Just/Talk: Justin Strauss with Swiss DJ Duo In Flagranti On Being Beginners After 22 Years In Music 

In Flagranti, the musical duo comprised of Sasa Crnobrnja and Alex Gloor, make the kind of music that tugs on the thread of mother universe’s music. They draw inspiration, visuals and sound from everywhere, playing and piecing from both rare and common sources to create singular, distinct compositions that defies categorization. For this edition of Just/Talk, resident DJ and longtime Ace friend Justin Strauss joins Sasa and Alex in Switzerland to talk about VHS tapes, starting a record label at a flea market and how beginners can be choosers. 

Justin Strauss:I’m sitting with In Flagranti, here in their original hometown of Basel, Switzerland. When I first started seeing and then hearing your records in stores back home, I thought you must have come from New York. First, it was the artwork on the record covers that made me want to buy them — I didn’t know anything about you two or what the music would be like. It seems like everything you were doing was inspired by New York at a certain period of time.

Alex Gloor:
I moved to New York in 1984 on May 6th. I was lucky enough to meet the right people. It was a lucky break. One of the first people I met was Keith Haring. Right before May 16, the first Party Of Life, he gave me an invite. So after being in New York for a week, I went to that party. Anybody and everybody was there. It was at the Paradise Garage. I stood next to Jeff Beck and Diana Ross and, coming from Switzerland, it just blew my mind. The DJ was great, which was Larry Levan. Dead or Alive was there, I mean everyone. Warhol was there. It was a good starting point. Then I got involved in trying to get jobs. Ten years later I met Sasa.

JS: So you guys didn’t know each other from Basel?

AG:
No. I went back to Basel after experiencing New York DJs, like Mark Kamins, who was a big influence on me because I liked his eclectic DJ style. There was also Afrika Islam, who had parties at the Latin Quarter. Then there was The Roxy, Danceteria and Area of course. So I met a lot of DJs. I wanted to learn; my knowledge of music was limited, because I was coming from Switzerland.

In 1988, somebody gave me two cosmic mix tapes from Italy and DJ Daniele Baldelli. I really liked the music, because it reflected the music my parents would play to me when I was like three years old. The album was called Folk Music of the Mediterranean with recordings from Tunisia, Morocco, Spain, Italy and many others. I just enjoyed this music, which was different from what we heard back in the 60s. When I heard the Baldelli tapes, it really opened my ears, because he went all the way. Hip-hop DJs had a certain breakbeat thing, but those cosmic mix tapes really opened my mind and ears to what was possible.

JS:At that time were you already involved with doing graphics, art and visual art?

AG:
Yes, my first job was at a club called The World in the East Village on Avenue C and 2nd Street doing flyers and posters for Arthur Weinstein. Arthur was nice to me, and he looked at me and said, “Okay, you want to do poster and flyers? Okay, do it.” So I did posters and flyers for Robert Gordon, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy and many other acts.

JS: This is in the 80s, New York, you’re involved in what everybody now considers the cultural shift in music and art. Everything was happening. So how did you meet Sasa?

AG:
In 1990, I went to Basel for a visit. I went to a local record store and I said, “Listen, who knows this cosmic music, I can’t get it in New York.” So he said, “Well, there’s a collector, and his name is Sasa, and he has a lot because he’s a real fanatic about it.” Five minutes later, Sasa walks in and we became friends. He invited me to his apartment and let me listen to all his records. I put on a cassette to just document myself listening to all this music, which I still have.

JS: Sasa, had you been to New York already at this point?

Sasa Crnobrnja:
No, I never even thought of New York at the time. My musical experience took a totally different route from Alex’s, which then came together when we met in the shop..

JS: What were your influences?

SC:
Well, here in Switzerland, when I first started DJing, it was the guy — I don’t remember his name — but he was a Rajneesh follower. They were kind of known for having good clubs in Europe. Even in Switzerland, they had a place run by them. But there was this one DJ who played at the club here, which was sort of a post-disco time when discotheques were not cool anymore…like the classic disco with the lighting. So this was the alternative, like you walked in and it’s like a dentist’s office, all white, white tiles, no colored lights. He was playing all this sort of post-punk/new wave.

JS: It was kind of your Mudd Club.

SC:
Yes, from what I’ve seen, what was going on, and the stuff that you were playing, it was the same style. Around 82, and then in 83, I got a gig there at the club. That was my first DJ residency. Yeah, that’s where I saw Liquid Liquid the first time, all these bands like Wall of Voodoo.

