Real cool time
DJ Sneak lives the true-school house life.
Thu Feb 12 2009
“I have this campaign going right now, with T-shirts and things that say i’m a house gangster,” DJ Sneak says over a shaky phone connection from Amsterdam, where he’s in the midst of a tour to promote a new release. “People go, 'What’s a house gangster?’ A house gangster is someone who keeps it real, that’s what it is. And that’s what I am.” The veteran producer, age 38, might sound like an arrogant tough-guy, but he speaks the truth; when it comes to authentic, no-frills, thumping Chicago house music, Sneak has few peers. He’ll prove it on Valentine’s Day, when he spins at Sullivan Room for the Basic NYC and KGB crews.
Sneak, born Carlos Sosa, is traveling the world to push his edition of the NRK label’s Back in the Box mix-CD line, a series that serves as a retrospective of house’s mid-’90s golden years. This is a job that suits the Puerto Rico--born, Chicago-raised, Toronto-based DJ’s predilections well: It’s the era in which he first came to attention as part of the Windy City’s second wave of house jocks, releasing cuts on Cajmere’s revered Relief label. “I had been playing a lot of those older tracks lately anyway,” he says, “so when NRK asked me to do it, I told them, 'Shit, I’m ready to do it right now!’?” The resulting mix has a classic feel, in part thanks to the inclusion of driving, disco-tinged tracks like Johnny Fiasco’s “Conduction,” Paul Johnson’s “Hit It Up” and Sneak’s own “You Can’t Hide from Your Bud.”
But it’s more than song selection—the mix’s flow itself has a refreshingly straight-ahead vibe that’s hard to find nowadays. “I did one CD in one day, and the other one the next day,” Sneak explains. “It’s all live, no special effects or anything like that. There’s a couple of edits because some of the songs are so long, like ten minutes, so a bit had to go, you know? Other than that, I basically just played the tracks.”
It might all sound a bit meat-and-potatoes, but it’s as savory a meal as the house world serves up these days. Take the spontaneous, stream-of-adulation reaction of Tony Lee—a local house stalwart and admitted Sneak freak who’s spinning an opening set at Saturday’s party—when asked his opinion of the headliner. “Oh, man, his music picks me up by the shoulders and bounces me around the room!” Lee excitedly shouts. “It’s the thump, man: bass-driven and really jacking, that slappin’-the-funk Chicago style. I love>me him!”
As does a whole new crop of fans, thanks in part to the techno world’s recent fascination with the traditional house sound. Last summer, for instance, Sneak played a tag-team set in front of a techno audience at Romania’s Sunwave festival alongside one of minimal’s most severe auteurs, Ricardo Villalobos. Search on YouTube for the many videos of the gig—the sound is closer to Sneak’s than Villalobos’s, and the crowd is eating it up. “I think all the people into minimal are finally realizing that it’s all just house music,” Sneak muses. “A new generation is coming, and I’m trying to get them to listen on the house tip. I’m trying to have them understand what real house is.”
Not that Sneak has a choice in the matter; his chugging sound is pretty much the same as it was when he released his first records, something admirable in this microtrend-fixated age. “I just know what I’m good at,” the DJ says, “and I know I can’t do things I’m not good at. I’ve worked really hard to get to where I am, and to try and compromise what I do to maintain my status, well, that’s never been my plan. I’ve had to wait out changes in the scene before, but things have always come back—and now is one of those times.”
Still, even a tough guy needs a little guidance now and then. “I’m married, dude, and my wife gives me an honest opinion about everything I produce,” Sneak admits. “I’ll play her something, and she’ll go 'I don’t like this one. It’s not for the ladies.’ And the stuff she thinks is for the ladies is good, old-fashioned back-to-the-roots house.”
The Basic NYC and KGB party is at Sullivan Room Saturday 14. DJ Sneak: Back in the Box (NRK) comes out Feb 23.