Sitting at a bus stop at 23rd and Jackson in the Central District, Gregoire Sexton Brown, aka producer Sax G, hands me his earbuds and asks me to listen to an unreleased track on his phone. The sun has already set, leaving only the haze of the streetlights and the headlights of passing cars. The instrumental track mixes chopped-up piano chords with screwed-down operatic vocals. There’s a classical vibe to it, yet the stuttering beats make it decidedly futuristic. Staring at the cars, I realize what I’m listening to. This is the epitome of Night Bus.
“[Night Bus] is the type of music that gives you the feeling that you get when you’re riding a bus at night by yourself,” says Alex Ruder, founder of Hush Hush Records, Sax G’s label. “You’ve got your headphones on and you’re just kind of like looking out the window seeing the city go by.”
Hush Hush was conceived with this idea in mind. Since 2012, the small electronic indie label has issued nearly 40 releases. Currently Ruder runs the operation alone, splitting his time as a DJ at KEXP, where he hosts a late-night variety mix, co-hosts the electronic niche show Expansions, and also hosts and curates the new Friday night guest DJ showcase Midnight In A Perfect World.
The label started by chance. During a meeting with Seattle producer Joey Butler, aka Kid Smpl, Ruder offhandedly mentioned that Butler’s new album made him want to start a label just to put it out. Butler agreed, and suddenly the off-the-cuff idea started to become a reality.
Soon artists began reaching out to Ruder. It’s a method he’s mostly stuck to, bringing in artists who come to him or are suggested by friends—local acts like Cock & Swan and DJAO. In three short years, he’s already expanded beyond Seattle, with international artists including Hykuu from Madrid or Keenya from London.
Ruder’s sonic palette for the label has focused on his initial slow-moving, cinematic concept. But despite how perfectly my moment with Sax G at the bus stop fit this template, the irony is that Sax and other recent Hush Hush signees represent a departure from the original Night Bus idea.
“I feel like if you focus too much on one thing, it can hurt you ultimately,” Ruder says. “I think it was important to start off with a focus, but I think once your focus is kind of apparent, it’s good to start branching out.” He compares the expansion to the way Sub Pop and Warp Records branched out beyond their trademark sounds. In moving past Night Bus’ trappings, Ruder is still interested in capturing a cinematic feeling with Hush Hush, but he’s more open to upbeat sounds.
Ruder’s story parallels Sax G’s, in that neither really anticipated their artistic pursuits. Growing up in a military family, Gregoire Sexton Brown lived in Germany, France, Wyoming, Los Angeles, and Atlanta before settling in Renton. Through all the moves, he developed an eclectic music taste, including acts from Duran Duran to Kraftwerk.
Music was hardly a priority during his teen years. At the time, he was a star basketball player at Cleveland High School, helping the team beat Rainier Beach, then ranked #1 in the nation. But after a knee injury, Sax G had to give up basketball. Not until he was 21 did he venture into music, when he jumped into a random cypher at a barbershop.
“I had just one rhyme memorized and I ended up doing it there,” he says. Serendipitously, Seattle hip-hop kingpin producers DJ Topspin and Vitamin D happened to be there. Suddenly he was getting invites to collaborations and events.
In 2011 a friend told him to send some of his songs to a mystery e-mail address, and Sax obliged. It turned out to be the address for the assistant to famed hip-hop producer 9th Wonder, one of Sax’s biggest influences. Soon after, 9th Wonder’s label Jamla Records invited him to North Carolina to work with the producer.
One day when the two were in the studio, 9th Wonder asked for a rapper to hop on the track he was working on and looked over at Sax G. Sax compares it to the look from a coach who wants him to get in the game—but Sax turned away, so 9th Wonder had someone else jump in. Rather than use the opportunity to up his rap game, Sax furthered his production career, venturing into more ambient and avant-garde realms.
“The whole time I was down there I was making beats. 9th Wonder, he don’t care about my beats,” Sax says. “They’re all dusty, chopped samples at Jamla. I make ambient Brian Eno-, Band of Horses-type shit, and that don’t work over there.”
Those beats and his drive led to Tu Me Manques, a self-released solo debut that features minimal rapping, focusing instead on Sax G’s moody and eclectic beats. Though not opposed to rapping more, the original appeal of grabbing the mic has waned for the artist. “Being an MC used to be like being a Jedi, bro,” he says. “It was really . . . specialized or something. Now it’s just like everyone does it. It’s lost its flair.”
Not long after the album dropped, he got a call from Ruder asking him if he’d be interested in doing a remix. Though the remix didn’t pan out, Ruder connected Sax G with Cock & Swan, starting a kinship between the two acts that extended to C&S’s live performances. Later, Sax G reached out to Ruder to release a new project with C&S’ Johnny Goss on board to mix.
The EP, Lullaby of the Forbidden Dancer, came out earlier this week. In many ways it’s a culmination of the spirit of Hush Hush Records, the aesthetic of Night Bus meeting the label’s new openness to upbeat vibes and the familial collaboration that Ruder has helped foster within his once-modest project. It’s also deeply personal. While sonically focusing on bass lines, thematically it draws from a series of short stories Sax G wrote recently that deal with loss.
“I had several different versions of yearning for an entity that’s aware that you want it, yet refuses to let you have it,” he says of the stories. “It became this idea of, like, a beautiful death.” He says the tracks on the EP were composed to bring a conclusion to these stories, noting that some stories can’t be told with words.
Despite the death themes on the EP release, the label couldn’t be more alive. Ruder says that he’s sitting on 10 more releases, and is in talks with an unnamed video-game company to soundtrack a virtual-reality game with Hush Hush artists. “I think I basically have a release every two weeks almost through the end of the year already,” he laughs.
For Sax, the EP is just the first step in a master plan. He hopes to release his second full-length later this year through Hush Hush. The stories on Lullaby may have a conclusion, but Sax’s and Ruder’s are still ongoing.