The visionary producer, label owner, and DJ James Connolly begins a new chapter with his alias Dance System along with a star-studded 20-track mixtape ‘Where’s The party At?’
At the forefront of dance music for over a decade, Dance System (James Connolly) has left an indelible mark as a progressive producer and DJ under both his aliases – L-Vis 1990 and Dance System – and as the co-founder of the highly influential label, Night Slugs, aptly described by HYPEBEAST as “re-shaping the sound of British clubbing”, during the label’s 10th Anniversary last year.
Despite the early success’s Dance System releases, Connolly found himself no longer inspired by the club scene, and in search of new challenges, he took what would become a five-year House hiatus. Over the next couple of years, he started working more with vocalists, such as Lafawndah, on what would become her ‘Ancestor Boy’ album and began his own album project, ’12 Thousand Nights’, that was self-released through Warp in 2017. Hailed as “a small rap masterpiece”, this album solidified Connolly’s love of collaboration, as he once again found himself creating a platform for (at the time) lesser-known artists; Flohio, Mista Silva, and Taliwoah, alongside more recognisable names such as Sinjin Hawke and Gaika.
The following year, Connolly went on to compose music and sound design for brands. His unwavering position as one of the pioneers of new music gave him a competitive edge; providing brands and filmmakers with the opportunity to work directly with the originator of the sounds they were in search of. Connolly quickly found himself in high demand, composing global campaigns for Prada, Kenzo, Cartier, Adidas, Audi, Opening Ceremony, and Moschino. Which led to the launch of his nineteen90 studio that same year, announced in-line with his Nike campaign featuring Mabel.
The dancefloor however was calling back. Connolly needed this time off from club music; he’d developed new skills and perspectives that would go on to influence his sound, and perhaps most importantly, Connolly had taken time to go back to his roots as simply a listener and a fan, to reflect on how what had made him fall in love with dance music in the first place.” In a world of cookie-cutter house and techno that, Connolly says, “had been stripped of the playful energy it had in the late 90s and early 00s,” he wanted to bring back the fun, and so Dance System was reborn.
Kicking off 2020 fully re-engaged with club culture as Dance System, Connolly released his Relentless EP on Chiwax back in February, which premiered live on BBC Radio 1, as Danny Howard selected him as one of his Artists to Watch in 2020. Widely touted as the breakout star of 2020, his success seemed cemented when Calvin Harris announced Dance System (alongside Special Request) as a major influence for his Love Regenerator project. “I was listening to all the Dance System records and thinking this guy is just having a laugh and it’s coming out amazing”, Harris declared on Annie Mac’s Radio 1 show, “He’s clearly doing what comes naturally, and I can tell as the end listener that he’s absolutely loving it.”
The world then came to a grinding halt this March and Connolly relocated to Italy just when lockdown hit. All his shows were cancelled, releases were put on hold. In response to quarantine, residents in Connolly’s Roman neighbourhood were hosting “flash parties”; everyone would gather on their balconies at 6pm and play music, sing, bash pots and pans. This became his daily respite and one night, Connolly decided to move his speakers out onto the balcony and blast out Blah Blah Blah by Italo dance legend Gigi D’Agostino. “Everyone went wild” recalls Connolly, “They were dancing, whistling and cheering. I felt completely revitalised and decided to make a Dance System edit of the track, to play on the balcony the next evening.” Annie Mac got hold of his edit and made it Track of the Week on BBC Radio 1, declaring it her Lockdown Anthem; “I believe that this song is possibly the best medicine we need right now, it will make you immediately want to dance and shout and scream. It’s incredible.”
Invigorated, Connolly started to use this period of isolation to refine and develop what would become the blueprint for System Records. All the lessons and previously disparate threads from his fifteen-year career converged into a plan to fire up the next generation of ravers. Echoing the sentiment that launched Night Slugs all those years ago, System Records was to be an antidote; a new space for Connolly to get serious about having fun, a platform for new talent and a home for the “misfits and geeks who managed to find our way in life with the help of dance music.” He was also going to cultivate the love of collaboration he’d started with the 12 Thousand Nights album and develop a fully integrated world of sound and visual, as he’d learned to do with Nineteen90.
Connolly has developed a distinct visual identity for the label, one that has elevated his Poochi character into something even more outlandish, drawing from the Y2K era and sending the dog further into 3D cyberspace. “It’s a little escape for people”, Connolly says, “a little bit of utopia, a world people can invest their time in.”
Reaching out to friends from his home studio in Rome, Connolly started making what would become the debut release on the label; a 20-track, two-sided mixtape of collaborations with Hudson Mohawke, India Jordan, A-Trak, DJ Deeon, Sally C, Cromby, Shadow Child, Herbert, UNIIQU3, Hugo Paris and more. Entitled “Where’s The Party At?”, it’s a jam-packed, high-energy statement of intent and a joyful, in-your-face hint at what’s to come from the label.
