“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.
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.
“The second-wave kids had already heard, and were reading in magazines, about how house music was making an impact,” says Sneak. “They knew that that door was already open, that the groundwork was already laid by all the pioneers. Between 1990 and ’94, a lot of Chicago producers actually moved out of Chicago, went to Europe, went to New York, all these places, and were already spreading the word even harder. So in ’93, ’94, ’95, all these younger producers were like, ‘Now is the time.'”
Their sound—really a conglomerate of sounds, many quite distinct—was especially popular in the midwest, where road-trip culture encouraged the intermingling of local rave scenes from Minneapolis to Cleveland, Kansas City to Louisville. Chicago, in every way, was right in the middle.
House music was as ubiquitous in late-80s Chicago as it is worldwide today. Local labels like Trax, DJ International, and Dance Mania were churning out 12-inches that detonated in local clubs as well as overseas. The now-defunct WBMX’s Hot Mix 5, a group of DJ all-stars, launched the still-thriving careers of Farley “Jackmaster” Funk, Ralphi Rosario, and Bad Boy Bill, among others. A party with any of those DJs—not to mention Frankie Knuckles (who arrived in 1977 from New York to spin full-time at the Warehouse, the club that gave house music its name and the place where his combination of disco classicism and drum-machine enhancements molded the music’s style) and Ron Hardy of the Music Box (dead of misadventure in 1992, and a fiercer, more expressionistic DJ than Knuckles)—could attract as many as 5,000 people.
“They played all this different house music on the radio,” Chicago house vet Derrick Carter told the Reader‘s Miles Raymer in 2011. “WBMX or WGCI or Disco Dai [WDAI] or WVON or WJPC would do a morning drive-time mix, a ‘hot lunch’ mix, and an ‘after work at six’ mix. Then on Fridays and Saturdays they would do 9 [PM] to 4 or 5 [AM]—right along club time, but on the radio. I would stay up and listen, or rig up the VCR to the radio. I could record six hours, so I didn’t even have to be up. Later I would listen and transfer it all back to cassette. I would edit it and take out the stupid songs—reduce to the good stuff, in my eyes.”
Curtis A. Jones did much the same thing. He grew up listening to a full range of music, but fell hardest for house, taping “Jackmaster” Funk DJ sets off the radio. “I still have my tapes of those shows from back in the 80s,” he says. He began writing songs while studying chemical engineering as an undergrad at Urbana-Champaign. “My original intention was just to be a producer,” he says. “Back then I was a shy person, so I wanted to do something more behind-the-scenes.”
“We definitely had a sense that history was being made. I couldn’t believe that this shit was going on, that we’re going to a roller rink and it’s full of 1,500 or 2,000 kids and it’s going all night long until six in the morning.” —Electronic musician Kate Simko
Jones found himself dismayed when Chicago house music’s popularity dwindled in its hometown. “House was the most popular form of music for a lot of the black urban scene here,” he says. That changed in the 90s: “The original house audience left and went to hip-hop.”
“Back in the day, blacks and Latins were all [into] house—the gangsters, too,” Gene Farris—one of Jones’s early signings—wrote me in an e-mail. “When hip-hop hit Chicago, it separated those worlds really fast.”
One place Chicago house migrated was into the city’s lofts and warehouse spaces, where no more than a few hundred true believers would gather at a time for secretive parties advertised with simple photocopied flyers. “It would just be text,” says Justin Long, a longtime resident DJ at Lakeview’s upscale dance den Smart Bar, who came of age playing the lofts and, later, raves. “Party, name, address, DJs, that’s it—very to the point, minimalistic.
Long grew up on Chicago’s north side and fell for house music in fifth grade, after hearing Thompson & Lenoir’s “Can’t Stop the House” (1987) on the car radio. He hooked into the music’s alien quality—stark electronic beats, swaying keyboard bass, and engagingly off-key singing from Kenya Lenoir and Brenda Parker, who delivered emphatic lyrics such as “I pledge allegiance to the house sound.” In 1992, at age 14, Long bought his first pair of turntables. Soon, he was playing at parties downtown and along Milwaukee Avenue, at venues referred to only by door number: 1355, 1471, 156. “Drugs weren’t a factor,” says Long of the early loft parties. “People really just came to dance and hang out. It would be two DJs doing their thing for hours, telling a story.”
