Cover Story: Dance System Pays House History Forward
It seems too good to be true. You spend all club-less year working on a project that captures the giddy essence of clubbing. You reach out to a small army of contributors, friends old and new, to see if they’d have the time to help. Time is the one thing everyone has in abundance now, so you receive a wall of “yeses” in your DMs. You begin to tease the project from a distance –– new name, new label, new logo, new hairdo, new energy –– getting closer and closer to release date. The first single, “Let’s Go!” is a turbo-banger, although tinged with bitter irony that no-one is going anywhere fast. Will this amped-up concept land when everyone is trapped at home, profoundly miserable? It’s out of your hands now.
In any other year, dropping a tranche of summer slammers in the depths of winter would be a one-way ticket to bricksville, but you’ve been holding off all of 2020 and can’t wait any longer. You announce Where’s The Party At? and hope for the best. Right on cue, a vaccine has been found. This stroke of luck is scarcely believable. There’s a crackle of vague optimism in the air for what feels like the first time in centuries. You drop a second single, “Hands In The Air,” and they’ve found another. Green shoots of recovery are emerging from the layer of permafrost coating clubland. You are Dance System, and you’ve timed this to perfection.
That’s how it looks, at least. The reality is a little less glamorous. James Connolly is sitting in a pub garden, shattered glass speckling the concrete under foot. Chafed by icy rain, he swivels for warmth on a high chair probably intended for a truculent child, tucking his knees under his arms and pulling his reflective jacket –– which is pleasingly colour-matched to the streak of silvery-grey hair in the middle of his side parting –– right up to his chin. The only other person here is a bloke at the end of the table skinning up while having an argument on speaker phone. Dreams of filter-sweeping to ecstatic crowds under starry skies is a while off yet.
We’ve picked this inauspicious location due to its proximity to Redstar, a Camberwell venue where the very first Night Slugs parties took place in March 2008, a good couple of years before the label started in earnest. At the time, Connolly went by L-Vis 1990, playing with a rotating cast of twenty-somethings including Bok Bok, Manara, Girl U No Its True (later abbreviated), Oneman and MC Asbo, as the likes of Jam City peered on from the other side of the decks.
It’s nice to be back in the area, Connolly shrugs, but the true nostalgia actually kicked in a few days prior to our meet-up. Having flown in from his current home of Rome while it was still legal to do so, he’s been crashing in the lounge at his Dad’s place, where stacks of Connolly’s dog-eared records from his adolescence are kept. Connolly has been making hay with these online. By posting up MiniDiscs of Daft Punk’s NYE 1998 Essential Mix, or old records that range from the somewhat forgotten (Hatiras’ Liquid Adrenaline Sessions 3) to the comically overloaded (Dex & Jonesey’s remix of “Higher State Of Consciousness”) to the timeless (Underground Resistance’s “Transition”), he’s deliberately giving flashes of his past to telegraph future motives. These records, he says, are the key that unlocks the purpose of Dance System.
“Dance System goes back to my bedroom. Well – everything goes back to my bedroom,” Connolly explains. “Before Night Slugs, before I was running breaks or drum & bass parties in Brighton, before any of that came house music. The first two records I bought were Cassius’ 1999 and Armand Van Helden’s “You Don’t Know Me” – then came DJ Deeon, DJ Sneak and the rest. The sound of that era just spoke to me: there’s soul and there’s grit, a bit of sweetness, a bit of edge, and it’s all super playful. So every time I go back to my Dad’s, that collection from when I was 16 is right there waiting for me. I’ve come to realise that’s really the core of what I love about music. So what I’m doing with Dance System is rekindling that first love and exporting it to a new generation.”
Where’s The Party At? is a riot. The mixtape comes off like a dramatic rewind: past the creative bottoming-out of techno; past the overextension of superclubs; past the deaths of Kim English, Phillipe Zdar and Romanthony; past every heartbreak and downturn in fortune, to a time when hip dogs and Housecats reigned supreme. Environmental noise and chunks of dialogue draw you in and out of focus, a tactic to evoke zipping around from car to club to smoking area to lights up. If all this wasn’t already screaming late-’90s MTV Dance, one listen to the opening single confirms it.
