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DJ Sneak: on Chicago, Trance and Cocaine: I’ve Never Done a Line ::

Reported by Trackitdown TID on May 4, 2006

“I’ve been going to Ibiza every year for ten years solid, playing at every single club, for every single promoter and over that ten years I’ve seen how many DJs have come and gone and how many are still left and how many years they got left in them. I can almost predict it, just by looking at them.”


Sitting in the bar of a luxury London hotel, Chicago house DJ Sneak chuckles as he outlines his theory on the effect cocaine use has on the lifespan of his fellow superstar DJs.


“When the All Gone Pete Tong movie came out I was laughing my ass off because I know the time frame that movie was based on, and at the time everybody on the scene were all fighting their coke masters,” he continues, “I’d be the only one who’d be completely not into that shit going ‘I can’t do this. I can’t be in this crowd’.”


Despite avoiding coke, he’s comfortable confessing to an earlier flirtation with ecstasy and equally outspoken about a genre he clearly loathes- trance.


“For me, I put trance and ecstasy and cocaine in the same category. To me, you have to be on cocaine to appreciate trance; or say cocaine or ecstasy or speed or crystal meth; you need all that stuff to try to even maybe feel like you are feeling something with the music,” he continues, “That’s the way I see it, anyway, trance doesn’t make sense to me. I can relate more to Herbie Hancock and James Brown music than trance.”


That’s he’s holding court in a 5 star hotel that’s one of the main haunts of London’s A List glitterati, is no small achievement, given his background coming up as a teenager living in the ghettos of Chicago as a non English speaking Peurto Rican.


“Moving to Chicago was a huge culture shock and though I got used to it eventually I never liked living having to constantly look over your shoulder or wondering constantly if someone’s going to break into your car or start shooting guns right in front of your Mom’s house- that was the reality of life in Chicago,” he recalls.


“It was a really rough place, I was living right in the middle of gangbangers (gang members) fighting for colours, sometimes they’d chase me because they thought I was doing gang graffiti rather than my work,” he says.


“I was at the age then when they try and persuade you to join them, to sell drugs and to push whatever they’re pushing. I had a little brother who was two years younger than me and I remember telling him one day ‘this is not for us’. I tried to set an example and today my brother’s still alive, he’s not in jail and he’s not a drug dealer. We actually survived the ghetto, living in those rough conditions until we were able to get out of it. I live in Canada now.


20 years on, Sneak’s one of Chicago’s best known international DJs, renowned for spinning a distinctive dirty, funky style of house that’s he’s very much made his own. A regular visitor to London, he’s chatting about his life and views alongside promoting his new mix CD Sneak Beats Sessions, out on Ministry Of Sound records.



Skrufff (Jonty Skrufff): Your new mix CD has just come out on British label Ministry Of Sound, you’ve also just played at the club, how important is London these days in the greater scheme of things?


DJ Sneak: “I’ve been coming here to London for the last ten years and it’s always been a great place for me, my first ever London date was also a Relief Records party at Ministry Of Sound. Since then I’ve played many other places in London and had residencies here, it’s still a key place to play at as well as an important stop over for other gigs in Europe.”


Skrufff: How is your mindset towards DJing compared to ten years ago?


DJ Sneak: “It’s still the same, though I think I’ve definitely developed and evolved into being a more experienced DJ, people know what they’re going to get from me when they pay to visit a nightclub or buy a CD. I have never let my fans down and I like to be a crowd-pleaser though my roots are deep and it doesn’t matter what washes out around me musically.”


Skrufff: You definitely have a quite a distinctive recognizable almost chugging house sound….


DJ Sneak: “I’m actually used now as a point of reference by some people. People in the dance industry are always inventing new names and gimmicks whereas I have this ‘Sneak sound’, which is something I’m really pleased with. I kind of broke through with a different sound, not necessarily one that hadn’t been done before but the way I did it struck a chord because I did it for real. A lot of people just jump on what’s hot, but then there are also people out there who like to support talent and I’ve been one of the lucky ones to be a chosen one, to do what I do and still get my word across my way and never have to compromise my dignity for fame or drugs or whatever comes with this industry.”


Skrufff: Do you feel the same sort of buzz ten years on?


DJ Sneak: “Ten years ago I was just coming up and I didn’t know what to expect. I’d read about the UK scene and mostly I was following people who were making it big here in the UK such as Steve Silk Hurley, Farley Jackmaster Funk, Marshall Jefferson. All these people were like teachers to me and the sound of house music and I ‘d seen their records being charted and being number one dance records and thought ‘Wow, that’s pretty amazing that somebody from Chicago can make it that big worldwide’. I wanted to try it out.”


Skrufff: Your teenage years were spent in Chicago, was there a big Latino community there at that time?