JS: So that opened your ears to the New York sound of the early 80s?

SC:
I wasn’t aware that this was even a New York thing. You know, it was just the music of the time. It was new.

AG:
Sasa had a band very early on, so he was a musician. I was never a musician, so that was something interesting.

SC:
I would say my very first DJ gig was actually when I was about 11 years old, like we had a birthday party, or a going away party in my school. I was responsible for the music, because no one else would. The kids were not into music. I was already collecting tapes. To me, that’s how it actually started — me trying to tell kids, “Hey, check out this new music.” That was the DJ part that started then. The first time I walked into a club and I saw the guy playing records where I was going to school, the town next to Basel, and I saw him and I was like, “Oh, yeah, I can do that.”

JS: You guys clicked right away and knew that you wanted to work together and do something?

AG: 
He took me to his house and I saw a sewing machine and records, so I’m asking him, “What are you doing for a living?” He’s like, “I’m a tailor.” I’m like, “What kind of tailor?” He’s like, “I can make men’s suits. I’m a men’s tailor.” I’m like, “Hey, why don’t you come to New York, and we can make clothing.” Because the whole schmatte (clothing business) trade was in NYC. He said, “Really?” he was surprised. I’m like, “Yeah, just come for a month.” So he came in 1992, I believe. I schlepped him around NYC to all the Hasidic Jews selling zippers and buttons.

It was like a candy store for Sasa, because there was so many stores selling things he could not get back in Switzerland. Then I went to Alex Kaplan, who owned Eightball Records — I designed the original Eightball logo a few years earlier — and I said, “I have a young man here, and he’s a tailor, and why don’t we make a line of streetwear for Eightball Records?” Alex said, “Sure, do it.” We went from zero to a full streetwear collection, did a casting and a fashion show at Webster Hall in four weeks!

SC: 
Yeah, Webster Hall had just opened.

AG:
Sasa realized in New York you can kick ass and get something off the ground in no time. That changed his life, I believe, because he was not used to that.

JS: Did you fall in love with New York at that moment?

SC:
Yeah. Oh, yeah, totally. But I fell in love with the New York that was then, which has disappeared now, unfortunately. It was that part, but also because all the clubs were so good, music was good, when I moved there I did not think of being a DJ or anything. I wanted to make clothes, and that’s what I did. But Alex said, “Why don’t you just bring a case of records? You never know.” So I did bring one case of records with me.

“We kept this concept: whatever cash comes in goes right back into the next record. That’s why we stayed independent for over 20 years.”

JS: And?

SC:
Then at some point I needed some money, money was running out, and then this guy hired me to DJ at Sapphire on the Lower East Side, which still exists, but at the time it was a cool spot. I got a job there, on Monday night I could DJ for a hundred bucks.

JS: Were you DJing as well, Alex?

SC:
Well, when I arrived he was doing the Electric Lounge Machine.

AG:
Oh, the Electric Lounge Machine in the Meatpacking District with John Hall and Adam Goldstone.

JS: When did you decide to start the record label Codek?

AG:
In 1996, we were doing the flea market in the church yard on Avenue A and 11th Street. We’re sitting there and we’re selling books and records and just hanging out having a great time. Then, I turn around to him and I’m like, “Hey, Sasa, we should do a record label.” He’s like, “How do you do that?” I’m like, “I don’t know, let’s just order records and sell them.” I assumed that’s the start of a record label. He’s like, “Okay.”
I’m like, “Can you get music?” He’s like, “Yeah, I have this friend named Zeb and he can give us tracks.” Then we hustled money, $1,500 to press a record. Went to Brooklyn to the Jamaicans to print a cover.

It took us four years to sell those 500 records because it didn’t make any sense to anybody, because it was cosmic music. It was downtempo. But we still managed to sell these. With the money we made from that first release we could finesse the next release. We kept this concept: whatever cash comes in goes right back into the next record. That’s why we stayed independent for over 20 years.

JS: And was the first Codek release Zeb?

AG: 
Zeb — Magic Carpets. It was just a start. Then we didn’t even know how to sell it, so we went to stores and hustled.

SC:
People really didn’t know what to do with this music. Now everyone’s aware of this cosmic scene and whatever, eclectic music, but at the time…even the parties with it, the Organic Grooves Party I did…for a lot of people, it was a weird concept. And people didn’t know how to book — is it a band? Is it a party? What is it?

