DJ Sneak Interview: Gangster Trippin

DJ Sneak got down to the musical nitty gritty with Marko Kutlesa as they discussed Chicago labels, his mixing style and artist exposure.

Becca Frankland

Last updated: 31st Aug 2016.
Originally published: 7th Jul 2016

One of dance music's most outspoken voices, DJ Sneak has in recent times built up a renown for an often scathing critique of his peers, dividing opinion in the process. A recent post about Fabric, along with an explanatory follow up, caused a stir of controversy over the Bank Holiday weekend, and whilst we have very different views about the troubled London club, it's impossible to dispute Sneak's importance to dance music.

Real name Carlos Sosa, he's a contemporary of Derrick Carter, Cajmere and Paul Johnson, part of a second wave of Chicago house producers that began to emerge in the early nineties and who came to fruition in the middle of that decade. Though he was born in Puerto Rico, Sneak grew up in the city and assumed all the characteristics that era of Chi-town DJs were endowed with.

As a producer his first outings were heavily built around looped disco samples that sat beneath chunky beats. As a DJ he was comparable to Carter, although far from the same. Both DJs often stayed long in the mix and covered a wide variety of styles with Sneak drawing on disco, Latin and techno flavours for his sets. 

After recording for labels like Cajual and Relief Records, Sneak made an uncommon switch to releasing music on some of New York's best known house imprints such as Henry Street, Downtown 161 and Strictly Rhythm. All the while though he maintained strong links with his home though, especially Relief for whom he mixed a compilation and released a collaborative effort with Armand Van Helden.

His links with Carter also remained strong and it was on his UK based label Classic that he released the 'You Can't Hide From Your Bud' track in 1997, reaching the top 20 in the UK pop charts and becoming a dancefloor favourite everywhere house music was played. Sneak cultivated another friendship with French house outfit Daft Punk, big fans of Relief, later having a songwriting credit on a track from their 2001 album Discovery (he is also name-checked in their song 'Teachers' from their 1997 album Homework).

2001 saw him launch Magnetic Recording, the same year he scored his biggest hit to date with the P-Funk inspired vocal house track 'Fix My Sink' - again a top twenty hit in the UK. He's since launched imprints Leg and I'm A House Gangster and maintained a furious DJ schedule across the globe. Sneak often calls himself an OG - it's an argument that his history unequivocally backs up.

We caught up with the originator prior to his latest outburst for a chat about his long history in dance music, his upcoming new album, and a typically no holds barred opinion on clubbing paradise Ibiza.

At the start of your recording career in Chicago you released on labels such as Cajual and its sister label Relief. How important do you think that second wave of Chicago labels like Cajual, Relief, Clubhouse and Prescription were to maintaining or developing the city's contribution to house music?

Honestly man, it was a blessing. Because that first wave came and went in the 80s and it really influenced a lot of things, especially in the UK, and then it disappeared for a minute. People either moved away or were experimenting in other territories, so that left Chicago wide open.

It really wasn't until Cajmere and his Green Velvet stuff popped up that the scene in the city was given any new hope. He believed in it and he wanted to be an artist himself, so he went full on with it and many others followed him. We were all looking for an outlet to release our stuff. We weren't thinking we were the second wave or whatever, we just wanted somewhere to release music. 

It did open a lot of doors because I started getting calls from people, I had no idea how they got my number. I remember the call from Gladys Pizarro from Strictly Rhythm, people like that, and I was shocked to be getting them. That all came about from the Cajual/Relief releases.

Did it make a difference those labels being in the hands of producers, rather than some of the earlier labels like Trax who were owned by money makers?

Yeah man, Cajmere is an educated dude. He was actually going to university for something, maybe chemical engineering, some sort of engineering job. At the same time he was interning at a label called Clubhouse, which later on issued his first releases. In around 1990 they produced a guy called Lidell Townsell and Cajmere wrote two popular tracks he did. From that money he was able to launch Cajual. 

So, he was in it, he was trying to learn it. I don't know if he ever finished university, but he just went full on with the music, following his dream. There were a lot of us that were ready for that too. We just jumped in.

You quickly made the transition to recording for New York labels like Strictly Rhythm and Henry Street. That was pretty unusual at the time, a lot of the Chicago guys stuck to Chicago labels or looked to Europe and the NY sound was so strong at that time that the New York labels were releasing a lot of their own music. So how and why did that happen?

