In the latest edition of her nightlife-history series, Denise Benson revisits the Entertainment District institution that brought underground rave culture to Toronto’s mainstream club crowd at the dawn of the millennium.
Club: System Soundbar, 117 Peter
Years in operation: 1999-2005
History: System Soundbar was an unlikely home for electronic dance music with a decidedly underground bent. Opened smack dab in the middle of the commercial club district, System was owned by Zisi Konstantinou—former owner/operator of successful Adelaide Street spot Limelight—with his partners Spyros Theoharis and Boris Khaimovich. They hired former Limelight employee Orin Bristol as general manager, and the group worked to develop a plan.
“Zisi purchased the building as a property investment, and we were trying to figure out what to do with the basement as it was just being used as storage space,” shares Bristol. “We spoke about doing a nightclub, but thought it would be a hard sell for a mainstream crowd as it was in a basement.
“At the same time, the city was cracking down on raves and there were less and less spots to do parties in. Because of our Wednesday nights at Limelight [with EDM/rave DJs Craig Pettigrew and John E], we had come to know the guys from [promoters] Lifeforce Industries. Between Craig and them, we talked about doing rave-style events in the space.”
Orin Bristol (right) with bartender Selam
And so Bristol—a club manager with strong vision who now works for INK Entertainment—gained an EDM education. System Soundbar opened on March 18, 1999. Lifeforce Industries, the umbrella organization that produced massive raves under the Dose, Renegades, and Syrous banners, brought underground sounds to the fun-fur and fat-pants crowd on Fridays. Pettigrew and his Metro crew attracted maturing ravers on Saturdays. Other early System weeklies included FungleJunk Tuesdays and Breakfest Sundays. People flocked to the raw space.
“It was a dark, grungy basement nightclub originally,” says Bristol. “We spent very little to get it done because we just weren’t sure what we were going to get. Also, the crowd was coming from raving in warehouses and in fields so only the minimum was necessary.
“It was a huge success—people loved the underground feel and the late-night vibe. Our biggest issue in the first year was the sound. The system wasn’t good enough, and not coming from the genre, we didn’t understand that it was all about the music.”
Though System’s sound would be majorly upgraded over time, the club faced a bigger crisis soon after its first year. Some of the Lifeforce owners became partners in Turbo Nightclub (later known as Sound Emporium) and soon System Soundbar’s core group of weekend promoters all decamped, DJs in tow, to this club around the corner.
According to Bristol, “We mainstream nightclub guys were left to figure it out.“
Why it was important: System Soundbar operated during a pivotal time for electronic dance music in Toronto. Not only were our massive raves under heavy scrutiny from the law, City, and media, there were very few licensed nightclubs devoted to underground electronics. The Guvernment was the biggie, but its musical focus was limited. The house-heavy Industry Nightclub was waning, and would close in summer 2000.
“System was different because it was its own little animal,” says Deko-ze (pictured below), a top Toronto DJ who would play at the Soundbar throughout most of its history. “It was a perfect mid-size club, unlike something like The Docks or Guvernment, so it didn’t need to prove something by being big. It was about top quality, forward-thinking vibes and attitudes. System was based around the music.”
With a legal capacity of 1,100, System Soundbar was an ideal size and fit for a spread of EDM sounds. System offered a new secure spot for aging ravers, and a comfortable entry point for new clubbers to experience underground EDM culture.
“System Soundbar started with the 19-plus old-school rave crowd as ravers started to grow up and turn into clubbers,” agrees Jesse Brown, who worked with the Lifeforce crew in promoting events like FungleJunk, and went on to co-found Destiny Productions and events including the World Electronic Music Festival.
“Later, when almost all the raves had disappeared, System was the place you could still find just about all styles of EDM, and hear the same DJs we would experience in the big warehouses.”
After the departure of System’s first successful weekend nights, a variety of events were tested, but it was through Bristol’s meeting with Patrick Aranain, a.k.a. DJ Evil P, “that we found the guys who would be the foundation for everything that System Soundbar turned into.”
Local talent was placed front and centre as Aranain introduced Bristol to DJs and promoters who launched the weeklies that most clubbers still associate with System Soundbar: d&b and breaks night BodyRoc Tuesdays (later Loose Wednesdays), pioneering progressive-house event Breathe Fridays, and heavy house hitter Bang Saturdays.
