Label of the Month: Polari Records

For Pride Month, Beatport delves into the synthetic queer pleasures of DJ Cormac's Polari label, where the high-energy legacy of gay liberation meets forward-looking production. 

12 min
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Jun 3, 2024
Marke B.

“How bona to vada your dolly old eek! I’ve nanti dinarly; park me some handbag for another buvare.” No, you're not having a stroke. The previous two sentences are examples of Polari, a secret language used among British gay men for centuries to speak freely in the shadow of oppressive authorities. “Good to see your dear old face! I'm broke; give me some money for a drink” may sound like slightly cringey everyday expressions, but they hark back to the stealthy camaraderie and clandestine bar scene that marked homosexual culture before Gay Liberation brought everyone proudly dancing into the light.

DJ Cormac, head of the Polari Records and champion of queer representation in the dance music scene, is definitely a product of the contemporary side of GLBTQ+ history. One glance at his label's releases, including titles like “No Tears in the Backroom,” “Crop Tops,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Leather 'n Lasers,” and it's immediately evident there's no cowering in the subtextual closet here. Cover art consists of high camp collages featuring vintage porn, highly stylized '60s home décor, and even professional wrestler Ravishing Rick Rude. And with his close-cropped, bleach-blonde haircut, cheeky retro mustache, and penchant for tight Levi's and leather accessories in DJ booths around the globe, Cormac himself channels the look of the gay 1970s and '80s nightlife heyday, even as his propulsive music often comes tricked out with vanguard production and mixing techniques.

Polari Records, in Polari parlance, is positively zhoozhy with omi-palone fantabulosa (fabulously showy and gay).

Check out Polari's 'Label of the Month' chart on Beatport
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But that doesn't mean the label fetishizes the past. One sign of Polari's up-to-the-minute queer sensibility, in fact, is that it isn't strictly queer at all. “I wanted with the label to fast-track or platform queer artists,” the Irish-born Cormac says from his sofa, his soft lilt floating through the Zoom screen. “But it’s not a queer-only label. I would say we are relatively diverse in that respect. The music is paramount and must come first. But if someone does come along from a group that is underrepresented in our industry, my urge is to support them in getting their music out to the world in some way.”

While the Polari roster might not be all queer, the music certainly is, in a way that taps into the sounds of '80s gay club music like Hi-NRG, synthpop, Italo, and house, while resonating with current dance floors. Many of the label's frenetic grooves could easily reverberate through the poppers-perfumed atmospheres of classic '80s Hi-NRG palaces like San Francisco's Trocadero Transfer and London's Heaven—or ramp up this year's crowd at Panoramabar, where Cormac is a resident, and where he recently threw the first Polari party, with guests Romy, Josh Caffe, fka.m4a, and Lezzer Quest. “We're not a nostalgia or tribute label,” Cormac says. “I like the past, but I don't want to stay there. I feel all of that's been done. We're very now.

“Speaking in terms of genres seems so rigid and restrictive,” he continues. “When people ask me what type of music I play, I half-jokingly respond 'good music.' The music on the label is basically the same sort of thing you find in my DJ sets. I usually know within the first few seconds if something is right for us, it's instinctual. One of the exciting things happening now for me is that genres like disco, house, or techno, genres more associated with queer subcultures and communities are so widely expanding. But now we have openly queer people making every type of music imaginable — we have Lil Nas X, we have huge festivals with queer headliners. The boundaries are dissolving. It's incredible, when you think about how far things have come.” 

Instead of genre labels, Cormac applies the adjective “synthetic” to the kind of music that forms the core of Polari's aesthetic. “I'm drawn to drum machines. The contrast between this quite cold, robotic percussion and then warm soulful vocals or synth melodies over top of it—that's the perfect scenario for me. The first time I ever heard Depeche Mode, for example, was when my brother had the Violator album. My two older brothers were music obsessed, and I became very good at sneaking into their room, playing their records, and then gently slipping the vinyl back in the sleeve so they didn’t know I played it. That’s actually a good talent to have as a DJ, because you need to do that a lot and rather quickly. When I first heard the first few bars of “The World in My Eyes” from the album, something literally jumped in my chest. I think it was my heart. The 808 and 909 drum machines, there was something in that very synthetic kick drum. It had a sense of the future for me, something otherworldly. It was like the sounds I had in my head.”