Though it was hard to see at the time, a larger audience was beckoning the city’s DJs, and Jones would be instrumental in finding it. In 1991 he began releasing 12-inches on a local label, Clubhouse, sometimes with his friend Karen Gordon, aka Dajae, a veteran session singer for whom he’d begun writing songs. One of their early ones was “Keep Movin’.” (On the 12-inch, she’s billed as Nané.) The single included the “Straight Up Drugs Remix,” featuring a weird, wet, rubbery percussion noise. It passed without notice, but Jones heard potential. He kept messing with it, eventually releasing two additional tracks on Clubhouse that tweaked the same effect.
When Jones started Cajual Records in 1992, he made its first release the fourth and final variation on that sound. This time the track was called “The Percolator.” It was pure simplicity—a militant snare, Jones nonchalantly chanting “It’s time for the percolator,” and an elongated version of that noise, now revealed as a pitch-bent synth note. The track went nova in Chicago.
“When ‘The Percolator’ came out, it was like a tidal wave,” remembers Long. “Around Chicago during that time, there was definitely a Percolator dance. When a dance is made after your song, you know it’s something special—like the Electric Slide.”
“It was a track that everybody could play,” says DJ Sneak. “Not just the ghetto south-side kids, not just Bad Boy Bill on the radio—everybody came for that record.”
It was a remarkable kickoff for Jones’s new label. “The Percolator” and its follow-up, Dajae’s winsome “Brighter Days” (which peaked at number two on the Billboard dance chart), both remain Chicago house standards. They also were the records that announced the city’s next wave of talent. “Cajual, Relief, and Prescription Records created a whole new scene,” says Melvin Oliphant III, aka veteran Chicago DJ Traxx, referring to Jones’s two main labels as well as one he distributed. “And with him, that brought [out] a lot of south-side players [like] Glenn Underground.”
The south side was fertile ground for other house-music entrepreneurs as well. Dance Mania Records had been established in 1985 by Jesse Saunders, whose “On and On,” issued on Jes’ Say in 1984, is widely acknowledged as the first house record. Dance Mania issued a number of key late-80s house classics by prime movers such as Marshall Jefferson (Hercules’ “7 Ways to Jack”) and Farley “Jackmaster” Funk (House Master Boyz’ “House Nation”). By the mid-90s, Saunders had moved to Los Angeles, and Dance Mania was in the hands of Raymond Barney, owner of west-side distributor Barney’s Records. Around the time of “The Percolator,” Barney began signing new south-side talent as well—most notably, Paul Johnson and DJ Funk.
The wheelchair-bound Johnson (he’d accidentally been shot by a friend in 1987) created a sound both raw and versatile, like genre exercises by a good low-budget filmmaker—from an airy disco cut-up like “Welcome to the Warehouse” to the dirty-mouthed, dirty-drums ghetto house of “Feel My MF Bass” (both 1994). His most famous record is 2001’s “Get Get Down,” with a piano part that amounts to a distillation of every piano riff from every house hit ever.
Born Charles Chambers, DJ Funk was raised by his grandmother, moving around Chicago neighborhoods, mainly on the west side; he spent some of his adolescence in Detroit as well. Chambers began breakdancing as a teenager, paying attention to the differences in the two cities’ DJ styles. In Detroit, he noticed, DJs cut faster, but in Chicago they rocked the party better. He vowed to do the latter.
If much of house’s original black Chicago audience switched allegiance to hip-hop in the 90s, Chambers did the opposite. He’d started as a rap producer, making a demo with Do or Die, a Chicago hip-hop act whose “Po Pimp” went Top 25 pop in 1996. When Do or Die signed to Rap-a-Lot/Virgin, Chambers felt unacknowledged. He decided to switch course. “I was a young adult, in my 20s, thinking, ‘Gangster music is cool now. This is where I come from. But I don’t see it lasting long for me.’ I played the curve.” He initially made his own album, pressing 500 copies and bringing them to Barney’s for distribution. The owner made Chambers an offer: “We’ll sell tons more if you do it on my label.”
Chambers, not wrongly, considers himself a musical pioneer. He is Chicago house’s very own Luther Campbell—a blunt-talking auteur (DJ Funk’s song titles include “Pussy Ride,” “Move That Mother Fucker,” and “Bitches!!!!!”) with beats fortified by trunk-rattling Roland 808 and 909 drum machines. “I like to make my music mostly for girls so they can get down,” he says. “If the girls are getting down, the guys are getting down.” By his own reckoning, Chambers is the inventor of ghetto house and booty house. And yes, they are different things.
