When a country’s electronic music scene punches as heavily as Canada’s, there is always a weight of expectation on artists emerging from its ranks. Fortunately, Justin James’ talent, energy and ambition have allowed him to climb the heights of his illustrious countrymen. Justin hails from Windsor, Ontario the same city as his label boss and techno icon Richie Hawtin. With Richie, Dubfire and many others as close, guiding influences, James has used this ammunition to fire his way to international recognition.
Being just across the river from the revered school of Detroit producers has not left James unmoved. The powerful emotions deep within the seminal tracks that emanate from across the border resound heavily in him. Being touched by this rich history has deeply influence James’ music production, sharing his own vision of techno with other like-minded souls. A slew of creativity is already available, through releases quickly signed to powerhouse international labels such as Richie Hawtin’s ‘Minus’ and Dubfire’s ‘Sci+Tec.’ James has not rested on his laurels, instead he has taken his vision to the next level by curating his own imprint – refused. A record label which will showcase forward thinking techno from himself, established artists and up-and-coming talent from around the globe.
“If you believe in what you’re doing, keep going.” said Justin James, when Canadian writer Mandy Daniels spent some quality time at the BPM Festival catching up with the talented producer, DJ and refused. label boss. Their conversation touched on his creative process, synchronicities along his career path, his advice for success in the industry, as well as a welcome techno history lesson. His recently released EP, featuring five captivating remixes of his own originial techno bomb, Space Sleaze, accompanies a slew of consistent, quality releases from the label. We look forward to seeing what’s next for this industry veteran, and were happy to have had the chance to sit with him in Playa Del Carmen to talk techno.
Welcome and thank you for taking the time to talk with us here today at Decoded Magazine.
I just wanted to start with your approach to production, and being creative as a producer. Can you tell us a bit about your creative process?
It’s kinda neat because when I first started, or before I even started making music a long time ago, I thought artists were artists and they were born artists. I thought an artist was only someone who could draw a picture and make that picture look identical to the thing they’re drawing, you know? As I got older, I always felt I had an artist in me, I didn’t know what it was or how it was and I always loved music.
Then I started DJing and I started realizing that, especially in electronic music, or in house and techno, that it’s normal people that make music. It’s not like these ‘out-there’ artists like a Van Gogh or a Degas or a whatever. I realized that being an artist is just exploring. I think another part is, especially with the music that we do, it’s kind of adhering to a genre, so there are specific generic expectations that come along with four on the floor dance music, whether it’s house or techno. From there you kind of understand the genre and then you get to be creative with it.
And for me, I’m far from a classically trained musician, but I love to explore and I love to experiment and I love to make noises and bang keys and turn knobs and see what comes out. That to me is the creative process. The creative process is two-tiered: one is knowing the generic expectations, knowing what has to be there to follow in the genre of house music or techno, and then it’s the creativity from there and the exploration from there.
What kind of influence has Richie Hawtin been for you?
A lot of the people, or some of the people who know me now, know me because of Rich and I’m forever grateful for that. But before he was kind of a personal influence and a personal kind of guiding force, he was this mystical genius from Windsor, from my town. So when I started studying and really getting into electronic music, and before I knew Rich personally, he was a huge mentor without him knowing it.
Just by watching him do what he does now, watching how he runs businesses and how he does all the other things that come with this music, handling himself and handling others; so he’s been huge for me. I’ve had a lot of serendipitous moments in my life, but a couple that really shine or stand out in electronic music were just running into a couple of people, again those average people, those people that you wouldn’t think were these techno superstars, but meeting them when they’re on the cusp of breaking with Minus.
What do you feel is important when you prepare for a gig and how do you prepare?
I always feel when I do prepare, I have a lot more fun then when I don’t prepare. And I don’t overly prepare. Like tonight I’m only playing an hour, so if I get, you know, twenty-five tracks together that I want to play and work from there. I find when I travel I have more time to prepare because I’m on a plane or a train or have time in my hotel room.
It’s funny, when I play more locally and I have my friends around with me and they want to drink beforehand then it gets kind of tricky and I don’t get as prepared. Usually if I’m playing relatively locally we’ll drive and go for dinner, go for drinks and I don’t really have time to prepare and then I feel like I’m kind of chasing my own tail or something like that, trying to figure it out.
But yeah, I’ve seen guys who literally do a track list of every track they’re going to play, laminate it and put it in the DJ booth and just go boom boom boom boom boom through them just like that, which is a little bit too over the top, but I think preparing is good.
What do you think makes a great DJ?
It’s anybody who makes the people move. I think the biggest thing is understanding the crowd, but at the same time being true to yourself. Playing tracks that you’re playing because you love them but they’re also ones that the people are going to dig. If you go too far away from yourself I don’t think that’s you as a DJ anymore. I think as a DJ, that’s your signature, it’s your recipe, it’s your curation you know? And if you sway from that to please other people, then either you weren’t in the right room or they weren’t in the right room or something like that. I think it’s a passion and I think that passion shines through.
