“How it’s crossed over I’ll never know,” Dave Whelan of CamelPhat tells Billboard. “I don’t think the word ‘hit’ ever crossed my mind,” agrees Elderbrook, speaking during a separate phone call. Their surprise reached new levels when the Recording Academy nominated “Cola” for the best dance recording Grammy last Tuesday (Nov. 28).
CamelPhat and Elderbrook’s confusion is not entirely unwarranted; “Cola” is an unusual hit. At a time when crossover dance music, especially in the U.S., often moves at a slower tempo around 100 beats per minute or less, “Cola” pushes forward at a traditional house tempo close to 120 b.p.m. At a time when most of the records that make it to the upper reaches of the pop chart rely heavily on streaming support, “Cola” gained traction almost entirely on the world’s dancefloors. And as Whelan notes, “most dance records that cross over [in the U.K.] have a sample that people connect themselves to, but “Cola” is all original.”
On top of that, CamelPhat — the duo of Dave Whelan and Mike Di Scala — and Elderbrook do not have a history of pop crossover. Whelan and Di Scala, both record obsessives, became friends hunting for vinyl in Liverpool. Many of their peers slowly left music behind and took the 9-to-5 route; these two never did. “All my friends were finishing college and going to get their first cars and their driver’s license,” Whelan remembers. “I was just spending all my money on records. I was always the guy that got driven ’round by me mates. Every penny went to vinyl.”
Collecting led to DJing, but still the duo kept their focus resolutely local. “Back then we played in Liverpool to a Liverpool crowd in Liverpool nightclubs,” Whelan says. “As young lads, we’re like, ‘we made it!’ We’re the resident DJs of a club that has 800 people in it every weekend.”
Producing records helped raise CamelPhat’s profile on dance floors further afield. “We did an edit of Stevie Wonder‘s ‘My Cherie Amour,’ it was something completely different for us,” Whelan recalls. “We just put it out just for DJs, but it seemed to go around the world like wildfire.” In 2014, the duo released their first track through the well-known Dutch label Spinnin’; the following year, they secured another Spinnin’ release, “Constellations” — Big Beat label manager/head of A&R Gina Tucci, who recently signed “Cola,” calls that record “one of her favorite house music releases in the last few years” — plus an EP on Mark Knight’s Toolroom, another esteemed dance music establishment.
But it was a different track from 2015 that Whelan identifies as the duo’s breakout moment. “Paradigm” was a collaboration with A*M*E, who had already experienced U.K. crossover success in 2013 as the singer on Duke Dumont‘s “Need You (100%),” and it was put out by Axtone, the label of Swedish electronic music titan Axwell. “We were still unknown artists,” Whelan says. “‘Paradigm’ opened the door for us.”
Coincidentally, new doors also opened for Elderbrook in 2015. The singer/songwriter/producer, who started out as an indie rock fan before discovering “the weird and wonderful ways” of electronic music, worked with the German duo andhim on “How Many Times” that year. “That did pretty well for us in Ibiza,” he says.
CamelPhat invited Elderbrook to a session in London in February of this year; he was one of several vocalists they asked to swing by the studio during a three-day recording blitz before returning to Liverpool. “They had a few different instrumentals that I tried out that day,” Elderbrook explains. “Then they played what everyone now knows as the instrumental to ‘Cola.’ There was a lot of space on the record for vocals. But I wanted to keep it going, keep it pumping, so [my vocal delivery] is quicker than I would usually have done.”
Elderbrook narrates a story of one heavily inebriated would-be club-goer in rapid, terse couplets, leaving the listener to piece together fuzzy snapshots from the evening, much like the song’s protagonist might have to do when she wakes up hungover the next morning. After all this high-speed narration, Elderbrook abandons words completely and breaks into a high warble — an on-the-spot ad-lib in the studio — that every clubgoer can instantly imitate. “We wanted everything hooky,” Whelan says.
Still, they weren’t immediately convinced that the finished product would connect. “I’m almost whispering with my vocals over a really upbeat track, which is a weird thing to have done,” Elderbook says. A few label-heads passed on “Cola,” including Lee Foss of Hot Creations. Defected signed the record in May, and it came out on June 16th.
Dance listeners were immediately enthralled. Tucci fell for “Cola” the first time she heard it, on a club floor in Ibiza. “The way the groove comes in — it builds, and then it’s almost like the anti-drop, it gives out a little bit,” she explains. “And when you’re out on a dance floor listening to that, it feels really good. I remember looking at my co-worker like, ‘What the fuck is this song?'” Many fans shared this sentiment — “Cola” reached No. 1 on the Beatport Hot 100 by July 5th and did not relinquish its spot until October 5th, according to Beatstats, a site that tracks and archives Beatport Chart data.
Many records that perform well in the Beatport world remain club hits, known primarily to DJs and dedicated dancers. But “Cola”‘s ability to elicit a “what the fuck?” response meant it soon spilled over into the popular consciousness. By September 1st, the record cracked the U.K. singles chart, starting at No. 89, and it marched steadily upwards, peaking at No. 18 a little more than two months later.
“Cola” hasn’t had quite the same mainstream presence in the U.S., but the week of November 11th, it dethroned Dua Lipa‘s “New Rules” as the No. 1 song on the the U.S. Dance Club Songs chart. And last week, the Recording Academy picked it as one of five nominees for the Best Dance Recording award.
“We thought it was a wind-up; it literally come from nowhere,” Whelan says. “We both felt a little confused, overwhelmed, then super-proud, in that order. Elderbrook calls the Grammy nomination another one of the “great little moments” that “Cola” has created — along with the time he heard the record played at halftime during a football match.
Big Beat is now planning a new Stateside push for “Cola,” aided by a new Robin Schulz remix, out today. “If dance floors like it, we can push it to a critical mass,” Tucci says. “Anyone that hears this song agrees it’s infectious.”
CamelPhat have already moved on: The duo has released music steadily since “Cola,” including two of their own EPs, House Dawgs and Monsters, collaborative releases with both Flip Flop and Mat.Joe, and a dub of MK’s “17.” In fact their own track “Drop It,” from Monsters, knocked “Cola” out of the Beatport No. 1 slot on October 5th. “It puts us back in the night club, not a pop thing, ’cause that’s not what we’re about,” Whelan says. “We’re DJs; we come from dance music. To get back to No. 1 with ‘Drop It,’ a four-on-the-floor dance record, we’re happy with that.”