DJ SNEAK - Defining House Music
- 21 June 2012
DJ Sneak is someone who represents House music in its purest form. Having migrated to Chicago from his native Puerto Rico as a youngster, he soon fell in love with the 4x4 beats and soulful rhythms of early House music. In fact, because he couldn't speak English in those formative years, it was the fact that a lot of House was simply instrumentals and vocal samples that facilitated his burgeoning love for the music. Now a self-professed 'House Gangster', Sneak is a man who is always in demand around the globe and someone who continues to work hard, day in, day out to maintain his position and to spread the House music gospel. He has also put himself forward to defend the intergrity of House music against perpetrators such as the Swedish 'blank' Mafia. Here's an in-depth interview with the man himself...
When did your love affair with house music begin?
It started as soon as I landed in Chicago in 1983 to a very cold and snowy winter. I came from a tropical paradise to cold and winter. I had never seen snow so, as you can imagine, I wasn’t too keen on spending my time outdoors. There was really nothing to do but watch TV or listen to the radio, I tuned in to a few radio stations that really opened my ears to the new sound and they were just calling it house, short for Warehouse Music. It really was a turning point at a young age. I was 13 years old.
Can you remember when you first heard house and how it made you feel?
It was like nothing I had heard in Puerto Rico, what I loved about it was the beats rolling through, mixed from one to another, with almost no talking and no real singing on tracks, this was helpful 'cause I spoke no English. House music was pure and young like me, we partnered up right away and music was the only thing I would focus on, it kept me sane during the cold Chicago winters.
How did you make those first tentative steps to becoming a house DJ?
Funny enough, the first time I really saw a DJ do his thing live was at a school dance, after listening and recording tapes from the radio it was a huge thing to see an actual DJ play vinyl with turntables and a mixer. It was after this that I realised it was something I wanted to try and it was then that my journey began. I had a friend who got a pair of turntables and that was it.. I practiced everyday, all day.
Was there anyone who really helped you on your way?
There were a few people, mostly a few homies and my brother. I pretty much jumped in and I was like a fish in water, I did nothing but get on the decks and try to play as long as I could. We were four teens who used to hang and enjoy music instead of gangbanging and selling drugs, which was a very real part of my time in Chicago.
Can you remember some of your first DJ gigs - how did it feel when you first got on the decks and played to a crowd?
I was nervous but excited to finally make it from the basement sessions to the stage. I put in some serious hours and to finally get on in front of a crowd, well it was kinda like driving a car for the first time, you feel free and you know you’re doing something big! I loved making people dance and have fun and this was the real rush for me, I wasn’t trying to be nobody special or a rockstar, I was just enjoying the moment of being able to program and mix records.
How did you get your name?
Through the whole time I was playing music I was also into art, I got heavy into graffiti art, this was my world, graff and music. I was very good at both things so I just lived to be creative. Sneak started in the graffiti world and stayed for the music.
Were you a sneaky young man back in the day?
I’m still a sneaky young fella! Well maybe not 20 years old kinda young but still good at 41. Things are much clearer as I get older, mature.
When did you feel as though you were at a stage where you could make a career out of music? And was it always your dream to work in music?
I actually did not think that I was going to be where I am today, I just kept believing that I could DJ around Chicago, then USA, then Europe and eventually the world. My dream was to get out of the hood, not end up a statistic – and, for a Puerto Rican kid, the dream is still very real. Music has become my passion, production and DJing has allowed me to make people happy while doing what I love to do.
To whom would you credit with your approach to DJing and the style of music you play? Is there anyone who really inspired the 'Sneak style'
I have to be thankful to a few producers and DJs that helped me shape my sound, I was experimenting a lot on my own but it was people like Todd Terry who helped me create the “DJ Sneak” sound. His production was so unreal that I often thought of him as my mentor, teaching me and educating me about DOPE beats by just being himself and dropping so many great tracks. I had been DJing since 1986 but it wasn’t until 1991 when I heard DJs like Derrick Carter, Mark Farina, DJ Traxx and Spencer Kincy that I became an underground soldier. There have been many experiences, tracks, records and parties that helped me become who I am, but at the end of the day I think I owe it to myself for believing I could just do what I wanted, even if I failed at first, I knew if I kept trying and stayed disciplined and dedicated that I would succeed.
