Muscles, Man-Bags and MDMA: Introducing Britain's House Lads
Chuffing on balloons, packed into Aztec print tees when they're not completely topless, living one long endlessly euphoric Instagram story.
This article originally appeared on thump
The dance floor is a mess. Bodies are spun among one another in a cloying, ecstatic bind that is as violent as it is beautiful. Adonis clasps Adonis; hulking men coated in an oily hue of sweat, salt and sugary spirits pound their feet on the floor and spin their fists in endless circles. Above their body-heat a gauze of steam rises, their jaws hung like kissing gates, swinging in rhythmic motion with the pace of their miniature man-bags. MDMA crystals are now stars in their eyes, and the kick is a heartbeat. This is the shuffling communion of Glen's Vodka and Nando's, as parched throats, dried under the festival sun, fight past the rolling drums and croak: "Can I borrow a lighter, mate? Legend!" House is a feeling and it moves through them all.
It's no great revelation to point out that house music has endured a long, drawn out shift from its inception as a Chicago counterculture in chiefly black, Latino and LGBT communities. It's no further revelation to suggest that, just maybe, house music now looks a lot more white, straight and male than it did when it was born. All that said, British club culture currently plays host to a distinct beast – a ripped, tanned embodiment of the masculinisation of dance music. Head to festivals, stalk the streets of San Antonio or Split, and you will see them prowling. Pumped full of creatine monohydrate, they are now the most significant physical presence on UK dance floors, dominating festival crowds, boat parties and nightclubs.
So who exactly is this new house lad?
Well, the crucial point here is that the meat and bones of the new house lad are nothing new at all. He is a lad, a Brit abroad, a cheeky chappy with a glint in his eye and a regrettable tattoo on his arse. They are semi-pro footballers, holidaying estate agents, uni students and Essex lads on tour. They know no class; they are city-boys and brick-layers. They are the packs of lads who have been playing "there were seven on the back-seat of the bus" for time immemorial. What's new, however, is just how whole-heartedly they've embraced house music as their battle-cry. Far from just being blokes who have ended up in the wrong club, the UK now plays host to a strain of lad with a discerning and deliberate interest in whatever it was that Jack built.
As Bashmore hits gave way to the rise in popularity of the Hot Creations squad, and YouTube accounts like Eton Messy paved the path for thousands of copy-cats hosting deep, tropical, wobbly basslines over images of women bursting from bikinis, house music fully re-emerged for the 21st century mainstream. As this re-framing of the genre took place, the music took on a new perfunctory status. It became synonymous with a sex appeal – but a sex appeal very different to the actual sex appeal provided by the likes of Moodymann or DJ Deeon. It became less music to fuck to and more music to preen and posture to – the soundtrack for sessions spent perfecting quiffs in hotel mirrors, to be played through bluetooth speakers while discussing thigh gaps. House music became Going Out Music.
From here, their taste has developed. As they've clocked the online antics of the likes of Eats Everything and Artwork, stumbled across Kerri Chandler on their way to the toilet midway through a festival, or caught Midland on the same bill as Duke Dumont, the house lad and the conventional house-head have begun to share the same pool. Suddenly Jackmaster's troops have grown considerably in size, Ben UFO is playing squiggly techno to rugby players and acts like Bicep – able to provide enough obscure trance-cum-Italo for the heads, and enough chunky takes on 90s classic for the rest – are cross-pollinating these crowds even further. He's heard the new Denis Sulta and he thinks it's "naughty".
What this has bred is a strange dual identity. Boys who have both a favourite "Arthur" Vine and a favourite Ron Hardy edit. On the one hand he is all testosterone. He possesses the sort of swagger that only comes from having lived a life endowed with so much banter no teacher has ever been able to tell him off. That God-level roguish confidence that empowers him to call his dad by his first name, to cycle down busy roads with no hands and to sit on public transport with his legs spread wider than Blaenau Gwent valley. During pre-drinks he is a laugh a minute, recounting the same stories about deodorant burns and skid-marks and mopeds and blowjobs. He walks into the club, or onto the festival site, the same way he steps onto every bus, walks into every classroom and most likely how he left the womb – standing broad and surveying the landscape for potential prizes and threats with a single pellet of ice-mint chewing gum rolling round his molars. As the night thuds on he clings to his pack of friends. They sip vodka cokes through slim black straws, nodding to every beat like rugged tanned parrots. Over the pounding music he continues to try and chat, asking anyone who approaches "where they are from" before replying "sound" and continuing to nod.