Barely six months removed from their own song of the year contender, “For You,” India Jordan’s team-up with Dance System on “Let’s Go!” adds another candidate – a megahouse bulldozer with occasional snatches of filter to clock you cold. By complete chance, Connolly laughs, he had already been chiselling away at a tune with the very same sample India deployed on “I’m Waiting (Just 4 U).” Rather than feeling cheated by the cosmos, Connolly gamely abandoned his, sensed they could be on a similar wavelength and reached out to them.
“There was definitely a shock when I tuned into Teki Latex’s show on Radio 1 and heard the same original record [Stephanie Mills’ “Put Your Body In It”] that I had been working with that same week. I was just like, ‘Hey! That’s my song!’ But India killed it with that sample, we clearly have shared strengths, and it made sense to link.” Connolly loves to function like this. 2017’s MC-led album 12 Thousand Nights was the same: getting together with the likes of Flohio, GAIKA, Mista Silva and Lord Narf, and watching sparks fly. The same goes for performing too – if someone’s in town with a free evening, Connolly is keen to give it a whirl, which is how he ended up in a b2b marathon with Skrillex at tiny East London bar The Glove That Fits last year.
Almost every song on Where’s The Party At? is the result of a similar flight of fancy. The varied collaborator list has resulted in a mix that exists within the four walls of house, but takes glee in sticking elbows out the window and pounding holes into the drywall. On the A-side, a peppy vocal cut with UNIIQU3 (“Get Up On It!”) sits next to a greasy ‘00s electro grinder with ABSOLUTE. (“Bumbading”). On the darker B-side, the Mike James-assisted “This Is Business” could be straight out the Crydamoure handbook, while Hugo Paris’ collaboration “Concern” is heavily reminiscent of Robert Hood’s wayward take on DBX’s “Losing Control.”
There was no preconceived idea of a mixtape to begin with, merely Connolly hitting up people on the fly. He was stuck in locked-down Italy, making tunes in his headphones while his girlfriend was “on the desk nearby, finishing her degree in structural engineering.” Some rare synths became available in a nearby sale for a knockdown price, further accelerating Connolly’s desire to plant a flag in the ground for Dance System and the newly-established System Records with it. To his delight, assistance came through in spades. “There’s only a few collaborators that I haven’t met in person,” he explains. “Boxia, Big Miz, Herbert, and I believe that’s it. But the rest have all been people who’ve come in and out of my life at different stages.”
“I’ve played with A-Trak in Paris, in New York, at Fool’s Gold parties – all over. Hudson Mohawke, we were coming up on the circuit at the same sort of time, we’d cross on Numbers x Night Slugs bills. It’s really nice to have been on two very distinct journeys over the past 10 years and now find ourselves in a similar spot. As for Lauren Flax, I used to see her DJing in New York a lot and thought she had a super unique style. I let these connections guide me. Maybe the relationship won’t last a lifetime, but if we can make something happen in the studio, it’s all worth it. And, I mean, I enjoy the journey. There’s no need to force anything.”
Where’s The Party At? winds up with a wind-up. “Hypnosis” –– which links neatly with Poochi, the swirly-eyed cartoon puppy that Connolly sketched as Dance System’s new figurehead –– is a slice of mania, Connolly and Cromby invoking the barely-restrained chaos you’d find on Djax-Up-Beats. Then it unexpectedly ends. Cup your ears and you can almost hear a crowd boo-cheering for one more tune. The crumb of closure comes in a sample of a rich Scottish brogue in the distance saying “Dance System…this guy’s just having a laugh!” That would be Calvin Harris, singing Connolly’s praises live on Annie Mac’s BBC Radio 1 show.
Squaring Night Slugs’ track record of headsy, futuristic and sometimes mystical club music with these co-signs from Skrillex, Calvin Harris and A-Trak will be a challenge for some. Isn’t this what the underground was meant to contest? Before System Records was formed to give Connolly and label partner Sophie Glynne creative autonomy, you could grip early Dance System records on Mella Dee’s Warehouse Music, Jimmy Edgar’s Ultramajic and Modeselektor’s Monkeytown. Again, for heads-down lurkers on the shadowy corners of the dance floor, this is inevitably going to set off alarm bells.
