Stranjjur is a label that has featured frequently in many a DJ's charts this year and has been on my radar for a little while. The huge track Technicolour made quite a mark over the summer, and each release seems to feature great, noteworthy music – though a year or so I'd never heard of Stranjjur. So where has the label come from and who's behind it? I investigated and got in touch with label owner, Kev O'Brien, a man with a colourful past, a strong vision of the future and a lot to say for himself. Here's an interview with the man himself...
What's your own personal history...?
I was born in New York and this city runs through my veins, I am in love with every aspect of New York City and feel like a tourist every single time I see that skyline, or go through some of the old areas of Brooklyn. I make it a point to ensure I see that skyline every day, to remind myself of the wonder that surrounds me and how I got to this place to begin with.
I was born with nothing, was in and out of jail from the age of 12 and by all clinical standards I should probably be dead. But I'm not. I'm a believer of the dream, and living proof that it can come true (even though I am far from achieving many of my own, still). I dont give a shit if you've never played a record or shot a photograph - if you want to do something, do it. Period.
Six years ago I was living in Florida, completely lost from music and heavily into a life of crime; lets just put it that way. I eventually hit rock-bottom and was one day away from becoming homeless. I made a split-second decision to move back to where I belong...
Crazy, so when did you opt to start to get involved in the music scene and what was the catalyst behind that move? Was it something you'd always wanted to do?
I went to one rave - back in '96 or so, I was 16. That's all it took. From that point on, I started a website, knowing nothing about HTML or web design, and worked my ass off and somehow made it one of the two biggest sites in Florida. Soon after I began dabbling with vinyl and buying records from Satellite Records online; I started promoting and throwing events.
My friend Chris and I were obsessed with the globetrotting DJ lifestyle and we knew we could get there somehow. Everything I put my all into ended up a big success; but I was a mess and a constant fuck-up and it didn't take long for my demons to overshadow every dream. My only dreams in those years between 21 and 26 were focused on getting high, avoiding jail and a lot of other activities which I shouldnt get into.
Can you recall some of your early influences and artists you admired around those early days?
Dave Seaman, Sasha and Digweed, Josh Wink, Rabbit In The Moon, Kimball Collins, Jimmy Van M - mostly all these guys made their names in the U.S. in Orlando. The rave scene down there was no joke!
Stranjjur was launched originally as a DJ thing, with my good friend Christopher Craig who lives in Florida. He came up with the name actually, & it was based on a quote that Heath Ledger made while playing The Joker in Batman.
"Whatever doesn't kill you, simply makes you Stranjjur"...What was your first real musical vocation/role - in other words, what was your starting point?
My REAL starting point was moving back to New York. I got my act together, and after a year or so, I got the "itch" again for the music. I started doing DJ sets online, promoting on forums. Some of them for 100,000 downloads, but it wasn't doing much for me; I wanted to get into the NYC scene. So I did.
Right, and how long was it between you first tentative steps into the music world and the time when you decided to launch Stranjjur?
Stranjjur was launched originally as a DJ thing, with my good friend Christopher Craig who lives in Florida. He came up with the name actually, and it was based on a quote that Heath Ledger made while playing The Joker in Batman. "Whatever doesn't kill you, simply makes you Stranjjur." That's my life in a nutshell. Shortly after we formed the original idea and name for Stranjjur, however Chris was shot in the head in the city I moved to NewYork from. Thankfully he survived, unlike the dozen or so other friends of mine during those times who haven't lived to see their 30th birthday. I still hope he does what he dreams, he's a fucking survivor, just like me. Anyway, I started thinking of the word stranger and decided that I was going to throw events in NYC, and only book international DJs who had never played here before. It was great for a while. I partnered up with Billy Disciple and together we introduced people like Carlo Lio, Till Von Sein, Spencer Parker, and Milton Jackson to name a few.
From throwing parties and such, why did you decide to start the label?
