One night during an album release party at Mill Hill Saloon, Trenton punk/emo rapper Wade Wilson took the stage to perform a few songs. At one point, he asked Ray Strife to grab the mic and do a duet with him. And from behind the bar — the same bar he was tending for the event that night — Strife rocked out hard while the crowd yelled with approval.
And why wouldn’t they? Strife is Trenton’s punk/rap ambassador and, according to some, the undisputed King of the ‘Burg.’
“Maybe I’m the only one there doing music,” he says self-depreciatingly.
Exuding both modesty and confidence over a plate of chicken parmesan at the Mill Hill Saloon, he talks about his career and new recording — all the time keeping an eye on the time to make sure he heads downstairs to tend bar during DJ Enki’s regular Tuesday night EDM event.
Born Raymond Novak III, to a roofer and an ETS administrator, Strife, 37, was raised in Lawrence. He graduated from Lawrence High School, where he performed in his first band. He was a member of the band, named Crack Filler, for 10 years.
After a move to New Brunswick to pursue an eclectic career as a non-commercial music artist and then some time in New York, he moved to Trenton to cultivate his special brand of punk/hip-hop and create several digital albums.
“Playing live got me into punk more than I was before. I rapped back then too. That’s the only way you start to do shows. It got way more punk. It’s the only way — the DIY — to book shows here. Then you start to learn the punk culture,” he says.
The DIY — the grassroots approach to booking and performing music without the controlling greatest common denominator formula of mainstream record labels — appeals to Strife, a huge fan of longtime underground bands like the Dead Kennedys and the Angry Samoans.
According to Strife, he doesn’t bond with people easily (a partial clue to his adopted name). So music is a good way to do that. And spending time in the same spaces promoting the same events leads to a natural bond. That includes an appreciation of local groups and his friendship with members of the Trenton band Honah Lee.
“Honah Lee is the greatest band of all time. When I first heard them I thought it was some sellout pop/punk bullshit, but a year later I heard them again and said, ‘This is the greatest band I’ve ever seen!’ I just want to be down with these dudes!’ A lot of power pop bands can’t recreate the energy of the studio, but Honah Lee is way better live than in the studio.”
Another brotherly musical bond is with the aforementioned Wade Wilson. During a benefit show at Trenton Coffee House and Records on Cass Street in June, Wilson stood right in front while Strife performed. He likes to jump around, make a mess onstage, and just be theatrical and get rowdy. There was so much energy coming from Strife, and Wilson knew every lyric and every musical inflection.
Looking over the past few years and changes within himself and the growing music scene, Strife says, “You can hate someone and be enemies and then the next year they become your best friend. That’s how Trenton is. The last couple years have been positive.”
Strife says some of that change came from bicycling around town. “It really did change my life to start riding my bike everywhere. It makes me work out my problems. I can relax on the bike. The more you move, the happier you are.”
Recently Strife has been moving ahead steadily with hip-hop DJ and producer Darnell Storey, otherwise known as Ill Omega, of the DoJo DJ events every first Sunday at the Mill Hill Basement.
Another Lawrence native, Storey produced Strife’s latest effort, a full-length collection called “Go For The Gusto.” He also is touring with Strife — Michigan a few months ago, Europe this spring.
“Darnell is the reason there’s a lot of good stuff on the album that almost got buried because he gives me the right opinion,” says Strife.
Storey later provides his own account, “(Strife) doesn’t know I call him a genius when he’s not around, the way he comes up with the concepts for each track. I have to remind him that he’s just got to relax and to remember we just created this from nothing.”
Storey also appreciates the artistic collaboration. “He lets me be creative. Engineering sometimes feels like work with certain artists. With Ray it’s fun.”
Regarding the tour’s performing venues, Strife and Storey prefer places where they can mix it up with likeminded grassroots, punk rock people. And the edgier and more Trenton-like the venue, the better.
“I know I’m going to have a great show if the place reminds me of Mill Hill,” Strife says. “There’s nothing else like Mill Hill. Bars aren’t usually run like that. Our basement scene here is 100 percent for people who do music, for people who are on tour, for our DIY ethic, no one’s a middle man here. No one’s pay to play, we promote off our own money, we welcome people here, we let people sleep on our couches. And there are places like this all over the country, but the difference is it’s a bar. It’s a bar that’s run like a house. (Mill Hill manager) Dave Locane is a huge part of that. He’s been working hard to keep the basement doing shows since like 2005. Dave has a good heart. He’s got a family and real life, but he’s still here every weekend. That’s the way it should be,” he says.
Strife, who in addition to booking bands and bartending at Mill Hill and Championship Bar also picks up odd contracting jobs, says he sees a lot of positive things happening in Trenton. “Every time I book a band or a rapper here who’s never been here before, even if a show tanks, they fall in love with the city. I see it on their social media newsfeed and all their friends go, ‘What?! Trenton, New Jersey?!”
“Another thing about Trenton that I’m really happy for, is the support from the city,” he says. “I feel like it took a long time of paying dues. We’re more recognized. I’m just happy to be around creative people all the time because otherwise I’d be miserable.”
For more information on the upcoming tour and an upcoming event at the Mill Hill Basement: raymondstrife.bandcamp.com.
Mill Hill Saloon and Mill Hill Basement, 300 South Broad Street, Trenton. For events look for Millhill Basement on Facebook.
This article was originally published in the March 2019 Trenton Downtowner.