The signs that Connolly’s tastes didn’t always cleave to cool have been there, if you knew where to look. His breakthrough as L-Vis 1990, United Groove, arrived in 2009 via Mad Decent. The stuttering rhythms and staccato synths that characterised Night Slugs’ output are as indebted to the unrestrained glee of Baltimore, Philly and Jersey club as they are to early Lil’ Louis. You could hear Connolly slyly deploying Laurent Garnier’s “Coloured City” in Night Slugs’ banner Rinse FM shows, or catch him confirming five minutes into his Essential Mix that it was, indeed, time for the “Percolator.” At the time, these felt like launch ramps for an incoming drop of, say, “Wut” or “Bring In The Katz.” But they were always just as essential to him.
Connolly has spent stretches of his life butting his head against a low ceiling of other people’s restrictions or having his ambitions misjudged by fans and critics alike. He’s keen to stress that the apple hasn’t fallen as far from the tree as you might assume. “The artists who I grew up with took the piss. They had stupid project names, they goofed about, they weren’t snobby about the record labels wanting to take them to as big an audience as possible. But they’re all deadly serious about the music. That’s where I’m coming from with Dance System, and so is every artist that I’ve worked with on this record. They know it’s a way to explore their colourful side, get into banger mode, go full-pelt without feeling wary about it. I mean, that’s why club kids are getting more into happy hardcore again, right? Things in the past five years got abstract and they got cynical – now people just want to have fun again.”
By this point in our conversation Connolly has warmed up mentally, if not quite physically. He’s begun to show flashes of the personal needs that are driving this reboot as Dance System. As is to be expected for someone who follows their artistic whim without asking questions, Connolly goes through phases fairly regularly, each usually a reaction to the last: steely percussive bangers following melodic jams, no-holds-barred techno following introspective R&B productions, and so on. But one early attempt to shift gears was, he reflects, a car crash.
In 2011, with Night Slugs on a peerless run of singles, Connolly released his first album. Neon Dreams was a collection of lovelorn synth songs and gaudy house throwbacks, much slower and softer than what L-Vis had been known for. “The reaction was,” Connolly grimaces, “pretty brutal. I put my heart into this idea, my dream on the line, just for people to bring it down. It was hard. To me, it felt like a natural progression. I’m into that kind of luminescent visual feel which was all over the first Night Slugs sleeves. I was really pushing this idea of light-as-sound, but the correlation got missed. People could only see me through the lens of our record label, just some DJ that releases tunes, not an artist. If I don’t explore ideas and concepts, they’ll eat away at me forever. But it was too soon.”
Ghosted by his management after the second Neon Dreams single “failed to connect,” Connolly hatched an escape to New York in 2012. He arrived days before Hurricane Sandy tore the city apart. That winter barely let up: a blizzard dropping off several feet of snow in early February here, a freak snowstorm in late March there. Connolly, stuck in a windowless spare room in Chinatown, was charmed by the welcoming gift. He laughs at the memory now: “New York, man. It throws everything at you to make sure you’re strong enough to be there.”
In the end, that move to NYC turned Connolly around at a time when he was in danger of sinking into a low place. “The energy in the city was fantastic, and musically I developed much faster than I had been on the UK club circuit. Kingdom and Total Freedom were smashing it. Night Slugs formed a partnership with Qween Beat and Fade 2 Mind, and we all collided with the fashion world as Hood By Air was on the rise. Nick Weiss from Teengirl Fantasy, ADR from Gatekeeper, Massacooramaan – that was my crew. The sound was getting industrial in 2013, and I went down that wormhole in my DJ sets. It was beautiful, crazy inspiring to be a part of.”
He pauses here. “But there’s loads of music from that era that simply never came out. I don’t think I had confidence to risk it. I worked with bands, shot videos, prepared for a new journey and…it’ll never see the light of day. After Neon Dreams, I didn’t want to throw people again.” To prove a point to himself as much as his peers, Connolly pulled in the opposite direction: “I wrote a manifesto, pushing myself to go hard and dead against any sentimentality. The rules were strict: short reverb, no emotions, two-or-three note melodies tops, just raw and simple.” This release, called Club Constructions, was only intended to be an outlet for Connolly’s retaliation. But the material was electrifying, so the manifesto was released publicly and grew into a namesake sub-label that –– alongside a prominent integration of ballroom –– defined the sound and feel of Night Slugs’ second wave in the mid-2010s.