“In the ghetto house scene there was a separation of ‘ghetto’ and ‘booty,'” says Bill Torres, aka Chicago DJ Mystic Bill. “Ghetto was reminiscent to a lot of the 80s stuff—raw beats with little samples. [In] booty, they got a little nastier with it.”
“We took it to the booty style because that made girls dance more,” clarifies Chambers. “It’s more about, ‘Bitch, get yo’ ass on the floor,’ ‘Shake that ass, let me see what you’ve got,’ ‘Where them hos at?’ It’s more of that style than the regular ghetto style.” In ghetto, he says, “You don’t have to be talking about girls. You could just have music playing. It can sound more techno. It [gives] you a little bit more room.”
Still, this was not exactly music of fine gradations, and that was central to its appeal. “A lot of cats were running around with ghetto-house music booming out the trunk,” says J.R. Gibson, a house DJ (under the alias Julius Romero) and late-90s rave promoter from Saint Paul, Minnesota, who frequently hosted Chicago DJs at his Twin Cities events. Gibson grew up in the sketchy Frogtown area. “I think about Chicago house from a gangster perspective—like New York hip-hop. Chicago house had attitude. Funk and those guys where just illustrating stuff out of what I grew up with in my neighborhood: Black culture, maybe even borderline stereotypical, where everyone’s running around saying ‘Bitch’ that, ‘Fuck you,’ ‘I’ll kick your ass.’ They put a four-four beat behind it and just rocked it.”
Soon, like the down-and-dirty hip-hop that helped inspire it, ghetto house would make its way to the suburbs. Its conduit would be rave’s late arrival to the U.S.—a subculture that, in Ibiza and England, had been sparked by Chicago house to begin with. And unlike with hip-hop, which spent the 90s taking over the mainstream, rave stayed so underground that parental-advisory stickers escaped it entirely—for a few years, anyway.
The smiley face, to a pop-culturally attuned young American in 1987, symbolized cruel irony, thanks to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s dark, antiheroic graphic novel Watchmen, whose symbol was the yellow orb with a splotch of blood in the position of a watch hand. But in England that year, Smiley became the symbol for something else entirely: getting off your face on MDMA—little pills dubbed “ecstasy”—while dancing to loud Chicago house and Detroit techno.
English clubbers embraced American dance music and ecstasy in tandem, first in clubs, then at increasingly large warehouses and eventually in fields. The British music press declared 1988 the “Summer of Love,” usurping 1967’s claim on that title, as enormous outdoor parties began catching on with a large part of the populace. By 1989, they were taking hold of the U.S. coasts.
“Chicago took a minute,” Torres says. Torres had moved to Chicago from Miami in 1988—already a professional DJ at 19, drawn by the house scene. He too played the lofts. But he also knew the guys in E-System, a promoter crew that threw a party called Enjoy in 1991—Chicago’s first full-scale rave. Mystic Bill was on the lineup of their second party, Groovier.
Early American rave swam with hard, weird sounds, particularly in the midwest. “When the rave scene first started, it was more hard techno [and] what they called ‘breakbeat,’ which turned into drum ‘n’ bass and jungle,” remembers Torres. “There was a lack of house music in those parties. They had me play late, after all the real hard music.”
The early parties had a renegade spirit about them that’s only grown more precious as dress codes and bottle service overwhelm the clubscape. June Nho-Ivers, a native Chicagoan now in Seattle, began attending raves in the summer of 1992, while in seventh grade. Her first party was in rural Wisconsin. “It was on a horse farm,” she says. “The moment we walked up, I remember seeing Beetlejuice being projected on the silo. Behind the DJ booth were the horses.”
Ravers were different from house heads—younger, whiter, greater in number. “Rave brought a whole new crowd of people into the music scene—at first, mainly white kids from nearby suburbs,” says Torres. “By ’92, ’93, it started [to include] kids from Milwaukee and Saint Louis and all around. I decided to do full-scale events with [all] house music.” Producing parties with Vibe Alive, Torres invited his friends Mark Farina, Derrick Carter, Spencer Kincy, and Diz to play. Soon after, they and a slew of younger DJs began to get bookings all around the midwest, then the rest of the country.
In Chicago, all-house raves caught on fast with kids who’d grown up listening to house on the radio. “The house DJs were the most popular DJs,” says Dan Labovitch, who runs Rave Archive, a Web hub for his extensive collection of Chicago-centric paraphernalia, including scanned rave zines and MP3s of old DJ mix tapes. “Boo Williams, Paul Johnson, Justin Long—those guys would headline a party all day long and draw people.”