After I pissed all my money away throwing parties, Billy called it quits and I knew it was time to do something bigger. I was sick of the scene in NYC and all the cocky ass egomaniacal promoters who still pretend we don't exist because maybe my party in 2009 emptied their room once. One night in November 2010 I somehow ended up with some goon from the Greek mafia putting a gun to my head, over 100 bucks we missed the target on at the bar or some bullshit. Having a gun pointed at me for the first time in many years made me realize that was it for me. No more blowing money on parties people won't remember. Time to start making and releasing music, which people WILL remember. I was already producing and my tracks were hitting all the charts, etc... I made a lot of contacts from 2008-2010 and just decided, "Fuck it, why not? I know where I am going and I'm not stopping until I am making my living in the music business and flying all over the world."
And how is the rave scene there now? How does it compare with the old days?
The Rave scene? Hmm, well honestly I can't say really. I do know there is still a mildly thriving "rave" culture here in NYC which tends to still be mostly younger, or older and less wise people who've never been able to move on from that era in time where walking around with an Elmo back-pack and glow-sticks was deemed socially acceptable by most. I can say that in Florida and New York, and the majority of the country as a whole the "rave scene" is officially a thing of the past.
We've moved on to either more grown-up and sophisticated underground events that cater to the same crowd that may have filled those legendary raves and clubs back in the day (Sound Factory, Twilo, etc here in New York and in Florida of course there was Simons in Gainesville; Firestone and Cyberzone in Orlando; Sol Rays in Daytona -- the list goes on and on).
The underground events of today, in both states and I believe the entire U.S. in general still carry that same "peace, love, unity and respect" vibe which we all were raised from within the scene; but most partygoers are now older, wiser, and have been able to and continue to enjoy expanding their musical palate to deeper and more serious genres and artists without destroying their brain cells due to ingesting the terribly shitty and poisonous drugs which unfortunately now have become so carelessly introduced into the scene.
I can only preach to those who have my own level of tenacity and unwillingness to allow life to guide you. Life doesn't guide you. You guide your life, and you guide it in any fucking direction you please; no matter how far-fetched that destination may be...So as dance music grows in the US, in your opinion how is the underground benefitting?
The underground market will always benefit directly from the success of mainstream "EDM" acts, due to the eventual trickle-down effect of consumers and music listeners in general. Any lover of underground music today can likely tell the same story; that they were introduced to electronic music initially by artists such as Paul Van Dyk, or Sasha and Digweed; or even more hardcore or mainstream acts such as The Prodigy or Moby. These trends will only continue as today's teen generation currently loving the inexplicably annoying and blood-curdling noise that is produced by "artists" such as Skrillex; will eventually move into adulthood and past the stage of "youthful rebellion" which enticed most of us to also listen to aggressive and rage-inducing music that our then elders deemed as "nothing but a bunch of noise and racket". These days, however; despite my overall positive and confident stance on the evolution of music and the science behind listeners and their continually growing and maturing musical tastes; I still occasionally find myself sounding like that old fucker across the street; when I was 15 years old; who used to tell me to get off his lawn as I would casually be peeing on his dog, after downing a quart of St Ides at the bus stop; while blasting Dr. Dre or Insane Clown Posse on my boombox.
Did you ever imagine you'd end up where you are now?
I didn't imagine it, I envisioned it and just made it happen. Life's not a bowl of cherries; from the outside things may look great but life's not easy. I've given up my full-time job to pursue this full-on, so there's a lot of pressure on me now.. which was something I feel needed to happen to push me further. I envisioned it; and took the fundamental steps necessary to make it happen -- holding no regard to or allowing the influence or pessimistic thoughts or suggestions of others influence my direction along the way. With success comes years of pain, misery, fallbacks and discouragement --- all of which will stand in your way predominantly in your pursuit of whatever dream it is you may have.
It's these struggles that unfortunately deter 99% of the population from achieving the dream they initially set out to achieve. Eventually with enough persistence, and 100% confidence in knowing that you will NOT fail, no matter how broke you get, no matter how shitty some days may seem... there will come a day where money will practically begin to rain on you from the heavens above; and the years of hard work, determination and an unwillingness to give in to society's disbelief in the pursuit of happiness due to society's overall failures at doing what they deem impossible. This day will come for you and it will be bluntly obvious that every single last hardship you endured was merely a series of slippery stepping stones which you managed to climb despite watching 99% of the people climbing with you fall along the way. That's how I see it at least. The phrase "I can't" simply doesn't fucking exist or have any meaning to me, it's pure bullshit and ANYONE can do ANYTHING they want with their lives.
