Just like its records, the dance music scene spins round, and round, and round. No matter what, it always comes back to where it started. On each rotation, the groove might be a little deeper and the beats might be a little more evolved, but it always comes back to house music. And you can bet that when it gets there, DJ Sneak’s big friendly I-told-you-so grin will be waiting.
“It always comes back to House,” says DJ Sneak aka Carlos Sosa, the DJ who rose to prominence through a second wave of Chicago house producers that includes Derrick Carter, Cajmere, and Paul Johnson.
It has been five years since the Puerto Rican man released his album ‘Housekeepin’’, and at first Sneak says that he kept busy by doing different projects, like mix CDs. It doesn’t take long before the truth comes out though.
“I just wasn’t musically inspired,” he admits. “Technology is great ‘n all, but it allows anyone to rip somebody else’s riff. These kids can rip off an idea, copy somebody else, and that shit will fly straight into the charts. Everyone will rave about it, but I think ‘what the fuck is this?’.”
“I don’t get electro. I don’t dig progressive, or minimal. I just wasn’t feeling anything from the music that was being released over the last few years. I’m an old skool house guy. I’ve been playing for 25 years. I learnt about music through Latin music, Detroit techno, and UK house. This new electro music is most of the time complete rubbish. I knew this electro house thing would eventually go down, because it always does.”
“So I decided to focus on other things in my life. I’m a married man, so I had to juggle some things around. Instead of slowly fading to black, I focused on getting gigs and getting my label on Beatport. I’ve been doing office work, you know? I wasn’t in a hurry. I’m not fading away. People are still interested in me. And now the new generation is looking for originality, and good house music, and who are they gonna come back to?”
Sneak talks about house like it’s the sound of inevitability. And who could blame him? Afterall, he has witnessed the boomerang effect, and he has watched the merry-go-round spin around, and around, his entire career.
“It happens every few years,” he says. “A new genre comes along, people copy each other’s sound, it gets boring and then people come back to house. I’ve seen this pattern, this loop, happen four times. When I started buying records, I was into Trax records and the early Chicago stuff. Then the scene went all acid house and the UK rave scene took over. Then Casual Records and guys like Cajmere brought it back to Chicago. I was caught up in that second wave. Then it went away for a little bit, and then in the mid to late 1990s, house started to get big again and began taking over the charts with bands like Moloko. Classic house got big again and tracks like Ruffneck ‘Everybody Be Somebody’ crossed over. Then it all splintered into different directions, with trance, progressive house, and garage all coming through. Then electro house came along, but this shit is nothing like the electro I knew. There wasn’t a house track that I could make that could compete with the electro house stuff that was coming out. So I thought, I’m not gonna battle now. I’m going to take my time and ride it out. Eventually it’ll come back around.”
DJ Sneak was right all along, of course. House music has had a remarkable comeback in the last 18 months, with the fever surrounding minimal techno during the last few years having evolved into an admiration and embracement for organic drums, bongos and classic Chicago beats.
Perhaps the biggest sign of a forthcoming shift was when Ricardo Villalobos and Luciano, two of minimal techno’s most prominent tastemakers and producers, began throwing the odd classic house record into their sets.
Masters At Work, Strictly Rhythm, Trax Records, Cajmere, DJ Sneak, Basement Jaxx – the techno leaders adopted classic house music like it was a long lost prodigal son, and amidst a sea of empty minimal soundscapes, the bump, funk, and soul of house stood out loud and clear.
It wasn’t long before aspiring DJs were scrambling over tracklists online, trying to find elusive Chicago house records long out of print.
Producers like Johnny D [a], Nick Curly, and other Mannheim-based artists began exploiting the connection between classic house and modern techno by putting out records that bridged the gap.
Sneak saw the house scene begin to bubble once again, and he started work on a new album. “I found, what you could call, a loop hole,” he says. “The German guys and the whole German techno scene embraced Chicago house and I caught that wave. The music coming out was close enough to my deep house soul, so I was happy.”
On his decision to stick by his classic house roots and ignore the incoming trends, Sneak says, “It’s like surfing, you wait for the right wave to come along and you ride it until it fizzles out. Then you wait until the next wave comes along.”
The key to DJ Sneak’s enduring success is his willingness to adapt. He capitalised on the scene’s new-found appreciation for classic house by playing in countries like Romania, where electronic music has become a major youth movement. He also became friends with Ricardo Villalobos and other techno artists, who have also influenced his music.
“I’ve been playing a lot in Romania,” he says. “The guys over there have sort of embraced me and we’ve become good friends. This promoter over there one day said, ‘I want you and Ricardo to play back to back’. Both me and him looked at each other and said, ‘Sure, why not?’.
“It was funny because Ricardo was kinda intimidated as he is a true fan of my work, and I’ve become a fan of his. So we played back to back for four and half hours together. It was pretty amazing. That feeling of rocking the club with Ricardo has never left my body. They allowed me to do what I do best, and I have to say thank you to them for letting me into their lives.”
Sneak’s yearning to reach new audiences, who may not be familiar with his legacy doesn’t end there. “I’m embracing new things around me and I’m trying to stay connected to kids through things like blogs,” he says. “30 and 40 year olds know who I am so I need to reach out to the 15-25 year olds, without being cheesy, without selling out.”
His strategies include doing bootlegs of currently popular pop tracks. “I asked my 18-year-old daughter what her favourite song was at the moment and she mentioned this hip hop track called ‘Low’ by FLO Rida. So I was like, ‘Boom’, there’s a bootleg for you and your friends.”
Sneak also did a remix of last year’s hip hip and electro house hit ‘Day ‘N Nite’ by Kid Cudi, and gave it away for free through American DJ A-Track’s blog. “I got more feedback and respect out of that giveaway, than for a normal release,” says Sneak laughing.
