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Credit: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr.

musclecars: sweet sensation

Brandon Weems and Craig Handfield, together known as musclecars, are core members of a group of Brooklyn DJs and producers who have been keeping things soulful in New York’s clubbing universe. But with the release of their debut album, ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’, the duo goes further, placing their work as part of the full lineage of Black music and experience

For years, at least since they launched their colouring lessons party in the Bushwick hangout Mood Ring in 2018, Brandon Weems and Craig Handfield — the DJing and producing twosome known as musclecars — have been at the forefront of a subset of Brooklyn’s clubbing world, one that takes its cues from the rich NYC lineage that begins with spots like the Loft, the Gallery, and the Paradise Garage. It’s a space that’s informed by tradition and rich with feeling, one that they’ve expanded on through their residencies at Nowadays and on the Lot Radio, their coloring lessons party and label, and their own productions. Yet none of that serves as an adequate preparation for Weems and Handfield’s debut album, ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’

Released on BBE, a label known for a rarefied taste in all things soulful, ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’ plays like a reverie — the lead cut, a sighing spoken-word piece called ‘The Afro-American Conundrum’, even kicks off with one of those glissando harp runs associated with cinema dream sequences. (The track’s words, delineating how the everyday rat race can take someone away from what truly counts in life, are considerably more down to earth.) From there, it’s a full spectrum of styles, ranging from the hazy synth-funk of ‘Circles II’ to the dreamy jazz of ‘Hello?’ and beyond.

The overarching theme is the full scope of the Black experience — from loss to perseverance, and from despair to elation, as seen through that lens. “The album really has multiple themes,” Handfield says “like experiencing loss or experiencing love or experiencing brotherhood — and all these things might look different in our community than it does in other communities.”

Those themes are, for the most part, implicit rather than explicit, often expanding the personal into the far-reaching, then pulling it back again. “Like ‘I Don’t Remember The Last Time I Saw Stars’,” Handfield explains, referring to the way the city’s lights tend to blot out the cosmos, “but I don't have a way to make it out of the hood and go to my country house and look up and see stars. That’s a very basic human experience that a lot of us don't get to have. The whole album is a depiction of those sorts of things — of the experiences that Brandon and I might have that might be a little bit different from how you would experience it. But we try not actively focus on that sort of thing too much, but make it more like a feeling, or maybe something you might have to dig a little bit deeper into.”

Photo of musclecars in the studio
Credit: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr.

“We’re very inspired by timeless records like the Nuyorican Soul album, records that don’t fit into just one box. Sitting down and making a house record, if we're not feeling it, is just not a skill that we have” – Brandon Weems

Those feelings can be interpreted and understood in any number of ways, of course. Or none at all — they can simply be experienced as astonishingly accomplished, instrumentally rich tunes. Still, messages are there for those who look for them. ‘Am I a fool to still wonder where you be at / to still wonder where you sleeping at?’, an aching voice asks on ‘Every Party Must Come To An End’, a quiet-storm slow-burning gem. “Maybe we will see / that our lives were fantasy,” sings Natalie Greffel, a Berlin-based artist who recently took home the 2023 German Jazz Award for vocals, before resigning herself, contentedly, to life’s ambiguities: “Going with the flow / it’s all I know / and to have you on my side / is all I’ll ever need.” Other contributions come from keyboardist Bennett Paster, drummer Jaylen Petinaud and the multi-hyphenate Cesar Toribio (who records solo as Toribio and leads the Conclave combo), among others.

Despite the occasionally melancholy tone of the lyrics, the album’s music is shot through with joy. There are songs like ‘Ha Ya! (Eternal Life)’, for instance, with its rolling jazz-funk cadence, stirring chord structure, and an eyes-toward-heavens vocal choir that seems to be reaching for pure rapture. (The track is vaguely reminiscent of the work of the ’60s psychedelic-soul outfit Rotary Connection.) Elsewhere, an uptempo cut like ‘Tonight’, a tale of clubland seduction is tempered by gorgeous keys and just the slightest hint of regret.

Even with tracks like ‘Tonight’, and the positively awesome breakbeat mini-epic ‘Running Out Of Time’, ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’ isn’t a club album — it’s more of a listening experience than it is a floor-filler. “We’re very inspired by timeless records like [Louie Vega and Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez’s] Nuyorican Soul album, records that don’t fit into just one box,’ Handfield says. “Sitting down and making a house record, if we're not feeling it, is just not a skill that we have anyway. If it ends up being something that can be played in the club, then great; if it ends up being something you can play at [NYC listening-session series] Planetarium, that’s great, too. But first, we have to feel it, and then the setting and everything else comes later.”

