Back To Life: Bringing the UK Club Vibe to New York

05.03.18

Words by: Nicola Davies

When I moved to New York from London a few years’ ago, it took a little while getting used to only hearing American music (and Drake) in the club; no garage classics or grime bangers. Trap for days, hip-hop classics and R&B hits ran the dance floor, which is a good time until you hear the same tracks and mixes over and over, with very few risks by the DJ. UK music is generally perceived to be just that, a ‘risk’. ‘Shutdown’ and ‘Shut Up’ got their fair share of plays, and now J Hus is a regular inclusion for some more internationally-enlightened DJs. But there is no question that UK music is approached with caution, that is, unless you’re a British DJ.

Khalil of Livin’ Proof, the London-based club night that just hit their 10-year anniversary, and Pauli PSM (Power of the Subconscious Mind), a musician in his own right, have been running the ‘Back To Life’ club night in New York for over two years. When asked to introduce himself, Khalil responds in his self-deprecating tone: “I play records. I’ve been DJing for a long time, I started running club nights in 2003 with Raj and Finnian and that was the live hip-hop stuff. That led to starting Livin’ Proof, with a few other people.” Pauli intercepts to give Khalil the credit he deserves: “I was always a fan of Khalil as a DJ, he was one of the premier DJs in the UK. The magic thing about Khalil is that he would always play current shit, along with raw old school music. No one would do that, everyone was playing modern stuff that was cool and trendy, or  really old stuff that was a bit alienating for someone like me. That’s what Livin’ Proof was, the merging of those two worlds.”

Pauli describes himself as “a musician, first and foremost. I’ve worked with Damon Albarn on most of his side projects from Gorillaz to Africa Express, and his solo project. I’ve been consistently touring for the last ten years and that took me to New York. I fell in love with it, moved here and started making my own music.” Having musically directed for FKA Twigs, Jamie XX, and recently toured as Sampha’s drummer for his Process tour, Pauli is also humble with his autobiographical details.

How it all began

Khalil was set on running his own night when he made the permanent move to New York, not content with relying on ad hoc gigs. “I didn’t want to be a DJ playing in little bars all the time,” he says. “I didn’t want to do an all UK party, I thought that would be really cheesy. I spoke to a lot of people, and decided it would be good to capture that UK club vibe and bring it to New York. Obviously in England you don’t just play UK music, because that would be shit. So it was finding a way to incorporate the UK side of it, incorporate the way I DJ and what I play, and find people to do it with who have a similar kind of thing.”

In 2012, Khalil guest mixed for Pauli on his radio show, which turned out to be his last. It was obvious to both that they worked well together. “He came with this idea of doing a club night, and I had no interest at all, not in the slightest,” he says. “I didn’t even go clubbing!” But Pauli came around: “He twisted my arm to invite a load of people, and the first night was the beginning of everything. We had something special. We had a line round the block, and it was busy from the beginning. I remember hugging Khalil – Khalil’s a hugging person – and being like, ‘Bro, we’ve done it’.”

The complementary duo launched ‘Back To Life’ firmly into the New York party scene, along with the help of a few other team members. Described as the “mediator”, and introduced to Khalil by Little Simz’s manager, Eddie ‘Versetti’ Smith and Dart Parker, Alex M. Damashek is the Executive Director of Move Forward Music, the promoters known for supporting parties and artists from Day One, and developing scenes from scratch. Mel aka Minderella is the “firmament”, the down-to-earth but tough-as-nails Brit who hosts the night and runs the door. Finally, Kenny Rodriguez does his fair share in elevating the brand image with his highly polished photos, posted like clockwork after every party.

But timing was also on their side. “That was 2015, everyone was just loving Skepta and grime,” Khalil remembers. “So we incorporated a lot of that into what we were doing. We were literally the only place you could go and hear it, but a little bit more authentically. A lot of places would play grime tunes but it’s stuff you’d never hear in a club in London. Whereas we had a bunch of Londoners who wanted to hear stuff and we just played what felt right. It was like us DJing as we would in London, but we flipped it. In London, I play other music and some UK stuff, whereas here I make sure to play more from the UK.” At a time when the UK music scene was getting attention beyond the likes of Adele and Ed Sheeran, curious New Yorkers were hungry to hear this music in a club. So where better to hear grime than a party claiming to ‘bring a slice of London’ to a basement in the Lower East Side? ‘Back To Life’ had captivated its audience and delivered on their promise, and then some.