Dance System speaks of the mixtape: “This isn’t about house or techno; it’s about fun, playful dance music, and I chose collaborators based solely on that – old and new friends from all different sides of dance music, coming together for one big, fun party.“
The mixtape created in a post lockdown world where clubs are now a figment of our imagination, Where’s The Party At? follows the narrative of a banging party (featuring interludes of smoking area chat and general crowd ambiance), a touch that feels all the more poignant in a time when parties are still out of reach and is a soundtrack for the perfectly wild, fun and drama-filled night with all your favourite DJ’s including India Jordan, HudsonMohawke, A-Trak, Herbert, Shadow Child, Sally C, Cromby, Big Miz, Lauren Flax, DJ Deeon, Absolute, Alex Virgo, Hugo Paris and more, inspiring all the excitement and anticipation of the real deal. It’s not about house or techno, it’s about fun, playful dance music from all corners, faces and personalities in the scene – all collaborators being friends both old and new of James’.
Connolly further explains: “We can’t go to the club, and we can’t play out, so it’s taken me full circle, back to those teenage days in my bedroom, lying in bed with my headphones on listening to music. Back then, I had to imagine what clubs were like and now the whole world is in the same situation; it’s all out of reach and we can only go there in our imagination.” A soundtrack for the perfect night out, on the A-side, the party is getting into its groove, and over on the B side, the sun has gone down, and things start to get, Connolly says, “a little bit twisted.”
Let’s Go’ featuring India Jordan is the first, exciting new single from this star-studded and ambitious inaugural release for System Records.
Speaking on their meeting and collaboration, Dance System said: “I absolutely love India Jordan! The first time I heard one of their tracks on Teki Latex’s Radio 1 show, I was taken aback at first, because I actually thought he was playing one of my demos, when in fact it was India’s I’m Waiting (Just 4 U). I had sampled exactly the same tune a couple of weeks before. It wasn’t even an obvious sample, so I took it as a sign and I dropped India a message straight away to see if they wanted to work together on something. I’m really happy with how ‘Let’s Go!’ came out; it’s exactly what I hoped and imagined we would make together. It’s just pure fun and the perfect opener for the label.”
It’s an unfamiliar, incongruous time for dance music, as the context and spaces we’re listening in have shifted so dramatically. But dance music unites and uplifts, and these qualities, central to the System Records ethos, are more important now than ever. As Annie Mac said, this is “medicine for the nation”. In a time that demands respite by the bucketload, Connolly’s M.O. for Dance System – fun always as precedent – could not feel timelier.
We delved further into Dance System’s star-studded 20-track mixtape ‘Where’s The Party At?’ along with his musical influences, working throughout a global pandemic and what 2021 has in store for him.
Let’s start by talking about your latest mixtape ‘Where’s The Party At, how long have you been working on the 20 track collection?
I’d say probably on and off for the last seven months, mainly in lockdown, but the collaboration with UNIIQU3 was written back in October 2018.
‘Where’s The Party At?’ is clearly a soundtrack for the perfectly wild, fun and drama-filled nights. Did you have any particularly strong influences when working on the project?
There were so many influences to this project; I think each tune has its own set. At the start though, Bad Boy Bills’ “Bangin’ the Box” mix series from the mid to late ‘90s was a massive influence. Those mixes had a bit of everything, from tough and funky house to hard techno. All the tunes were from different places but worked together because they were fun. I wanted to capture that energy with ‘Where’s The Party At’?
If you could summarise, what would be the story of how you became a producer / DJ?
This story stretches over fifteen years! I first got into DJing when I was 14, after seeing my friend’s brother play in his bedroom. He had all the best French house. He gave me Daft Punk’s ‘Essential Mixe’ on mini-disk, and I was hooked! I got my first decks after that. I practiced for years in my bedroom and eventually started playing out and hosting parties in Brighton when I was seventeen. It wasn’t until after University, that I started taking production seriously. I always played around and made edits, but after a few years, I eventually finished some proper tunes. I was putting them out on blogs and MySpace, until I eventually released my first EP in 2008, on Tres Cool.
Your past projects have captured the imagination of numerous fans worldwide and artists alike. How does it feel to have your music out in the world and to be receiving global recognition and support?
Of course, it feels amazing to get plaudits and recognition, but that stuff is just a bonus for me. I’m not in it for that; I just love making music and playing it for people. I’m just grateful I’ve managed to do it full time for the last twelve years and hope that I can keep it going for another twelve.
It’s an unfamiliar, incongruous time for dance music, as the context and spaces we’re listening in have shifted dramatically. In a time that demands respite how do you want people to feel when they listen to your music?
