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Junior Sanchez

"House music is a universal vibration"

2019 May 08     
2 Bit Thugs

We catch up with the only producer in the game who manages to be both a Junior AND a bona fide house veteran at the same time…

You've probably heard the news by now that there's an S-Men album coming later this year. Incredibly, it'll the first-ever long player from the trio of DJ Sneak, Roger Sanchez and Junior Sanchez – a collaborative project that dates back to the mid-90s – and follows last year's Who We Are single on Defected.

So naturally, when we were asked if we'd like to speak to Junior Sanchez about it, we said 'yes'. But then we realised that actually, we couldn't remember Junior ever being interviewed in iDJ before, which seemed like something of an oversight! So we'll come back to the S-Men project nearer the time: today is all about Junior himself.

It's not like there isn't enough to talk about, after all. Since emerging onto the scene in 1996, aged just 19, as one-half of Da Mongoloids alongside Armand Van Helden (a project that would later grow into a loose collective that also included Daft Punk, DJ Sneak, Roger Sanchez, Todd Terry, Ian Pooley, Laidback Luke, Basement Jaxx and The Rhythm Masters), he's one of those producers who's never quite become a household name, exactly, but who's never gone away, either. Over the years his work has appeared on the likes of Strictly Rhythm, Nervous, Yoshitoshi, Snatch, Relief, Defected, Mad Tech and Circus as well as his own Cube Recordings, firmly cementing the New Jersey native's place in the upper echelons of the NY/NJ house scene.

House music isn't the only string to his bow: throughout his career he's maintained a sideline as a songwriter, producer and remixer to artists as diverse as Madonna, Jamiroquai, Gorillaz, Bloc Party, Azealia Banks, Chvrches and Katy Perry. But house remains his true love, and as he explains below – fresh from a headline slot at Ultra Music Festival in Miami – he's feeling pretty good about the state of the house scene in 2019.

Read on for his thoughts on EDM, muscle bros on the dancefloor and why house is finally getting recognised in the land that gave it birth…

I remember when Junior Sanchez really was 'junior' – you came out very young! The first thing I remember was Spark Da Meth

"Yeah, that was me and Armand. We started Da Mongoloids and that record was the first introduction to that concept."

but there's been a lot of water under the bridge since then! And now we're at an interesting time in dance music history, where you've got different generations dancing together, really for the first time in our culture…

"Yeah, but it's funny cos that's really how I grew up! When I was a teenager, I had no business really, when you think about it, as a 13-, 14-year-old kid listening to Masters At Work, or Leroy Burgess, or Kerri Chandler, all the people that were big inspirations for me. I should really have been listening to stuff that was more age-appropriate at that time!

"But I think, everything goes in cycles. The wheel doesn't get reinvented, it just slows down and you gotta spin it again, and I think this is where we're at right now. We're coming to a resurgence of house music, the kids are getting into it and it's like everyone's meeting at the same frequency right now."

I know that's certainly true in the UK – is it as true in the US? I remember the first time I visited NYC in '95, being amazed how underground house really was there compared to the UK… 

"Well, I can give you my perspective on that. I believe – I've said this before and I'll continue to say it – that the UK, the English culture and the English people, are so soulful that you accepted house music before we could, and embraced it, just like you'd done with R&B and northern soul before. You have a culture of embracing black music better than we did here in the US. That's why you adapted to house music so early on, and it took us time to really accept it here. Which is still happening!

"I'm glad that we've progressed to where we are now in the US, but you guys were way more progressive in the music than we were, for a long time. Even artists like Chaka Khan and Tina Turner would release records in the UK first, rather than the US, because they knew they wouldn't be accepted there."

And has that changed now, do you think?

"Yeah, I think it's changed because EDM ushered in a whole new… it moved dance music beyond the novelty thing. The reason why dance music never really progressed in the US – even though we had a few little moments with people like C&C Music Factory and Crystal Waters and Ultra Nate – was that new electronic music came in very quickly like Real McCoy, La Bouche, Snap!, all those European records which were commercially exploding. And the labels took real notice of that, but it was like a novelty thing, and it regressed real house music down and brought it back underground in the US. The UK accepted it and we had No 1 records, Top 10 records there, but in the US we adopted all the novelty Euro records that you guys wouldn't! So it became a novelty.