How they curate and grow the brand

‘Back To Life’ may have launched alongside the grime wave, but it’s not just good timing that’s brought overnight success. Khalil and Pauli have a very clear idea of what their brand is, and crucially, what it isn’t. “There’s been moments when we’ve stopped DJs half way through their set,” Pauli explains. “We’ve got a huge responsibility that we don’t take lightly. When someone is representing us as a brand, and us as a country, it’s a big thing. We keep DJs on their toes.

Spinna is a perfect example. He has a formula, but he had to change his game plan. I saw him re-calibrating as he was playing. He absolutely slayed, he’s one of the best DJs we’ve had. Some DJs are really scared to play our party because they don’t know the vibe. There’s some pressure to actually be able to DJ, there’s no aux cord.” The ‘Back To Life’ brand is no accident; Khalil and Pauli have a clear vision that’s permeating the NYC party scene, and so far it’s working.

How it feels at a ‘Back To Life’ party

Having been to a good majority of the nights, they really have nailed the transatlantic balance. It’s enough UK music for it to feel like home, but not so much that feels like a themed, ‘Hail Britannia’ night, where you regret bringing your American friends for fear this is the only impression of the UK they’ve had. “It’s familiar but different,” Khalil says. “They get to hear tunes they don’t hear elsewhere, but they also get to surround themselves with people they might know, so it’s just a nice hang out spot.”

The vibe isn’t just from the music, it has a lot to do with the people. “It’s not judgemental, every walk of life comes through,” Pauli affirms. “It feels like London, it’s a real cross-section of people, really diverse.” He estimates the attendance is an 80:20 Americans to Brits ratio, and it’s definitely the place to have fun if you happen to be in town on the first Saturday of the month. This goes for clubbers, as well as special guests. “When there are Londoners in New York, we’re their connect,” Khalil explains. “We’re the ones they know from England who are in New York, so they come to our party. Some of the bigger artists we play, I think for them it’s a fun thing to do. Some of them we actively book in advance, but it’s normally spontaneous. That’s what’s been really nice about it.”

‘Back To Life’ has seen the likes of Just Blaze, Clara Amfo and Skinny Macho on the dancefloor and decks and Pauli is a fan of the ad hoc appearances: “The more spontaneous ones that people don’t know about are the highlights. I think Idris Elba is a good one,” Khalil reminisces. “He’s an A-list actor and celebrity but he was cool, he was just being a nice guy. I’m still geeking out about Daniel Kaluuya though. He’s just such a nice dude, he was such a big Livin’ Proof fan and that’s weird.” Pauli mentions one of their highest points in 2017: “The Afropunk thing was phenomenal, the way we pulled it out of our arses on the day. We had a line-up of Richard Russell, NAO, Sampha, Little Simz, Miguel. It was like a festival.”

Khalil reckons some of the old New York magic exists at their party. “When I first went out in 2009, I didn’t know where I was going or who I was with, and we just went to loads of clubs, there were people involved in stuff just around,” he says. “That was the tail end of it but weirdly, our party somehow has a bit of that, still. We get industry people, models and actors, but there’s nothing that separates them from anyone else. That’s what New York was meant to be.” The combination of authentic DJ talent, a wide network that extends beyond UK artists and a natural intuition for what works, keeps the ‘Back To Life’ identity strong, and growing.

How it connects to British music outside of the party

But how does this party play a role in the wider context of British music’s popularity in the US? The reception to one party in New York doesn’t reflect the success of UK music as a whole, but it is a good indicator. “For a long time, people who are actually into music beyond the mainstream have always looked towards British music, because it’s a bit more interesting and innovative in my opinion,” Khalil explains. “It’s a little bit highbrow in the way it’s written about, a lot of the Highsnobiety’s are always going to write about UK artists. I think with UK artists doing well, there’s been more people interested, and more people trying to find it. I guess we sort of become a bit of an outlet for that.” Khalil makes a good point. There were some Americans who knew about Skepta before ‘Shutdown’, or have been listening to the likes of James Blake or Sampha for a while. But these fans are not your norm, and they are not a large enough group to influence your regular DJ set in New York.

“I think the test is, what happens when you play at Kinfolk, or Schimanski’s? That’s the question,” Khalil continues. “I always try to play a bit, because it’s one of the things that makes me a bit different to everyone else. Sometimes the tracks go down really well, sometimes they don’t at all. As DJs we influence DJs, because they come to our party, see something go off and think, ‘I want to play this’. Then they’ll try and incorporate it, and see it doesn’t work anywhere else.”