JS:It’s also pre-Internet.

SC:
Pre-Internet, and it was kind of stuck a bit. You had house music and you had hip-hop. That was pretty much it. Everything else that was a bit different came from the UK. If you went to Dance Tracks record store, it was like this one little wall with the imports.

JS: So Sasa, you started your party Organic Grooves and Alex you started producing a series of cassette tapes. Tell us about those.

AG: 
The SMYLONYLON tapes. I emancipated myself from the other DJs. I found a niche that nobody else was doing. I could go to all five boroughs, to thrift shops and buy fifty cent records with Schlager records, easy listening and Moog records or whatever I would just buy anything that looked interesting. I was already DJing for 10 years, so I had the skills to select tracks from all these weird records and put them into 90-minute mix tapes which I learned from Baldelli. Mix as many music genres together as possible and make it work.

I could create a product at home. I had a tape duplicator. It took three minutes to copy from a master tape a 90-minute copy, and use my first computer to make labels and do a nice package. Now the big difference between these tapes and every other DJ tape on sale was I put a track list inside, because I wanted to change people’s way of music tastes. That was very important. A lot of people got influenced by these mixtapes and lists because the music on these tapes were so different.

JS: Where were they sold?

AG:
They were sold in a shop called Smylonylon in Soho. They changed the name a few times, but we sold from 1994 until 1999. That was on Lafayette Street. They played those tapes every day for eight hours seven days a week, so people came in, and they just were blown away. The first ones to pick up on it was the fashion industry. I got booked to DJ at New York Fashion Week, then Hollywood picked up and on the Austin Powers soundtracks, a few of my picks including the main theme came from these tapes because they could see the artist and track name.

2manydjs (also known as Soulwax) from Brussels were influenced by these tapes. All of a sudden it clicked. Like, okay we can play anything and make a set. We’re not stuck in a category. Andy Butler from Hercules and Love Affair walked in and was overwhelmed, bought a tape, went home and played it to his friends. They all said, “Turn it off, this is terrible.“ But he got it. It had a big impact on a certain crowd that were ready for something new. Sasa was doing Organic Grooves and I did my Smylonylon thing. After six years, we decided let’s do something together.

SC:
Well no, it didn’t happen like that. The real story started with the band Crossover.

AG:
Oh, yes. I decided to put a band together. The idea was to create a band and use all these cosmic tracks as inspiration and record new music.

“They just knew that we’re different. If they want to get inspired, they listen to our shit, and they would be like, ‘What is this?'”

SC:
Alex came to me with this Crossover idea, it was a couple that worked at Smylonylon and he asked me if I wanted to work on it. So we did, released a CD album, but sadly it all fell apart and they went to Gigolo Records without giving us credit for producing the album.

JS: Welcome to the music business.

SC:
But that was a good lesson and reason to do something ourselves without other people. Let’s help each other and we’re the artists, hence, In Flagranti was born.

JS: When I first heard your stuff it seemed to me like a collage — musically and visually.

AG:
I did a tape for another DJ with samples. The DJ didn’t get it. It was a DAT tape, and Sasa listened to it a year later. He’s like, “This is good stuff.” It was all from weird disco records, breaks and sounds. Then he did a few tracks using the samples. That was, for me, the beginning of In Flagranti.

SC:
“Just Gazing” was the first track where we realized that’s how we can work. We don’t have to be together in the studio. “Alex, just send me files with samples.”

AG: 
Samples! I go digging. I make sound files with samples, and Sasa could do whenever he felt like with it, combine them into tracks. The next step was the visualization of these tracks, which was always important to us because our ideal or our heroes was Rough Trade Records in the early 80s. That was the coolest label. We wanted to be like a Rough Trade label that had like fantastic covers. Which made the big difference to us. It was punk and post-punk. They had a lot of great covers.

So I had to find a way to find a visual language for our music. It took me a few years until I had the right combination of what imagery actually worked for us and set us apart from other labels. I worked at Eightball for years and I’ve designed lots of covers for them, but there was always a limitation of what you could do. Now I had absolute freedom, because it was my label.

JS: That whole kind of scene that was bubbling under around that time. I was getting bored of the generic club music I was hearing, and started hearing your records, other labels and of course DFA Records from New York.