It probably had to do with the fact I was actually selling records. I worked in two stores, one for four and a half years and then I moved to Gramaphone Records, which was the leading store for the longest time. Through being at the store, talking on the phone with distributors, record labels and also people who came through town, I made a lot of contacts.

I would want people to come in the store when they visited, I was a real salesperson, so I'd meet people like Johnny D and Kenny Dope, sell them a few records. Johnny D gave me his card and said he'd heard my stuff for Strictly Rhythm, and for me to give him a call.

That Strictly move was pivotal, Gladys was always hanging round with cool, up and coming people. Someone had dropped my name, maybe Armand Van Helden or Junior Sanchez and when that happened I was like, "Wow." That's the call from heaven, because Chicago guys then didn't get signed to New York labels. 

From that point on it was easier to manoeuvre. But a lot of it had to do with retail. It had to do with me being in music before I started to really do the DJ thing. Because I had these contacts, when I had my first releases I was able to send these people my records.

The doors were opened to me because I was talking to so many people, like people from England, France and Germany. I was buying the stuff from Europe and selling the American stuff back to them. 

What food do you most miss from Chicago?

I've been in Toronto almost 20 years now. Besides my own Puerto Rican food, because now there's lots of great restaurants, I really did miss Mexican food a lot. There's a lot of Mexicans in Chicago and so we had really authentic Mexican food. When you wanted a burrito, you could get a burrito. When you wanted tacos, you could get amazing tacos. That would be like my first and second choice.

There's other stuff too. Chicago's grown so much, there's so many great restaurants. But from what I remember I just love the mom and pop's Mexican places. 

Find DJ Sneak tickets.

Here in the UK your first record that transcended underground house clubs was 'You Can't Hide From Your Bud' (above). Where did that style of phasing and filtering disco loops come from?

I would have to credit that to only having a couple of pieces of equipment to work with when I first started. The first piece I bought was a TR 909 drum machine and after seven or eight months all I was doing was beats. But I was learning how to program it.

Then I bought an Akai SI 50 sampler. I didn't have a manual for it so I just hacked my way through it. That's how I found the filter shit. Because I only had limited equipment the first 20 records I had I did them in the most ghetto way imaginable.

I hacked the 909, the Akai SI 50, a Mackie 16 channel board and a DAT recorder. I had no compression, no effects, no nothing. Everything was coming raw, there were no tricks. I was just looking to how far you could take the machine. 

To be honest I wasn't the first person to be doing that, There were a lot of people, especially in the UK in drum n' bass, who were using that. And when I heard that's what they used to use, I just thought I'd use it for house. 

With the disco house stuff I also owe a lot of credit to Todd Terry too. He was one of the baddest dudes I've heard cutting up disco shit. I got onto his vibe from a Chicago point of view and my style emerged from there.

Where does the title of the track come from? 

It was inspired by bud as in weed, because I'm a big weed smoker. I'll tell you why that record ended up on Classic, Derrick's label. I was talking to him in the morning and I told him I was working on this sick beat.

I'm just the kind of person that wakes up in the morning, has a cup of coffee and has a spliff, but that morning I hadn't had a spliff yet. I told Derrick, "Man, I have some weed in the other room, I can smell it, so I'm gonna make one, go outside and smoke it, then come back and work on this track." I did that and about an hour and a half later I called Derrick back saying, "Hey man, you gotta listen to this track." Right there he said he wanted it for Classic. 

I'd been looking for things to sample for that, I had the spliff, dropped the needle on that Teddy Pendergrass track and there it was. It was so organic. I would usually record live and sequence through the drum machine and do two or three passes, record them on DAT, and then pick the best mix. But with this track I just did it once, recorded it and then dove it over the Derrick's house. 

Do you ever have the problem that your bud can hide from you?

If you know you have it, you're gonna get drawn to it. Especially if you like to smoke the way I do man. Sometimes it's hard to find it around the world, but most of the time it finds me. 

A lot of Chicago house had disco music as its main inspiration, whether it was remakes or tracks that sampled and looped parts from old disco songs. Would you agree that the city's template for doing so was moved up a notch in terms of overall production sound when the likes of Daft Punk came along? 