"Then we had another little moment with electronica, where The Prodigy were signed to Maverick, Moby did his Area:One tour, Fatboy Slim broke through… but people couldn't correlate, they were like, 'Who's Fatboy Slim? Okay, who's Norman Cook? Is he fat? Is he slim? We don't understand!'. People couldn't understand the concept of dance music and DJ culture at that time, because we were so conditioned to believe you needed drums-bass-guitar for Americans to understand it. That's why people like Trent Reznor, when he did Nine Inch Nails, even though it was really just one guy with a computer he had to have the perception of a band so that Americans could accept it. It's just the way we were conditioned.

"So I think EDM opened up that door for the DJ culture to be understood. So that now, these kids that like EDM, they went from the Steve Aokis and Steve Angellos, as they've got older and progressed their palates have changed and now they're all into house music. It's a natural progression, and I'm glad that right now we're in that state, because kids wanna learn and from knowing modern music they also want to discover their history, like 'Who's Todd Terry? Who are Masters At Work?'. So it gives all these guys a chance to have a resurgence in their own country.

"I was actually having a conversation with Sneak about that today! I think we're in a great time right now for house music, and I'm glad it's happening at this time in my life."

Is that why the S-Men album's coming now – to ride that wave?

"No, I think i'ts just that we all had our personal journeys, we've all done our different things and it was the right time. We all got together in Ibiza about 18 months ago and said, 'Y'know what? I think it's time for us all to get in the studio again'. Everyone put their egos aside – because we all have them, but I think as you get older you realise an ego is like an old pair of sneakers, you don't need them any more – and we decided to make music again. It was super-natural, it wasn't calculated at all."

Coming back to yourself, you've done a lot more than just house music over the years: you've been working with some of the EDM guys, you've been writing with Azealia Banks. Tell us a bit about that…

"Yeah, I've been writing with and producing other artists for most of my career – I signed my publishing deal early! I was in my twenties at the time, and people don't realise that I've produced Katy Perry, for instance – and not remixed, original productions. Azealia Banks is a rapper and a singer, and what I did for her was make a house record: her single Anna Wintour, if you listen to that, it's a straight-up house record. What I did with Katy Perry was more middle of the road: it was a bit indie, a bit house-y, it had guitars.

"House music is my first love but I'm also a musician and a writer, and I love to create. So I've worked across the board on original productions, from bands like Good Charlotte, to Azealia Banks and Katy Perry, and I did remixes for bands like Bloc Party and The Bravery. It's just about challenging myself to become a better musician and a better producer overall – I think that helps me stay fresh and keep my ears really open.

"House music is so special to me that when I do make it, it comes from a different perspective because I'm not doing it for anyone else, I'm not doing it to follow the herd, it comes from a place of pure creativity. When I do other forms of music, it inspires me to keep making house music in a different way."

I should imagine it makes it easier to carry on being a house producer as well, financially…

"Actually, it's not really that, because when I worked with Katy Perry she'd been dropped by three labels! You know, she on a Christian label, then she went to Columbia, then she went to Capitol. So when I was working with her she was at Virgin, before the Capitol merger, and this was her debut EP for them, very early on. So I didn't do it for money, I did it because I wanted to work with an artist that I saw at the time was extremely talented in songwriting and had a gift. And I'll continue to challenge and explore my own production skills, because I wanna grow.

"Unfortunately for me, I've never made decisions for money reasons. I probably should have, because I'd be a lot wealthier than I am right now! But I let the art lead my heart – you can't have a heart without the word art in it."

So would that include the work you've done with EDM artists as well?

"Well, yeah. My collaboration with Steve Angello was… people say 'EDM' but it's just three letters, and it's important to remember that before he became part of Swedish House Mafia, his label Size was revered by underground people, it was distributed by Defected, he had a residency at Pacha, it was house music. Then it evolved, and it fell into a place where it was progressive house or whatever you want to call it, and later it became EDM. So I got involved with house music that was evolving into what it became, but he was doing what we all considered house music at the time, and then later on it changed to what we now call EDM."

Speaking of EDM, you recently headlined at Ultra Music Festival in Miami…

"Yeah, on March 31st which was really cool, it was great to be back there after such a long time.

So what sort of stuff were you playing there?

"I played house! Stuff I've been currently making, stuff I've released on labels like Robsoul and Elrow, different stuff… my set's actually online now so you can hear it, but I was playing nothing but what I consider to be great, underground house music."

So you feel you can go in front of a mainstream like that without having to compromise musically?

"Yeah, I wouldn't have accepted the gig if I felt I had to compromise. I firmly believe that as artists we have to be artists, and we have to be proud of what we do. I say this all the time: if you don't like or don't understand what we do, don't book us! If you're going to book us, understand why you're booking us. And if you do that, don't tell the artist how to play: let us do what we do, you're booking us for a reason!There's a plethora of people out there you can book, so book the right one: don't book me and then try and tell me what to play. That just doesn't make sense to me."