Was there ever a point where you felt like you might never make it out of the world of crime?
No. I have and always will have this odd, innate feeling that I know for a fact that I am going to be ok. Perhaps this was ingrained in me due to my crazy childhood upbringing. Where I come from; hope is all one can have, and the ability to ignore the negatives and look into the future rather than dwell on whatever bullshit may be going on at the moment... is ultimately what has gotten me to this point. What I once deemed as a handicap, I now see as my ultimate gift
Without being too much of a preacher... How would advise someone in a similar position to maybe break out of that world?
Most never will, to be honest. It's a sad, yet true fact of life. We live in a world where negative energy and influence far outreach and outweigh positive influence or hope. It's sad to say that I can not even count on all my fingers or toes the number of friends from my past who either died, ended up in prison for 20+ years, or ended up spending their lives standing in place, living paycheck to paycheck at some bullshit job that pays minimum wage; while feeling "stuck" as if their feet are glued to the shitty ground in which they stand in life.
I can only preach to those who have my own level of tenacity and unwillingness to allow life to guide you. Life doesn't guide you. You guide your life, and you guide it in any fucking direction you please; no matter how far-fetched that destination may be. Ask anyone who knows me if they believed I'd be touring South Africa in a few years, getting paid to do what I always said I'd do... they'll probably tell you they're not surprised one bit, even if they knew me in my darker years.
The label has quite a disco/pop-ish element to it... similar to Exploited and OFF Recordings... why did you go down this road? Which other labels (house or otherwise) would you cite as key influences or great models?
Stranjjur has no definitive sound. Myself and my trusting label and production partner, Chris Luzz (whom I am thankful for meeting and being able to bring along with me on this journey) have intentionally built a roster of artists that each sound nothing like the other artists on the roster. Sure, at times we may group together our releases to make sure they make an impact on a market that is demanding whatever sound a release may cater to; but we consider ourselves a label which is not and will never be bound to any one style or sound, except for soulful and feel-good music that has a TIMELESS feel.
I never want someone to listen to our releases in five years and be able to pick out the exact time or year it came out solely based on the sound or style in which it's produced. From an A&R standpoint, we are probably one of the only underground labels in the U.S. who operate in the manner we do -- we don't adhere to or follow trends, we do everything in our power to separate ourselves from them and it took us nearly a year to get the world to stop thinking we're one of these fucking Hot Creations knock-off copycat labels; which there are 1,000 of at the moment.
I thank the man in the sky every day that people are now comparing us more to labels such as Diynamic, Off, Exploited, etc -- and that's not saying anything negative toward Jamie and Lee for what they have done which is awe-inspiring to say the least. We just refuse to stand in anyone's shadow or be deemed a follower in any way. We will be the ones to define trends, without sticking to any of them for long enough so as to become predictable. If you don't believe me now, let's talk in a year or two and revisit that topic.
Strangers. We take strangers, and we introduce them to dancefloors full of people. At first those dancefloors were only located in New York. Now we can officially say the we've reached a dancefloor on every corner of the globe. The world is dancing with Stranjjurs...Did you have much difficulty in getting Stranjjur off the ground?
With any new venture comes some trials, tribulations and learning experiences which you may later wish you could take back. I came into running this label without knowing a single thing about the record industry outside of the knowledge I gained as a producer; which only taught me a few things; one of which was the fact that most labels will not, do not, and never will give a shit about paying you for your work, maintaining a relationship with you or helping you build you career; nor answer any emails or messages with regard to any of the topics mentioned.
So yes; it was tough -- especially the hunt for a vinyl manufacturer who was willing to give us a P&D deal and believe in my vision enough to say, "Ok, you know what? lets give this guy a shot"; after nearly three months of hearing, "NO, NOT HAPPENING" from literally every single other reputable distribution company in the industry.
