Veteran DJ and life-long New Yorker Justin Strauss has been sharing the music he loves since the 1980s, and he plays in the best nightclubs worldwide to this day. Justin will be working with us to invite musicians, DJs and filmmakers to curate Marantz Amplified playlists. He's also given us the first one, a personal set that evokes his lasting love for his city.Words: Bruce Tantum
Some veteran DJs are content to coast, relying on the fading memories of past glories. New York’s Justin Strauss is not one of those DJs – despite the fact that his glories shine brighter than nearly all of his contemporaries. In the mid-seventies, Strauss was the lead singer for the beloved cult glam-punk band Milk ’N’ Cookies; by the end of that decade, he had fallen into deejaying, beginning at groundbreaking NYC institutions like the Mudd Club, the Ritz and Area. In the eighties, he became a go-to remixer, dropping clubland glitter on acts ranging from 808 State and Skinny Puppy to Depeche Mode, Tina Turner and Duran Duran.
That’s a career’s worth of accomplishments right there — but Strauss hasn’t slowed down a bit in the years since. After four and a half decades in music, he is still one of New York clubland’s most vital figures and is as busy as ever in the studio and behind the decks. It’s a career that’s been sustained, more than anything, by a deep love of music, sparked initially by his father.
“Music wasn’t my dad’s occupation, but it was his love,” says Strauss. “He was super into music and records, and he had a lot of high-end audio equipment. He was always into the latest thing - four-track, eight-track, reel-to-reel, turntables, all kinds of stuff. And I always had a little record player when I was a kid.”
“I saw the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, and I felt a bolt of lightning run through me,” he says. “It connected on a level that surpassed anything that I had experienced before - and whatever that feeling was, was something that I wanted for the rest of my life.”
His rise as a DJ coincided with an incredibly fertile period in New York’s underground cultural history. “New York City was an affordable place to live for creative people at that time. You could find a cheap place to live, maybe find a job, and still have time to create, and find other people who were doing something similar — and that created a scene. Clubs like the Mudd Club, Danceteria, Area, and Pyramid were places everyone got together at night. And a lot of those people changed the world with their music, their art, or just themselves.”
Another of those pioneering nightspots was the Paradise Garage, and Strauss’s first encounter with the club served as another of his life-altering experiences, one that made clear the power of incredible sound. “You could feel the sub-bass before you even got into the club,” he recalls. “and then you would go into this room where you were just totally engulfed, like you were in an embryo of sound, and you just felt so warm. The way [Garage DJ] Larry Levan would work the sound system, it would touch all the senses in your body. It was like nothing I'd ever experienced before. Going there made me understand how important sound is.”
// I felt a bolt of lightning run through me. It connected with me on a level that surpassed anything that I had experienced before. //- Justin Strauss
Justin’s love of good sound extends to his personal life. “I never listen to music on earbuds,” he claims, preferring the kind of deep listening experience he remembers at the Garage. “There is no way you can describe it - you have to hear and feel it. The generation that’s grown up with earbuds... their lives would be changed, like mine was going into the Paradise Garage.”
The pandemic put a pause on DJing, of course, but Strauss filled his time with two house-centric production projects: Each Other, with longtime friend Max Pask, and Extra Credit, with Joe Goddard (of Hot Chip) and Marcus Marr. Both ventures feature Strauss on vocals, “which is something I hadn't done since Milk ’N’ Cookies.”
Now DJing has returned his dance card is as full as ever, and he’s just back from a mini-tour of Europe that took in Zurich, Munich and Copenhagen. He’s largely made the switch from vinyl to digital, but for Strauss, the principles of the spinning arts remain the same. “I love CDJs, and I think they’ve enhanced DJing,” he says. “But as corny as it sounds, it's always about the music, and how you put two songs together, and how you tell a story. Anybody can DJ now, but what makes it special is knowing how to connect the dots.”
Despite so many years in the business, Strauss has the enthusiasm of someone new to the game. “Honestly, I'm still as excited as the first time that music touched me,” he says. “I love new music, and I'm still excited by hearing a great record, and I can’t wait to play it in a club. I'm still nervous before I DJ. There's always this kind of excitement for me that I never take for granted.”
// I’m still as excited as the first time that music touched me. I love new music, and I’m still excited by hearing a great record. //- Justin Strauss
“There is something so mystical and magical about this record. So many layers of beauty, each occupying their own space within the track and working perfectly together, and it felt like the perfect way to start this playlist. Alice Coltrane was genius, making so much beautiful music. I loved that she called New York her home for a time and raised her family here.”
“For me this is the most “New York City” song. It evokes a magical time in the city when anything and everything seemed possible. And love the production and the sound of it. Herbie Flowers’ bass setting the tone, and then the sax at the outro - beautiful. A masterpiece.”
“Although Kraftwerk are German I’d like to think they had New York City on their minds when writing this. I would often start a DJ set with this song. Kraftwerk had a huge impact on me. Incredible production and sonically breathtaking records throughout their long career.”
“This record reminds me a lot about how New York City can sound - dense and chaotic and jarring at times, but also incredibly beautiful and warm. The string arrangements move me to tears. It’s one of my favorites of so many of theirs.”
“I can remember hearing this the first time at the Paradise Garage and what an impact it had on me. How to do more with less so perfectly. Each sound has its moment, and the emotion it brought to the dancefloor was groundbreaking.”
“The relentless energy and the way this song just builds and builds from the opening keyboard riff to the ending crescendo is astounding. I love this band and how they capture the feeling of New York now.”
// You would go into this room where you were just totally engulfed, like you were in an embryo of sound, and you just felt so warm. //- Justin Strauss
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Red hero image: Bella Fenning. Face on with graffiti background: Nuphar Blechner.
Standing by yellow taxi: Nuphar Blechner. B&W holding vinyl: Allan Tannenbaum.
B&W wearing striped hat and poloneck: Seze Devres.