SC:
Yeah, it all sort of happened in the same year. There was something in the air. You could feel it. But also it was after 9/11. I think that definitely there was a big shift. Where before we still had this sort of Giuliani-era. After, suddenly you had all these people wanting to party again. You had places like The Hole and Lit… people going crazy and having fun.

JS: The city was coming out of a really dark time.

SC:
Also there’s suddenly music coming out of New York. I remember that’s one thing in the 90s, which was in New York, there was no sound. There was house music. By 94, I was not interested in any of that. It was the same, everywhere you went, it was the same sound. Then suddenly, after 9/11, you had all these labels like DFA. Suddenly, people were looking to New York again for music.

JS: And you based yourselves in New York at that point?

AG:
In Flagranti started after 9/11. I moved back to Europe. We had a six-hour time zone difference, which is important, because he woke up six hours later. I could work on the files and send them to him, so he woke up to new music and sound files every day. We just kept going back and forth, not talking, just emailing until today, that works best for us.

SC:
And the internet, there were so many things that came together in that time, like 2003. It was the Internet. You could suddenly send files files back and forth, which before you couldn’t. It changed everything. Then the video clips, like that’s another thing which I feel like no one was doing before. I remember the guy at our label’s distributor was like, “Oh, can you guys put up some music on the website, so we can promote it somehow?” I told Alex and then he did the little video clip, which was even better. You know?

JS: So you would take found source material to make the video clips?

AG:
I’d go to thrift shops and I’d buy old VHS tapes, and I’d look for what I called beauty shots, which means footage of locations and actors not talking and use them to make videos for our tracks. We were fine-tuning our style. Musically it clicked with one track called “Business Acumen,” 2manydjs would play it at every gig worldwide. That gave us another push. This made us “the DJ’s DJ” so to say.

JS: You were a source of inspiration for many DJs.

AG:
They just knew that we’re different. If they want to get inspired, they listen to our shit, and they would be like, “What is this?”

JS: You guys started DJing all over the world.

AG:
We got a great booking agent, and that helped us to get gigs all over the world and we got a great deal with Discograph, a French distributor, that put out a record every month with the great covers worldwide — my brash and vulgar covers were everywhere, and people noticed us.

JS: Plus you did your own edits of songs before a lot of people were doing that.

AG:
Yes, it’s an interesting story. When I moved back to Switzerland in 2002 they legalized the sale of pot in Basel for a year. I didn’t really smoke pot before. All my friends would come to town and just buy bags of pot and leave the next day, because they couldn’t take it back. So I started smoking pot. Then I realized that the effect is, “I hear music differently on weed. I started doing edits in a program called Peak. It was the best program ever for me, because it was so simple. It’s cut and paste. I developed my own style.

I remember playing Sasa an edit in the car — we had a gig in Bern, Switzerland — an edit of Chic’s “Dance, Dance, Dance.” It was a great track, except the “Yowsah, Yowsah” part just sucks. I cut that out and put the leftovers together. He instantly was like, “This is great.” I spent every night, six hours, making edits of all my records, sent it to him via email. He had a party in New York called “Aged & Unplayable” at Lit. He would show up every week with a new set of edits that the other DJs didn’t have. Nobody had those.

SC:
That was at Nublu when there was a moment where literally I would play new stuff every week that no one had.

JS: Then you started releasing them.

AG:
It was teamwork. I wasn’t in New York. I was living here in Basel. I just fed him with material.

JS: Now the label has changed again and now you’re releasing —

SC:
Well it’s a different time. It’s 22 years later now.

JS: You more recently had a release with Jonny Sender, who was in the legendary New York band Konk. You have a new release from Takuya Nakamura, who you used to work wit back in the day. There’s been a few others.

SC:
It’s like friends. You know? People send us tracks sometimes… That’s not what we’re doing unless there’s some backstory that we connect with, like Jonny is a friend, but also he played bass in Konk.

JS: Now it’s so much easier to get your music out. You don’t have to press a record. You’re not bound by release schedules and labels if you don’t want to be.

AG:
Thanks to Bandcamp, which changed everything. We always wanted an online shop. It was too complicated. Now we can release a whole album with 40 songs digitally and do the promotion. People download. We get paid.

JS: How do you feel about all of that compared to pressing up vinyl, doing those covers and artwork?

SC:
It’s a different world. It’s still the most exciting though. When I go to a shop like Love Vinyl in London and bring them new records, and they have a listen, I can hear when they are excited about it and we can talk about music. It’s physical. It’s still the best.