Beyond that; no. Once the firm plan was set to exclusively release and sign EPs solely from new artists who would be dedicated to continuing an ongoing relationship with us; nature has run its natural course and it was a pre-planned strategy to take things slow until summer of this year before we let the heavy artillery onto the battlefield; and that's precisely what we've done. Thank "god" it's been working out thus far; I feel H.O.S.H & HearThuG's "Technicolour" was the defining turning point for us, and knew it would be the moment we landed H.O.S.H. onto the project. Sometimes you just know. This was undoubtedly one of those instances, and that's precisely why he took on the project with a little unknown label and an unknown artists to begin with. He knew, he's a dreamweaver too; as is Solomun. Diynamic is in fact one of the four labels I looked up to and saw business models which made actual sense to me before launching the label; so it's unreal sometimes every time we collaborate with them on something, which seems to be occurring more and more lately.
What's the ethos behind your label?
Strangers. We take strangers, and we introduce them to dancefloors full of people. At first those dancefloors were only located in New York. Now we can officially say the we've reached a dancefloor on every corner of the globe. The world is dancing with Stranjjurs. I like that. Everyone should dance with Stranjjurs, even if its raining - as long as the music is forcing you to move, pay no mind to who produced it, whos playing it, or who you're dancing beside of; we were all stranjjurs to one another at some point; so fuck it - whatever doesn't kill you, simply makes you Stranjjur. Period. We have been showered with luck to find the amazing roster of artists we have right now; such as our core guys like Lula Circus, Havens+Hart, HearThug, Art In Motion; and one of our recent discoveries.. and someone who's going to be exploding onto the scene in 2013.... Gab Rhome. In addition to guys like Thomas Langner, etc... we're very happy with the roster we have and I feel is nearly complete.
So you must have a lot of stuff coming up?
Yeah we have EPs forthcoming including EPs and/or remixes from Pezzner, Inxec, Lula Circus, H.O.S.H., Nhan Solo, Fabo and lots more. I'm also working on an album/compilation called Love Letters To Brooklyn, which I believe is going to be the first compilation of it's kind... but I wont reveal much on that just yet! Also I'll be touring South Africa early December; we've launched our agency and have tours planned for H.O.S.H., Lula Circus and will be doing showcases at WMC, DEMF, and from there..... there's no telling.
New York has a strong history with house music - how much influence has the city and its musical culture (electronic or otherwise) had on you and your label?
Let me make it VERY clear. New York's house and techno scene has ZERO influence on Stranjjur, in fact I personally would like to say “FUCK YOU” to the promoters in this city who have ignored us or written us off as something not worthy of their time or energy; really just the specific people who have jerked us around as if we're here to play games or something.
Those people know who they are. I am not saying that to everyone; I have mad respect for pioneers such as Blk Market, Resolute, Time to Get Ill, Mr Sat Night and of course Bespoke who are now doing events with us pretty much exclusively.
The words 'fuck you' may sound harsh, but they're merely directed toward the ones who are reading this and rolling their eyes, as they do with everything else that threatens their little party-politic-infested existences.
The people who've supported us, the partygoers, etc.. that's who Stranjjur loves and respects. I also have much love for those who said I was crazy for trying to focus on new artists instead of booking the same DJs over and over again like many others do.
Is there anything that's particularly "New York" about Stranjjur? If so, what is it?
New York itself; the city, the people, the cultural diversity and dreams in which this city is built upon.... ARE what define Stranjjur, as well an Chris and I's production/DJ partnership, Manhattan Projject. Each and every day, thousands of Stranjjurs move to this amazing city with one common goal in mind: to make something happen with their lives; to change and grow outwardly amongst the other 12 million of us who were once Stranjjurs to this amazing place I thank the universe for allowing me to exist within every single day.
I never leave home without making sure I bring my field recorder, camera, etc with me; because this is the most unique and inspiring stretch of 25 miles that exists on this planet, period. As I mentioned previously, I am basically a kid in a candystore every single day when I pass by on the Brooklyn–Queens Expressway and see that skyline; and see those bridges. If it weren't for NYC, there would be no Stranjjur to speak of, and that's a fact.