Lead photo by Steve Hanson, all other photos courtesy of artist.
Justin Cudmore speaks softly. It's takes me by surprise at first, if only because the Brooklyn-based DJ and producer's work—or what little of it has made it out it to the world so far—is primarily united by a sort of retro-tinged electricity. His 2016 debut record "Crystal," released last year on Honey Soundsystem, barrels through squirmy 303 lines like an unhinged Acela train. And that aggressive streak doesn't seem to be stopping anytime soon either. Later this month, he'll release EP called Forget It for New York's underground techno mainstay The Bunker, and on it he's stuffed four relentless tracks of spiraling vocal snippets, vacuum-sealed drums, and crimped acid earworms.
But sitting in a charming coffee shop a short stroll from his Bushwick apartment on a cool January morning, he chooses his words strategically. He says that despite his smart-mouthed, acidic tracks, he's always felt more like the "quiet kid in the corner," an observer—more party student than party starter. He sips a bottle of Mexican Coke, and explains that his path to the stereotypically party-ready realms of the New York house and techno scene was born from something a little more thoughtful—the endpoint of a humble, patient search for community, acceptance, and self-confidence.
Stream "Forget It" exclusively above, courtesy of The Bunker New York.
Growing up Springfield, Illinois, a three-hour drive from Chicago, Cudmore gravitated more towards unusual music as a kid, listening to the weirdest cassettes and CDs he could find in his parent's house. "I was always just a weird kid," he admits. "Grasping for whatever caught my ear; disco, stuff with beats, loops." He was a drummer when he was younger, playing in marching band and jazz bands at school, before he started experimenting with laptop production, making what he describes as rudimentary filter house, none of which he ever officially put out into the world.
He eventually moved an hour and a half northeast to Champaign to attend college at the University of Illinois, where his burgeoning interest in electronic music would really blossom. It was the heydey of the blog house movement then, so Cudmore and his friends spent their nights dancing to the day glo strains of that microgenre, and eventually friendships with seasoned ravers helped school him and his peers about turntable culture and vinyl. Soon after they started throwing their own parties at a local bar.
Around the same time, Cudmore and his pals were making frequent trips to Chicago, where they fell in love with the internationally regarded house music haven Smart Bar. It was here he met Steve Mizek, who helps run local Chicago labels Argot and Tasteful Nudes labels, and is revered for founding influential 2000s dance blog, Little White Earbuds, where Cudmore eventually joined the team to help out with ad sales and periodically lent his talents to mixing their monthly podcast series.
In a city beaming with dance music history and open-minded personalities, Cudmore came into his own, finding a comforting embrace in the creative underground. "I guess when I found my community, I didn't even realize how special it was," Cudmore says about his early days going to Smart Bar's weekly queer party Dollar Disco—now known as Queen!—which is still DJ'd weekly by Gramaphone head Michael Serafini, as well as other core members of the Chicago house scene like Derrick Carter and Garrett David.
In college, he'd had struggles dealing with his sexuality and he had a hard time coming out to his parents, but he found solace at the club with a contingent of gay, lesbian, and trans people. It was the first time he felt comfortable dancing with another man in public. "Finding that space in Chicago that let me feel comfortable was, thinking back, invaluable and very cool," he says. "Just being there with that kind of music always struck me as super special. That's so important, now more than ever."
While the comforting grasp of Chicago was pivotal to Cudmore's progression, in 2013 he'd pack up his bags and move to New York with his boyfriend Jordan, who accepted a job in the city. Like many, the first few months of adapting to the the unforgiving grit of New York wasn't easy. "I remember when I got to the city I wasn't feeling it," he says. "After six months I wanted to leave."
But soon, luckily, he'd form a kinship with a couple luminaries of the Brooklyn house and techno underground—most notably, Detroit natives Bryan Kasenic (of the Bunker) and Mike Servito, who would eventually become an important mentor and friend.
"There was a point when I started playing music for [Mike] that I was making and [I] played with him once at [Bushwick nightclub] Bossa Nova [Civic Club]," Cudmore remembers. "Slowly and organically it turned into an already great friendship into one that had a music component to it." Eventually they'd bring in local producer and DJ Gunnar Haslam, who had worked with Cudmore at Little White Earbuds, into their close circle of friends. The guys continued to go to Bunker parties together, and later, they'd lay the groundwork for Cudmore's debut record.
"I got goosebumps the first time I heard the track," Servito tells me over email. "I think he's that rare breed of DJ/producer that can excel at both. I believed in "Crystal"; I believed in Justin. I know it's been a labor of love for him for a good decade-plus, so to see him gain this momentum is exciting. It's so easy to be labeled a an overnight success, but he's been doing this half his life."
After playing out the tracks at a few Bunker parties to positive reception, Servito offered the idea of creating a remix for the record's main track—his own first official foray into production. "[Mike] doesn't know what all the techniques are in the studio," says Cudmore. "But he knows what he wants to hear and what should happen," he continues. "He has an amazing ear and I trust it." After finishing the remix, and eventually inviting Gunnar Haslam to lay down a third mix of the track, Servito helped get the record into the hands of San Francisco's Honey Soundsystem. Because of Cudmore's infectious original, and flips from his two pals, the EP turned out to be one the biggest dancefloor records of 2016, making top tracks of the year lists for this very publication and Resident Advisor.
The release also swiftly sold out its initial pressing and will currently run you up to $71 on Discogs—a rarity for a new release by a relatively unknown artist. All in all, the record helped put Cudmore on the map. Following the drop, the trio of Cudmore, Servito, and Haslam began playing collaborative all-night sets together under the guise of HOT MIX on dancefloors ranging from Brooklyn nightclubs to neighboring festivals like Sustain-Release.
Cudmore already has big plans for 2017. On February 10, he'll release his highly anticipated follow up record Forget It on the Bunker, and he's also plotting a spring release on Detroit's famed Interdimensional Transmissions. Like "Crystal" did last year, the Bunker record been quietly tearing up Brooklyn dancefloors as a mysterious white label. Centered around an equally cheeky vocal sample and snaky acid line, the title track surely will evoke similar sensory responses to his previous release. "All these tracks were kind of made in the same year time span," he said. "They're very much a reflection of those three years partying in NYC, seeing Mike all the time, and all the artists that get presented at the Bunker. Also always going to Detroit for Movement, parties like No Way Back, 1515 Broadway, Old Miami. That's how I learn about stuff, going back, listening."
But even as he preps a few more incendiary tracks for release Cudmore's mostly keeping his head down. He's balancing his DJ schedule with odd jobs that have recently included production assistant gigs and driving around models in a van—which he cheekily describes as the "Bushwick hustle." For a young artist who clearly knows his way around crafting bangers, Cudmore's patience and humility feels unique—he even says repeatedly he isn't in a rush to transition to a career DJing and producing as a full-time thing, and will likely still be looking for day jobs.
Instead, he's seemed more invested in continuing his tutelage in the scene, soaking up knowledge and experiences by those around him who had been doing it for longer. He also seemed fine just simply enjoying the friendship and support from those he's grown close to. "Even since having difficulties coming out, my parents don't really understand my life and my world," he tells me. "It used to bother me, but I have my own family and support system now."