The cover of ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’ depicts Weems and Handfield in repose. They’re slouched on a floral print sofa, an old tray-table floor lamp dimly illuminating ocher walls and a parquet floor, a pile of books beneath Handfield’s feet. “It’s meant to be indicative of the childhood spaces that we grew up in, with certain color palettes and wood, and things that I feel that we’d see at our grandmother's house. I have my uncle's book that he wrote, a poetry book, in there — it’s just meant to be very familial.”

Photo of musclecars posing on a beach

The record may be shot through with intentionality, but the pair take a relatively loose approach to songwriting. “It’s only in the last year that I think where I was able to envision what a song would sound like, and then actually have the end product sound like that,” Handfield says. “But it’s kind of like a journey, especially if you’re not too rigid about the idea, which is something I’ve been trying to practice — not getting stuck on just this one idea. I like to see where it goes. The concept or theme might not change much, but maybe the hi-hat placement will be different or the chord structure will be different.”

Weems and Handfield are both born-and-bred New Yorkers. They were both hip-hop kids, but had some awareness of the city’s clubbing scene. “My mom was a dancer, really into the art of dance, and she would go out when she was younger in the ’80s to places like the Garage,” Weems says. “But as a kid, dance music for me was kind of boring. It wasn't till I had really discovered dance music that I kind of came around and was interested in hearing about her stories.” Handfield had a similar introduction: “I would hear her talk about going out,” he recalls. She’d say, ‘Oh, we used to get down – ‘eins, zwei, drei, vier!’ And I’d be like, ‘I don’t know what that is.’”

Still, they both were eventually bitten by the dance-music bug, and after connecting via online forums, met at the debut edition of the Electric Zoo festival in 2009. “At the time, we were into the artists like DJ Mehdi, Busy P and Tiga,” Handfield says. “I remember seeing David Guetta. We were soaking it up. We were underage, so we couldn’t go to the clubs, and this was our opportunity.”

Not long after making their DJing debut as a duo in the early ’10s at the long-gone venue National Underground — Handfield at that point had only played a handful of solo gigs, while Weems was a complete neophyte — the pair scored a gig in the side room at 34 Vandam Street, which had recently been taken over as the home base for the veteran DJ Timmy Regisford’s Shelter gathering. The Shelter had long been one of the city’s headquarters for the kind of soul-drenched, R&B-derived house that New York is traditionally known for, and the gig served as a harbinger for the path that Weems and Handfield would soon find themselves on.

Photo of musclecars on a white background
Credit: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr.

"I pay my rent, and I buy my groceries, and if I am lucky enough to buy a few records or pay for a plane so that we can make it to a gig, it’s a blessing, We’re just hustling as much as we can to make this music” – Craig Handfield

As musclecars, they haven’t stopped since, and have been among the leaders of a loose confederation of Brooklyn figures— a group that includes Toribio and Love Injection’s Barbie Bertisch and Paul Raffaele — who have been helping to serve that sound to the city’s younger clubbers. “One thing we’ve found in our career so far is that the older Black DJs getting really excited about seeing younger DJs playing this older New York sound,” Weems says. “And we’re still discovering the music too.”

“I mean, we were only born in ’93,” Handfield interjects. “It’s reassuring that people like Ron [Trent] will just check in with us,” Weems continues, “or people like Scott Grooves and Maurice Fulton and Marcellus Pittman. It’s definitely pretty surreal, but also very cool that there a lot of people like that, people we look up to, who are cheering for us.”

But beyond the club music world, the release of ‘Sugar Honey Iced Tea!’ positions musclecars into a deeper lineage. “When you think about just Black American music, there’s a whole lineage that connects this whole thing — jazz, blues, rock, disco, house, and now we're here,” Toribio, who not only performed on the album but co-composed some of the tracks with Weems and Handfield as well, says. “I think they understand that, and they are trying or act as a bridge for people. And they don’t take that lightly, coming off the backs of what everyone before them did. They're conscious of whose shoulders they stand on, and they spread that further and push it forward, you know?”

The album is an ensemble work, and as Vega and Gonzalez did with Nuyorican Soul, taking the show on the road is a dream. “We would love to put together a full live project,” Handfield says. “But the reality of it is there isn't as much money in the industry as there was when the Nuyorican Soul album came out, and we’re just two broke kids from New York. Like, I pay my rent, and I buy my groceries, and if I am lucky enough to buy a few records or pay for a plane so that we can make it to a gig, it’s a blessing, We’re just hustling as much as we can to make this music.”

For now, there’s a remix album on the way — the list of contributors is still under wraps, but suffice it to say that a few of musclecars’ heroes will be contributing — and Weems and Handfield are already working on new tunes while prepping for a busy summer season of gigging. May the hustle continue.

Want more? Read DJ Mag’s feature celebrating 15 years of New York’s Mister Saturday Night party series here

Bruce Tantum is DJ Mag’s North America editor. Follow him on X @BruceTantum

Pics: Guarionex Rodriguez Jr. (@guarionex_jr)