Born in Corona, Queens, on 1 June 1967, Roger Sanchez’s arrival coincided with the kind of major demographic shift that can generate gang wars — or the kind of rich musical mix that makes you want to become a DJ. Historically Italian American, Corona, or “crown” in Italian, became largely Latin when Colombian, Guatemalan, Eucadorian and (in the case of Sanchez’s parents) Dominican immigrants moved into the neighbourhood during the 1960s and 1970s. Construction work on the dystopian LeFrak City, a forty-acre housing development that consisted of twenty tower blocks, began on the doorstep of the Sanchez household in the mid-1960s and came to be populated predominantly by African Americans. Queens, then, was never lacking in ethnic, working-class edge, and as the music ran thick and full-blooded through the borough’s arteries, Sanchez lapped it all up.“I was immersed in the diverse mixture of Latin/Afro-Caribbean rhythms, 80s pop and bore witness to the birth of hip hop and rap,” says Sanchez. “Music of all kinds could be heard on any four-block stretch. The 1980s was an explosively creative period in music history that introduced me to countless sounds and styles that I would later incorporate into my musical vocabulary, both as a DJ and a producer.” At home, Sanchez’s parents exposed him to merengue and salsa, classical music and opera, and pop and gospel (his mother being a committed Christian). In a time-honoured ritual observed by kids throughout the world, however, Sanchez would steal away whenever he could in order to listen to AM radio — and then FM when it broke through in the late 1970s. When FM arrived, AM didn’t stand a chance. Kiss (Shep Pettibone, Tony Humphreys), WBLS (Merlin Bob, Timmy Regisford) and Disco 92 WKTU (Aldo Marin, Jellybean Benitez) took over the high-fidelity airwaves and became Sanchez’s “key to the musical world”.
Hopping on the 7 Train to attend the High School of Art and Design in Manhattan, Sanchez became immersed in the lifestyle of the B-Boy. Having acquired the street name of “Mekanic”, Sanchez became a well-known graffiti artist and an accomplished breakdancer. Appearances in the eighties breakdance movies Beat Street and Krush Groove, as well as a number of music videos for Clarence Clemons (best known for his work with the E-Street Band), followed. And when Citibank decided to sharpen up its image, Sanchez was hired to appear in one of their commercials until an executive thought better of the plan. Afrika Bambaataa had just released his earth-rumbling debut with the Soul Sonic Force, but there were still parts of the planet that didn’t know how to rock.
Aged sixteen, Sanchez tried his hand at DJing for the first time when a friend invited him to play at a house party. He remembers spinning Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern” during his set and, when the room roared its response, he became hooked. Sanchez went out and bought a used record player with a cheap needle, which he set up alongside his mother’s equally beat-up equipment, and practiced. After a while, Sanchez started to make mix tapes for his crew, which he handed out for free, but as demand for his tapes increased, he started to sell the tapes to students from his high school. As Sanchez’s selections punctuated the New York City soundscape, students from neighbouring colleges started to track him down in order to purchase his mixes.
After graduating from the High School of Art and Design in 1985, Sanchez went to the Pratt Institute to study architecture, and during his time there he set up a table in front of Unique’s clothing store on Broadway and, braving the freezing cold weather in order to earn enough cash to continue with his studies, he started to sell his tapes. Following repeated hassle from the police, Sanchez shifted his table to the front of Tower Records, fully aware that the store carried few of the titles that could be heard on his mixes. “I truly wanted to design buildings for a living, but the music bug bit me and after careful consideration I took the plunge,” remembers Sanchez, who ended up quitting architecture school as his final year approached. “An education at Pratt is very expensive, but you can’t put a price on the joy that music gives you. My mother wasn’t too pleased, but my father supported me and my dreams.”