Then the MD hits. Suddenly the prowling becomes unrestrained hedonism. The house lad, now rushing and rolling, relaxes his hunched shoulders. The "Will Grigg's On Fire" chants melt away and suddenly there is clarity. There is only himself, house music and his mates. His beautiful mates. He looks around at them all. The crew, all on holiday together, out partying in their trunks. They all look great, he thinks. He side steps over and starts rubbing his best mate on the back. His mate turns and smiles and begins rubbing his back. "I love you, mate," he says – "and I love house."
This isn't new, though – not really. You know that myth about the acid house days; that football hooligans discovered eccies and from then on were more concerned with hugging each other on the terraces than they were smashing each other's heads in? The new house lad is in many ways our version of this phenomenon. Just as the firms of the north of England discovered pingers and in turn how to love each other, the gym bunnies and the Unilads have found their communal spirit. Perhaps we have been experiencing a summer of love of our own, just one with short-shorts and white tube socks instead of over-sized football shirts.
It would be easy to map the emergence of the new house lad as a process of dilution or commercialisation and, of course, the proliferation of watered-down music is as responsible as anything else. There currently exists, among a wealth of dynamic and actually interesting artists, a glut of music called house that is about as exciting as listening to a metronome with added reverb. Add to that a proliferation of parties that favour "beach vibes" and Snapchat engagement over atmosphere, and the field has been left open for house music to become the anonymous sterile rumblings of sun, sex and suspicious substances. Yet for all the shitty, boring house that sounds like trendy insurance company hold music, the new house lad has also latched onto plenty of DJs that are more likely to be on the RA top 100 than they are Joey Essex's Dance Anthems. In the belly of the Warehouse Project, under the tinselled netting of Elrow, on boat parties along the Dalmatian coast, strange crossovers are taking place. Nights with good lineups, yet also reputations as "big nights out", are marrying the 21st century house lad with the Discogs nerds. As if overnight the new Saturday night crew have emerged. The lads who used to get down to Kid Cudi and describe kids who smoked weed as "junkies" are now crunching a gram of MD each and every weekend. They are on track ID Facebook groups trying to put a name to a grainy video of last night's Adam Beyer set. Chuffing on balloons, packed into Aztec print tees when they're not completely topless, living one long endlessly euphoric Instagram story.
I sort of admire the new house lad. I can't help it. I'd be lying if I didn't say that when a bro with arms as thick as my thighs pushes past me in the queue for the toilet I don't feel a slight pang of 'why are you even here?' But when it comes down to that elemental experience of being in a club, being on a pill and letting that feeling – whatever it is – wash over you, there's no exclusive list of who is and isn't allowed to experience that. We assume that we know best, that we are the ones with a real knowledge of the culture, of where it came from and what it means because we read about it, or because we got there first – but really and truly, there's always been somebody who got there first. We don't get to decide who falls in love with a culture.
The danger, obviously, is when the house lad's "lad culture" spills too far into the club, turning "room 2" into a PE changing room. But by and large, they are the harmless logical conclusion of the festival boom, wholesale dance music and the proliferation of MDMA. They might not represent that nostalgic, romanticised idea of club culture that's been peddled for the last 30 years, but that's OK. Even if I really push myself, I'd struggle to think of a group more religiously committed to the simple rites of music, drugs and forgetting whatever misery the real world – the world outside – contains. Whether you're wearing a miniature man bag or not, whether Danny Howard or Danny Rampling, surely that's a dance we can all join in on.