Ive been going to Ibiza every year for ten years solid, playing at every single club, for every single promoter and over that ten years Ive 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, Id be the only one whod be completely not into that shit going I cant do this. I cant be in this crowd.
Despite avoiding coke, hes 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, Thats the way I see it, anyway, trance doesnt make sense to me. I can relate more to Herbie Hancock and James Brown music than trance.
Thats hes holding court in a 5 star hotel thats one of the main haunts of Londons 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 someones going to break into your car or start shooting guns right in front of your Moms 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 theyd 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 theyre 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 brothers still alive, hes not in jail and hes 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, Sneaks one of Chicagos best known international DJs, renowned for spinning a distinctive dirty, funky style of house thats hes very much made his own. A regular visitor to London, hes 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, youve also just played at the club, how important is London these days in the greater scheme of things?
DJ Sneak: Ive been coming here to London for the last ten years and its always been a great place for me, my first ever London date was also a Relief Records party at Ministry Of Sound. Since then Ive played many other places in London and had residencies here, its 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: Its still the same, though I think Ive definitely developed and evolved into being a more experienced DJ, people know what theyre 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 doesnt matter what washes out around me musically.
Skrufff: You definitely have a quite a distinctive recognizable almost chugging house sound .
DJ Sneak: Im 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 Im really pleased with. I kind of broke through with a different sound, not necessarily one that hadnt 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 whats hot, but then there are also people out there who like to support talent and Ive 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 didnt know what to expect. Id 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, thats 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 theres a few million Puerto Ricans in Chicago but when I went it wasnt 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 wasnt able to go to parties then. I was actually a bigger guy and looked a lot older but in the States youve got to be 21,so its more difficult. I was devoted to radio when I first got there partly because I didnt 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 thats 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 thats all I did. On every notebook and everything I touched Id 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 Id 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 Im 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. Hed 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 Id 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 wed 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, thats 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 its twelve, Id 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 dont even know thats 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.
Thats 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 Id 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.. Wed try to go there and keep them interested before somebody took out a gun and started shooting, which happened. Thats how I started DJing and I just continued. Ive been doing this since 1986. And Im 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. Thats always been the case. I even do it today.
Skrufff: Now that youre so well established is it easier?
DJ Sneak: People think that once you make it to a certain level you are like Yeah, now Im on top. Its hard to stay level. Its hard to maintain peoples 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 Im 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 didnt say trance sucks, it said Fuck Trance and l still stand by it. Theres 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: Its 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 dont mind because basically you have no dignity. I know some of these guys (pausing and shooting off on a tangent). . . Im happy to say Im thirty-five and Ive never done a line of cocaine in my life. It wasnt 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: Ive 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 cant 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 dont know. Thats the way I see it. It doesnt make sense to me. I can relate more to Herbie Hancock and James Brown music than trance.
Skrufff: But didnt you write a song extolling the pleasures of inhaling nitrous oxide what makes that different from ecstasy?
Dj Sneak: Im 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 Im like what the hells this? He said Just take it, it will make you feel good, youll understand the music. So I took it but didnt really feel anything, maybe it didnt 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 friends house, with good music surrounded by all my mates from Chicago and, I finally understood fully and I knew how people feel when Im playing for them when there are drugs. Cool.
But then, at what point do you say Ive had enough of that shit? when do you understand its 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, Im finished with ecstasy. Even when I was doing it, I wasnt into it as much as other people I would dabble, Id 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, Im like what the hell is this shit? What am I missing out on? Let me go try it. Then you try it and youre like: Oh and the music is bloom bloom bloom and things are happening and youre like, this is bizarre.
Skrufff: Im curious that you did pills and did nitrous oxide but never cocaine?
Dj Sneak: I couldnt and wouldnt 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 wouldnt believe would be doing that shit are doing it. Its weird because some of my best friends are doing that shit and Im saying to them You dont need that, man; look inside yourself and find a reason why you got into it in the first place. I go to Ibiza and Ive been going there ten years solid, playing at every single club, for every single promoter and Ive 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. Id be the only one whod be completely not into that shit going I cant do this. I cant 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 wasnt part of that scene.
DJ Sneaks Sneak Beats Sessions is out now on Ministry Of Sound Records.