Nightlife vet Justin Strauss bangs out dirty beats at his new Filthy fiesta
Thu Oct 13 2005
"I was working nonstop for a while, doing two or three remixes a week," says Justin Strauss, the longtime DJ and studio whiz who's one of the most influential—and enduring—members of the NYC clubbing community. "Once you get on that train, you're on it, until they find the next person. So you've got to make the most of it." And Strauss did—there was a time, from the mid-'80s until the mid-'90s, when the drum-machine-juiced dance tracks he (and contemporaries like Shep Pettibone and Arthur Baker) banged out were all but inescapable. 808 State? Check: He did that "Pacific State" remix with which veteran clubbers are quite familiar with. Yazz's "The Only Way is Up?" Again, check: His was the DJ's favored mix. Erasure, Book of Love, Depeche Mode—the list of clubworthy acts he worked with in those days reads like a playlist from prime-era Pyramid. But far from being focused on past triumphs, Straus is still plugging away: He and his deejaying partner, Carmine Potenza, have just kicked off their Filthy fiesta, Strauss's first weekly clubbin venture since the mid '90s.
When Strauss's career began in the early '80s, the NYC scene was far different from what it is today. "It was such a vibrant scene," he recalls, wistfully. "You had all of this art talent, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat, hanging out with fashion people like Anna Sui and Stephen Meisel, who were hanging out with the music people.... That whole '80s downtown world was such a creative atmosphere to work in."
It was at the Mudd Club—a spot where the rock-dance mlange predated the current fascination for that fusion by two and a half decades—where Strauss cut his teeth in 1980. "I was shaking the whole time because I 'd never done it before. But I did it, and Steve said, 'Hey, I like what you're doing. Do you want a job here?' I was like, 'Yeah!'" Steady gigs at similarly fabled spots like the Ritz, Limelight, Area and MK followed. "Larry [Levan] would come to the Ritz when he wanted to see a certain show, and I'd pop over to the Paradise Garage when I finished up at Area," he relates casually.
The remix and production jobs soon followed. (Much of Strauss's early studio work was done with Murray Elias, who's now the top A&R person at VP Records and executive-produces Sean Paul's albums). "The first really big thing was a remix of Debbie Harry's 'In Love With Love,' which we gave a sort of Cover Girls, Latin-freestyle vibe," he says. "Louie Vega was spinning at the Funhouse at the time, and he called me and said, 'You've got to come to the club and see the reaction to your record!' So I did, and he was just dropping the intro of the track into the mix, and the place was going nuts and screaming. That was when I realized, Hey, we can do this—this could work."
Much of Strauss's later work was (and is) of a more mainstream nature: Tina Turner, Duran Duran, Luther Vandross and, er, Michael Bolton are just a few of the dozens of acts to have been blessed by the Strauss touch. But he never totally shook free of his clubbing roots; the occasional high-profile deejaying gig (he played at Centro-Fly's final night with Fatboy Slim and Todd Terry) has always surfaced, and he's always kept up with the current sounds—he was a constant presence at this past summer's Warm Up affairs, for instance.
Those sounds, it turns out, aren't all that different from the tracks that Strauss was spinning and making all those years ago. "A lot of the records I played and mixed were on the electro tip, and the revival of that in today's club scene has spurred me on," he says. "Artists who are making music that I admire—people like Ewan Pearson, Jacques LuCont, the Glimmers and Tiefschwartz—all tell me that they used to listen to my stuff, and I hear the influences of what I was doing 20 years ago in their music. So, since the vibe is out there, it just seemed like the right time to get involved with a party again." Once a clubber, always a clubber, it seems.
Justin Strauss spins at Filthy every Wednesday.