I just had a lot of records and I was going to play my records at the Mudd Club. It was about playing punk, funk, reggae, rock ‘n’ roll, glam and that kind of thing.

  • Justin Strauss is one of the most iconic DJs of the New York club scene.



How did you get into DJing? What's your background?

Honestly, when I was a kid I saw The Beatles on TV and that just changed my whole life. I just knew from that moment on that all I ever wanted to do was music. I became obsessed with the music and The Beatles. All of the music coming out of England at the time excited me.

I got into this band called Milk 'n' Cookies when I was in high school in Long Island. We started rehearsing in my basement – my dad had a lot of audio equipment – and they were looking for a singer and they thought I looked like a singer so they asked me to join the band and I did. We sent out our demo to a couple of labels [and] David Bowie's manager and Sparks managers. There was a lot of English glam stuff going on at the time. Sparks management wrote us back from England saying, "We love you guys and we're playing your tape for Island Records." And the label loved it. The head of A&R flew over to my parents' basement in Long Island and signed us on the spot. I was still in high school, 17 years old, and told I was going to England to make a record for Island Records? I thought I'd died and went to heaven, I was so excited. Obviously that cemented my dreams of doing music for the rest of my life. I didn't know I'd be DJing – I thought I'd be in this band wherever that went.

From that point you knew what your life would be

I wasn't thinking much about the future; just thinking of the now and this is what I want to do. It was just super. We went to England, which was a dream, and lived in this amazing townhouse they got us. Recording an album for Island Records where Roxy Music, Sparks and all these amazing people recorded. Bob Marley was just starting his career there and he was in the studio next to us. We didn't even realize how important those times were and how much that would affect my life from that point on. Being in a studio, in that situation, recording an album when you're 17 is pretty incredible.

Our producer was this guy Muff Winwood who produced Sparks and was Steve Winwood's brother from Traffic, all really pretty amazing stuff. We put out our first single, we were on TV shows, full page ads in all the papers. All this attention was intense. A lot of things happened and at the end of the day there was a lot of problems within the band.

Because of the success of the band? Was it successful at the end?

No it was not. The record came out and people didn't really understand it. It was a bit too ahead of it's time. The label got wishy-washy about it and we came back to New York. At that time this whole music scene in NYC was starting to happen in places like CBGB and Max's. You had all the bands like Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie starting to play in these clubs and we would play with them. We got involved in that scene easily. We would be the opening act for The Ramones and Talking Heads. An amazing time in this town.

Warner Brothers put us in the studio to record demos for them, with a view to a record deal, but at the end of the day it didn't happen. We got disillusioned and the guitar player left and the bass player left. He moved to L.A., and was telling me, “You gotta move to L.A., everyone knows Milk 'n' Cookies out here. We can re-form.” I'd never been to L.A. and thought that sounded good, something I should try. So I moved and we re-formed the band out there.

Again things started picking up. We were playing the whole punk scene – it was exploding in L.A. at the time. But at the end of the day it never came together. And I began to miss New York. I wanted to come home. I decided to move back and I went to the Mudd Club, this cool spot at the time, one of the first downtown clubs. Kind of the opposite of what was going on an uptown at places like Studio 54. It was the whole downtown art scene, people like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and all these amazing downtown characters all in one place. I had a huge record collection and I met the main DJ there and we became friends. One night he asked me if I wanted to DJ. That evening I was really nervous, my hand was shaking playing the records. I had never DJ’d except for playing records for my friends in my bedroom at home.

At this time what was your vision of DJing?

It wasn't anything I ever thought of doing until this opportunity happened.

Did you have friends who were DJs at this time or not at all?

No. It wasn't like it is today where everyone wants to be a DJ. Nobody wanted to be a DJ. And it wasn't even thought of as any kind of a real job. As least not to me at the time.

So, I just had a lot of records and I was going to play my records at the Mudd Club. It was about playing punk, funk, reggae, rock ‘n’ roll, glam and that kind of thing. Also, early rap was just starting. It was an amazing time in New York 'cause you had a lot of the punk music happening, also stuff like 99 Records, Liquid Liquid, ESG, and then you had early hip-hop influencing a lot of things. Afrika Bambaataa would come down and I became friends with him. There was a lot of different cultural mash-ups going on. It wasn't about DJ mixing – they didn't have 1200s – it was just two turntables. Put the record on, let it end, try to blend it into the other track. Not beatmatching – you couldn't – the records were from all different genres. I played at the Mudd Club for a year, just playing all different kinds of music, a lot of funk, occasionally some disco. I was into everything.