How much influence do your Latin roots have on your music? I guess you were exposed to a lot of Latin artists when you were growing up?
I try to always incorporate some aspects of the rhythm and soul I learned as a child in Puerto Rico, I grew up listening to the “Fania All Stars” best of the best in Salsa music from the seventies and I think this will always be in me. I was really blessed to have had a great upbringing with a family who loved music and parties. My Mom was the greatest influence, she loves music and I remember her always playing loud music while cleaning the house, cooking, hanging out... music was always playing.
So, now you're world famous - how does it feel to be in DJ Sneak's shoes?
I guess I am considered world famous but my claim of fame is for the actual craft and the passion I have for DJing. I can care less about the fake personas people create because their egos get boosted by admirers. I love what I do, people can see it, hear it and feel it.
What do you love most about your current lifestyle?
The freedom I have to do what I want when I want to do it, not thinking about how to become a “Mega Star” by selling out, by acting like many DJs in this industry today. They traded integrity, pride, the love for the music and eventually their soul to be famous. I just like to ride the beat while playing what I love and at the end of the day feeling proud of my accomplishments.
What inspires you to continue making and playing music?
Often the need to get the beats and ideas I get everyday into a track form, a happy day for me is being in my home with my wife and kids, having my studio available at all hours in my house to create, stay relevant and still serve a purpose. I don’t claim to be the best but I am very driven and motivated, even when people around me get caught up in small things that block creativity I just keep pushing on.
Can you define 'house music' for me? For someone who doesn't know, can you explain the difference between what you play and what Swedish House Mafia play?
Ok, in very simple terms I will have to quote an underground House music anthem created by Eddie Amador like 10 years ago, “Not everybody understands House music, it’s a spiritual thing, a body thing, a soul thing”. To a purist like me, House music starts with a 4x4 beat with snares, claps, hi-hats, basslines, vocals, but most importantly rhythm and soul. I base most of my tracks on the feelings surrounding all these elements to create something real, whether it’s a deep House track, a tech House track, a Techno track or even a DownTempo track. I’ve never followed rules and have found myself breaking them and making them as I went along but I have always respected the rhythm and soul in the House music sound.
So now the difference between me and THEM (Swedish blank Mafia) is very simple, while I’m Organic, they are Synthetic, while I do this for love and homage to the music and DJing craft they constantly figure out ways to make it the most commercial noise they can make, their main focus for creating is to make some HIT, it is not about creating something original and soulful, it’s about following the calculated steps to come up with a hit for the purpose of their own success. They measure success by spending ridiculous amounts of money paying their way to the top. They are not the first ones, “Tiesto” was a master at creating the super DJ brand, with big budget marketing, financial support, and a well managed team this is something that now anybody can try to reach. So called DJ/Producers like Avicci, David Guetta, Afrojack must all be down with the same fabricated manufactured DJ superstar manual because they are all doing it the same way, often supporting each other to become bigger better BRANDS. I guess if this is what you are into then they are doing the best they can to play a role, to make people believe they are actually talented when they are clearly manufactured like Coca-Cola.
The difference between them and I is that they don’t care about the hard work a lot of people including myself have put into this music, they simply picked up on the most commercial aspects of this industry and are killing it by disrespecting the art of DJing, the art of Production and entire House sound. What they are making and playing is NOT House music! Listen to the classics, look back at the history, it sounds nothing like the crap they are selling as House. I understand that music needs to evolve but is what they are playing really a musical evolution?! If you’re going to start making or playing House music first educate yourself and second respect the sound.
