A true dancefloor disc jockey warrior with a rich history in nightlife (including membership in a few DJ supergroups), Justin Cudmore discusses the gigs that got him here, the new music that’s coming, and the reckoning of Rona Ravers.
Thotyssey: Hello Justin, thanks for talking to us today! Spring is here and live venues are slowly returning to full capacity. On a scale of 1 to 10, how excited are you?
Justin Cudmore: I’d say I’m at a 6/7 in terms of excitement. It’s been a long and difficult 14 months since March 2020, for myself and many others in nightlife and the gig economy. The collective trauma of the pandemic is still very real, but with that is also a very real urge and readiness to gather again and heal together.
Do you have any worries or concerns?
My only concern is that we all jump back in too quickly and take it straight to 100, to pre-pandemic levels. The urge to party and celebrate is there–trust, I feel it–I have been having such a great time these last few weeks as things reopen and the energy returns. Just remember to check-in on your friends and keep a gauge on yourself. I know I will. If something isn’t feeling fun or you’re feeling worn down, especially as we get to Pride weekend, there’s nothing wrong with taking a seat or going home to chill for a bit. As someone once told me: “There’s always another party.” I’m so very grateful we can say that again!
Many DJs and other nightlifers were “cancelled” this past year for producing or participating in public and non-socially distant events in New York–even when they did it in cities that had less strict or no protocols. Should we all be forgiving and forgetting now that the worst is behind us, or is there still a need for accountability?
Well it’s tough. And there is a lot of nuance to this, as with anything. Accountability is real. Redemption is also real and necessary. And as an artist, I am acutely aware of how important revenue is for artists and promoters to stay in business, especially in New York… so that’s also very real. For example, some marginalized artists– particularly artists of color–relied on illegal gigs to make ends meet when there was no money and unemployment wasn’t working.
When people were getting sick and dying, and we were told by scientists and the government not to do a certain thing because it could harm more people, but you decided to gather anyway, unvaccinated, out of need to party and threw large, indoor events without social distancing–then, yeah, I think that was wrong. My personal motto and moral compass has always been to forgive but not forget; as they say in Game of Thrones, “The North remembers.”
During lockdown, several DJs had to stream digital sets to get by, or just to remain heard and expressive. Several struggled with this, but you’re an established pro at making solid digital sets since long before lockdown! This year you’ve been dropping tons of sets and mixes via New York’s The Bunker, London’s RinseFM and other streaming vehicles. What’s the secret to good streams and playlists, and does it exercise a different DJ muscle than being live on a dancefloor?
Streaming at home is an entirely different thing. There’s no crowd, no energy, no interaction… and so nothing to feed off of. At the very beginning we were using Zoom, and we’d have quite a nice crowd of friends who would all sign on and be part of the party, dancing on camera. That helped create some kind of vibe when you were playing. But eventually as the weather warmed up in Summer 2020, I think everyone collectively became “Zoomed out.”
My RinseFM show has always been a nice outlet to play new promos and old favorites. During lockdown, I found it difficult to stay on top of new music as much as I had before the pandemic–maybe I blame some lack of inspiration–so instead I dove back into my records. I was first a vinyl DJ after a brief moment with a laptop in college, so reconnecting with wax and all my records from Chicago and Detroit helped keep me inspired through the pandemic.
So let’s go over your origin story a little! You’re from a fairly conservative family within the working class Midwestern city of Springfield, Illinois. How were you exposed to art and music while growing up?
I have a good school system to thank for my obsession with music and the arts. I was able to start drumming and join Band in 4th grade. I also have an amazing group of queer friends that I became friends with in high school that I’m still friends with today. We all helped each other open our minds and feel okay being different in an otherwise conservative part of the country. I also have to thank my hippy neighbor Janis growing up. She lived next door to me and would always invite me over for tea. She’d put on some records by the Beatles or Rolling Stones, or we’d watch different films. I think she saw an imagination in me and I’m so grateful for her love over the years.
You started DJing in college, and a six month stay in Oslo afterwards had a big influence on your own music and sets. Then you lived and worked in Chicago for awhile, another big music city. Can your keen ears hear significant differences in dance music sets based on the cities and scenes they’re from?
Yes, definitely. I still have every song I’ve made since I began producing at 16. I’ll be 33 this year. And when I listen back, you can hear the changing styles that were influenced by where I was living at the time or what music I was into.
Who are some of the great DJs that have influenced you, or whom you’ve worked with or have seen come up?
Mike Servito, Kirkwood West, The Carry Nation (Nita Aviance and Will Automagic), Heartthrob, Derrick Carter, Mike Huckaby, Volvox, Lauren Flax, Erika, BMG, Derrick Plaslaiko, Wrecked, Honcho, Massimiliano Pagliara, Seth Troxler, Analog Soul, Physical Therapy, Justin Strauss, Jason Kendig and Michael Magnan.
