Think of prolific US music remixers, and names like Sanchez, Van Helden and the dearly departed Knuckles spring to mind. Their place is forged in dance music history and their b-sides, re-rubs and dubs are coveted by vinyl collectors and CDJ types alike, and adored by club-goers. They got their start in the late ’80s when digital technology — specifically computer-based sequencing, MIDI-enabled synchronisation, and the onset of digital audio workstations — was becoming commonplace. But five years before that — an eternity in music history — a select group of DJs-turned-record-producers pioneered the new trend: remixing.
Justin Strauss was one of these ground breakers, and his story starts at 17 years old, the son of a painting contractor from Long Island, NY; still in high school, a lover of the Beatles and glam-rock, David Bowie, and all things British. “I had met this girl and fell in love with her, and she knew the guys in this band, which was to become Milk 'n' Cookies, and we got friendly and we all liked the same kind of music. My Dad had this TEAC four-track, so I started recording with them down in my parents’ basement. The band was all instrumental at the time and one of the guys said ‘you look like a singer, why don’t you sing with us?’, and I was like ‘yeah ok’. I wasn’t a real singer, I had been in a little band and stuff, and I mean singing in my bedroom, but never properly singing, you know…”
The band made a handful of recordings together with the plan to send the demo tape to some managers in the hope to get noticed. “That was basically two people: David Bowie’s management company and Sparks, who we were really in to. We got a letter from Bowie’s manager saying ‘nice work, we’ll be in touch’ and nothing ever happened, but Sparks’ manager was like ‘we love you!’. They played our tape to Muff Winwood, the head of A&R at Island Records in the UK and producer of Sparks' Kimono My House, and he wants to come and meet you. So they all came to my parents' house. They signed us on the spot.” This was literally all Justin had ever dreamed of: going to England to record an album in a rock band. “It was a fantasy, a dream come true.”
Fast-forward a few years, in which Milk 'n' Cookies obtained a youthful following, and Justin had moved with the band to LA. “My old girlfriend, who had got me into Milk 'n' Cookies, told me that I had to come back to New York because there was this place called the Mudd Club. She said ‘you should DJ at it’, but I was like ‘I’ve never DJed!’ She said ‘It doesn’t matter, you’ve got a lot of records!’”
Justin had landed back in New York at exactly the right time. It was 1979, and the New York scene was dominated by Studio 54, the glitzy uptown club that was disco’s ground zero earlier in the decade. But downtown’s feverishly growing artist population needed an alternative, and the Mudd Club offered this. “You had lots of different art forms meeting: punk rock, rap, hip hop and disco all coming together in New York at the same time,” says Justin. “You had guys like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf part of the scene, and music and art were together in a kind of cultural explosion in New York. All this incredible stuff was happening, with punk, funk, disco, early hip hop, bands like ESG and Liquid Liquid, the performance artists like John Sex, and all these insane people that were doing really great things, and it just all came together in one magic time.”
Lost In Paradise
Justin quickly established himself on the scene and met Francois Kevorkian, already a prolific DJ in clubs. “Then Francois took me to the Paradise Garage,” Justin recalls, “and it totally changed my life. I had never been to anything like that before, I had been to discos, but when I heard Larry Levan play for the first time, I realised what it means to be a DJ, and what you should strive to achieve.”
Francois K took me to the Paradise Garage, and it totally changed my life
Through Francois, Justin and Larry became friends and bonded over their common interests. “I would just hang out in the booth at the Garage every Saturday night after I’d DJ’d, and I got an education in a lot of music and a lot of culture that I just fell in love with. The crowd were so connected to the music and to Larry. Larry had his own light controls above his turntables where he could override and take over everything. He even controlled the temperature in that place! Sometimes, he would turn off all the lights, even the exit lights so you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. And the confetti guns… It’s hard to describe it, it was like a family thing, you would see the same people every week. And it sounds corny and I hate saying it, but it was their church, and mine too."
So Justin started to inject some of what he experienced at Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage into his DJ sets, and was on to a good thing. He was offered a residency at The Ritz (now known as Webster Hall), which he accepted on the condition that he stopped playing at Mudd Club. “The Ritz was a new club where I could really do something from scratch. It became the venue that every band played at, from Kraftwerk to Sugar Hill Gang, to Tina Turner, to Human League, Depeche Mode… The list would blow your mind, and every night I would play, so I saw everybody and their mother play and got to open for incredible bands.”
Justin was still very close with Francois K, who by that time was working for Prelude Records. Prelude had been at the forefront of the disco scene and went on to carry the ‘mastermix’ format, with producer Shep Pettibone exploring the new concept of re-mixing existing pop songs into club-friendly versions. Back then, there was a whole different mindset about DJs. With the exception of a select few, including Levan, DJs were not stars. This was an underground scene and dance music was only heard in the clubs. But times were changing and radio stations were starting to listen to what the DJs were playing in the clubs. “Francois would be giving me the Prelude records he was working on at the time, and I would mix them in with alternative and new wave tracks at The Ritz. It would freak some people out, and some people loved it, and I just sort of carved my own sound. Labels would come to me with their acetates and test pressings and say ‘please play this’. That’s how records got broken. The program directors of radio stations would hang out at the Garage or wherever, and they would hear what the crowd were liking and they’d play it on the radio. It was a very organic process.”
