music, I want to know everyone who’s involved, I want to involve myself in the scene. I’m quite shy and anxious, I like staying at home playing Xbox and chilling with my missus. But with d&b, I genuinely want to communicate with people and help people and make cool shit.”

Photo of Bou wearing a hat and standing in front of shipping containers
Credit: Vicky Grout

“When you’re a misfit as a kid, your family ain’t proud of you. You ain’t got a woman. You ain’t got money, or shit. You’re not living towards anything, maybe skating. But now there’s a goal in life, there’s a focus.”

Realness. But in the world of personal references, nothing can be any realer than Bou’s own father. We’re introduced early on in our Manchester tour. The first question we ask: is he proud of his son? “Of course,” he smiles, “but I’m prouder that he is happy and he is making his living from something he loves.”

Mr. Bouguenna gives us a tour of the family home. A warm-natured man, who still works as a bridge engineer in his sixties, he tells us how Bou’s mum is a beautiful singer (she even sang on Algerian TV, but sadly her family didn’t let her pursue her passion due to their orthodox Islamic beliefs), then proudly shows us a photo of him, Bou and Hedex on stage at Parklife 2021. He also playfully interjects as Bou tells us about his teenage years, revealing that he knew more about the sneaky garden smokes and late-night drainpipe climbing than perhaps Bou realised.

With his son now a certified drum & bass superstar who’s very much solvent, it’s easy to laugh about. But throughout his teens that definitely wasn’t the case. “I remember a DJ called HESKK came over for a few weeks. This was in the early days,” says Bou. “I was asleep in the room and dad came down and asked him, ‘Can people make money from this? Can you live off it?’ HESKK said, ‘No, I wouldn’t recommend it, it’s hard to make money in music’. He was being honest from his experiences, but it wasn’t what Dad needed to hear.”

Like all parents, Mr and Mrs Bouguenna only wanted the best for their son, especially having emigrated from a war-torn country. But for many years Bou’s current success was impossible to even imagine. The rigid education system failed him, and his teenage years are best filed under ‘misspent’. A misfit skater who didn’t feel like he belonged in any particular group, including his own religion, everything he’s achieved since is a universe away from where he started and how he felt at the time.

Bou behind the decks with an orange screen background
Credit: Sam Wright

“I was the black sheep. My head teacher hated me. Everyone was invited to the prom except me. He said I’d never amount to anything. I remember feeling that too. Like I’m a loser,” Bou explains. “Everyone is doing prom and moving on and going to college and I’m still here trying to work out what the fuck I’m doing.” Those low expectations continued into college. Bou inexplicably failed his course because he used FL Studio instead of the college-standard Logic or Ableton, all while tracks of his like ‘Poison’ were getting played by d&b titans like Kings Of The Rollers and Noisia. “It’s mad. I was going to college in the day and failing, then going home and making beats that were good enough to sell.”

Life post-college has obviously been a different story, but his experiences have made him both wary and grateful. In the same way he asks where he’d be without Bloc2Bloc or Projekts, or where life would be if his family hadn’t fled Algeria, he’s also acutely aware of how blessed he is in his current situation. “I think everyone is a main character in their own story, so no, I don’t feel such a misfit anymore,” reflects Bou. “When you’re a misfit as a kid, your family ain’t proud of you. You ain’t got a woman. You ain’t got money, or shit. You’re not living towards anything, maybe skating. But now there’s a goal in life, there’s a focus.”

For Bou, the focus has become the vision. One big enough to sell out headline shows at London’s 1,600-capacity E1. One wide enough to release a tongue-in-cheek banger with B Live called ‘F*ck Jump Up’ one month and the airwave-ready anthem ‘Closer’ on a major label the next. It’s also a vision powerful enough to drive a whole team, who Bou credits for his recent wave of achievements. “You need to work with other people,” he says. “This is a big thing in the d&b scene, a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t need a manager, I don’t need an agent, I’m going to do it all myself, I’ll video it myself, I’ll edit it myself, I’ll do this, I’ll do that’. But it ends up looking like shit!”

Close-up photo of Bou resting his face on his hand and wearing a puffer jacket
Credit: Vicky Grout

“You can have music that saves lives, man. You can have music that genuinely helps people and stops them from doing stupid things. Music soothes us, you know?” 

No man is an island, especially in the brutal culture of social media hype and numbers. And Bou admits there’s a lot of pressure in the drum & bass fast lane right now. “A lot of pressure!” he exclaims. “I’m DJing three/four times a week, here, there and everywhere. It takes a toll on you if you don’t look after yourself. It’s not an easy, normal thing to do and you need a lot of self-control.” That’s self-control for himself, his parents and his faith. Along with UK Apache, Bou is one of only a few high-profile drum & bass artists who are known to be practising Muslims. His faith comes with its own responsibilities and has inspired in him a much deeper dialogue about music, its meaning and its purpose than many might expect. The idea of music being haram in some perceptions of Islam has been a deep point of thought for him.

“Being in the environments of alcohol and drinking and partying and girls and whatever? These are things forbidden in my religion, but not music,” he reflects. “You can have music that saves lives, man. You can have music that genuinely helps people and stops them from doing stupid things. Music soothes us, you know? It numbs the pain and puts you in a different space. If you’re in a bad place and you listen to music, you’re temporarily taken away from that toxic state of mind, you know what I mean?” We all know what he means. And whether you’re among the misfit zoo of a skatepark or the begging, braying zoo of a 360° show, you can be sure everyone around you does too.

All of Bou’s successes aside, this approach to music — and the fact it came about so unexpectedly from humble roots, low expectations and a general sense of displacement — is what keeps him grounded and faithful to the real underground, uncompromising attitude of drum & bass. In true d&b spirit, there’s not even a big album or massive project in the future to highlight in this obligatory ‘watch this space’ finale. Just a casual heads-up on a consistent flow of Bou bangers, and confirmation that his place in the upper tiers of the new-gen d&b premiership is deserved and authentic.

“There are plans in the works, man. Basically I’ve just made a fuck load of music!” he laughs, then dips his face back into the collar of his top and turns to watch the skaters and reminisce before we part ways. This is where it started. Who knows where it’s going next?

Dave Jenkins is a freelance writer

Photos: Vicky Grout
Assistant: Lorenzo Garrido
Live pics: Sam Wright