The birth of our underground brand Factory 93 not only brought on an adrenaline rush reminiscent of the renegade warehouse era of raving—on which Insomniac was founded—but it also had us thinking back to all the people, places and parties that made this whole operation possible. And with that came a burning desire to crack open our collection and dust off the classic records we couldn’t live without. Through our From the Crates series, we break out both seminal and obscure cuts alike, imparting some knowledge in the process.
In the mid-‘90s, Chicago house music was on the verge of a renaissance. The original generation of ‘80s icons like Ron Hardy, Frankie Knuckles and the Hot Mix—having respectively succumbed to drugs, been seduced by major labels, or scattered across the airwaves—left a fissure in the community that was further torn apart by the notoriously unscrupulous business practices of certain local labels and the siren call of overseas DJ fees.
Into this breach came a new generation of DJs and producers—now easily recognizable names like Mark Farina, Derrick Carter and DJ Heather—who congregated around Gramophone Records on Clark Street. Raised on the first generation of house music and eager to avoid the mistakes of their forebears, they played their own parties at underground lofts and launched their own labels to release music that offered a new take on the original Chicago house style, one that was more in step with the higher-energy sound of the rave scene picking up steam across the American Midwest.
Another member of this peer group was 25-year-old, Puerto Rican-born DJ Carlos Sosa, who went by the name DJ Sneak (his tag as a graffiti writer). Intrigued by the salsa and meringue records his parents brought from their native island, Sneak held similar interest in the rhythms of first-wave Chicago house, discovering “old-school” mixtapes (made a mere half-decade earlier) when he was a teenager.
Sneak set out to make his own tracks, self-releasing his first vinyl, the Sneaky Traxx EP, on his appropriately named Defiant label in 1993. That record, and the three that followed in the first half of 1994, all consisted of minimalist, jacking tracks that closely mimicked the drum machine workouts of Chicago producers like Steve Poindexter and DJ Funk. These cuts were highly effective on the dancefloor but lacked the musicality Sneak had admired in the Latin orchestras of his youth.
“Sneak borrowed entire segments of music to construct his disco cut-up, a move that allowed him to achieve the fullness of classic disco anthems on a home studio budget.”
Sneak’s fifth release in less than 12 months came out on Cajual Records, the imprint owned by Curtis Jones (aka Cajmere/Green Velvet), whose massive hit “Percolator” was a rare Chicago track from the early ‘90s to have the same global impact as the original ‘80s house tunes. The Funkadelikrelic EP presented a new style for Sneak on two of its four tracks. Using his Akai S950 sampler, the producer chopped and looped snippets of disco classics by Lonnie Liston Smith on “Funky Enuff” and Wood, Brass and Steel on “Grooveadelik,” creating a lush musical bed upon which he added his bouncing house beats. His next release for Cajual doubled down on the new sound, sampling songs by Jean Carne, MFSB and Instant Funk, as well as playfully trolling label boss Jones on the jacking “Percolate This Track.”
By now, Sneak was a rising star recognized outside of Chicago. His dual identity in the studio—half muscular drums and synth, half sample-based euphoric disco loops—continued throughout 1995 on more records put out by Relief, as well as Toronto labels Jinxx and 83 West, and New York imprints Strictly Rhythm, Henry Street and Armand Van Helden’s AV8. One record for Brooklyn label Downtown 161 featured a version of Loose Joint’s left-field disco classic “Is It All Over My Face”—specifically, Larry Levan’s “Female Vocal” version, which had been a classic at the Paradise Garage.
The original recording, led by Arthur Russell and featuring the Ingram brothers on an array of instruments, was recorded on the night of the full moon in February 1979 as one long jam, with Russell looking to inject the groove of disco with the off-kilter sway of free jazz. The lyrics, written by Russell as a barely disguised paen to gay sex, along with the loose rhythm and unconventional arrangement, meant the song was sure to have limited appeal. But at the hands of Levan (with the help of Francois Kevorkian), the rhythm was punched up to maximize effectiveness on the dancefloor, while the mumbled male vocals were replaced by the belting diva voice of Melvina Woods, which was also recorded during the session but left off the original release. Sneak further tightened up the track by cutting up Woods’ voice and Russell’s slinky synthesizer solo (likely a Yamaha DX7) and buttressing the beat with his trusty Roland TR-909.
Sneak wasn’t alone in lifting samples from the Loose Joints’ classic. The “You caught me love dancing” line had been used by Roger Sanchez in 1990 on a Strictly Rhythm release as Underground Solution, while the title lyric was sampled by UK acid house producers The C.C.R Crew in 1988. But rather than just using the vocal, Sneak borrowed entire segments of music to construct his disco cut-up, a move that allowed him to achieve the fullness of classic disco anthems on a home studio budget.
Sneak was also not the last to lift samples from “Is It All Over My Face.” Just a year after his version hit dancefloors, fellow Chicago producer DJ Deeon mashed up Russell’s keyboard part with a vocal sample from “Let No Man Put Asunder” by First Choice (likely the most sampled disco song of all time). But the real influence of Sneak’s disco looping style was felt in Paris, where a new duo named Daft Punk was creating its own disco-sampling masterpieces—like “Around the World” and “Da Funk”—which would lead up to their debut album, Homework. Sneak’s impact was made obvious when Daft Punk name-dropped the DJ (along with 21 other Chicago producers) on another Homework track, “Teachers.”
The success of Homework set off a deluge of filtered disco records, many released on Thomas Bangalter’s and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo’s respective Roulé and Crydamoure labels. Uninformed journalists and fans began referring to the Chicago-born sound as the “French touch.” Sneak even released a track on Crydamoure and became a member of the loose international DJ collective Da Mongoloids, which counted Armand Van Helden, Daft Punk, Junior Sanchez, Roger Sanchez, Todd Terry, Ian Pooley, Laidback Luke, Basement Jaxx and the Rhythm Masters as members.
The Paris-Chicago-filtered-disco-house-touch sound reached its popular apex in 1998 with the release of “The Music Sounds Better With You” by Stardust (a collaboration between Bangalter and Alan Braxe). The song remains one of the most famous dance records in history, a staple at clubs for nearly two decades. It’s hard to imagine that Bangalter and Braxe would have found their way to sampling Chaka Khan’s “Fate” had it not been for DJ Sneak’s earlier innovations.