I just want people to feel great and forget their worries and the shit that’s happening in the world. It’s a crazy time to release dance music when people are actually banned from dancing, but I wanted to give people an escape, a doorway to a fun place. When I was fifteen, I used to lie on my bed listening to mixes and imagine being in the club. It was exciting to imagine. Now we are all back to this situation, and we can dream of a time where we can all dance together again.
Since releasing your debut EP, the ‘L-VIs 1990 EP’, how have you grown personally?
It’s been 12 years since that EP, I was a kid back then, but I still feel like a kid now. Working in music and generally being creative is like playing to me. Opening Ableton is like turning on a PlayStation. I have been through so much over this time though and I feel like I’m only just reaching a place where I feel 100% confident in who I am and what I’m making. I definitely feel a lot wiser, but I’m still a kid at heart.
What would you say the most important things are that you’ve learned about yourself as a producer / DJ / artist?
You have to learn to really trust your gut and intuition. Try not to think so much when you are being creative; just let the energy of the world direct you on your path in your career and in the studio. Don’t let others fuck with your energy, and if they do try to keep them at arm’s length. Some people will hate to see you succeed and will try and bring you down.
Can you talk us through your creative process when creating new music? And how that’s been altered due to quarantine / lockdown.
My process hasn’t really changed much in lockdown. I had a decent studio setup in my lounge, but I was just working in headphones rather than speakers. There is a couple of ways I work. I’m either starting with a sample cutting that up then adding drums and extra synths OR I’m starting with a drum loop and creating baselines and synth lines over the top using my hardware. I like to stack loads of layers of stuff on top all working harmoniously then I explode it out and start deleting stuff and chopping and changing sections. If all the layers work together nicely you can have fun structuring with a quick turnaround. It normally takes me about an hour to get everything out then it’s all about the details.
What are the main messages / feelings you want to get across within your music?
The key message with the Dance System Project is fun, nothing else. Tunes can be playful, or dark as hell, but there are ways to make them just as fun. I don’t want people to catch any feelings, other than joy and happiness.
You’ve spoken about doing a lot of writing in your studios in London and Rome. What’s the best environment for making music?
It’s all personal preference and where you feel most comfortable. I stopped making music in my bedroom back in 2009 when I got a studio. I thought I’d never go back to making music at home but Covid comes along and I have to. To be perfectly honest, I have really loved it! It’s nice getting up in the morning, having a coffee and some breakfast, then just getting straight to work. I’ve been so much more productive. I loved my studio in London though; it was such a great place to work and collaborate with artists, something that is almost impossible at home.
Which artists have changed the way you saw the world and inspired you?
There are so many over the years; Armand van Helden, Fatboy Slim, Daft Punk, Cassius, Basement Jaxx, but more recently I’ve really looked up to Paul Woolford/Special Request. I love his music, obviously from over the years, but more than that I just love how he does exactly what he wants and doesn’t give a fuck. He can have a super underground project with Special Request, then simultaneously have a top 10 song with Diplo, or a release on Positiva. He manages to walk the lines of underground and pop perfectly at the same time. That’s something I really aspire to.
Describe your sound in three words.
Tough, funky & fun.
You’ve recently collaborated with artists from India Jordan, Hudson Mohawke, A-Trak, Herbert, Shadow Child, Sally C, Cromby, Big Miz, Lauren Flax, DJ Deeon, Absolute, Alex Virgo to Hugo Paris etc. Are there any other collaborations in the pipeline?
Oh yes! I had a zoom call recently with a couple of pretty big names in the game; we’re gonna be working on a special project for System Records, but I can’t mention who… If you have been following me over the last year you might be able to guess one of them 😉
Do you have any specific criteria when thinking of working with someone?
I just have to like and get on with them as a person. If I think we can have fun working on stuff, then I’m all for it.
Due to the current worldwide pandemic performing live / touring has taken a backseat, how does the ‘new norm’ of releasing music impacted you?
I had a big release penned for March this year, but that has been pushed back to next year now. I could have been tempted to do that for ‘Where’s The Party At?’ too, but I thought it was important to get it out now to help lift the spirits and keep dance music alive! I’m gonna keep dropping stuff until it’s time to get back out there. People need good energy and energetic music when they are at home.
Lastly what’s next for Dance System?
Next year is the year for me to really develop System Records and its sound. I have a bunch of new artists I’m working with, and some more established ones. I want to build a community of like-minded artists from all over the world, much like Bok Bok and I did for Night Slugs. I will be dropping lots of my own music too, and I’ll be there waiting for everyone with some mega parties when all this Covid madness is over!
The Mixtape launch party stream takes place on Sat December 5th 2020. Register here: http://system.promo/stream