Justin Cudmore has found a striking balance between the energy of a dance floor and the acute precision of machine music, through his young but fertile career as a DJ and producer. His high-energy acid workouts have landed on records from the likes the Bunker New York and HNYTRX, while his sets have taken him all over the world, playing the likes of Lux Fragil, Panorama Bar, Smartbar Chicago and soon, Jaeger Oslo.
Growing up in the mid west, USA, Cudmore eventually moved to Chicago where as a young, gay man he had found a community and a “family” at the heart of the legendary city that birthed House music. It laid the foundation that propelled the burgeoning DJ and producer into a career in music, starting with a job for the now defunct online mix blog, little white earbuds and culminating in a productive career as a recording artist with six EPs under his belt to date.
He calls New York home today and counts Mike Servito as a “mentor,” and even though he is still a relatively new artist, he has already made a severe impression on House music through his releases and his DJ sets.
He’s a favourite guest DJ at queer events like Wrecked, Queen!, Horse Meat Disco, Hot Mass and Club Toilet; he’s one third of the Hot Mix crew with New York stalwarts Mike Servito and Gunnar Haslam; and he makes regular sojourns over to Europe. Surprisingly, it was on a student exchange programme to Oslo in fact and particularly Sunkissed, where Cudmore had first found a latent passion for electronic dance music, which would follow him back to the states, where he nurtured the passion in the creative cauldron of the city that started it all, Chicago.
In Chicago, he had gone from bedroom DJ to regularly gracing the booth at iconic venues like Smartbar, before moving to New York and completely immersing himself in a career as a DJ and a producer. There were a few seminal tracks that shaped the young Cudmore’s ear at this time, a handful of tracks that had made an indelible imprint on the impressionable twenty-something Cudmore and continues to inform his sets and his music. We got in touch with Justin Cudmore to ask about five of these tracks and its effects on his music and DJ sets today.
Leonid, “Mora” [Statik Entertainment]
Justin Cudmore: I first heard this in 2010 in chicago probably at a warehouse party or rooftop where steve mizek was playing. I had never heard something like this, so dubby, but groovy and forward moving with positive energy. It became and instant favorite of mine.
There’s that Chicago legacy that courses through all of House music, but how influential had that legacy been for a DJ and artist like you when you started going to clubs and hearing this music, some two generations on?
Very! It was still very much in the music and the culture when I was living in Chicago. America has a very rich history with this. I felt it even more once I moved to New York, probably because the scene was much healthier there at the time and bigger / larger in scale – as everything tends to be in New York.
You mention a warehouse party, and besides Smartbar we’re not really that familiar with clubs in the city. How did you arrive at the scene, was it through warehouse parties and what was the club culture like at that time for a burgeoning DJ?
I arrived in Chicago when I was 21 just out of university. I had just returned from a 6 month study abroad program in Oslo actually. It was in Oslo where I actually really went “clubbing” for the first time, as I was not old enough in the states during university. I was on a business exchange programme at BI and although the classes were nice, what I really took out of that experience was exploration and discovery in europe. Every weekend I would travel or go to Blå. Sunkissed was my favorite party!!! So when I returned to the US and moved to Chicago at 21, I felt comfortable jumping right into Smart Bar. I don’t think clubbing at that young age was very popular at the time, especially in Chicago, so I would be the ones dragging my friend’s to smart bar or warehouse parties. Besides my day job at the time, I met Steve Mizek who ran this music blog called Little White Earbuds. This was a very important moment in my dance music education as the website did a great job covering a huge part of the underground in the US and Europe. It turned my ear on to a lot of things. I did my first mix for them in 2011 which features a lot of the tracks I talk about here – http://www.littlewhiteearbuds.com/podcast/curators-cuts-20-justin-cudmore/
“Dubby, but groovy and forward moving with positive energy.” How does it inform what you try to achieve in your music and your DJ sets today?
Groovy is essential. I’m not one for long periods of darker moods or undertones. I feel a party should be joyous and celebratory. Sure I love a darker techno, electro moment here and there and massively enjoy sets from artists like DVS1 who venture into more mysterious realms- but for me I’ve always been drawn to the positive.
What encouraged you to eventually move to New York?
I followed my boyfriend at the time to New York. I wasn’t even really keen on moving there at the time nor did I have any inclinations of becoming a full time dj. At that time in Chicago I was just buying records, playing at home, and producing music at home. The silver lining is moving to New York is the best thing that ever happened to me.
Steffi, “Yours feat. Virginia” [Ostgut Ton]
It is a perfect house track – stripped down to the essentials. Vocals, when used at the right time, always peek my interest. This classic tune I heard just as I was 21 leaving college and it showed me what modern house music could be while still feeling like it could be made in the past.
It is a stripped back track, and it has that very cold European sound to it. How does that sound translate in the USA where things seem to be a little warmer and funkier?
I think it translates just great! I can’t remember a dance floor this track doesn’t work on or get a reaction. You’re right it does seem “colder” in a way, but I’ve always felt it as a very positive moment on the dance floor. It’s perfect in its simplicity.
I’m always amazed how much Steffi manages to get from a few elements and this track would work incredibly well on a festival stage or a big room too. How does context inform your selections as a DJ?
Context is extremely important. I often say every party is different. Even playing the same club but a different night, different time slot, before or after different artists – I think it should always, all be considered. I’m of the school that the DJ should morph to fit the needs of the party and the night while always staying consistent to who you are / your musical taste. Playing a festival is completely different, though, as I’ve started to learn. Especially at bigger productions with larger stages and shorter sets- the crowd doesn’t have much of an attention span and has the ability to wander from stage to stage, so it’s a completely different approach I’ve started to learn. I much prefer playing in a club.