Eight years ago, I moved with my ex-boyfriend to Brooklyn from Chicago. He got a job out here and I wanted to follow him, so I found a new job here. It was in the first year after we arrived that I started going to Mike Servito’s gigs. My friends and I would always go–if Mike was playing, we went. And Mike and I quickly became friends. We have so much in common: both from the midwest, love for dance music, love for margaritas, and love for cute boys, haha! Mike was a resident at [techno label and party production team] The Bunker.
Gunnar Haslam was attending Bunker parties before I did, and we met on the dancefloor. Gunnar and I both also used to work for a dance music site called Little White Earbuds. The three of us put out a record together for Honey Soundsystem in 2016 called Crystal. After that, we started playing out together as Hot Mix at Good Room.
Obviously your own style and tastes have changed probably several times over the years. Today, what might one expect a fully realized Justin Cudmore set to sound like?
I love longer sets. I love packed rooms with people ready to dance. I love being able to create an arch to the night if possible — starting slow and building up or going on at the peak of the party and winding it down. Since working with The Carry Nation over the last two years as Majorettes, you’re likely to hear more New York-influenced sounds. However, every party is different. I love collecting music for all occasions.
You’ve played all over the world at this point. Do you have an all-time favorite memory, party, career moment, etc.?
Getting flown to India to play the Far Out Left festival alongside fellow New Yorkers Volvox and Umfang was pretty tight. Visiting Mumbai and Bangalore, cities I never thought I would get to, was incredible. Seeing the passion and demand from ravers and partygoers there was inspiring. Very grateful to have been able to do that one.
At this point, does your reputation give you freedom to play what you want, or are venues and promoters still like “play more of this, stop playing so much of that?”
The party, the venue, and the crowd come first. Certainly I’m going to bring my style to any event, but as a DJ it’s important to read the room, no matter who you are or where you play. Getting crowds to move to music they might not have heard is always where the magic happens.
I’m re-listening to some of your original mixes care of Phonica White records, and of course they slap! When did you start producing your own compositions and original mixes, what inspires those, and what’s that process like for you?
I started making my own music in GarageBand when I was 16; I moved to Reason in college. I had a Myspace when I was 18-20 with all my music uploaded. When I was living abroad in Oslo, I met some friends on my travels because of my music. When I was 21, I transitioned to Logic and have been using that ever since. Making music for me is very improvisational. I never really know what I’m going to make until I sit down and start creating. It’s always very influenced by what I’m listening to or hearing at the time.
I have no idea how it works in the greater club music world, but does being an out gay DJ limit the types of gigs you get… or maybe narrows the types of gigs you look for?
No, I’d say being a gay DJ has given me the ability to play more shows. Because I came up playing for The Bunker, which is a predominantly more straight techno crowd, I was able to play techno shows and also do queer events, like gigs for Pride. It’s always Pride somewhere!
Is it lame when bar DJs, especially queer bar DJs, play strictly Top 40-only sets… or is there a place for this?
I think sticking to one thing and only playing that because you feel you have to or you’re supposed to is lame. Of course, there’s a place for Top 40-only sets–it’s a big world out there–but that doesn’t mean I want to be there, lol. Give me a cute remix or an edit if you gotta play those tracks.
Any thoughts on current trends of EDM or popular music?
I honestly don’t know where the musical trends are moving, since we haven’t had any parties for over a year. Before Covid, music was getting faster and moving into trance territory. I think for a lot of younger people, this has been their entry-point into the scene over the last few years.
Tell us a bit about “Balance,” your residency at BASEMENT in Brooklyn. Obviously that’s been sidetracked by lockdown, but what was the night like… and do you think it will return?
Balance is a party I kicked off at BASEMENT in 2019. It is a quarterly techno party, so before Covid ended everything I was able to produce two parties in Sept 2019 and January 2020. The third one was actually supposed to happen that fateful weekend in March 2020, but then the world ended. When I had the opportunity to curate something at BASEMENT, I jumped at the chance to do something different. I tried to book new talent that New York maybe hadn’t seen before, such as DJs that I saw play when I was on tour. Both parties were so much fun. Very excited about bringing Balance back later this year.
As you mentioned earlier, you’ve created a new production / DJ team with The Carry Nation’s Nita Aviance and Will Automagic: Majorettes. And you all recently dropped the fresh single, “Run the Trip!”
Will and Nita are dear friends. Over quarantine, we made a pact to meet in the studio every Friday to produce music. Meeting and creating music helped give some routine to our weeks, and that definitely helped keep us inspired and thinking positive! With all the tracks that were created we birthed Major Records, a home for all Majorettes’ music. Working with Will and Nita in the studio is always inspiring and fun.
What else might be in store for you in the near or distant future, or what else do the children need to know about you and your music?
I have two new records coming out soon: one with Risa Taniguci for Fort Romeau’s label Cin Cin; and another with Hiroko Yamamura on London’s queer label He.She.They. Also very excited about the next Majorettes release in June called “House Amazing” with a remix by Lady Blacktronika.
Exciting! Finally: did any new music come out this year that you enjoy?
Besides all the 90s Madonna maxi-single remixes going up on Spotify lately, I’ve been really obsessed with this band called Working Men’s Club from the UK. Check them out!
Thank you, Justin!