AG:
It’s nice. It excites me too.

JS: So now you still DJ. Do you still produce the process of getting music? Everyone seems to have access to everything.

SC:
That’s the thing. We had our little thing, but now everyone can do it too, so we’re no longer special because everyone can do it. For example, even with the footage, in the beginning people really didn’t know. Like they just didn’t know where this is coming from. Now you can find it. It’s online, you can go to YouTube or — even music, if you think about how long it took to find certain records you liked from these cosmic tapes, sometimes it takes years until you find it. Now it’s like you just go on Discogs and it’s there.

JS: If you have the money and you want to spend it, you can find it.

SC:
You don’t even have to buy it, but you know what it is. You can find it. It’s on YouTube.

JS: How do you stay special in 2018 and coming into 2019?

SC:
Maybe not try to be special at all, just do what we do. Let people discover it again. You know? That’s what I like. When you have someone like Gilles Peterson walking into Love Vinyl discovering something we put out. I didn’t tell him about it. I didn’t send him a promo. He just walks into the shop and hears it — you just keep doing your thing and let people discover what you do. The thing is, there comes a moment when you think do we go big? Which means okay, now we need a PR company. We need this. We need that. You have to invest.

Or, you can go back a few steps and keep doing it this way. Eventually, I think, you’ll hit again a moment where people may be into what you’re doing. Also, give yourself time to maybe change or grow.

“We still try to be beginners after 22 years and try new things.” — Alex Gloor

JS: I did an interview and Ace Hotel pulled a quote where I said, “You stay true to who you are and every couple of years the world catches up with you.” I believe in that.

SC:
No, that’s true. I totally feel that.

JS: Tell us about your new concept and label Hotfoot.

AG:
I was thinking of what can we do after 16 years of doing In Flagranti. We’ve been everywhere. So the gigs started to dwindle, because there’s a lot of new kids coming in. So I had to analyze what my qualities are. Now being mid-50s, I know music from the 60s until now, which is something young kids don’t have. Now what can I do with it? So I never did any DJ gigs with singles, because singles are wobbly, and it’s a hard thing to mix.

JS: 7-inch singles?

AG:
Yeah, the core is thicker than the edge, so it wobbles. Last year I was in Thailand visiting Alex Kaplan from Eightball Records. I was laying at the pool in a lounge chair thinking how can I DJ with a 7-inch? I thought, “Okay, I’ve got to make something that holds the records,” and I had this idea of making the opposite of a slipmat call a “stickmat,” you can put the record on top, and have control. But I didn’t know how to do it, so I went back home and did some prototypes. They worked out fine. Now we’re selling them and tour around playing just 7-inch vinyl.

That changed everything again, 7-inch is cheap and everybody trashes them, and so we can go into a thrift shop or a flea market and just buy stacks. I realized there’s a whole bunch of music that wasn’t released anywhere else, but singles — it’s like a bonus. The kids don’t have it but we do, so let’s make DJ sets out of 7-inch which cost 50 cents. If they’re scratched or not, I don’t care. It’s the music that makes the difference. Wherever we played people loved it, because it was different. To us it was also fun, because on a full night we play up to 400 singles from the 60s to the 90s.

JS: They’re very short, time wise.

AG:
Two minutes. Yeah, it keeps you busy. Definitely, it’s a different way of DJing. It’s a challenge.

JS: It’s inspiring you again.

SC:
That’s because I personally haven’t been buying records anymore. Already since he moved back to Switzerland, he started sending me the sound files —

AG:
The edits.

SC:  
— and I couldn’t be bothered to go to record shops anymore. Now I have a new interest again.

AG:
And 7-inch vinyl is cheap.

JS: That’s great. It’s a great concept. It’s a great image. Will there still be In Flagranti and Codek Records?

SC:
Yeah.

JS: So you start a label, which is called Hotfoot, selling new music on 7-inch singles only.

SC:
Yes, so the first one was In Flagranti featuring Ayakamay.

AG:
That’s where we are right now. we’re releasing for one year Hotfoot Records, and then we will do something else. Our principle is, we don’t want to get stuck in a corner. We want to always push something new and find new boundaries. That’s why only two people work at Codek Records, Sasa and me, keep it small and simple. There is a nice saying which is, “beginners can be choosers.” We still try to be beginners after 22 years and try new things.