FEATURES Musclecars and the Vibrant Brooklyn House Scene By Andy Thomas · February 06, 2024

While the history of New York dance music tends to focus on Manhattan’s legendary club scene, Brooklyn has played a pivotal role in the culture as far back as the early ‘70s, with the mobile sound system of DJ Grandmaster Flowers. It continued well into the golden age of ‘90s house, with DJ/producers like Todd Terry and Angel Moraes. Fast-forward to the 2020s, and clubs like Good Room in Greenpoint and Nowadays in Ridgewood are forging a creative landscape to rival the downtown scene of the 1980s.

It was into this fertile environment that Brandon Weems and Craig Handfield, who work under the production moniker musclecars, launched their Brooklyn party Coloring Lessons at Bushwick’s Mood Ring in 2018. Their mission was to uphold the house music legacy of New York clubs like Shelter and Body & SOUL, while educating a younger crowd on house music’s Black roots. “People our age would come up to us at those first parties and say, ‘We had no idea this was house music,’ their perception of it was David Guetta and deadmau5,” says Handfield. They took that mission further in 2020 by establishing a label, also called Coloring Lessons, designed to feature both local rising stars as well as unsung icons of the scene.

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Weems and Handfield were raised on R&B and hip-hop, but hearing records like Daft Punk’s “Teachers”—which referenced house music legends like Louie Vega and Kenny Dope (aka Masters at Work)—inspired the pair to do their own homework. Spinning under the name Brandon & Craig they quickly got their first taste of the communal and spiritual power of old-school New York house. “A promoter booked us for a party, and Timmy Regisford was doing [legendary dance party] Shelter in the next room,” says Weems. “I’d read the stories about parties like that, but that was the first time I’d seen it. There was baby powder on the floor, and the dancing was just incredible. I was totally blown away by the whole culture.”

Now, with Coloring Lessons, Weems and Handfield are hoping to pass that culture along to a younger crowd. “I think what we were doing was more relatable to our generation,” suggests Weems. “We’re the same age, of course, but we’re also really into fashion, so that brings something different. Bushwick, where we hold the parties, has a very young demographic. All those factors combine to help us bridge the gap and to expose house music to a new audience.”

Brooklyn is also known for its long-running outdoor house parties like Soul Summit and Clubhouse Jamboree—the inspiration for Coloring Lessons’s own community-based summer events. “For us, throwing our block parties is not just about the music and dancing,” says Handfield, “it’s all the community stuff aspects, from local book and record vendors to the jerk chicken my dad whips up.”

They debuted as the production duo musclecars in March 2020 with an EP on the Williamsburg label Toucan Sounds. “One of the label’s A&R people, the artist Haruka Salt, came to an early party of ours and we became friends,” says Handfield. “She told us she had this studio that we could use. We had no idea it was Toucan Sounds studio. That really pushed us to finally get the ball rolling to make the record we’d been talking about for a couple of years.” Their first single for the label, the soulful house track “Don’t Go” features the vocals of Brandon Markell Holmes. “The label head at Toucan Sounds was very keen on collaborations with vocalists,” says Handfield. “Brandon was  coming from an R&B background, but we steered him towards the house music cadences.”

For their next single for Toucan Sounds, the label suggested a collaboration with New Yorker Tiff Ortiz. The session was mixed by Yas Inoue, known for his work with Louie Vega, and featured Craig Handfield on bass, keyboards, and percussion alongside Robert Perlick-Molinari, who also plays piano. “We really like having live instruments on all our records,” says Handfield. The live element comes to the fore on the percussive Latin house of “Sol.” “I had this idea of having something like on [Raze’s] ‘Break for Love’ or [Liz Torres’s] ‘Can’t Get Enough’ where they had the Spanish version alongside the original,” says Handfield.

