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How Chicago house got its groove back

Chicago house music is the sound of global pop today. In the 90s, though, it was on life support—until a new wave of producers, including Cajmere and DJ Sneak, got the city doing the Percolator.

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"You're as relevant as your last mix."

That's a line for a DJ to live by if ever there were one. And if there were ever a DJ to proclaim it, Carlos Sosa is that DJ. Sosa is better known as DJ Sneak, though he also calls himself "the house gangster"—not as a declaration of criminality, but as a ride-or-die pledge of roots. His roots are deep. Born in Puerto Rico, Sneak moved to Chicago in 1983 at age 13, started practicing on his bedroom decks three years later, and went on to become a global ambassador of the Chicago house sound.

Sneak's success in carving out a career has a lot to do with his visibility on the American rave scene of the 90s—and his ability to evolve his style to suit the much-altered electronic-music landscape of today. "I did the rounds, man," he says. "I didn't cut any corners." By the time he dropped 1997's "You Can't Hide From Your Bud"—a disco-powered house ode to the DJ's favorite herbal snack—rave was in full bloom, and Chicago house was a big draw all over the circuit.

But what drew glow-stick-wielding kids in oversize "phat pants" wasn't the DJs who reigned during Chicago house music's first, mid-80s epoch—DJs who conquered the world while remaining relatively unknown in their own back yard. By the time rave culture reached the midwest in the early 90s, Chicago house legends such as Farley "Jackmaster" Funk, Frankie Knuckles, and Steve "Silk" Hurley were busy headlining overseas and producing and remixing pop records. They were already too big for a scene that was scrappy by design. A few years younger, Sneak fit right in with the new breed.

House music has belonged to the world as a whole for most of its history. But like everything else in club life, Chicago-purist house has its vogues of popularity and wider cultural relevance. The mid-to-late 90s was such a time—just as right now is. The original sound of Chicago house music labels Trax and DJ International has been reintegrated into clubland's matrix with increasing frequency. A number of producers have made back-to-'87-style tracks. Vintage-Chicago-house 12-inches pop up on mixes by under-25 DJs such as Benjamin Damage & Doc Daneeka (their XLR8R Mix, from March, pivots halfway through on Armando's "Downfall," first released on Trax in 1988).

It's a good time for old Chicago house to be having a pop moment in the midst of a wider surge of popularity for electronic dance music. The radio sounds like a rave with hooks. That's right—raves are back, thanks to corporate-sponsored mega-events like Las Vegas's Electric Daisy Carnival and, in Chicago, the North Coast Music Festival and the brand-new Spring Awakening Music Festival. Part of it is due to a confluence of new talent—Skrillex, Deadmau5, etc—and a large young audience fluent in their style. It's analogous, in many ways, to mid-90s Chicago.

"I always say 'Chicago house music,'" Sneak clarifies from his south-side home. "People from Sweden claim house music, but to me what they push is really not house music. This is what I really consider house music [to be] all about."

"This" is most recently embodied by Fabric 62, Sneak's new DJ mix CD and the latest installment of a ten-year-old bimonthly series from the London club Fabric. Sneak's been around long enough to just coast on some classics if he felt like it, but the mix is sharper than even a devoted fan might expect. Chicago house has been morphed by the globalization of electronic music in the digital age, but Sneak's mix still sounds familiar. Apart from the obviously modern production—the beats, especially, have a greater spatial depth now than 15 years ago, the better to rocket out of the giant Funktion-One speakers preferred at the big dance events Sneak headlines—Fabric 62 harks back to the loop-laden sound Sneak and other Chicago DJs pioneered.

Sneak has made a handful of officially licensed DJ mixes, most concentrating on the here and now of their creation. Fabric 62 is no different. All of its tracks are from 2010 or later; even Sir James's "Special," originally released in 1990, is newly remixed by Belgian producer Ramon Tapia.

Chicago-based electronic musician Kate Simko.
  • Chicago-based electronic musician Kate Simko.

It was around the time that "Special" first appeared that Sneak got his start in the business. He began working for the now-shuttered Hip House, a seminal rave-era 12-inch dance shop on West Grand that he helped run from 1991 to 1994. He then took a demotion of sorts to work an entry-level job at the legendary DJ shop Gramaphone Records. "I went from general manager and main buyer for a big store to being a counterperson," he says of his move to Gramaphone. The trade-off was worth it. Sneak expanded his contacts and was able to shop his demo to house labels. "Gramaphone was like my college," he says.

Back in the 90s, recorded music—that most striking early beneficiary of the new superfast digital world—moved through fewer circuits. Radio and record stores were crucial to its evolution—they were how you got feedback before the "Like" button. And while pressing 12-inches and dealing with distributors meant it took more time and money for a hit to spread, Chicago's scene was active enough to keep the mixes flowing.

While at the Hip House, Sneak struck up an acquaintance with a twentysomething up-and-comer named Curtis A. Jones. A native Chicagoan who'd rejected grad school in chemical engineering at Berkeley in favor of a career in house music, Jones began gaining attention with the records he produced as Cajmere, which he put out on his label Cajual. (Both aliases are expansions of his initials, C.A.J.) After Sneak started working at Gramaphone, he passed Jones a demo. Soon Cajual and its sister label, Relief, began issuing DJ Sneak's records, which started getting overseas club play. In 1996, Sneak left Gramaphone to make and play music full-time. Within a year, he'd guaranteed himself a lifetime pass to do so.

One day in 1997, Sneak promised his friend and fellow Chicago DJ Derrick Carter a new 12-inch for Carter's label Classic, then spent hours fruitlessly laboring over a basic, bustling four-four beat. Finally, Sneak gave in and smoked the J he'd had stashed for later in the day. When he came back inside, he carelessly dropped the needle onto a Teddy Pendergrass LP, heard the word "Well . . . ," and realized, "That's the sample, right there." He threaded Pendergrass's 20-year-old disco hit "You Can't Hide From Yourself" through a low-pass filter to give it the effect of going in and out of aural focus, creating one of the definitive Chicago house singles. "An hour later," he says, "I called Derrick and played it over the phone: 'I've got your track.'"

"You Can't Hide From Your Bud" is a master class in sustained tension and release. The song's title phrase is hinted at, teased around, and turned to fuzz. But the track never totally resolves itself in all of its nine minutes, giving it the feel of a nonstop plateau, which makes the record even more disco. "Bud" is the definitive example of late-90s "filter disco," give or take French fake-robot duo Daft Punk. Their own 1997 release, Homework, features "Teachers," a tribute to 44 of their musical heroes. The third named is DJ Sneak.

In the aftermath of first-wave superstars "Jackmaster" Funk, Frankie Knuckles, and "Silk" Hurley, a new breed of talent imprinted underground Chicago house on the American rave scene. Along with Jones (as Cajmere or Green Velvet), DJ Funk, Boo Williams, Glenn Underground, and Paul Johnson, among many others, Sneak led Chicago house's mid-90s second wave—a group whose total impact on dance music is roughly equal to their 80s predecessors.

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