“Patrick was a good DJ, a great booker, and an excellent friend,” says Bristol of the DJ who would rule Bang’s booth for its multi-year run, but who passed away in late 2009. “He taught me what I needed to know about this scene to succeed in the following years.”
Bang was a unique house night in that it ran from deep and soulful to funky, tribal, and dark. Frequent guests included Roy Davis Jr., Derrick Carter, and MC Flipside, with Evil P’s co-residents including Dino & Terry, Deep Groove and, in the lounge, Michael Drury.
Dino & Terry with Patrick Aranain, a.k.a. Evil P (right)
“Soulful house was making a bit of a resurgence at the time, with songs like “Finally” by KOT bridging a few different scenes,” recalls Dino Demopoulos, who, with brother Terry, was known for deep-house productions and DJ sets in more intimate clubs, like Living Room, Element, and 5ive.
“It was seen to be a nice complement to the harder stuff that Patrick played, which is why they booked us initially. System was a big club, with a great sound system, and was always pumping with energy so it was a great challenge [for us]. There was a huge range of guest DJs booked to play, from Louie Vega to Bad Boy Bill. Bang was a very consistent night.”
Patrick Aranain also introduced Bristol to promoters Mike Grecco and Jose Rodriguez who, along with DJs Mark Scaife, Deko-ze and, soon after, Luke Fair, and Matt Coleridge, would be responsible for making Breathe Fridays arguably the most influential progressive house weekly in North America.
“The Guvernment was trance, while Industry was house and techno; progressive was an emerging market,” says Bristol. “No one in the city was doing two back-to-back house nights at the time, but we all made it work.”
“The sound had matured from progressive trance into progressive house with darker, more tribal undertones, and it needed a home,” explains Coleridge, a professional DJ since 1998 who caught his break as part of Breathe. “Much like the way Industry had sought to bring a stable weekly club venue for house music, Breathe looked to accomplish that for progressive house.”
They did so, attracting 800 to 1,000 people each week, with Breathe’s core residents as the main draw.
“If you were there for a full night, you heard a lot of tech house and techno integrated with the progressive, alongside a few big riffs and the more melodic progressive,” details Mark Scaife (pictured above), a seasoned DJ who held it down during Breathe’s entire four-year run.
“As we built Breathe, it got more structured towards that techy progressive sound, a little more edgy. For a while there, we went pretty dark, just seeing how far we could take it. We had a lot of leeway; people were up for a different sound. Breathe was an experiment that worked really well.”
Breathe worked so well that its resident DJs gained international tour dates and notoriety as influential publications like Mixmag and DJ Magazine wrote about the night. Other Toronto dance clubs also took note and booked more progressive house DJs. Big artists like Deep Dish, Hybrid, and Infusion all graced the Breathe roster, but other guests weren’t so established at the time.
“Steve Lawler, Danny Howells, and Lee Burridge all got their Toronto start at Breathe,” points out Coleridge. “System brought many, many international DJs to Toronto for the first time, DJs who are still regulars in this city. It was also home to a huge number of DJs who, like me, really got their start playing in this city.”
This is something that Orin Bristol remains very proud of.
“Basically, all of us were the little guys,” he states. “We were the mainstream club guys who didn’t initially know anything about the electronic scene, and the smaller DJs and promoters who had never been given an opportunity to be on the front lines. We gathered them all up, put them under one roof, and they flourished.”
Who else played/worked there: During its near-seven-year-stint, System Soundbar was also a constant home to drum ‘n’ bass. The sound was huge in Toronto, but rarely were d&b DJs given weekly clubs nights, especially in sizable venues. Soon after FungleJunk’s demise, drum ‘n’ bass DJ and Empire Productions promoter Ryan Smith, a.k.a. Ryan Ruckus, came on board. In June of 2001, all-ages drum ‘n’ bass and breaks night BodyRoc was born.
“Aside from making a point to highlight the abundance of amazing talent from right here in Toronto, we brought in big international d&b talent such as Nicky Blackmarket, Teebee, Mickey Finn, Marley Marl, and others,” says Smith. “But it was our first sold-out event with Shy FX and MC Skibadee that had us settle into System nicely. [Listen to a recording here.] I remember a lot of the staff poking fun at the music we played at first but, in little time, we made believers out of most of them.”
A year later, Smith and Empire switched it up and launched the 19-plus Loose Wednesdays, a weekly that Bristol describes as “The reason why I’ve done d&b events in every club I’ve run since then.”