Yeah. I sampled because of what I heard from producers who were doing their own edits. People call them edits, but on some people were really doing like their own remixes. Often there was just one little clip, one small section that everybody jumped for. The Chicago DJs took that one clip and pulled a whole track out of it.

That kind of mentality just runs across music there. The Chicago producers, most of them, were DJs first. By DJing first they were already doing it with the vinyl and the reel to reels, where they would slice and splice, making their own edits. That laid the groundwork for a lot of other stuff to come through.

When I met Thomas and Guy from Daft Punk they were really inspired by our movement - aA lot of French kids liked it. The Dance Mania movement, the most ghetto house shit that ever came out of Chicago, is massive in Paris. They love that rawness that comes with it. When Thomas and Guy first started they just ran into electronic, they came from like a rock/punk background. They found themselves some Chicago and Detroit music. They've been putting out all different kinds of music in the years they've been going.

When I heard that last album, which is massively produced and features Giorgio Moroder, Nile Rodgers, Pharrell Williams, I thought, man, these guys have really reached the pinnacle of their production. There were no samples any more, they were just creating new and fresh disco and funk sounds. 

I just did a stint in LA for six months and produced a new album, and I hope with that to reach a similar pinnacle in my own sound. I'm betting my life and my money on it. I'm trying to go the same route, taking my production sound from one level to another. I've done about 20 songs all of which I think are up at the same level as 'Fix My Sink', which I did really well with. Hopefully it will drop sometime in 2017.

When you consider the success and development of Daft Punk do you think that Europe has a place in the evolution of this American music known as house?

Well, overall, I think Daft Punk are music producers, they're not just house music producers. They are real musicians and when you have that they can put a lot more effort into it than your usual dance track that gets put together on a laptop, gets over compressed and then played on a dancefloor three hours later like it's some big shit.

When you can grow and elevate yourself through the years you've been involved in music, achieving something like Daft Punk have attained is possible. The opportunities are so many. You meet people who want to sing, play, rap on your shit through the years and Daft Punk have made great relationships. 

UK audiences club audiences were amazed by the style of DJing that people like you and Derrick brought here in the mid 90s. They'd never heard anything really like that, the DJ riding the mix for so long, playing different elements from each track and creating new music by doing so. Where did that style of mixing develop from?

That shit came from the street, man. That shit came from house parties, loft parties, block parties, street parties. It came from the kids that practised their asses off. There's no pamphlet in Chicago that we all get where it says you need to learn to mix like this. You learn by watching and by listening to other people. We had so many great teachers in Chicago.

Often people didn't have a clue what they were doing, but they were pushing and they were having fun with it. By that they discovered that you can be creative in so many different ways, without having to be like today's DJs who all want to sound like a robot, perfect, who all want to have their tricks and effects which cover everything except that which is important, the music.

If you have a good song you wanna let that shit play, you don't want to put all kinds of stupid shit all over it, delays, stutters, flangers. That's all kinds of stupid shit. That's not being creative. That's the opposite. Chicago Djing is all about freestyling, going with the feeling. We never had a booklet.

I think what it is too is that we're very competitive. And there's so many DJs in Chicago. 30 years of Djing is how long I've been into it and there were people before me. So, let's say 40 years of serious disc jockeying shit in Chicago. There's always been the element of competition.

Everybody wants to show off, everybody wants to do something new, everybody wants to be that guy who can play with three decks or play a jazz track and then a techno track. Whatever. People just freestyle, man. That's why we're so creative. Fuck the status quo, we do things our way.

People like you, Derrick and Cajmere from that Chicago second wave have had reasonable success and exposure over in Europe. Who from that scene never got the props they deserved?

The props. Huh. I don't know, man. I think you earn your shit. Whoever thinks they haven't got what they deserve is because they haven't worked for it. Because I came from nothing, Paul Johnson came from nothing, Cajmere came from nothing.

There's definitely a lot of sour people who think, "I should have been there, I should have done that, I should be where Sneak is at, I should be where Derrick is at, because I'm better." They just didn't know how to play their cards right. They didn't know how to play the game.

I think Chicago and Detroit has always gotten love from everywhere around the world. In Chicago, if you wanted to do it, all you had to do was make music and hustle. 

It's interesting you mention Paul Johnson as I've been a fan of his for the longest time, but unlike everyone else from Chicago who I like, I never got to hear him spin. And I wondered if that might have been because he doesn't come to the UK as much as some of the other guys, because of the chair.

