With a career spanning fifteen years, James Connolly hasn't just survived in the volatile world of electronic music, he's helped shape it. With releases as both L-Vis 1990 and Dance System, and as the co-founder of the highly influential label, Night Slugs, and now System Records, Connolly has left an indelible mark on club culture that stretches globally and has influenced a whole new generation of producers and DJs.
Born in Brighton, Connolly was DJing years before he could legally get into a club. "My teenage days were spent lying in bed with my headphones on listening to Essential Mixes and tape packs" he reminisces, "I was learning how to mix, starting to make music on eJay, and dreaming of raves." Once he was allowed in the club, Connolly's sets would tend towards garage, breaks and DnB, and after the lights came up, he'd drive out of Brighton to find free parties on the Sussex Downs. Those years in Brighton informed the way that he still plays now, Connolly says, mixing Stateside house records with boisterous UK sounds.
Around 2007, Connolly connected with fellow DJ and budding producer Alex Sushon (Bok Bok) on MySpace; at the time a crucial source of connection and music discovery. Those early conversations led to a shared view that they didn't really fit into the UK club scene. As Connolly explains, "It was just so regimented, where as Bok and I were mixing up different sounds, which was really frowned upon. Eventually, we realised we needed to create a home for our sound." Settling on a 150 cap ex-squat -- the Red Star in Camberwell, South London -- to host the first, now legendary, Night Slugs parties in 2008, Connolly and Sushon had unknowingly spearheaded a movement that went on to transcend club boundaries and subcultures across the world. The recipe for Night Slugs was simple; anyone and anything was welcome, as long as it was fun. "This is the most fun you will ever have in a club." The Fader proclaimed, "it's the ideal of underground dance music culture: nimble, malleable, gritty, queer, young, and utterly devoted to the united groove."
From these legendary parties, grew recognition and a fanbase that allowed Connolly to tour internationally and release, as L-Vis 1990, on some of the biggest dance music labels at the time, including Mad Decent, Sound Pelligrino, and a collab with Sushon on Jackmaster's now defunct Dress 2 $weat, that eventually became Numbers. Similar to his experience with clubs though, for Connolly something wasn't quite right. "They just didn't feel like home," he explains.
When Rinse FM invited Night Slugs for a residency the following year, it represented an important seal of approval. Originally set up to throw parties for a generation of DJs and producers who didn't fit in, this fresh and exciting subsection of UK dance music was now being widely accepted. Emboldened by this, Connolly and Sushon recognised Night Slugs for the important platform it had become and in 2010 the record label was launched. In line with the ethos of the parties, their core philosophy was to create a community; a supportive home to amplify disparate, often overlooked and under-appreciated sounds and cultures. Carving out a space for slew of new producers to come through, that first year saw Night Slugs release a string of instant club classics, launching with Mosca's iconic Square One EP, then EPs from L-Vis 1990, Bok Bok, Girl Unit, Kingdom, Lil Silva and Jam City, before they closed out 2010 with the inaugural Allstars Volume 1 compilation. Alongside stylistically diverse releases from artists Kingdom, Kelela and Egyptrixx, the following years saw Night Slugs parties across the world at some of the most iconic clubs, including takeovers of Berlin's Berghain and London's Fabric, and the birth of a sister label with Los Angeles' Fade to Mind. Night Slugs was now established as one of the most important forces in UK club culture; a movement that resonated so strongly it had started to crossover. "We were starting to hear our sound really spread out into the wider, global culture" recalls Connolly, "You can still hear it in club music nowadays."
Following the success of the retro-futuristic Club Constructions series on Night Slugs, Connolly, now living in Brooklyn, doubled down on his love of ghetto house and began to carve out this distinctly separate sound from his L-Vis 1990 alias. Aimed squarely at a peak time dancefloor, this was the birth of Dance System, and in 2014 he released "L-Vis 1990 presents Dance System" on Clone. Steeped in booty-clapping rhythms, stand-out tracks included a collaboration with Dance Mania's Jammin' Gerald, Move It, and the tempo-fluctuating Flash Drive, which is still hammered by DJs today, from Mark Broom to Peggy Gou. The following year saw the sophomore Dance System release, System Preferences, on Jimmy Edgar and Machinedrum's freshly minted Ultramajic.
Despite the success of those early Dance System releases, Connolly had begun to feel uninspired 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; with Lafawndah on her Ancestor Boy album, and on his own album project, 12 Thousand Nights, released with Warp in 2017. Hailed by Rolling Stone as "a small rap masterpiece," it stimulated Connolly's love of collaboration, working with Flohio, Sinjin Hawke, Gaika, Mista Silva and Taliwoah.
The following year, still restless, 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.
But the dancefloor was calling Connolly back. He'd needed this time off from club music, and had developed new skills and perspectives that would go on to influence his sound. Perhaps most importantly, Connolly had also taken time to go back to his roots as a listener and a fan; reflecting on 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 bringing back the fun, and so Dance System was re-born.
Leaving L-Vis 1990 firmly behind for the foreseeable future, in April 2019, Connolly revived his Dance System alias with the Wind 'Em Up EP on Modeselektor's Monkeytown, followed by the Please EP on Eats Everything's Edible that summer. Against an increasingly disconcerting political and environmental landscape, Dance System was the playful breath of fresh air we all wanted and needed. In-keeping with the early releases, he took a nod from Chicago, but made a new sound distinctly his own. Connolly wanted Dance System to be as far removed from what he called "the bland techno aesthetic" as possible. Drawing on his art school education, he created the character "Poochi"; a monochrome cartoon canine with a pill on his tongue and spirals for eyes.
Following a support slot on Modeselektor's live album tour, Connolly returned to the UK in the summer of 2019 to headline stages at Lovebox, Parklife and Reading festivals, alongside debuting Dance System at Berghain's Panorama Bar and Warehouse Project, while FACT declared Dance System's Glastonbury set one of the festival highlights. Remixes for M.I.A. & Cadenza, A-Trak, Nina Kravitz & Parris Mitchell, Shadow Child & Marc Archer followed, before Connolly closed out the year with the triumphant Can't Stop EP on Mella Dee's Warehouse Music, complete with the launch party to end all launch parties, thanks to surprise guest Skrillex, alongside Alex Virgo, ABSOLUTE. and more, playing in a sweaty, 80-cap basement in East London.
Kicking off 2020 fully re-engaged with club culture as Dance System, Connolly released his Relentless EP on Chiwax in February, which he 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."
But then, in March of this year, the world came grinding to a halt. Connolly had just relocated to Italy when lockdown hit. All his shows were cancelled and releases were put on hold. In response to quarantine, residents in Connolly's Roman neighbourhood were hosting "flash parties" where 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 to 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.
"In 2010 I started the Night Slugs label with Bok Bok because there was no other home for our music. Ten years later, I find myself in the same position with Dance System," explains Connolly. "System Records is about dance music and its impact on culture and society, it's about educating, contextualising, liberating, and proving that fun doesn't have to mean cheesy. System Records won't be defined by a particular sound or style, but by a feeling," he adds.
Connolly 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 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. "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 follows the narrative of a banging party (featuring interludes of smoking area chat and general crowd ambience), a touch that feels all the more poignant in a time when parties are still out of reach. As Connolly explains, "We can't go to the club, and we can't play out, and 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."
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 more timely.