With house music firmly back in the clubs, Sneak has done 20 remixes in the past year. His new album ‘House of House’ is an impressive 20 tracks deep, split into two parts on Beatport. Unlike so many of his contemporaries, Sneak didn’t bother trying to conceptualize the album process. Instead he put together a record full only of DJ-friendly house.
“I make Chicago tracks, ghetto house, booty house, tech house, I combine it all, and as long as I make fun tracks that DJs can play, I’m happy,” he says. “I’ve always been known for making DJ tracks. This LP has 20 tracks and all of them are seven or eight minutes long. I keep it real for DJs.
“I’m consistent. Ask any house DJ how many of my tracks they own. I make party pleasures. Not all of them are dancefloor bangers, but there are some classic filtered disco Sneak sounds on there, some deep house stuff, some more aggressive music, and some German-sounding music, but I don’t wanna call it minimal.
DJ Sneak’s ‘House of House’
However his album is received by the wider club music world, it’s clear that Sneak has put his heart and soul into the record.
As he says, “I’m not a dinosaur. I sure as hell ain’t gonna be that guy where people say ‘oh there goes Sneak, the old filtered house guy’. I make all of my tracks myself 100 percent. Many of these so-called superstars have two or three people in the studio. But it’s just me, it’s only ever been me and I’m moving forwards, I’m keeping things fresh.”
You would think that keeping things fresh is not an easy thing to do for a 38-year-old producer who has been DJing for 25 years. You only need to look around at the number of old house DJs who have slowly drifted towards obscurity having failed to remain relevant.
For Sneak however, it is quite simple. It all stems from his formative years as a jock, where he used to play at weddings for $200 a show.
“I’d play at any party, I didn’t care. As long as I got to play, I was happy,” says Sneak, who first discovered the joys of DJing during a school dance when he was 15.
“I saw a guy DJing for the very first time and I was like, ‘holy shit!’. It completely inspired me. The DJ’s name was Carlos ‘Cooking’ Cruz – it was at a time when it was cool to use your middle name for your DJ name,” he says, chuckling. “I’ll never forget that. It was 1985.”
Sneak’s passion, and enthusiasm for DJing has not diminished with age. He has not glossed over, or succumbed to the machinations that hype sometimes brings.
“All of these commercial artists might be selling shit loads, but I’m still holding it down. I don’t come with an entourage or models when I play,” says Sneak. “I just come to play. Like at the Beatport Pool Party in Miami, I just wanted to play the most groovy and banging set that I could. I wanted to show people how to keep it real. And I saw Dennis Ferrer and The Martinez Brothers hanging around, spotting me all night. I didn’t mess around, taking photos, or drinking Champagne. I rocked that place, and I still have that same passion for DJing like I had in the old days.”
Perhaps at the heart of it all, the reason why Sneak is still as connected today as he ever was, is because of his love for good house music. It is the only thing that Sneak cares about, and it is more important than money or fame.
“Like for my album, I didn’t want to put my face on the CD,” he says. “I just wanted some random shit on there, because I believe you should just let the music play man.
“These old superstars, they charge frickin’ huge amounts of money and all they care about is fame. But I bet, they couldn’t say that they truly, love their shit. All they wanna do is keep their pop status, but I’m still back at my roots. I’m coming back around again as a veteran and I’m still having fun.
“I play more underground clubs and more afterparties than ever before. Fuck those big clubs where the kids have to pay $50 to get in. Let’s take it back to when it was just about fun times and good music.”
Actions speak louder than words, and in Sneak’s case, a recent trip to Montreal’s Mutek festival showed how much he still loves the music and scene.
After driving five hours from Chicago to hang out with Ricardo Villalobos and Perlon’s Zip, who were both performing at the festival, he ended up rolling from one afterparty to the next, before he found himself on the decks playing an impromptu set in somebody’s loft.
“At the second afterparty some guy asked if I had my records with me and if I wanted to play. ‘Hell yeah’, I thought. So I just started playing and Ricardo was dancing around. People completely freaked out. They were calling their friends saying ‘Holy shit, DJ Sneak is DJing in my loft to like 80 people!’
“I played for three hours. And afterwards the guy who owned the loft said ‘Thank you so much’. I said, ‘No, thank you for letting me play, it was great’. The next day I drove all the way home.
“That’s the kind of shit that shows how much you love music. Sometimes I’ll do those Sneak attacks and people will really appreciate it and they will talk about stuff like that. That’s what I want. The best shit ain’t planned and I love those kind of situations.”
Keepin’ it real
Helping a new generation of house producers is important to Sneak too. Unlike many other big name DJs, he tries to listen to every single demo he gets sent. “You have to support the kids who send you music,” he says. “I take the time to listen to every one of their tracks and if I like it and I play it, I’ll send them a video of me playing it.”
Sneak is also unfazed by today’s internet tools, like Twitter, that some artists are using to stay connected to their fans. “I don’t Twitter. That’s retarded shit. What’s wrong with a phone call, or an email, or even a card? My wife sends cards through to mail to people and when they receive it they’re so happy to actually get something in the post.
“Rather than Twitter, I go out in the crowd and hang out. I chat to people face to face. I don’t wanna be untouchable. That makes people appreciate you. And when I show them how much I love to make music, that motivates them.”
For now, Sneak continues to smirk, as dance music spins on its axis. No matter how far it goes, he knows that it will always return back to ground zero, to Chicago, to his city. “The wave has arrived and it’s a new wave,” he says. “I’m coming like I’m 18. There are guys out there who are thinking about the show, or about the money, or about the marketing – anything, but the music. Me? I’m one of the last mohicans out there who only cares about the music.”
Written by: Terry Church