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Boys Shorts Polari Records

Cormac also unabashedly embraces the eternal potential of pop. “I will say that most tracks on the label do have a start, a middle, and an end—so there’s a sense of story and momentum in them, even if you wouldn’t call them songs. There’s a pop sensibility, but not pop music. There’s a structure. I feel there’s a lot of conformity and homogenizing right now in pop, and music in general. It's more about the image and the appeal of the artist rather than the music: 'Don't be too far out of the formula or we won’t sign you.' It’s tough out there, you must have the image, you have to make it on TikTok, you need that big drop. It’s almost like the music doesn’t matter. But I think there's some great pop music still to be had. On the label, Greek duo Boy's Shorts and Italian duo Hard Ton are good examples. So is Ready in LED: She’s a great songwriter with that siren-like, slightly melancholic vocal which I think a lot of queer people love. She reminds me of Patsy Kensit from Eighth Wonder!

“And then there's the fact that many of us were first introduced to these sounds through pop music. I remember hearing Dead or Alive, Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, Yazoo, being introduced to Hi-NRG and dance floor sounds with records in the charts or on the radio. And then you'd actually see them, what they looked like, and you'd be like, 'Holy fuck. There's a whole other world out there.'"

That secret queer language of music is how Cormac taps back into Polari's communicative power. His own discovery of dance music shows the almost cosmic transformation that overwhelms many young queer people hearing these sounds for the first time—when they may not even know themselves yet—and its ability to transcend politics.

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“The first time I went to a disco, it was by chance,” he says. “My parents were having a wedding anniversary party in a hotel, I was 11 at the time, and I was able to sneak into the hotel disco for the very last track. They were playing Yazz’s “The Only Way is Up.” You could say all discos are inherently gay because there’s the lights, and the music, and the sense of liberation. But there was also a deeper sense of liberation going on—not just for me, but it seemed for all people in Northern Ireland, which was undergoing a severe time of unrest. There was a sense of hyper-vigilance because of the Troubles. Although I didn’t grow up in the middle of the Troubles, they were very present. People were very vigilant around religion, and maybe Catholics went to one disco and Protestants went to one disco. But to see people relax in that environment was like Xanadu for me, even if it was just during one last track the end of a night. And what a terrific track at that.

“From then on, dance floors just made sense for me. I knew the language. I couldn’t stop dancing as a kid, it was one of those situations where other kids would notice it and call you a fag or threaten you. But it was one of those instinctually natural things within us that makes us different. And we learn to hide it or be ashamed of it. But on a dance floor that energy is pretty much required. When you step onto a dance floor, it feels like, well, this is our space now.”

Cormac was now on a one-way track to a life immersed in music. “When I first started to officially go out, at 15 or 16, I was going to illegal raves in my hometown, which I suspect might have been run by paramilitaries. That was a much tougher, harder type of house. But then I became aware of DJ Tony De Vit. In the late '90s, Tony was pioneer of a harder house sound, and he was queer—that didn’t compute to me at the time. In his sets, he would often mix in a sample or passage of Hi-NRG. It would be like bringing another world into it. The energy would just explode. I think that probably came from when he was a local disco DJ: Being older than we were, he knew how to make a local disco dance floor rock, but then he also had this world-famous DJ thing going on as well. The way he played just blew my mind. When I started to go to Trade in London for example, I went very often to listen to him. Sadly, he died of HIV complications. But he definitely had that sound within a sound, even though it was technically a different genre.”

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Exploring the Hi-NRG sound led Cormac to discover giants like Bobby O, Patrick Cowley, Sylvester, and Megatone Records, and landmark records like Cowley's “Menergy” and Miquel Browns's “So Many Men, So Little Time.” “If you think about the music and lyrics — Sylvester singing about boys in the backroom, Miquel singing about all those men — some of that is a documenting of queer dance floors, a Polaroid of those times. But it's also fun and tongue-in-cheek. When I make music, I’m trying to emulate both of those sides on some level. It's how we've survived everything we've gone through. Dance floors are a sacred space to us, it's where we find our family and sanctuary in a heterosexual world. But they're also fun, which sometimes people forget. Queer people have had to develop good senses of humor; how else would we have survived.”

That legacy continues with a planned set of releases called Polari Pansy edits, whose name reclaims a slur, “pansy,” that was used against Cormac on the playground as he danced around. Each edit comes illustrated with a photo of “heroes and queeros” of LGBTQ+ culture, like Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, Quentin Crisp, Boy George. The edits themselves are pumped-up takes on oft-overlooked dance floor classics, and the whole project is the kind of labor of love that Cormac sees as Polari's mission. “No one is making money releasing tracks right now, especially with a label of our scale,” he says. But music is art. It’s hard to make a living at, yet having your music out in the world and knowing someone will look after it is a tremendous feeling. I think that’s our goal.”

About the actual release details of the Polari Pansy project, however, Cormac remains immaculately mum. “There has to be some secrecy to it,” he says. “The label is named for a secret language, after all.”