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By William Michael Smith
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As countries go, Suriname is tiny. Its smallness is particularly apparent when measured against the enormous size of Brazil to its south and the vast expanse of the Atlantic Ocean to its north. In this former Dutch colony, dense jungle drapes most of the landscape, rugged banks of sand and clay take the place of cultivated beaches -- and the airwaves were once as unpredictable as the Atlantic swells that pummel its shores.
Imagine that: growing up in a country without radio formats, where you could hear Lynyrd Skynyrd, Herbie Hancock, Bunny Wailer, the Steve Miller Band and James Brown all within the same half hour, all on the same station. For the first 13 years of his life, Andre Sam-Sin knew nothing else.
"I never understood that Crystal Gayle was country and western music until I came to this country," Sam-Sin says. "I was exposed to a wide range of music -- country, reggae, salsa, funk, jazz, rock, our own native music [a salsa/African hybrid called kaseko] -- so when I came to the States, I was a bit disappointed. I gravitated toward the soul stations, but I also looked for anything that was connected with the Caribbean, especially reggae."
To say the least, Sam-Sin is a diverse product. He's part Asian, part Caucasian and part black, with a white mother from New York and a mixed-race father who's a native of Suriname. Sam-Sin was born in Holland, moving with his family to Suriname as a child and then to Texas as a teenager. Anywhere else such a diverse background might be seen as exotic, but in a city as racially heterogeneous as Houston, Sam-Sin is merely one of the multicultural masses.
But to his credit, Sam-Sin has never been content to remain just another face among the multitudes. He is among the multicultural few who have plumbed their sundry parts to create a sound that's as broad-based as they are. Over the last few years, beginning with the nightclub Soulstice, then moving on to Soular Grooves (Saturdays 9 p.m. to midnight on KPFT/90.1 FM), Soular Cafe at Rockefeller's and, most recently, 8.0 at 8:00 at (of course) 8.0, Sam-Sin has tried to create for his listeners the same undifferentiated wash of music he enjoyed as a child hooked on Suriname radio. His instrument of choice has been the DJ's turntable; his nom de guerre DJ Sun. Sam-Sin has had help along the way, primarily from friend and occasional business partner Andrew Chong, editor of Urban Beat magazine, but it's been mainly his baby. Finding an audience for his record-spinning vision hasn't been all that easy, but neither has it been as difficult as he'd been warned.
"I was told when I first started doing this that you can't really get a mixed crowd in Houston, because the city is so segregated," Sam-Sin says. "That's false. [I have] achieved it."
At 31, Sam-Sin could be considered a late bloomer. He was 26 when he bought his first DJ's rig, two outdated turntables and a worn mixing board he discovered at a Houston pawn shop. "[The turntables] were belt-driven, so I had to keep replacing the belts," he recalls.
Like most DJs, Sam-Sin got acquainted with the skill by making mix tapes for friends. Soon after he landed his first gig as DJ Sun, spinning at a party for an attorney pal, he updated his equipment -- though his standard setup remains little more than a pair of record players (albeit the best available) and a two-channel Gemini mixing board. From laying grooves for lawyers, he moved to a regular Friday night spot at the short-lived downtown nightclub Soulstice. DJ Sun's sets focused on acid jazz, and often drew the craziest, most diverse crowds.
But then, to Sam-Sin's dismay, Soulstice folded. New Year's Eve 1994 was his last at the club, so he moved his act to the radio, where he was heard by Chong. The pair decided to return the Soular notion to the clubs with a music/lifestyle event known as Soular Cafe. One night every few months, Sam-Sin and Chong would clear out the clutter of cocktail tables and chairs at Rockefeller's, transforming the somewhat staid Washington Avenue club into a way-hip enclave for "cool urban grooves" and wash-over-you, full-body stimulation. In the process, they hoped to encourage the sort of uniquely '90s, cross-cultural mingling one can experience in the trendier nightspots in Chicago, New York City and London.
But it was the music, as much as the mingling, that inspired Sam-Sin. Acid jazz's roots can be traced to London, where a DJ named Gilles Peterson coined the phrase in the late '80s. At the time, Peterson had been growing increasingly bored with the sterile acid-house beats he was spinning. To him, their sampled repetition and special effects were soulless. To liven things up a bit, Peterson began to wedge slivers of vintage jazz recordings among the frenetic electronic grooves.
"The way the story goes, [Peterson] nudges a buddy of his when he sees the kids are still dancing, and he goes, 'acid jazz,' and the term stuck," says Sam-Sin. "It was kind of an inside joke."
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