So I guess at this point you start to meet DJs?

Yeah, I met François K. He was DJing at an after-hours club called AM-PM. He was working at Prelude records at the time which was a really cool underground dance label in New York that put out D-Train and a ton of amazing records. I came down to see him play one night and he was beatmatching records. I was totally fascinated by the technique and wanted to learn how to do it. I would watch him and listen to him play. He showed me the basics and I just started doing it. I never had two turntables at my house and I still don't.

One day, Jerry Brandt came in to the Mudd Club and asked me if I'd like to be the DJ at this new club he was opening called The Ritz, which is where Webster Hall is now. It just seemed like a logical progression for me [and it's] where I started to learn about mixing records, as they had three turntables with pitch control. Francois took me to the Paradise Garage, which totally changed my whole way of thinking about DJing. I had never heard anything like that in my life. Hearing Larry Levan play.

At that time this whole music scene in NYC was starting to happen in places like CBGB and Max's. You had all the bands like Television, Talking Heads, Ramones, Blondie starting to play in these clubs and we would play with them.

What made it special?

It's a hard thing to describe. You walked up this incredible ramp – the place was built in an old garage – and you hear this “thub” “thub.” The sub of the drum. The lights were incredible, music I'd never heard before, the sound system, the mixing, the whole environment. This whole culture that I wasn't even aware of. It was intense. The experience of hearing amazing music that I didn't know about and hearing the way Larry played. He would mix records together, kind of telling a story, very emotional. It was an emotional experience. It wasn't like just going to a club. Everyone was invested and connected to the DJ. It felt like you knew him and you were his friend and he knew you and he could talk to you through his records. That's what I got out of it. I had never heard anything sound so good. He controlled the whole environment down to the temperature of the club, I found out.

My experience at the Paradise Garage made me understand what DJing could be. It's not just playing records. Larry could make you cry on the dance floor. I started going there every weekend. Francois took me up to the booth and I met Larry. We hit it off and I got a Paradise Garage membership card. From then till it closed it's doors every Saturday night after playing at Area or wherever I would go. Hang out in the booth with Larry and just dance for hours on the dance floor. Everybody wanted to get their records played at the Garage, it was a very influential club.

Do you feel like you or other DJs at the time tried to replicate what Larry Levan was doing?

My philosophy was that I was going to bring the feeling I got from listening to him to what I do. I wasn't going to try and copy him. There were a lot of cool DJs in New York, everybody influencing everyone. It was a really vibrant scene at the time.

The DJ scene was pretty small and everyone was pretty connected?

If you were part of that scene, yeah, everybody was supporting each other. This is before the Internet, so the only way to get your records to somebody was you go give them. Clubs were the only place you'd hear new music – that's where records were broken. Record labels would bring their records to DJs in hopes that they would play it to get exposure. When Larry played a record, you'd hear that record on the radio the next week in New York. His influence was really that great.

So how did it evolve from this time to now? You've continually played as a DJ since then?

Yeah. I was doing The Ritz, then the Limelight and then a new club called Area. One of the best clubs ever. The concept of the club was that it completely around every six weeks, with different themes. Everything from natural history to disco to gnarly. It was one of the most exciting things to be part of. There was a great book published last year on it. I really came into my DJing being there. It really felt like I hit what I wanted to be doing musically.

How old were you?

Late 20s, I guess. I was mixing records, a lot of the garage influences, creating my own sound and my own vibe that people really seemed to like. I think that's one thing that’s important for DJs: You need to find your path and find what you're good at and what works. New York was a very creative place at the time and a very free place. There wasn't bottle service clubs. We played hip-hop, we played reggae, we played house, disco and we played it all in one night and it all worked. People like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Andy Warhol were just hanging out. The art, the music, it was so exciting as it was all together. That's one thing that is currently lacking in New York club life, the connection that people had together then from the art world to the music world. Maybe it's coming back – I hope.

My experience at the Paradise Garage made me understand what DJing could be. It's not just playing records. Larry could make you cry on the dance floor.