Brooklyn-based THA YELLOW R KEL is one of the most sought after DJs in the scene, and he knows British music. “I’m pretty obsessed with the UK, London in particular,” he says. “I’m heavily inspired by its music, fashion, clubs and street culture. I’ve only been to London twice (shout out Peckham) but I can see it spreading the vibe stateside as a vehicle that pushes UK sounds in America.” Having seen him spin at ‘Back To Life’ myself, I can testify that he gets the vibe to a tee. “’Back To Life’ is a special party,” he affirms. “It’s unlike most parties in NYC and one of the only places I can let loose musically and play ‘Talking Da Hardest’ and ‘Sincere’ in the same set, with lots of good wheel ups. The energy is always electric, especially with three music-obsessed Londoners at the helm. They’re creating a unique platform in NYC that allows artists like Roska and 808INK to do their thing unapologetically for a crowd that feeds off strong vibrations.”

Another New York DJ, moresoupplease, makes regular appearances across Europe and has also felt ‘Back To Life’s’ influence in his set. “I’ve been exposed to their party here and Livin Proof across the pond, and I play a lot more grime in sets than before, for sure,” he says.

DJs like THA YELLOW R KEL know how to integrate British music, but regular DJs might throw in a UK tune and it’s likely to flop, get taken out of rotation, and we’re back to the regular programming. The test will be how ‘Back To Life’ extends its reach beyond their own party into the New York party scene, so DJs feel safer playing a UK track, or at least know which ones to choose.

To celebrate funky house legend Donae’o’s birthday and Party Harder mixtape release, as well as the after party for an ‘Everyday People’ event, ‘Back To Life’ hosted their first night of the year on February 3rd. Pauli recalls: “The first time Donae’o ever played in New York was at our party. I’m going to say we’re responsible for bringing Donae’o to New York two years ago.” Donae’o himself says he partners with ‘Back To Life’ “because they’re from the UK, they have an amazing audience in New York. Not to mention, Khalil is my friend.” There’s that network playing it’s part.

At a larger venue in Chinatown, Khalil and Pauli went back-to-back for the first few hours of the night, playing dancefloor-friendly music for the swelling crowd. Somewhere around midnight, DJ Moma took the decks and introduced Donae’o, who performed a medley including his features on Giggs’s tracks, ‘Lock Doh’ and ‘Linguo’, and his own, ‘Move to the Galdem’, ‘Circle’, and ending with the UK classic, ‘Party Hard’. Speaking from a gold-laden mouth, he ended with: “We’re going to keep it moving darling,” which added a few extra Brit points to the evening. DJ Moma continued with dancehall, afrobeat and hip-hop, before Khalil took over for another classic set.

Every guest would have said it was a damn good party; but to a regular like myself, it didn’t quite feel like ‘Back To Life’. In the night’s next era, this will be Khalil and Pauli’s toughest challenge: how to keep the essence of their night sacred, while simultaneously growing its footprint. But of course, the guys have a game plan: “We’ve got a list of venues we want to do, and we’ve got a list of people we want to book, so we’ll try to match those up.” Simple. “Our plan was always to do more than just a monthly club night”, Pauli explains. “The brand has expanded to us almost becoming a crew, so it’s ‘Back To Life’ DJs opening for Craig David, or the Soulection after party. We also did the AJ Tracey party when he came over. We’ve never rested on our laurels of just being a club night, we’re so much more than that. Moving forward, we’re exploring that.” Having already done their first (and successful) out-of-New York night in Toronto last year, 2018 goes a few steps beyond throwing parties. “We’re going to do something in LA, and we’re going to do something in London,” Khalil continues. “I don’t want to talk too much about it, but we’ve got music, and it’s coming out, and we’re going to tour it.”

‘Back To Life’ offers something genuinely different to the New York party experience. It’s a place where Brits can feel at home, where Americans can get some relief from trap sets, and where British music is played without fear of rejection. Donae’o reckons that British and American audience tastes are converging: “I think they are both similar apart from the styles of music. Even that’s changing to be honest. America is starting to get used to UK music more.” So timing is still on their side. “I just think the party itself is really fun, and that’s the most important thing,” Khalil says.

It might be hard to measure, but Khalil and Pauli are definitely helping UK music spread in the city. As British artists continue to garner US support, I hope they and their brand receive the due recognition from Brits and Americans alike for helping bridge the gradually narrowing gap between UK and US music tastes.

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