So that’s how Justin became a DJ, and he went on to grace the turntables at now-legendary New York clubs including Danceteria, Palladium, Tunnel, Limelight, M.K., and eventually Area, about which we could write ad infinitum. Simply put, Justin became a serious fixture on the NY club scene, and everybody knew him from the clubs. His old life in Milk 'n' Cookies was a distant memory, and he was about to enter the next phase of his already successful, but still blossoming, career.
“I was really getting inspired by Larry’s productions and remixes, and those of Francois and Shep Pettibone. Shep was probably the most famous and influential remixer of the time, he produced ‘Vogue’ for Madonna. I had already, through Milk 'n' Cookies, become comfortable in a recording studio and I wanted to get into remixing and production. Labels were constantly coming to me with records and one day, I was like ‘hey, this is good but I think I can do something and make it better’. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but there’s no better way to do it than try and learn, so I used being in the right place at the right time — as a DJ in the biggest clubs in New York — to get my foot in the door.”
From The Club To The Cutting Room
For his first remixes, Justin partnered with friend and fellow DJ Murray Elias and persuaded Elektra Records to give them a shot at remixing a track for Greg Kihn. “He was this rock dude who had a big hit disco record with a song called ‘Jeopardy’ and this was going to be his follow up. It wasn’t as good as his first record, and it was our first remix really, and we didn’t really know what we were doing.”
This was the wild west, basically… You didn’t just sit down with a computer with a bunch of stems and just load it up.
In 1984, the typical recording studio was a daunting place, and the process of making a remix was very complicated. “This was the wild west, basically,” says Justin. “You didn’t just sit down with a computer with a bunch of stems and just load it up. You’re working with tapes that, for the most part, weren’t recorded to a click track. You had either live drums or early drum machine stuff, which was mostly out of time or sync. We would get the 24-track master tape, and the first thing we did was to make a copy of that on to another two-inch tape, which we would work from. Then we’d have another 24-track tape that we’d record overdubs on to. So it was a 48-channel environment, with two 24 track machines running in sync with each other. We’d take the SMPTE from the tape and send it to this box called the SBX80, which converted the code into a rough click track. Just getting a click track to work could literally take a day. “We would be in a production studio that had keyboards and drum machines, and we would start to do overdubs, stripping away some things, adding our own parts. I had an SP12, which had a short sample memory. I still have it and love using it. But there were things that I couldn’t do, and I wanted to find a keyboard player that wasn’t playing on anyone else’s records — I wanted us to have our own sound — so my girlfriend at the time said she knew this guy who played keyboards. His name was Eric Kupper, and he had an Ensoniq keyboard with a little sequencer in it, and we hooked that up to the SBX80 so we could run sequences.”
The Just Right Mix
The level of complexity in remixing those days was gigantic, and the budgets reflected the investment. It wasn’t uncommon to get up to $30,000 for a remix. “Because we had a budget,” Justin explains, “I would usually do a few mixes of each song. I would do one that had more of the artist’s stuff, then I’d do what I would call the Just Right mix, which would take it in a different direction with usually more of a house feel."
Justin got into the groove of remixing, and soon scored credits with Debbie Harry, Duran Duran, Skinny Puppy, Red Hot Chilli Peppers, and Sinead O’Connor. With each remix, he was pushing the envelope, trying new techniques. “We would work with these tape editors, in particular these guys Chep Nunez and Tuta Aquino. This was a whole new phenomenon in New York. They’d do these insane tape edits, where they would copy parts of your passes to a quarter-inch tape machine, and then cut it up and put the song together and do these incredible breaks. It was an incredible process to witness; it was just razor-blade cutting, before digital editing was a thing.”
It was this pioneering nature and collaborative spirit that kept getting Justin in with the right people at the right time. He recalls a time when Louie Vega (grand master of house music and one half of production dream-team Masters At Work) called him. “He said ‘you have to come down to the club, and see what’s going on’. We had done a remix of a Debbie Harry record, which we turned into this latin freestyle track, and it had this little melodica intro, which Louie was dropping in over the other records. By the time he actually played the track, the whole place exploded and it was one of the biggest tracks in the club.”
Justin had established his own trademark sound, which was identifiably ‘New York’: as diverse and eclectic as the city. His remixes set the benchmark for the next generation of house producers and remixers to reach: the likes of Frankie Knuckles, David Morales and Masters At Work. But by the late ’90s, with over 200 remixes under his belt, Justin was burned out. “I was kind of bored with the dance scene and I wasn’t as inspired as I used to be. I also knew this business was always going to be about the new kid on the block, so I decided to do other things.”