I checked your Discogs profile and you have 200 remix / edits

Well, here's how that happened. I was totally inspired by Larry's productions as well as his DJing and also Francois K., and by Shep Pettibone's remixes. I told the labels that I'd really like to try my hand at remixing and because I was lucky enough to be playing at some of the bigger clubs in New York, was told OK find a record that you think you could do something with. My first big break was a record for Debbie Harry with my partner at the time Murray Elias, and that was the first remix of ours that blew up in New York. It was a huge club record here and from that point on I just started to get more and more remix work.

Because I wasn't only playing disco or house or any one genre, I would be the guy that they would go to for some more alternative stuff. I got to work on Red Hot Chili Peppers, Depeche Mode, Luther Vandross, 808 State. It's a pretty varied discography, which I'm really proud of. The exciting part for me now is that I'm still doing what I love to do. Remixing some amazing artists and doing original productions, with my two projects I do now, Whatever/Whatever with Bryan Mette and A/JUS/TED with Teddy Stuart. I feel really lucky.

When did you start to play house and techno?

Well, there was no house when I started DJing. There was disco, punk and funk, but there was no house. House was born out of disco and started happening in the mid-80s. I loved those records when I started hearing them. Especially the raw drum machine driven stuff. I connected with all of the guys from Chicago and they would send me white labels, test pressings, and I just started playing those in my sets. It was exciting. It was a new sound. I would incorporate those influences into the remixes and productions I was doing at the time for artists like Luther Vandross, Depeche Mode or Skinny Puppy and others.

Doing mixes and doing remixes back then is a whole different game. We didn't have the computer technology. Everything was analog, early MIDI stuff. It was a very difficult sometimes just getting stuff to sync up. Technology is mind-blowing now. What you're able to do now was impossible then.

Do you feel like you have to adapt to the times with what you play?

I play a lot of new records and I play a lot of old records and I find that a lot of the stuff that's out today is so influenced by those records that nobody knows what's old and new anymore. To me, it's either good or bad, I don't care if it's new or old. I love playing an old record that a lot of people may not know and people are like, "What is that?" And I'm as excited about a lot of the new records coming out, there's a lot of great music out there. I find it daunting because there's so much music out there now, you really have to filter it. Every week there's 6000 new releases.

So how do you manage that now versus being handed records in the past?

I still love going to record stores. I love grabbing 10 records, finding five that I love, and knowing them and playing them as opposed to getting 30 tracks on line. I'll always like the physical aspect of searching through records.

Milk 'N' Cookies

Do you also use the Internet a lot to find records?

Yeah, every week I'm on the sites and check out new stuff. The thing that I don't like is there just doesn't seem to be records that connect the whole world together. People are so spread out and diversified and there are so many sources to get music now. There are very few records anymore that connect a lot of people. That's one thing I miss.

There are so many DJs now. I mean, if you're just playing stuff that you're just getting off the Beatport Top 10 , so can anyone else. You need to really be looking everywhere. Finding a record that no one else has, it brings a certain edge; it sets you apart from a lot of DJs. I have a record collection in my head and in my house that I can always go shopping in. Like, "Oh, I forgot about this one, I'd love to play this next week." It makes it more personal for me. And I have a lot of producer friends that I share stuff with.

You talked about Larry Levan as someone that really inspired you. Is there a DJ that's playing these days that you love?

I love listening to Optimo. The stuff that they do is great. They play everything from afrobeat to punk to whatever. That’s what we were doing back in the day. They've kind of kept that tradition going even more than I have, and I totally respect them and I love them for that. I really like Omar S as well. His dj sets and his productions are inspiring.

So what's your plan now? How long are you going to do this for?

How long am I going to do this for? Until I die, I guess. Until they won't let me do it anymore. I don't feel any different from when I first started and I still get nervous every time before I DJ . I think that's a good thing. If I'm DJing for 10 people or 1,000 people I just always try and do the best I can do. I'm doing a lot of remixes and original music too with my two projects: Whatever/Whatever and A/JUS/TED. Hopefully doing a full-length album soon. The Milk 'n' Cookies album is being reissued in a box set by Captured Tracks in a few months. That's very satisfying because the record has found a whole new audience. This box set is amazing, with a 100-page book with quotes from people like Thurston Moore, The Ramones and the Talking Heads. And working on a collection of a lot of the remixes I've done. It's all kind of come full circle for me. I'm still actually doing Milk 'n' Cookies stuff and still DJing and making records. I couldn't really ask for much more than that.