Many American kids who’d embraced rave in the early 90s found blaring anthems such as T99’s “Anasthasia” and Human Resource’s “Dominator” exciting and rootless. But as the decade progressed, ravers began to revisit the music’s beginnings. Like rock music looking back to blues and country in the late 60s, rave returning to root styles like Chicago house and Detroit techno was proof that you weren’t just at the party looking for the next hit of E.
“We were hearing more and more: ‘Chicago is where house was from,'” says electronic musician Kate Simko, who went to her first rave in 1995. “We realized [from] the magnitude of people that were playing [at events] how important Chicago was. We definitely had a sense that history was being made. I couldn’t believe that this shit was going on, that we’re going to a roller rink and it’s full of 1,500 or 2,000 kids and it’s going all night long until six in the morning.”
As the parties grew, part of their allure was a general good-naturedness. “You’ve got to remember, Chicago to this day is the most segregated city in the country,” says Labovitch. While raves were largely populated by white suburbanites, they were open to anyone. “The thing I loved about the rave scene was it was extremely diverse—black, white, Latino, Asian, whatever,” says Jones. “By ’95, that was pretty much the peak of the rave scene.”
A subculture built on partying is bound to go overboard sometime, and that boiling point was the subject of Jones’s greatest record, which he released not as Cajual but as Green Velvet, a nickname from a girlfriend’s dad (“He knew I was Cajmere, so he would call me Green Velvet instead,” Jones says with a laugh). It became his alias for stiffer, more stripped-down, “trackier” records on Relief, a Cajual sublabel, such as 1995’s “Flash.”
“It was really raw,” says Jones. “It didn’t have any structure to it. I did it live, totally improvising off the top of my head. I thought it had too many vocals for the techno heads and was too hard for the house heads. It turned out that both of them played it. When it was played in the raves, the kids just loved it.”
They should have—it was about them. “Flash” takes place at “Club Bad,” a party gleefully presented as a den of sin. Kids huff nitrous oxide from balloons as Jones chortles through menacing distortion, “Laughing gas—but this is no laughing matter.” The crowning touch in the song’s sick-joke structure is that Jones is narrating the entire thing to the kids’ parents, who are presumably looking on, horrified.
“‘Flash,'” says Jones, “was an accumulation of all the things that I was seeing and experiencing in the rave scene.” In the beginning, he says, the scene was all about the music. But the pervasive drug use began to bother him. “You would see teenagers, young kids—some of them looked like they were 12, 13—doing very serious stuff,” he says.
At first, the big rave drugs were MDMA and LSD—ecstasy and acid. “As 15-year-olds, acid was easier to get than weed,” says Labovitch of the mid-90s. But the drugs grew harder—at the same time that the crowds grew younger. “By the fall of ’97 there were 13-year-olds really cracked out on drugs at these parties, and me thinking, ‘Wow, this has changed,'” says Simko. By the early 2000s, meth was all over the rave scene.
In 2001, Green Velvet released “La La Land,” which refined the “Flash” template with a loopy—and cautionary—vocal hook: “Something ’bout those little pills the thrills they yield un-real un-til they kill a mill-ion brain cells.” The year before, he’d signed to F-111, a subsidiary of Warner Brothers, which released an anthology of singles. Jones wrote “La La Land” attempting to tailor something to a major label; when he was dropped in 2001, he wound up releasing the song himself on Relief.
Eventually, Jones had a Club Bad experience of his own at an afterparty, when someone slipped GHB—commonly called a date-rape drug—into his drink. “I knew something very, very wrong was going on,” he says. He began breathing uneasily, and then to pray. It helped, and Jones vowed to God, “I will change and everybody will know it.” It’s a philosophy he maintains without proselytizing: “That was my personal experience. It had nothing to do with me trying to change everybody.”
But the rave scene was changing, with or without Jones’s help. “It had transformed from being about the music to being about the drugs,” says Jones of the later rave years. Justin Long started working full-time for Smart Bar and bowed out of the rave scene entirely: “It wasn’t a music-conscious society anymore. Once that element gets pulled out of the equation, what’s the importance? Whatever it became, it wasn’t for me.”
June Nho-Ivers remembers a Halloween party in 2000 at the Armory, with DJ Funk and Detroit techno artist Kenny Larkin headlining. “The moment we started getting in there, kids were already getting pulled out on stretchers,” she says. “Looking down from the DJ booth, I was like, ‘God, this is terrible.’ You just saw kids melting, and fights breaking out. Security was such an issue—there were so many issues all over the place.”