You're clearly very committed to the house 'cause'. To me, that's all about community, and about breaking down barriers of race, sexuality and so on... but how would you describe it?

"I think for me, not to borrow from your words but I agree 100 per cent. I think house music is a unification of different cultures, races, sexualities, everything. I look at house music as literally a rainbow: I don't just mean as a gay thing, but a rainbow of everything. It breaks down all those barriers.

"House is probably the only form of music that will transcend even language barriers. I've played records in English in other countries and people are singing along even if they don't really understand the words, they're resonating because of the frequency they're in. You don't have to sit and listen to the lyrics, like hip-hop where you need to understand what Kendrick Lamar is saying: house is a universal language and it's literally all about the rhythm, the frequencies, the drums, the bass, the music.

"And that's really rare, because if you look at say country music, even though country is one of the biggest forms of music in America, that doesn't really travel, because it's really about storytelling. Whereas house music is a universal vibration that people feel, in every part of the world. That's super-special, and I think people are starting to understand that, especially in America, they're finally starting to get it."

Are there places that don't get it, do you think? When you see dancefloors full of roided-up white guys, or when you hear East European producers coming out with really horrible homophobic statements, are they really in the house spirit?

"I know what you mean. People sometimes don't seem to get that without the gay culture, we wouldn't even have house music! House music is a derivative of disco, it's part of that clandestine subculture. So yeah, I've been to places where I've thought, 'What am I doing here? They don't understand this.'

"But it's like anything else, you're always going to have the yin with the yang. The world would be boring if everywhere you went, everything was amazing and people got it. Sure, I love it when I get to a room and I'm connecting and I'm like, 'Okay, they get it,' it makes it that much more enjoyable. But it also makes it a job when people don't get it! Then it's like, 'Okay, I've really got to work hard to connect with the few people that get it, and the people that don't get it? That's their problem'."

I suppose the flipside of that is, we all get nostalgic about the rave days, seeing drag queens and gangsters from the hood dancing together and hugging each other, yada yada yada… but they didn't necessarily walk in as friends, did they?

"Exactly! House music builds tolerance and understanding, and that's why it's so important. That's why I'm an advocate of… I want to see a hip-hop kid, or a 'chav', next to a drag queen, next to a straight-looking gay guy who isn't at all flamboyant, next to a pure househead or raver… a vast array of colours on a dancefloor is what the world should be about. It shouldn't be all about one type of person: as you say, it's not just for the muscle kids, but I think the muscle kid deserves to be around everyone else, because he needs to learn as well. I love having a very diverse, colourful dancefloor: that's what it should be about, because that's awesome."

So do the older generation have a responsibility to the youngers, to keep pushing that message forward?

"Oh, 100 per cent! I think we have a huge responsibility to make sure that the younger generation learn, or are at least given the opportunity to understand, what's happened before them, so they can progress this artform even further."

"I think it's our responsibility to keep the narrative correct, and not let people try and rewrite what's happened in history. People try and erase what's happened, so for instance when ABC News called David Guetta 'the Godfather of house music' – not to discredit David Guetta, but to me it was his responsibility, or his PR's responsibility, to go 'Okay, hold on, let's correct that, that's inaccurate.' As older artists, that's what our responsibility is."

So, I know you've just played Ultra, you've got the S-Men album coming up, but what else is coming up between now and then? 

"I'm playing at Rhonda in LA this weekend, I'm touring, and then when it comes to records, between remixes and singles I'm stacked for the rest of the year! I have another release on Yousef's label Circus, I've got a single on Elrow, I've got another single on Robsoul, Reaching High which is a real summer record. I think you'll love it."

You mentioned touring… that's something a lot of the older DJs tell us they've had enough of. Not the playing, the travelling…

"Nah, I love the travelling! I did take a little break, you've got to balance it, but I'm healthier than I've ever been, I'm younger than I've ever been mentally and physically… I can do this for a little while longer! I don't wanna do it for the rest of my life but right now I'm good, I'm in a place where I have the travelling down to such an art and a science that it really doesn't bother me. Y'know, I don't drink like I used to, I don't party like I used to, so travelling to me, the only nuisance is airports."

The health thing seems to be important for those DJs that do manage to carry on: you can't be a party animal your entire life, or at least not unless you're Keith Richards…

"No, you have to be healthy. Health is number one: that's the most important thing."

Words: Russell Deeks

Keep On Reachin' is out now on Robsoul. The S-Men album will follow later in the year

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