I’m writing this in late November, 2021. I’m currently on a train to a party, heading to the northern region of the UK. It’s bitterly cold outside, the kind of weather that cuts through your clothing and bites your skin and leaves a mark. I’m also listening to an album that I haven’t listened to in a short while: † by Justice.
It’s a strange combination, as when I think of †, I think of heat.
Those years that surrounded this album were HOT. Leading up to its release in 2007, and well into the next decade, tracks from this record always felt best enjoyed in high temperatures. For me, it was rare to play in a nightclub around then and for there not to be sweat raining from the ceiling. If it were a B2B with Gaspard Augé and Xavier de Rosnay, or if we were on the same line up — which was often around this time — then it would be three times as intense and three times as wet. Outside of the clubs, it felt like the album found a natural habitat in the Californian sun. I remember a trip to Coachella with the whole Ed Banger Records family, watching Justice’s American debut live show and feeling how perfect everything seemed for them at that point in time, in that setting. It’s not something I’ve seen or felt often, but it was crystal clear at that moment.
And whilst on the subject of heat, we cannot overlook how much we all love and were attracted to the sonic equivalent of heat: Distortion. While I’d also say that heat can be conveyed in a variety of ways through music, the idea of machines sounding like they were about to explode seduced our imaginations. This sound was often imitated, but it was apparent that Gaspard and Xavier’s love of disco and funk, pop, classical, glitch and rock ’n’ roll allowed them to fuse it with a sonic sensibility that gave us something to reshape the musical landscape on Earth.
† will remain the defining album of this particular sound, as well as that particular moment in time.
I’ve been asked to write some words about this record for the 15th-anniversary reissue of †. I’m flattered to be asked to do this, so it makes sense for me to talk about my relationship — more accurately, my friendship — with Xavier and Gaspard.
I first heard of Justice back in 2003. Pedro Winter (aka Busy P), had sent me a CD of three tracks that were coming out on his new label, Ed Banger. The third track on the CD was still unmastered (meaning it hadn’t been optimized sonically to be cut onto a piece of vinyl or CD) and titled “Never Be Alone.” I remember liking it on my first listen. I must have played it at TRASH the following Monday, as well as whichever dance club I was playing that weekend — a rarity, as I always tried to keep those playlists as separate as possible. I think I emailed Pedro to find out more about Justice and tell him how well the record was going down each night I played it, and to ask if he could send me the master when it was ready. (I think I played the unmastered version for the duration of this era and beyond! Pedro, did you ever send me the master?)
Pedro asked if he could introduce me to Xavier on iChat, which I agreed to. Back then, iChat (or AIM messenger as it was also known as) was the perfect way to stay in touch with friends and share files. Before each weekend, myself, Soulwax, Tiga, Pedro, Felix da Housecat (to name a few) would all share our latest remixes, productions or just hot records we’d been playing. Xavier and I hit it off instantly. It wasn’t long until they’d started DJing, and I think the first time we played on the same bill may even have been their first DJ set as Justice at Rex Club. If it wasn’t the first, then it was pretty early on, as I remember they both looked really young and innocent. There was no signature leather jacket or heavy belt buckle back then, and I remember they played really good records.
For the next few years, we stayed in touch. “Never Be Alone” had blown up via releases on Ed Banger and Gigolo Records. I’d included it on my “Bugged Out Mix” from 2005 after I realized the a cappella (which Xavier sent me over iChat, natch) mixed perfectly over Étienne de Crécy’s “Fast Track” during a set at Bugged Out! in London, then recreated that blend on the mix CD. It felt like it was amongst the biggest records of 2004 and 2005 simultaneously. A bunch of Justice remixes of Death From Above 1979, Mystery Jets, Soulwax, Franz Ferdinand and Fatboy Slim were all big records in my sets from around then, at both TRASH and wherever else I’d play. After some London shows (two of which were at TRASH, and both as chaotic and exciting as you could imagine) both Gaspard and Xavier would crash at my old place just off Holloway Road, sometimes with Pedro, So Me and Medhi all staying too. For a while, it felt like a London HQ for the Parisian wing of my extended family, and they were always — and still are — welcome.
An important personal moment came when I was asked to remix “Waters Of Nazareth” in 2005. We would joke that the only people who were playing the original track at the time were Ed Banger artists and myself. I remember a few DJ friends remarking that the track was “unplayable” and too intense. I could see what they meant; it was a pretty unique track for that time and also completely out of step with what was seen as “big.” It’s worth remembering this was just before the term “maximal” had been coined as a counter to “minimal,” and you could feel records were being made as a reaction to that dominant scene.