By this point Sanchez knew his way around the New York club scene. He had heard Jellybean spin at the Roxy when he as thirteen, after which he started to hang out at venues such as 1018, Lamour East and Red Zone. Towards the end of 1986, he also went to the Paradise Garage, which left an indelible impression. “Nothing will ever come close,” he reflects. The rundown town hall in Queens where Sanchez got his first regular DJing gig certainly didn’t compare, yet, melding together a mix of hip hop, freestyle and early Chicago house, Sanchez developed a skill in programming at the venue, even if his mixing skills “weren’t the greatest.” Eventually the fledgling spinner started up his own Egotrip night, first at Club Mars, then at the Octagon. “The Egotrip parties were great,” says Sanchez, who also put on alternative nights under names such as Bora Bora and Ego Trip. “They lasted for a few years.”
Sanchez started to make his own tracks and in 1990 he released his first record, “Dreamworld” by Egotrip, on Outer Limits, a subsidiary of Quark Records, one of the labels to pioneer house in New York. But it was another track, “Luv Dancin’”, that would catapult Sanchez to overnight dance fame. “My approach to that record was simple,” recalls Sanchez. “I wanted to make a groove that would feel good to dance to. The people who really know my work can make a direct correlation to the art of dancing and the way I construct my beats.” Syncopated beats were intended to ease dancers into a studder step, while beat fills encouraged swift turns. “My beats have always represented the dancer at heart,” adds Sanchez. “The drumming skills of Max Roach, Buddy Miles and the JB’s have been strong sources of inspiration.”
Arthur Russell, the downtown avant-garde cellist who turned his hand to disco in the late 1970s, was another inspiration for Sanchez. Working with a range of musicians and releasing twelve-inch singles under the names of Dinosaur, Dinosaur L and Loose Joints, Russell produced a string of groundbreaking dance cuts and, along with Will Socolov, founded the influential Sleeping Bag label. Twisted and dubbed-out, “Go Bang” became an anthem across a range of influential downtown venues, including the Loft and the Paradise Garage, and left Sanchez spinning. “‘Go Bang’ had this very SoHo/East Village sound,” he explains. “It’s one of my favourite tunes of all time. Arthur always had a way of coming up with infectious bass lines, and I tried to emulate that feeling with ‘Luv Dancin”.”
“Luv Dancin’” took its name from another Arthur Russell twelve-inch, “Is It All Over My Face?” by Loose Joints, which was co-produced by the New York disco pioneer Steve D’Acquisto and, in its second incarnation, remixed as a “Female Version” by the Garage DJ Larry Levan. “The sheer force of that groove is brilliant,” says Sanchez, who played the record all the time and remembers his dancers singing along when it got to the chorus, which included a line about “love dancing”. Recognisable, infectious and nugget-like in form, “Is It” was a sample waiting to happen, and Sanchez layered the record’s spaced-out phrasing and a dash of Carl Bean over a dense, moody, jazz-inflected track.
Happy with the result, Sanchez gave a copy of “Luv Dancin’” by Underground Solution to Gladys Pizarro, an old customer from his table in front of Unique’s, who was now running Strictly Rhythm with Mark Finkelstein. The label had scored one significant club hit with Logic’s “The Warning”, and Pizarro, who took care of the A&R side of the business, was on the lookout for a second smash. She pounced on “Luv Dancin’” with the enthusiasm of a clubber and the glint of a keen-eyed entrepreneur and, keen to have an especially good night out, gave a copy to Tony Humphreys when she went to dance at Zanzibar on her birthday. “Tony loved it,” recalls Pizarro. “He played it three or four times. A lot of industry people were there. The next day all the record companies were calling.” Strictly cleared the samples and pressed up the record, which went onto sell some fifty thousand copies. “That was huge for a little independent record company run by two people,” she says. Sanchez, meanwhile, looked west towards New Jersey in thanks. “I have an enormous amount of respect for Tony and how he helped launch my production career. Tony has supported me and the entire New York sound from day one.”