DJ Sneak: “In  1985 not really. There was some Latinos and mostly Mexicans. It was weird because most Puerto Ricans who go to the States usually move to New York City first, then from New York they decide where they want to go. Nowadays there’s a few million Puerto Ricans in Chicago but when I went it wasn’t like that at all It was mostly black, white, a little bit of Latin, a little bit of Asian.”


Skrufff: Did you see legendary DJs like Ron Hardy playing at the Warehouse?


DJ Sneak: “No, I was too young, I was thirteen when I got there so I wasn’t able to go to parties then. I was actually a bigger guy and looked a lot older but in the States you’ve got to be 21,so it’s more difficult. I was devoted to radio when I first got there partly because I didn’t speak the language so watching television was not really a good option. I wanted to learn English and become accomplished at that but I missed Latin music and Latin television, for the first thirteen years of my life that’s all I knew.”


Skrufff: Where did you name Sneak come from?


DJ Sneak: “I was really into the whole breaking and graffiti movement of the time following artists like Afrika Baambataa. I knew how to draw before I got to Chicago so graffiti became my thing, and for five or six years that’s all I did. On every notebook and everything I touched I’d write my tag ‘Sneak’, Sneak became my alter ego and I ended up doing walls though never got to do trains as I was to big too be running around with the cops chasing you. I would be a bit more safe.

Then when I was in high school I met this Mexican art teacher and practically begged him to let me in his class, he took me in and I was really happy and then I hooked up with another friend who was a graffiti guy there and one day we tagged all the stools in the class and he knew it was me. He busted me red handed and said ‘I let you in this class and this is how you repay me?’.”


Skrufff: Did he kick you out of the class?


DJ Sneak: “I promised him I’d do whatever he wanted, cleaned everything up and he ended up showing me how to put canvases together and how to stretch things and how to paint and showed me a bit of the real artwork  which I’m still so into today. In many ways DJing for me was just about changing medium,  I think most graffiti artists that were serious at the time evolved to something else, whether they became fashion designers or whatever else. A lot of DJs started with graffiti such as Roger Sanchez and Kenny Dope; at the time being a graffiti artist was the thing to be.. I became a really good airbrush artist, which is like usin a spraycan but a smaller version of it. I still do it today. My daughter asks me to do stuff.”


Skrufff: How did you get involved in DJing?


DJ Sneak: “In high school they used to do dances after school and there was this DJ there called Carlos Cookie Cruz who was the first DJ I saw. He was Puerto Rican, which I could relate to, he was a senior, he was on the decks and he was cutting that shit up. He’d play every style and when it came to the house stuff, he played it with real finesse. I remember thinking ‘I know I can do that; I feel like I can do’. Prior to that I’d record on tape decks and mix using the pause buttons but I knew decks would be something else. Years passed and we never had enough money to buy equipment but we’d all share things, whether turntables, records or speakers and take turns at practicing. A lot of people thought DJing was a fad and dipped in and out of it but I loved it and stuck to it, that’s all I did for years and years.”


Skrufff: When did you start playing out?


DJ Sneak: “Between 1986 and 1991 I was a bedroom DJ and a wedding DJ, I did weddings for four years which involved setting up all the equipment, playing for people who are like drunk and happy and sad and fights would always break out…most of the weddings were Spanish weddings so it was fun because there was culture in there, that I could relate to it. Me and my brother would be like ‘OK it’s twelve, I’d say by about one thirty, one of these dudes is going to start fighting. We would time it and make bets on who was going to fight who and who was going to start. It was kind of fun. People don’t even know that’s how I started; as a wedding DJ. I then gradually moved up, playing in smaller clubs and at any parties that would have me play.


That’s the thing; Chicago has so many DJs, still today, that you have to fight for a slot. You have to negotiate and you have to renegotiate and more often than not I’d play for forty bucks and a dime bag of weed ($10 bag). The parties were full of gang bangers and hoochie mamas; A hoochie mama is like a street girl.. We’d try to go there and keep them interested before somebody took out a gun and started shooting, which happened. That’s how I started DJing and I just continued. I’ve been doing this since 1986. And I’m still loving it as much as I loved it when I was a kid.”


Skrufff: Were you making a living as a wedding DJ?


DJ Sneak: “I was doing day jobs and weddings at the weekends. Usually if I had one wedding on a Saturday it was cool, if I had a wedding Saturday  and Sunday it was cool, extra money. When I was twenty my girlfriend had a kid, I have a fifteen year old daughter now and it meant I had to do something serious and become responsible. The most responsible thing to do was work and put my love of music and things second until I was able to flip it around. It was pure chance. I took chances all the time. I was never settled for second best, I always said I can do better or I can do something better to move forward. That’s always been the case. I even do it today.”


Skrufff: Now that you’re so well established is it easier?