Hip Hop went through the same stages House music is currently going through, people wanted to make money and make Hip Hop into POP music. I mean look at the state of Hip Hop today, it’s awful, good rappers are a dime a dozen, and the rest of the fools are rapping about some bullshit nonsense, they all want the same thing - Money, Hoes and Fame. It’s really a global musical epidemic. This is what you see on MTV or other TV channels; there is no love, no pride, and no integrity.
So I stand on the other side of that street still being successful in my own way but instead of being a complete clown on stage waiving my hands in the air for an hour I go up there and do work, create a show based on love for what I’m doing. I’m so sick of the egos and fakeness that is going on in this scene. No one asked me to do it, but I feel the need to be that one DJ that will stand up to the fabricated BRANDS to show them wrong, to expose their fake behaviour. They sold their soul for the fame, they can never go back to the one thing that may have influenced them to try to be respectable producers and DJs.
Some people say the Swedes and similar acts could be a good entry point for youngsters into house... What do you think about this?
There are BIG misconceptions about what House music is. Swedish Mafia are not the best representatives of House Music by a long shot, none of them guys on that same boat are, they are just the fakeness of this music culture, they need to take a good look at themselves and realise that they are the worst thing that has ever happened to this music industry. They should know bertter than to portray a complete act in front of thousands and taking them all to the bank while doing it. I look down on all people that do this with any art form, I’m sure a lot of people can relate in other industries the same way, it is always the most commercial clowns getting all the goods simply because they play the role of being something they are not even good at.
There were many great DJs/ Live Acts that helped create the very foundation of the Electronic Music Scene in America and the rest of the World that have done more for the industry then these fakes, DJ/ Producers like Fat Boy Slim, The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, DJs like Derrick May, Josh Wink, DJ Dan, Donald Glaude just to mention a few, these dudes and many more from Chicago, Detroit, NYC... We built this House a long time ago, these newcomers just like to vandalise it by bastardising the music to become some kiddie pop genre. No one knows any history nor cares to educate themselves about it. The truth is there would be no industry today if the founding fathers and then children of HOUSE MUSIC did not pave the way.
So, who would you recommend kids to check out if they're new to house/electronic music?
There are many great DJs out there today, if you want to educate yourself just go to sources of media sharing like SoundCloud where many DJs post their sets, including old school House DJs. Don’t count on the Beatport Charts, challenge yourself to find something creative and inspiring. If you go to shows, whether raves, underground parties, festivals, carnivals, whatever you may want to call it, demand value for your experience, demand quality music over fancy fireworks and phony stage acts that are not even using the very equipment that was created for DJing. There are even greater tools today to do some creative live DJING, demand that these so called DJs actually mix things LIVE, its not that hard to do. I would recommend some great DJs but the trick is to be open enough to be able to choose what you like whether it’s House music or not, the choice is yours. Go on YouTube, look at documentaries about the scene - there has got to be hundreds by now, or even just play jukebox surfing for records that were actually released in the last 30 years and you will find the info you need to become an educated House music enthusiast.
What are you up to over the Summer?
I have a full calendar this summer and I’ll be keeping it Relevant and Real. This summer brings me back to the European markets where there are really amazing venues, parties and places. I will be all over and pushing forward, I have to stand up for mine and the people I have behind me. I want to be able to level the playing field so we can all be entertained and free to release ourselves into quality music, this is the one thing we all have in common, Music! Without music there would be no real life, just a boring way to kill time.
What does the future hold for DJ Sneak? Any grand plans?
I plan to be Me, I plan to stay real to the craft and keep the love going for the music.
How do you imagine you'll spend your retirement?
I am thinking that I will have the best of times; I will love life, family and music first. I also have many other skills that I want to be able to experience or just try like when I was a kid. I will stand behind some decks with vinyl and educate my grandchildren about this amazing journey called House Music.
** I really want to thank you for this very intense but real interview, the questions were awesome, I had a great time answering them and giving you all the most honest opinions from a DJ/ Producer that has lived some of the greatest times on the road meeting and sharing the love of music. Sorry for the wait.
By Marcus Barnes