I agreed to the remix and remember saying that the version I make would try to make “Waters Of Nazareth” the easiest track to play out, rather than the most difficult. Xavier sent me a CDR of the parts and wrote “KILL IT” in bold letters across the disc. The next day, I opened all the parts in Pro Tools and made my version in around four hours. My approach was to take the best bits, and make them build to reach a climax. I also wanted to make a version where any DJ could mix it in easily, which is why you have the exposed drums at the front. I played my mix out the following weekend, and it went down well enough to know it was complete. By chance, I was DJing with Xavier the next night and whilst at dinner, I told him I’d played the mix out and it worked pretty well. “Did they somersault?” he asked. I replied that this version isn’t quite for somersaulting, but people seemed to enjoy it. He seemed happy enough with this. I gave it the full title of “Waters Of Nazareth (Erol Alkan’s DURRR DURRR DURRR Re-Edit),” as people had been coming up to me and asking what the tune I’d been playing was called that went “DURRR DURRR DURRRRRR!!” It was pretty cute to hear so many different people try and emulate that synth part with just their voices; I wish I had recorded some of them. The other little story about this mix was that I was a little naive in how the drums (notably, the finely EQ-ed kick and snare) were left so exposed in the opening bars, which meant that they were sampled and used in quite literally hundreds of productions in the following years.
The launch party for the single was in Paris at La Boule Noire. It was the first time the cross, which they used as part of their live stage show, was unveiled. I must admit, I thought that they had balls of steel to adopt such a recognizable symbol and use it in such a way. My memory of the party is pretty fuzzy, but Xavier and I played B2B (the set is online somewhere, I believe), and I remember DJ Funk being quite the character and taking quite a shining to Uffie. And seeing him remix “Let There Be Light” was pretty inspired.
Over the next year or so, they would play me early versions of the tracks that made up †. I remember a visit to their studio in Paris, which was literally a brick arch deep underground, filled with old synths. They monitored through either an old boombox or some small portable speakers — it was nothing like the speakers you’d expect in a studio — and even though it was unconventional, it not only sounded good, it sounded effortless. Listening back to † now, it carries that sense that it is fundamentally a bedroom record. It’s led by equal measures of naivety, ambition and attention to detail that records made in such a relaxed manner tend to possess.
My first experience of the full album came when Xavier burnt me a CDR of the finished album from out of his laptop just before they were meant to DJ at an Ed Bangers party at Bagley’s in King’s Cross. I listened back to the record the next day and felt they’d made something special. I knew most of it inside out by this point, but hearing it all connected and as a fully formed vision was special.
The opening track, “Genesis,” sums up everything I love about Justice. The range of motifs from bygone eras is wide and varied, but all focused into a sound of their own. As a producer myself — and knowing how they work — the level of detail applied to this track is quite something. Listening back, it’s even more apparent that their love of pop music has permeated throughout the entire record. “D.A.N.C.E” still sounds like an incredibly odd pop record from the future and still sounds like it’s out in its own realm. The two versions of “Phantom” still sound as intriguing as I remember them, a sublime marriage of ’70s Italian soundtracks and Mr. Oizo, but set deep in the future. I remember “One Minute to Midnight” originally came out on a compilation for a club titled “Toxic” in 2006, and I was pleased to see it make the album, as I always thought it was a great track.
My favorite moment from † is perhaps “Stress,” especially the live version they made and sent me to play out. I have some intense memories of that record turning nightclubs and festivals inside out; it still sounds as visceral today. Another standout track outside of the album is Soulwax’s version of “Phantom Pt. II,” which was quite literally inescapable in nightclubs that year.
It would be impossible to talk about Ed Banger and Justice without acknowledging the strength and virtues of the visual side of this record. The † album jacket’s clever play on the cover of T. Rex’s Electric Warrior is a perfect example of their approach: irreverent and equally respectful.
Talking of Ed Banger — and you’ll know this already — it cannot be understated how important its contribution was to electronic music and beyond. It’s something I still see and hear, even now. Seeing how closely Pedro worked with not just Justice, but the entire family of artists and creatives, was and remains hugely inspiring to me.
This record will evoke memories for any of you who lived through this point in time. If we shared time in a club together, then some of us had sweat rain on us, or maybe we just connected from a distance. But there is also a chance that you may be holding this record in your hands for the first time. Perhaps you’ve discovered it in your parents’ or older siblings’ record collection. I assume it’s left its mark on them, too, as it has on us.
No matter how it has arrived on your record player, just make sure you play it LOUD.
Erol Alkan is a London-based DJ/producer, and founder of weekly seminal nightclub, TRASH, which ran from 1997 to 2007. He is also founder and creative director of the record label Phantasy.