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Sneaker Freaker

After 20 years of fine-tuning Chicago jack beats, the legend of Sneak lives on

One of the early dons of Chicago's jackin' house scene who's still going strong, DJ Sneak's been mixing meaty, crunchy, flavoursome cuts on dancefloors since the good 'ol days. Makes sense, then, that he's an absolute foodie too. Cooking up wholesome savoury feasts as succulent as his sounds for his friends and family where he is now based in Toronto – his wife and newborn baby and the esteemed DJs and producers behind labels, Number19 and My Favourite Robot – he's never been shy of trying something new. As ready to shove a beer can up a chicken's bum - part of one of his speciality dishes - as he is to stamp his signature sound onto the work of upstart producers needing underground props, between sweating it out behind the booths of the coolest clubs of Europe and beyond, he's happiest mixing it up in his piping-hot kitchen.

“For me they go hand in hand,” admits the ever-affable, laid-back DJ Sneak. “I love to try and experiment, plus there is something to say about a person that loves to cook. It's a beautiful thing to create a meal and enjoy it at home with good company. I love being home, I love my kitchen, so cooking makes sense for me. If you love food, then learn to cook. It tastes better, it's better for you and it's good for the soul.”
 
It's hardly surprising, listening to Sneak's unrelenting breed of bumping beats, that his culinary approach is an unsubtle one. Preferring to marinate cumbersome cuts of meat in Irish stout than daintily arrange a stylish gourmet platter, his unpretentious DJ sets are to be gorged on, gobbled up as a succession of snapping snares, crispy hi-hats and top-rump thumps that leave you a sweaty, gratified mess. Just check his recent Fabric 62 compilation, mixed live in his home studio and featuring tunes from Ramon Tapia, DJ W!LD and Tripmastaz. Mixing up original house greats with new talent on labels like Cadenza or Snatch, never losing its freight-train momentum throughout, it's 100% unadulterated DJ Sneak on tap.

And while the image of a homely, family man — the assertive figure of worldly experience he cuts today — might feel slightly off-kilter with the Sneak that grew up as a ghetto kid, tagging buildings following a move from Puerto Rico to Chicago at the age of 14 (1983); 25 years of adulthood'll do that to anyone.

One thing that has never been in question, though, is this man's loyalty. Releasing on the likes of Strictly Rhythm, Cajmere's Cajual and his own Defiant during house music's golden years, he's remixed everyone from Radioslave to Daft Punk. He's served as one of house music's most loyal purists along the way, refusing to down tools and surrender his plight even as the sound's popularity waned, succumbing to bigger, bastardised forms envisioned for space-age megaclubs rather than downtown tattoo parlours or sweat-dripping basements.

But now, after staying true all these years, the sound of classic house is back in full force within the underground, undergoing a resurgence that's got nu-skool newbies not only raiding charity shop record bins for cuts Sneak championed from day one, but pastiching them as the next newfangled derivative.

“It's nice to see house music get some shine again and it's great to see some of the classy classic house acts in the main rooms again,” Sneak reflects. “There are some great events going on around the world and I'm loving the exciting tracks with catchy vocals, heavy-based beats that are actually changing the way to party again. It's a great time to be around.”
 
HOUSE MUSIC

But while Sneak digs underground labels like Cecile and Desolat, praise isn't the only thing this eternal optimist has for today's dance music scene. Acknowledging that with popularity “comes a mad amount of shit”, with everybody jumping on the bandwagon “now that house music is the 'cool' thing”, his main beef is with the commercial players desecrating the purist tenets of house music's name. “It’s a sad thing when the Swedish House Mafia is being paid BIG money to come to the US to play house music. For the record, they DO NOT play house music,” he tells DJ Mag with a smirk.

“Sadly a lot of people are labelling their music 'house music' when it is not,” he continues. “All I have to say is that North America has the best DJs in the world; we mastered the art of this DJing thing a long time ago. A lot of American promoters market and promote the commercial big names with no talent and leave the talented DJs off their line-ups.”
 
CHANGE

But the bad-mouthing misanthropist is not a look Sneak dons best; he's more willing to encourage seismic change in a music scene that needs it. Mainstream pop music may now dominate the same airwaves that, during the eighties, played host to the sounds that formed him, sculptured his entire musical outlook — “DJs like Farley Funk dropping beat traxx from a Roland 808 with an acid bassline over it live, Salsoul Records, Africa Bambaataa, Kraftwerk and Adonis were regular tracks on daily rotation,” he reminisces. Positives in today's nascent scene can still be found, providing the US mainstream embraces external influence and takes inspiration from its burgeoning undergrowth, Sneak points out.

“I will welcome the change,” he states. “I will stay positive that the change can create better events, better festivals, encourage people to explore and create. I am hoping the dance scene can step away from the commercial and look at the quality. I encourage bringing the European influences here, but please bring the good stuff. There are a lot of people still doing it for the love. It's not all about the commercial things. There is space for good music too. Also, don't forget there are real talented DJs in the US too!”


 
ACTORS

Anyone who's ever met Sneak will testify that he's little concerned with what other cats are up to; the first person to admit he's all about “keepin' it Sneak”. Alongside the likes of Derrick Carter and Cajmere, he’s continued to play the role of the Chicago house music’s arbiter as part of the city's second wave, even as the scene faded into the background temporarily and after he'd moved to Toronto (1997) to become a family man.

“I have always tried my best to take this wonderful journey gracefully, and I've loved it all the way,” a righteous Sneak recalls. “This is why I'm still here, still relevant, still working, still playing like mad, still make music like a kid, still remixing all kinds of artist including a lot of newcomers to show support and inspire the youth to dig deeper under the rubbish to find the best music they can. I never stopped, I never changed, I’ve just re-structured and educated myself to figure out a way to still be part of electronic music today.”
 
That he very much is. Still proffering slamming house beats designed for “beatin' soundsystems up”, he's kept it fresh, soaking up whatever the continuum may throw at him without losing sight of his roots. Somewhere between making mixes by cutting up and recording on his Technics tape-deck back in 1989 to releasing ‘Sneak Traxx’ on Defiant in 1993 to pushing hybrid sounds alongside modern techno greats such as Shlomi Aber in recent years, Sneak’s made his name as one of the US’s most venerable mavericks; the self-affirmed original house music gangster. He's living proof that real jackin’ house is very much alive — still raw, still juicy, still cooking on gas.

Words:  Adam Saville