DJ Sneak: “People think that once you make it to a certain level you are like  ‘Yeah, now I’m on top’. It’s hard to stay level. It’s hard to maintain people’s interest and attention. Everybody has short attention span these days. To keep people interested you have to work really hard at it and I can tell you I’m a work horse.”


Skrufff: I remember reading that you used to have a T shirt saying ‘Trance Sucks’, have you still got it?


Dj Sneak: “It didn’t say ‘trance sucks’, it said ‘Fuck Trance’ and l still stand by it. There’s nothing about that style of supposedly music that I can even comprehend.”


Skrufff: Why do you think trance is so much more popular in America than house?


Dj Sneak: “It’s like comparing pop music and real music. You work really hard to get somewhere then you get some little Pop Idol dude coming up and doing his shit who gets everything that you are supposed to be getting if you work hard. Or somebody just gets it handed it on a plate because some executive or a manager has put this project together and said ‘hey this is where we going in New York’. Trance is commercial and anything commercial sells. If you are the cheesiest person in the world and you can play it out  then you don’t mind because basically you have no dignity. I know some of these guys (pausing and shooting off on a tangent). . . I’m happy to say I’m thirty-five and I’ve never done a line of cocaine in my life. It wasn’t in me. It was around me all the time people were selling it, people were smoking it, but I never went there.”


Skrufff: Why not?


Dj Sneak: “I’ve just seen other people and they way they react on it, and that just turns me off. They have these TV shows in America on VH-1, where they focus on a band or an an artist about how they struggle and finally make it and become these superstars and then they always throw it all away for cocaine or heroin. They forget about why or how they got there, who helped them to get there, they just forget everything. Then they make shit music and try to convince people that they are still on top, but really they can’t because their brain has been shrunken by cocaine; Or other drugs. For me, I put trance and ecstasy and cocaine in the same category. To me, you have to be on cocaine for trance; cocaine or ecstasy or speed or crystal meth – all that stuff to try to even maybe feel like you are feeling something with the music. I don’t know. That’s the way I see it. It doesn’t make sense to me. I can relate more to Herbie Hancock and James Brown music than trance.”


Skrufff: But didn’t you write a song extolling the pleasures of inhaling nitrous oxide…what makes that different from ecstasy?


Dj Sneak: “I’m not going to be a hypocrite. When I was 24 years old, I was in Toronto once and somebody hands me over a pill and I’m like ‘what the hell’s this?’ He said ‘Just take it, it will make you feel good, you’ll understand the music.’ So I took it but didn’t really feel anything, maybe it didn’t work. Then I tried it a few more times and one time I was with the right friends at the right party, in the right environment, NOT in a nightclub, and suddenly I got it, and said to myself ;;Wow, this is the shit’. I was at a friend’s house, with good music surrounded by all my mates from Chicago and, I finally understood fully and I knew how people feel when I’m playing for them when there are drugs. Cool.


But then, at what point do you say ‘I’ve had enough of that shit?’ when do you understand it’s time to stop? For me, I did my party thing when I was 24 then by the time I was 29 I was like ‘Boom, I’m finished with ecstasy. Even when I was doing it, I wasn’t into it as much as other people I would dabble, I’d take another half, take another thing, just to be social. But it never grabbed me to the point where I stopped being able to do my thing and make music.The nitrous oxide thing thing is a fun experience, but that that I put on that record was an actual experience that I had in Chicago at a warehouse party, ?? was playing, I’m like what the hell is this shit? What am I missing out on? Let me go try it. Then you try it and you’re like: Oh – and the music is bloom bloom bloom and things are happening and you’re like, this is bizarre.”


Skrufff: I’m curious that you did pills and did nitrous oxide but never cocaine?


Dj Sneak: “I couldn’t and wouldn’t snort anything up my nose”


Skrufff: Cocaine seems more popular than ever these days?


Dj Sneak: “Cocaine has made a HUGE comeback. Even people who I wouldn’t believe would be doing that shit are doing it. It’s weird because some of my best friends are doing that shit and I’m saying to them ‘You don’t need that, man; look inside yourself and find a reason why you got into it in the first place’. I go to Ibiza and I’ve been going there ten years solid, playing at every single club, for every single promoter and I’ve seen in the last ten years how many DJs have come and gone and how many are still left and how many years they got left in them because I can almost predict it just by looking at them. When the All Gone Pete Tong movie came out I was laughing my ass off because I know the time frame that movie was based on, and at the time everybody on the scene were all fighting their coke masters. I’d be the only one who’d be completely not into that shit going ‘I can’t do this. I can’t be in this crowd’.


I see cocaine at so many places, not so long ago I was at an after party at a mansion in the UK and I was invited to join this secret society. I get offered some cocaine and I said no and they looked at me like ‘what the fuck are you doing here then?’ I had to leave because I wasn’t part of that scene.”


DJ Sneak’s Sneak Beats Sessions is out now on Ministry Of Sound Records.