Ever since that bracing moment of overexposure, Connolly has removed successive layers of armour and put more of himself into the music. Dance System was actually christened back in 2014, but he only let himself lean in so far.
One artefact from club music’s period of arch-conceptualism, a 35-minute mix called Workout Module 001, was a step in today’s direction, but played by Connolly with a wink – just in case. Musically, Workout Module 001 is strikingly close to Where’s The Party At? – but launched through high-concept DiS Magazine, and with an interactive site featuring animated ab-crunchers, it was aesthetically more of a James Ferraro type beat.
“That was part of my environment,” Connolly reasons. “You know, I’ve never worked out in my life! So I thought it was funny. Then in 2015, I made an EP called System Preferences, with a lead track called “Safe Mode.” Looking back it’s obvious what I was going through. I really over-thought this shit and how it would need to fit in the world. House music comes naturally, but I was still assuming I had to challenge myself at every turn.”
Connolly found purpose by using his voice more prominently. In 2014, he pushed hard in the press for artists from Dance Mania to receive proper acknowledgements for their contributions to history. He practised what he preached too, cutting profits with Jammin’ Gerald on a song that used only a tiny vocal snippet. The importance of splitting opportunities goes right back to the start of Night Slugs, he says. “We were crazy into UK funky and bassline, but we recognised we were getting press rather than Marcus Nasty; in Europe, they would maybe book Roska, but that was it.” As well as feeding the bubble and bruk of UK funky into their sound, Connolly and Bok Bok consistently booked funky acts like Ill Blu, Crazy Cousinz, D-Malice and Cooly G when few others did. It’s the very same community-minded thinking that informs his collaborative approach in the studio, and which leads into the present day.
By 2019, with Dance System records picking up steam and the 12 Thousand Nights campaign winding to a close, Connolly was committed to making a fresh start in earnest. The final gig as L-Vis 1990 came at Glastonbury Festival that year, on Block 9’s enormous IICON stage. Connolly bade farewell with a look at what a hybridised L-Vis / Dance System future could look like: instant crowd-pleasers from Camisra and Switch meet cutting-edge bangers from quest?onmarc and DJ Lag, with a few Night Slugs staples like NA’s “Xtreme Tremble,” Apple’s “De Siegalizer,” and S-X’s “Woo Riddim” thrown in for good measure. The set went down a storm, further reinforcing that he was ready for the plunge. He emptied his hard drive onto the web with Decade of Dubz and stepped into a new guise permanently.
Connolly’s ride on the reputation rollercoaster has left some bruises, but also sharpened what he wants Dance System to stand for. “It’s not my time in the underground any more, and that is perfectly fine. I’m a 36-year-old man. That scene is for young people to experiment and explore just like we did. But,” – he grins here – “the last thing I want to be doing is playing a “2009 Special!” set in years to come, taking up room. L-Vis had value in its prime, but it’s time to move on.”
Now, Dance System is intended to function as one stop on a long line of paying it forward. “I didn’t invent the music I’m making and playing now, obviously. But I can package up what I see as a special time in house music, and also put new artists on. It’s a chance to train in on what was –– and still is –– super exciting to me, and use that energy to spark inspiration in young ravers at the start of their path. They aren’t born into a world like I was, where you can go to a record store and the staff will say, “Oh, you like DJ Zinc’s Bingo Beats, here’s Jesper Dahlbäck’s Robot Dance.” I want to have that same kind of influence for someone out there. And the mixtape is just the first step toward that.”
I mention that this sounds a lot like Daft Punk’s shout-out to the originators of house and techno on Homework’s “Teachers,” and Connolly lights up. “Exactly that. I’m still a student. These are my heroes, I’m inspired by the music they made, and I want to help break more people into that world where fun is key and close-mindedness is left at the door. And you know, this year we’re all in the same position. None of us can DJ to crowds. We’re not superstars. Stuck in our studios or our bedrooms, we’re basically 15 or 16 again anyway. So why not embrace it?”
Gabriel Szatan is a freelance journalist living in London. He has previously written for RBMA, Resident Advisor and DJ Mag. Find him on Twitter.