Connections are also maintained through the Greenpoint online station Lot Radio. “We use the show as a platform for guests so it’s continuing our mission of exposing people to these DJs and producers who don’t really get the spotlight,” says Weems. They’ve also connected with fellow Lot Radio hosts Love Injection—aka Paul Raffaele and Barbie Bertisch, who run a fanzine and record label of the same name. “Paul and Barbie had reached out to us to do a column for Love Injection then we played a couple of parties with them, “ says Weems. “Our relationship really blossomed from there and we’ve been friends ever since.”

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The next step in Coloring Lessons’s community building was establishing a record label of their own. “It was really important to have an outlet so we can create deals that are in favor of the artists,” says Handfield. One of those artists was Love Injection’s Barbie Bertisch. She had been working from her small home studio during lockdown when her friends founded the label. The pulsating synth bomb “Is That What You Wanted” that closed Coloring Lessons first compilation was a taster for her highly acclaimed LP Prelude, released in 2022.

Coloring Lessons Volume 1 was an extension of the same kind of bridge building the duo hope to achieve with their parties. “We wanted the label to amplify younger artists of our generation from our city, but also give nods to artists who’ve been doing it for a long time,” says Handfield. So alongside icons of the scene like Kai Alcé are rising stars like Brooklyn producer Devoye. “He is kind of like an underground hero of New York, but hasn’t really got the exposure,” says Handfield.  “It was really important to showcase people who have been coming to our parties and who represent what we are about, like Devoye and Kush Jones from The Bronx who is another incredible international artist from our city”

Following an appearance on the debut compilation, New Yorker Malik Hendricks released the first artist EP on Coloring Lessons. “Malik is another New York-based artist whose music stylistically represents the things we admire from our city,” says Handfield. Hendricks also appeared on both Coloring Lessons Compilations. “He is definitely a huge inspiration so that was amazing for us when he agreed to it,” says Weems.

In 2022, they released Volume 2 of the compilation series, again featuring artwork from Adrianne Born, who has been responsible for creating the group’s distinct visual aesthetic. The album included a track by another close friend of theirs, Brooklyn based multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, DJ, and producer Cesar Toribio. “We met Cesar when he was a manager at a venue called The Black Flamingo [where he was also resident DJ],” says Weems. “He’s a super talented artist who has become a really good friend and regular collaborator,” says Handfield. Originally from Tampa, Toribo studied jazz at Berklee before falling in love with dance music after hearing where producers like Theo Parrish and Osunlade were taking house.

Toribio also fronts the musical collective Conclave, which explores the ancient and modern traditions of the clave rhythm that underpins Latin music. The first release on Love Injection, Conclave’s debut feels like a natural continuation of Louie Vega’s Latin projects Elements of Life and Nuyorican Soul. A big supporter of Toribio, Vega was one of the artists to remix tracks from the Conclave album, giving “Perdón” the Expansion NYC treatment. When he’s not in the studio working on his Latin-infused dance bombs, Toribio runs the party series Bring Dat Ass at venues like Black Flamingo and Good Room.

Coloring Lessons’s current residency at the Ridgewood venue Nowadays, founded in 2015 by Eamon Harkin and Justin Carter of Mister Saturday Night/Mister Sunday, has proven to be the perfect spot for them. “Being run by DJs, there is so much attention to things—from the sound system to the wooden dance floor,” says Weems. “It’s also out of the way, so anyone who comes has made a real effort to get to the party and are there for the right reasons.”

Musclecars have entered 2024 at a great pace, with new track “Running Out of Time” on the BBE label getting plays by everyone from Gilles Peterson and Louie Vega to DJ Colleen ‘Cosmo’ Murphy. With the first Coloring Lessons party of 2024 at The Good Room in January to be followed by Together Again with their friends Love Injection and Toribio on February 17th, the future is looking bright for the Brooklyn duo as they prepare to drop their new album Sugar Honey Iced Tea! And if you are in Brooklyn over the summer be prepared to sweat as their block parties can get hot.

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