Alongside the likes of “Little” Louie Vega, Kenny “Dope” Gonazlez and Todd Terry, Sanchez became a key figure at Strictly, where he released tracks such as “Livin 4 the Underground” (Roger S), “Release Yo Self” (Transatlantic Soul) and “Sumba Lumba” (Tribal Confusion). Developing his studio portfolio, Sanchez also remixed tracks by a string of high-profile artists, including Kathy Sledge, Babyface, Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Janet Jackson, Chic, M People, Incognito, Juliet Roberts, the Brand New Heavies, Daft Punk, the Police, Elton John, Jamiroquai, Underworld and Soul II Soul. “Incognitio ‘Giving It Up’, Brand New Heavies ‘Midnight at the Oasis’, Juliet Roberts ‘Caught In the Middle’ and Kathy Sledge ‘Take Me Back to Love Again’ are strong favorites,” says Sanchez. “The ones that I’m most proud of are Lovetribe ‘Stand Up’, Psychedelic Waltons ‘Alice In Wonderland’ and No Doubt ‘Hella Good’, which showcased my innovative side.” In 2004 Sanchez’s innovation received indusry recognition when “Hella Good” was awarded a Grammy for Best Remix.
Working alongside Eddie Colon, Sanchez also set up One Records in 1992 and released twelve-inch singles by Kenny “Dope” Gonzalez, Victor Simonelli and Murk’s Oscar G, as well as his own debut album, Secret Weapons, which developed his dubby aesthetic and cemented his reputation as a significant player on the New York dance scene. “The One Records period was an exciting time for me,” he remembers. “It was my first label and I felt it became an underground experimental home for established and up-and-coming producers.” Operating alongside Strictly, as well as the equally respected Nervous Records, One Records made a significant contribution to the halcyon years of New York house. “Todd gave me a solid first release, but Axxis by my long-time friend Kenny Dope put us on the map,” notes Sanchez. “Nu Solution ‘I Need You’, Oscar G ‘Tilt’, the Sound of One ‘EP’ and my Secret Weapons Volume 1 solidified our vision.” The records went down particularly well in Europe, where a red-eyed Sanchez started to pick up the majority of his DJing work. “The UK scene was vibrant, but a little harder than New York,” he says. “The New York sound was accepted, but it had to have an edge to it. With the emergence of techno, I found myself integrating Warp, R&S and Champion records into the mix.”
By the time Sanchez released Secret Weapons Volume 2 in 1995, he had set up Narcotic Records, which released tracks by figures such as Ashley Beedle, Deep Dish, DJ Disciple and the Rhythm Masters, as well as the Dream Team’s “Brotherhood of Soul”, which brought together Colonel Abrams and Michael Watford. Throughout, Sanchez’s production, remix and compilation projects continued to flow, including his S-Men collaboration with Junior Sanchez and DJ Sneak. In 1998 he came out with S-Man Classics, a two-disc collection that consolidated his position in the international dance scene, and in 2001 he released First Contact, which he considered to be his first serious solo production album. Following on the back of a series of mix CDs, including compilations for Hard Times and the Ministry of Sound, as well as contributions to the United DJs of America and Release Yourself series, Sanchez came out with Come With Me, his second dedicated solo album, in 2006.
Having forged his mark on the present, Sanchez has reached a point where he can take some time out to reflect on his musical roots — the old vinyl records that inspired him to begin DJing and remixing in the first place. “The time pieces on this compilation have influenced my passion for music and hopefully this comes through in the many songs I’ve created,” says Sanchez. “Some of these were sampled, re-interpreted, and covered by me, but I always respected their value and integrity. These tracks made it possible for house music to be as great as it is today.” Sanchez still plays a number of these tracks in New York, where he currently plays a monthly residency at Crobar. “We used to break up our sets with classics when the crowd became bored with the four-on-the-floor. It gave the dancers a burst of energy when I would play TW Funkmasters ‘Love Money’, B Beat Girls ‘For the Same Man’, or Wide Boy Awake ‘Slang Teacher’.” Classics are always important to use today.”