It didn’t take long for law enforcement to crack down. “[Local promoter] Vibe Alive had a party out in the suburbs, in a forest preserve,” Oliphant recalls. “I was out there to play. It was a little late, but [suddenly] they had SWAT teams, militant motherfuckers in all black with helmets and machine guns, busting the party, landing down on the forest preserve. It was really, really bad.”
Chambers watched as the cops nudged rave promoters toward insolvency by calling off their permits minutes before doors opened: “If promoters put up 20, 50 grand and get busted, they have to pay all the DJs off. They lose all their money.”
Rave went to sleep for the better part of a decade—only to have come back to life in the past few years among a millennial generation of kids in thrall of Skrillex, Deadmau5, Swedish House Mafia, and Nero. For them, it’s a new thrill. For older partiers, it can’t help but sound familiar.
The same is true of juke or footwork—the latest iteration of Dance Mania-style ghetto-booty. “They’ve kind of changed it to juke a little bit, but it’s still the same style,” says Chambers. Now that electronic dance music has hit the 30-year mark, Chicago’s second wave is poised to have a second coming. It hasn’t been excavated by archival labels the way the 80s stuff has, but that’s starting to change. Last year Anotherday, a reissue subsidiary of England’s Ramp Recordings, reissued Boo Williams’s Home Town Chicago, a 1996 album originally out on Cajual, and Amsterdam label Rush Hour, which put out last year’s late-80s compilation Gene Hunt Presents Chicago Dance Tracks, is looking into collecting some of the city’s early-90s house as well.
The artists from that period know its draw. This year is Cajual Records’ 20th anniversary; the label hasn’t announced plans to celebrate but hints that it will. Chambers has registered the URL dancemaniarecords.com and, he says, owns digitized copies of several hundred original Dance Mania tracks copied from a number of sources. “I’m trying to figure out exactly how I want to put them out,” he says. “They’ve been in limbo for a while.” So was Chambers himself. After the rave scene’s early-00s collapse, DJ Funk had to slash his performance fee. “I was used to having doctor money, lawyer money,” he says with a laugh. “I was down to regular work money.”
But during his heyday, Chambers “was smart enough to get some real estate.” Location: the west suburbs. “The house I bought is an old rock ‘n’ roll studio,” he says proudly. “Remember that group, what’s their name—Styx? ‘Mr. Roboto’? I bought their studio: 1,000 square feet, big main room, big room for a band, singer room, drummer room. It took a while to get used to it, but at least I made an investment.”
Sneak made a different kind of investment, albeit one that’s also rooted in his musical past. Fabric 62 is a departure from his previous mix CD, 2009’s two-disc Back in the Box, which concentrated on the late 90s and repped Chicago with songs by Paul Johnson and Cajmere, as well as (naturally) “You Can’t Hide From Your Bud.” It’s telling that, for all his hometown pride, the only Chicago artist on Fabric 62 is DJ Sneak himself. Chicago gave house music to the world, but the world has been doing more with it than its hometown has for a few years now. The bulk of Sneak’s selections come from European producers.
Musically, the main difference between Fabric 62 and Sneak’s first official mix, Buggin’ da Beats (Moonshine, 1997), is the difference between computer animation and hand-drawn cels—the narrative’s basically the same, but the tools with which the story is illustrated are different. Sneak likes warm, enveloping, lightly psychedelic grooves in which a kick drum playing a solid four is never far away—and neither is percussion that tugs away at the dancer’s outer limbs. The rhythms are warm even when they’re minimalist, as on Yeshua Murlillo’s “I’m Gonna Make You Mine (Joss Moog Remix),” which is the most arresting moment on the mix—just a couple of piano notes, some restrained sax, and a sonorous crooning of the title phrase are all the track needs to keep the ear tantalized. The rough kick drum does the rest.
If Sneak’s still mining an updated version of the same sound he created two decades ago, it says something about how durable that music was—and remains. Even so, the DJ is mindful of the real-world economic reasons for adapting what he’s always done while paying close attention to how house music has changed. “I’m 41 years old now,” Sneak says. “The crowd I used to play for, they all have kids and don’t really go clubbing. I’m targeting a younger crowd. You’ve got to go with the times.”
DJ Sneak and Derrick Carter, Live at the End, London, 2001.
Corrections: This story has been amended to reflect the year Armando’s “Downfall” was first released, as well as the label that released it. The story also has been changed to reflect the rave promoters with whom DJ Mystic Bill was affiliated.