You mentioned that you like the fact that it sounds like something that “could be made in the past.” Is this something that you often look for in music, and what is about the music from the past that especially appeals to a younger DJ like you?
Yeah I do appreciate that retro feel and I’ve often tried to replicate that experience in my own music. To me there’s always something magical when something feels timeless/ could be made at any time. Also this is not easy to do- so I like that challenge.
Sound Stream, “Makin’ Love” [Sound Stream]
I’m not sure the first time or place I heard this one but the raw funk and energy dissolved into the production, with every crackle and spark, turned me on to dance music for the rest of my life. This tune inspired me to show me what is possible with production tools and how sound can create energy and vibe.
So this was the catalyst for you to move into dance music production. Had you been DJing by this time yet?
No I was “Djing” before I learned of this track. I think I discovered this while living in Oslo, actually. My experience with Djing started at 18 when at University. My roommate at the time and I would play house parties on a laptop with controller. One Halloween party we did was a big success so this local venue in town gave us a weekly party. So for the next 2 years we played dance music every Wednesday. I still have playlists from this time. It’s interesting to see the music evolve from DFA, blog house era music of 2008 into more house like Derrick Carter, then when I returned from Europe, there is Prins Thomas, Skatebård, and techno from artists of the time like Maya Jane Coles, Marc Romboy. I was young and listening to everything.
It’s got that repetitive dubby thing too, but here it moves into Disco territory, which is not something that I hear much in your music as an artist. What was the evolution like as a producer going from this to the music you would eventually bring out on labels like The Bunker NY and ISNTISNT?
I started making music when I was 16 when I moved to university (2006). It started in Reason and by the end of university I moved to Logic and bought a new computer. I made so many different styles but when I look back really what I was doing was trying to imitate what my favorite sounds at that time were. And what’s the best about music production is it’s very hard to replicate exactly with so many variables, so things always end up going into interesting directions.
Nick Höppner, “A Peck And A Pawn” [Ostgut Ton]
Being a drummer growing up, the syncopation here and the sexy atmosphere pulled me in immediately. Ever since I have been a huge fan of Nick and what he has created. He tells a story and creates a world inside each of his tracks.
I’m not surprised to hear you are a drummer. Drummers always make for the best dance music producers. It must be your sense of rhythm. Besides drumming, what was your music history prior to coming into dance music?
I started playing drums in school when I was 9. This continued until I left for university. I was always in a band. Either jazz, concert, marching. It was an important creative outlet for me.
You’ve made quite an impression since starting to release music in 2016, but I assume it took time to hone your voice as an artist. What was the eureka moment for you when you realized you had found your sound and how would you define that sound today?
I don’t know if I ever had this moment… but it did take many years. Since starting to make music at 18 to moving to Chicago, training my ear and then landing in New York, meeting someone like Mike Servito who saw a talent in me and would listen to what I was making and give feedback and push me. I know when I’m in the studio at home and everything locks together and I’ll jump around and get excited but it really took a mentor like Servito to push me over the edge and get me comfortable sharing my music with labels.
There’s a lot of Acid in your own music, but we don’t have any 303s in this list. What drew you to that element in House music in your own productions?
Really it’s Mike Servito and The Bunker New York. I didn’t really fall in love with this sound until I moved to New York because I wasn’t hearing it out in chicago at that time. The way Servito played it became very influential to me. So at 25 living in brooklyn I would always go see Mike play, we’d see him every weekend. Dance floor lessons.
So far this list has featured only contemporary music. How would this reflect what you might do in the DJ booth?
Yeah well I’m not that old :) But also I’m of the school – If it’s new to me than it’s new and I’m excited about it. That could be an old track or a new track. I try to play a nice combination of new sounds and old.
Murk Pres. Liberty City, “If You Really Love Someone” [Cr2 Records]
Being gay, growing up feeling left out and not fitting in, this was the bassline and anthem that spoke to me when I first heard it in Chicago. To this day I am inspired by the groove and funk of the machines and vocals that worked together to create the energy of this track.
House music has that massive gay legacy behind it that stems from Chicago. Did you feel, even in the city, it was hard to find places to truly be yourself growing up?
Well my time in Chicago was just before the black madonna took over the bookings at smartbar, and Queen! which is now a Sunday gay institution in Chicago run by Derrick Carter and hadn’t yet started, so finding the gay connection to the underground wasn’t so easy as maybe today. However I made my way. I came out to family around this time.
So House music was the gateway and we’ve talked a bit about how it shaped your ear, but how do you think the music and the scene shaped you as a person?
It has shaped me a lot. Incredibly so. I would be very lost if it not were for the guidance of my family I met on the dancefloor in Chicago and New York. These bonds have been very special and impactful on me. My biological family that raised me was supportive but not adventurous with their ideas on art, music, politics, so I can’t imagine where I’d be without the dancefloor.
You talked about energy again, and that’s something that I find in your music too, but it’s something that particularly thrives on the dance floor. How do you tune into that energy when you are sitting at a computer, drum machine or synthesiser to make music?
I think it is something you have to feel. When I make music or listen to music I am constantly imagining a room or dancefloor and the song playing in that room.
This list is music that is designed for the DJ and dance floor, but sometimes you just need a break from the music you work with. What music do you usually turn to when you just want to relax at home?
Honestly Spotify. I spend a lot of time planning what music to play, so when I want to relax I let spotify take over. By now it knows me and the discover weekly is always a nice background mood. And I don’t even have to think about it. The sounds are usually 70-80s disco, rock, italo, laid back and vibey. Up this week is – Orange Juice, Claudia Barry, Tullio De Piscopo, Saada Bonaire, and Wham!