A more personal question: What do your daughters think about what you're doing now?

Both of my daughters are super cool and creative girls who come out to my shows regularly. They grew up around music. Our apartment was wall to wall records. I had a studio in my bedroom when they were growing up here in New York City and had artists in and out all the time. I'm really happy about the way our relationships have developed. Some kids go in a total opposite direction and don't want to have anything to do with what their parents do. I am lucky. My older daughter is in the music business. She manages Blood Orange and is actually DJing a bit now. My younger daughter works at Creative Time. Joakim and I played at their benefit back-to-back all night this past spring and that was so much fun. So proud of both of them and they inspire me every day.

Do you feel like you have a different experience of crowds now versus when you first started out?

Back then you'd never get asked for requests. You went out to hear new music. That's what people at the clubs I played at were doing – they trusted their DJ. They might not even know who the DJ was but they knew at Area or Tunnel or any of these clubs that there's going to be good music that night and that's what they're going out for. Now, because dance music or music in general has become so available and easy, everyone thinks they're some sort of expert and that the DJ is a jukebox or something. I wouldn't go up to Larry Levan and ask him for a request. I want to be turned on to new music, that's why I still go out all the time. For me, the best place to be turned on to a record is in a club.

Where did you play recently in New York that you feel is a good place?

My favorite place of the past few years was SubMercer. It was just a small club with a great sound system and great crowd. It was small enough that they didn't have to let people who would ask you for requests in. It had a great doorman who knew who should be in the club and it was a very intimate party. I made a lot of friends.

I like the Panther Room and Output – I think it's a really great room to play. I've recently played at the Good Room and the vibe there is really great. It's a great club following it's own vision. High hopes for that place.

How did you decide what to play in your set for us?

I approached it like being back in my room in Long Island with my friends, just playing records that I liked. That's basically what I did. I never pre-plan what I'm going to play ever. The fun of DJing for me really is making it up as I go along and finding two records that work together. I think that's the magic for me of DJing.

Keith Haring & Justin Strauss

You played the Arthur Russell edit on Love Unlimited Records

Yeah, that record really gets to me. By Young Edits. It really is perfect. The records I played were also all records that I wish I made

If you had to write your autobiography using three tracks – for your childhood, your teenage years and the present moment – what would you choose?

Sister Sledge – Lost in Music
David Bowie – Rebel Rebel
The Human League – The Things That Dreams Are Made Of

What sort of advice would you give to a DJ that was starting now?

It's always about the selection. Everyone's a DJ these days, what makes you different? What's something that you can bring that's part of you and that everyone else is not going to have, even if it's five records a night? There seems to be a lot of sameyness, everyone playing the same kind of vibe. And knowing when to play the right record is an important thing. I think a lot of DJs don't think about that. I'll go into a club and there's no one in the room and the opening DJ is banging some music out that makes no sense. Be aware of your surroundings a bit. Back in the day, I'd DJ the whole night – from the first record to the last – and that makes you understand about building a night and where a night can go and peaks and valleys. You're not just playing for an hour, where you have to keep everyone dancing, waiting for the next DJ. It's an adventure. That's what I learned at the Paradise Garage more than anything – the places you can go. Making the night special. DJ residencies, where there's a DJ at a club and he plays the whole night, I don't even know where that happens anymore. It's rare, sadly, and that's really the big thing that's changed about DJing since I started.

What is your most memorable experience as a DJ?

Doing the closing set of the opening day of PS1 Warm Up this past year with my A/JUS/TED partner Teddy Stuart was probably one of the most amazing experiences. I've always wanted to do that and the energy from the crowd that day was incredible. I was on cloud nine for weeks after. Blood Orange came out and sang the A/JUS/TED remix of "Uncle Ace" remix live. I also got to play at the Brooklyn Museum closing party for the Keith Haring exhibit there and it was outside in the parking lot. Thousands of people from all over came. I was honored I'd been asked to do that. Those two things will stay with me for a while. And I've been doing more traveling and playing all over the world which has been fantastic.

Is there anywhere that you haven't played that you want to?

Hmm, let me think. Yes. Panorama Bar in Berlin, Lux in Lisbon, and Robert Johnson in Frankfurt. Will work on playing those.