In 2000 Justin set up a publishing deal with Warner Chappel, and started to work on projects with other artists, as well on his own material, from a studio he had set up at home. “I had two kids, and I really wanted to be there for them. I was able to work on projects in my house and be around my kids, which was a lot of fun. I kind of felt I needed a break from the DJ and remixing scene at that time, but then things started happening in music again that I felt excited about and connected to. All of a sudden there was interesting dance music again, all this cool stuff coming out of England, and DFA records in New York making records influenced by the types of records I had played and made. I was totally inspired, so I started making records again.
“This business is sort of about reinventing yourself, whether subconsciously or consciously, and I started to do that. People started hearing me again and liked it, a lot of young kids seemed to be inspired by what I was doing, and I was inspired by them, and I started finding projects to get involved in. I was throwing myself back into it.”
A few years down the line, in present day Brooklyn, and Justin is again embedded in the dance music scene. His first new partnership with Bryan Mette as Whatever/Whatever gives him an outlet to make music again. “Even two decades down the line, I found that there were still a few people I could call to get some remixes, just like I had done 20 years ago. I was like ‘hey, I really like this record, maybe you could give us a shot to remix it.’” His pedigree has helped open some doors too, like when Justin contacted Jason Drummond from Rong Records about remixing a track for the artist Woolfy through their association with DFA Records at the time. “He was like ‘oh my god, Justin Strauss, I grew up playing your records! You have no idea what you mean to me.’ And I was just blown away, because basically I didn’t think anyone knew or cared about what I had done in the past. It was an eye-opener for me.”
This business is about reinventing yourself, whether subconsciously or consciously, and I started to do that.
Justin’s fondness for hardware follows him still. Although he and his collaborators use Ableton Live, Pro Tools and Logic in the studio, he’s still got his SP12 and Juno 60 and loves to send sound through hardware processors. When working on another of his current projects called A/JUS/TED — a partnership with producer Teddy Stuart (aka Eddie Mars) — they use Teddy's Otari quarter-inch tape machine “we’ll record bass and drums to the tape machine to dirty the sound, then record it back to the computer. It adds a whole other layer of stuff to what we’re working on. But it’s a mix, and I think that’s whats exciting about remixing today; you can still use a lot of vintage gear mixed with some of the new stuff, where the possibilities are endless.”
Justin also has a desire for analogue synths, and remembers using the original Novation Bass Station, during the early ’90s. “Everyone was into new toys back then and I remember the early Novation stuff. We would just experiment with it in the studio; the low end was just great.” So it’s no surprise that the Bass Station II is put to good use in the studio these days. “We have a lot of vintage synths and gear in our studio and the Bass Station II is a great modern-sounding keyboard that mixes well with what we are doing with our productions. Especially when we are looking for a nice sub bass. It's easy to use and its size are a perfect fit.”
Looking back on his journey through dance music, Justin reflects on the advancement of technology and the relative ease of working on music. “Back in the hardware days, you’d do these 24-hour studio lock-outs to do the mix, because that was the cheapest way to get studio time. If, by the time you’ve left the studio you figure out the hi-hats aren’t loud enough or the bass is too loud, you’d have to book the same room and recall everything on the SSL, in order to finish the track. There’s something to be said for being able to say ‘it’s done’, and also for having the luxury of working on it until it’s really done. “I’m grateful to have learned and to be forced to have some rules as when when you’ve finished. But the possibilities now are just insane and some music could never have been made if it weren’t for technology. New genres of music have opened up and it’s an exciting time. I feel lucky to have found two super talented production partners in Bryan and Teddy. I’m fortunate because I’m still in tune with the technology but I also have this history of what it was all about back then, which I can bring to music. If there’s anything that makes what I do unique, its that. I’m not stuck in sounding like something I did in the 1980s, but I have that in me and I can bring that to now, and make it relevant.”
All the stuff I was influenced by is still referenced today; I feel like it’s gone full circle!
His style has proven to be timeless, which Justin says was always a goal of his, if not a conscious one. “Going out to a club and hearing a DJ play your work is a great feeling. Hearing the new stuff I'm doing with A/JUS/TED and Whatever/Whatever or Danny Krivit playing my 808 State remix of 'Pacific' at his 718 Sessions, or my remix of Fine Young Cannibals' 'She Drives Me Crazy'. It’s great because all the stuff I was influenced by is still referenced today; I feel like it’s gone full circle!”
To hear more of Justin’s work, head to https://soundcloud.com/justin-strauss where you’ll find a lot of his material, new and old. In Autumn 2015, there’s a Milk 'n’ Cookies box set due for release on Captured Tracks. Find out more here.
Words & non-archive pictures: Chris Mayes-Wright