With rotating resident DJs including Ruckus, Diligence, Mystical Influence, Marcus Visionary, Lush, and Everfresh, and a hip-hop room led by DJ Tasc, Loose was a mid-week hit.
“The enthusiasm and support poured from the top down,” says Destiny’s Jesse Brown, who also guested at Loose under the DJ name of originalVIBE. “Orin Bristol loved drum ‘n’ bass and was committed to showing the city how successful this music would become.”
As evidence, System Soundbar and Ryan Ruckus also hosted Loaded Saturdays through all of 2005. It was Toronto’s first-ever drum ‘n’ bass Saturday held in a large main room.
It’s impossible to list all of the local and international DJs who played at System over the years, but promoters including Fukhouse (techno and tech house) and Activate (breaks) certainly produced many other standout events.
Superfunk DJ Flash
Additionally, hip-hop, R&B, and old-school event Superfunk Thursdays—promoted by a crew including Down With Webster’s Dave Ferris and DJed by resident John J—attracted consistently huge crowds for five full years. Top 40 and club anthems were relegated to Monday nights in the warmer half of the year, when System would be filled with foam and hot tubs.
More mainstream crowds were drawn to System by these two nights in particular, causing heated discussion on EDM message boards, as did the flashy renovations put into place in 2004. System fans debated the “mainstreaming” of the club, but there’s no denying that the hundreds of additional people who began attending System after bar hours on weekend nights added to the energy.
Everyone I spoke to for this article has stories of nights they hold especially dear, with multiple mentions of guest DJs including Richie Hawtin, Barry Weaver, Ed Rush & Optical (hear their FungleJunk set here), A-Trak, and the personable Donald Glaude, who was even game to kill the music one night while a guest proposed to his girlfriend on the dancefloor.
“The whole place erupted with cheers, and then Donald rocked it,” recalls Bristol.
Bristol cites the night when an appearance by Mauro Picotto made him realize “DJs were like rock stars. When he started to DJ, we had to call two security guards to the front of the booth because people were trying to climb up to touch him. People were crying—men and women, it was insane. I’d never heard of this guy before I signed off on the booking the month before.”
Deko-ze, who warmed up for Picotto that night, describes another Breathe special that touched him.
“Sister Bliss, of Faithless, was guesting,” he begins, “She cued up a record and said to me, ‘You might like this next one.’ For the next seven-and-a-half-minutes, the floor was annihilated. It was the new Faithless single, ‘We Come One.’ An hour later, she puts on a record that took the crowd through an intense emotional rollercoaster, brought several people to tears, and made me close my eyes, dance like I was weightless, and shout ‘Yes!’ aloud twice. It was her own demo of ‘Deliver Me.’”
LISTEN: Deko-Ze’s “Breathe at System Soundbar Fall Sampler (2001)”
Finally, there is the legendary night when Mark Farina was booked, and a water main in 117 Peter burst. Bristol recounts that 800 people were inside the club, with 300 more in line. Refunds were offered, but Farina would still play. Few people left.
“We did well over 1,400 people,” says Bristol. “The water was to the middle of the dancefloor by the time Rotor Rooter came and shut it off, but people rolled up their pants and danced in it. That was one of our best nights ever.”
This also speaks to the “friends and family vibe” that many use to describe System Soundbar.
“It was a space where you were just accepted—young, white, transgendered, rich, women, black, gay, tall, Asian, old, men, poor, straight, everyone,” Bristol emphasizes. “I have never worked in any environment before where the customers, staff, promoters and DJs were so connected.”
System Soundbar’s final blowout on Dec. 31, 2005
What happened to it: By 2005, Jesse Brown recalls, “Most nightclubs and bars played Top 40; EDM was on the way down, and hip-hop and R&B were on the way up. System resisted until the end.”
By later 2005, weekend nights were attracting crowds of less than 500.
“Zisi decided at that time it made more sense to be a landlord than the owner of a six-year-old club,” shares Bristol. “He knew development was coming, and all he had to do was hold on and he would make a mint.”
Demolition begins at 117 Peter. Photo: Orin Bristol
System Soundbar went out with two large events: a family affair featuring resident DJs from Bang and Breathe on December 23, 2005 and a final New Year’s Eve blowout with DJ Danny Howells.
Konstantinou first sold the club to people who opened short-lived Top 40 spot Embassy. The entire 117 Peter Street building was later sold to developers. It has been demolished to make way for the 36-storey Tableau Condominiums.
117 Peter as it appears today. Photo: Denise Benson/The Grid