Tell us about refused. – your record label. What was its vision and how has it changed in development and direction?
refused. happened just at a time when I realized that I needed to take that next step. Like talking about Rich as an influence, you know? Him starting Plus 8, Minus and his multiple other labels that were around way back in the day, Probe and Definitive and all these other ones. I just felt that was the next step for me.
I’ve released just twice on it so far, but I think it’s important to have a vehicle or an output for my friends, my music and some young up and coming artists. It’s been good and I love it. I have an amazing label manager, and I have an amazing PR staff, I have an amazing media guy actually out of Mexico and it’s been good. It’s been good to grow. And it’s neat to have something I can call my own that way, other than just my music. Yeah, it’s fun!
What’s your favourite part about being a part of the music industry?
Sharing what I love. And that’s always been kind of what I’ve done with music – sharing the music I love. And meeting people I think too. I love meeting people. But before I was a DJ per se, or a music producer, I was a jock – I played basketball.
When I played I took the liberty of making our warm-up tapes because I wanted my friends to warm up to the hip hop that I thought was cool, you know? And to also have other teams who were listening to our music say, well those aren’t the ones that you hear on the radio or whatever.
So, exposing people to new music, just like my parents did to me, in a much different sense. Their love was like, Bruce Springsteen and John Mellencamp and Rod Stewart, who aren’t necessarily my cream of the crop, but I learned a lot from how my mom kind of moved around the house on a Saturday morning cleaning the house and listening to Rod Stewart and how happy she was doing it. And just equating music to being the driving force.
Can you talk us through what inspires you outside of music?
People, I would say. I love kids too. I’m fortunate to also, I guess not moonlight because it’s my grown-up job, but work as a school teacher. So, just motivating kids and inspiring them.
How important do you think, is knowing the history of house and techno to up and coming producers and DJs?
For most, I don’t think it is that important, you know? For me, it is. And that’s kind of, the way I got into it actually. I kinda got into this stuff a little bit late. I got interested in it in my last year of high school, first year university or whatever. But I didn’t know anybody who was really into it. I had a friend that I’d go to these parties with every once and awhile, not even knowing who the DJs were. We heard there’d be a cool rave or something and we went. And then I got into it a little bit more and ended up doing a documentary on it.
When I was in university I studied film and video and I did a documentary on Detroit techno, a poor one at that. It’s not going to win any awards or anything, but it was cool because I really got to dig into the history of the Detroit side of things. The first, second, and third generations of Detroit techno, and that was huge for me. That’s when I really started falling in love with it and understanding more and more about everything. It’s very important for me, to go back even further to Kraftwerk and Parliament Funkadelic and even Prince.
Prince had a large impact in Detroit. There was a DJ out of Detroit named The Electrifying Mojo, a radio DJ, who would play. And this is like, to understand the history, I didn’t experience this history because I didn’t turn to that radio station, but in hindsight I’m a huge Parliament Funkadelic fan, I’m a huge huge Prince fan, I’m a big Kraftwerk fan and what Mojo would do is he would play, he had a radio show that was mostly listened to by black Detroiters, but he would play Prince next to Kraftwerk next to Parliament Funkadelic next to Tangerine Dream.
So, you’re getting these really weird European pop, like electronic pop bands next to American soul bands. Derrick May says that Detroit techno is Kraftwerk and Parliament Funkadelic stuck in an elevator together. So I think it’s important, you know. But a lot of my DJ friends have gotten into it through trance or progressive house, you know but I just got into it in a different way.
What piece of advice would you give to people who want to be successful in this industry?
Work. Work and meet people. And just don’t be afraid to show what you have. And don’t be afraid to be turned down. Actually, today I ran into the first guy who signed my first record, a little while ago, a Toronto-based label. I think it was after him I think I sent a few out to a couple other people I looked up to, Toronto-based, and I got turned down. I kind of took offense to it at first and then I realized that you can’t.
If you believe in what you’re doing, keep going. It’s not a two year or one year or a two-month process. You’ve got to do it because you love it and if something great happens from it then that’s a bonus, I think. I think most artists should think that way – they can’t do things just to think that they’re going to become millionaires and tour the world and whatever, they have to do it because it’s art and they love their art and love creating, and then take it from there.
And if you could collaborate with anybody, who would you want to collaborate with?
One person I’d really like to work with, because he’s the guy that got me into it a long time ago, and he’s a good friend of mine, is John Acquaviva. He started Plus 8 with Rich a long time ago. I’d love to just do something with him, I feel that would be semi-full circle if that even makes sense? Just to be able to do something with him artistically would be cool.
Its been great to chat Justin, so what’s next for you in 2016?
Some records, some originals, some remixes. Busy with refused. and touring a bunch so yeah…