Well Paul, as you know, he's paralysed, now he's removed his legs, he's in a wheelchair but, you know, he can still rock it. I can't say that Paul could fill in that answer to your question about props, because he's gotten many. I love every single Paul Johnson track. And that's a lot to say. There's not been one where I've been like, hmmmmm, I don't know if I could play that shit. No. It's always been, gimme that new Paul Johnson shit cos I've got to play it. 

His disability has never stopped him from making music. Sometimes it's stopped him from Djing, yeah, it's difficult. But now he's healthy and he's doing it. I have major love for Paul. 

The next record you had that hit the pop charts in the UK was 'Fix My Sink'. That was quite a departure for people who'd followed your releases to that point. Where did the idea come from for that track?

Bear Who, who wrote the lyrics, he was a big friend of mine back in the day. He's always been great at creating crazy stories. One day before I was due to come to the UK to work on an album he called me and said, "Dude, I got this story and it's too shit, we gotta make it into a record." He was doing it over the phone to no music. I told him, "Ok man, I'm leaving to go to Blackpool to work on my shit, go to the studio, cut the vocals and send me a CD of it." 

Musically it was inspired by the lyrics but also by the fact that I was breaking bread with one of the best producers in England, Blakkat (Mark Bell) in Blackpool. He's brilliant. He made me elevate myself to a whole other level for that album Housekeeping 15 years ago, which is when 'Fix My Sink' came out. That, for me, was the first time I realised I could actually produce. 

The track was following a soul vibe, with a bit of Chicago thrown in. It was a track of its time. There was a time for it, people responded to it really well, the radio got behind it, it made a lot of impact. I invested a lot in it, had a video made because I realised how important it was to do that, to expose the track. And it worked. It was huge in Australia as well. 

Is Ibiza a defining place for the evolution of house music or is it just a good place to party?

Honestly, after coming here since 1996, it's sad to say that what these people think is partying and having the time of their lives, it's mostly an illusion, a dream. It's a story that some people sell you in order to get you to come here. And then they get disappointed. Where things are at, they're kinda sad.

There's a lot of exposure for all these big things, generic, make-believe artists and DJs that people want to promote here. If you don't know nothing about nothing you might actually believe what's being pushed to you and promoted from the moment you leave the plane. There are all these billboards of just... nobodies. They haven't made one good record, they've come up overnight. So, I don't think it's a defining place for house music.

I think there's a lot of places in Europe that can actually say that they are. Honestly, for me, lately it's been London. I've played so many places there, Ministry Of Sound, Fabric, The End, The Cross, some that aren't even there now, they're lost. In the last few years I've been playing there to a whole new, young crew who love and understand house music. 51st State last year was amazing, an all American line up.

It was an amazing turn out from London and a lot of people in the crowd were kids, curious to see all these old fools, Masters At Work, Derrick Carter, Todd Terry, Dennis Ferrer, myself. I don't know if it's just London but there's definitely a lot of places there that show there's an interest from young people to hear the OG sounds. They're respecting it.

Last time I was in a club there, XOYO, I was the oldest fucking geezer in the room. But, musically, I gave them some shit they can't get from these cookie cut DJs. I gave them an experience and I've got 30 years worth to give. 

What's coming next for DJ Sneak and for Magnetic Recordings?

I have four or five EPs ready, nothing from me personally, I've just been picking up music from different people around the world. The biggest project I can talk about is probably this new album I mentioned, which will probably be six or seven months from now, who knows? 

Have you got any vocal tracks or guests on it?

I have a lot of local musicians from LA on it. But I don't have like a big named rapper or and R&B like shit on it. I worked with a guy called Charlie Sputnik, who's a teacher at the Music Institute in LA. He ended up being the primary songwriter and vocalist on many of the cuts I did. Because he was at the Music Institute he was able to find two or three students of his who are really hot, coming up, that nobody yet knows about and they came in and guested.

They were only on average about 22/23 years old, male and female, but nobody huge. No Mary J Blige, no The Game, Jay Z, none of that shit, but I do have an amazing group of people who contributed. I did a lot of songwriting too and I've done two vocals. I feel I've grown in doing it and I'm content. I set out to do a project, and the results have come out really well. 

Find DJ Sneak events.