By now, the old DJ cliché is so shopworn that it probably belongs in a museum. It's the one where the music writer asks the DJ to describe his or her style, and the DJ trots out the familiar but unhelpful line about how it's "hard to pin it down into just one genre."
Mercifully, DJ Sun avoids reheating such platitudes; maddeningly, his lush mixes invite them. It's a sweltering summer night at Union in Midtown, and Sun and DJ Melodic are manning the decks up front, stretching out the vibe for German headliner Jazzanova.
Chicken George slides in, letting his epileptic fingers go to work, taking warbling vocals and scrambling them into tight squeals, which play perfectly off the beats in a funky scratch backtalk.
Sun and Melodic have something new cooking here -- the Rockford Upbeat Sound System, they call it -- though it's really only a shade different from what you know. On the wall behind them, a banner advertises their Saturday-night Soular Grooves collaboration on KPFT (90.1 FM). It's fitting, actually, that the Soular Grooves image literally hangs over this effort, since figuratively it's what Sun and Melodic are trying to move beyond.
In January, the show will celebrate its tenth anniversary -- a minor miracle in the ephemeral world of Houston deejaying, much less on a radio dial that has never embraced dance music quite like it should. With Rockford, Sun isn't abandoning the sound smoothie that makes Soular glow. He calls it "rebranding," and it's how one of Houston's top living-room DJs is trying to find his way back to the dance floor.
His demeanor as casual and accessible as the downtempo he spins, 38-year-old DJ Sun, born Andre Sam-Sin, is a bit under the weather when he leads a tour of his home studio in the Montrose on a recent weekday. The MPC 2000 MIDI Production Center seems to be the brain of this operation: It takes feeds from the adjacent keyboard and turntables and stores his concoctions in a zip drive that he'll later rejigger on ProTools.
"This is such a demystifying process," he says, explaining how he builds his tracks. "Everybody should be able to make music." (Maybe, but good music?) Right now, he's finishing up three original songs, including a dreamy number called "Ten" with Jai Jordan and Mark Sound. It's trademark Sun, both rich and relaxed.
On his Technics, he drops the needle on a DJ Swamp joint called Neverending Breakbeats, which is interesting because the grooves on the vinyl don't connect and the drum loops can cycle through ad infinitum. It's an appropriate place to begin, since hip-hop beats form the backbone of much of the Soular sound.
Fusion comes naturally to Sun -- it's practically written into his genetic code. A native of Holland, he spent his formative years in the South American country of Suriname before winding up in Texas. Today, he's got a fuzzy black beard and droopy eyes from the summer flu, and he stretches out on his plaid couch in the living room in a way that recalls the cover of Groove Armada's Vertigo.
The year was 1995, and Sun was fresh off an eight-month stint at a downtown spot called Soulstice when KPFT offered him a slot. The hour wasn't pretty -- 3 a.m. on Wednesday mornings -- but after a six-month trial period, he scored airwave real estate on Saturday nights and hasn't looked back since. Along the way, he's inspired several to join his gentle attack.
One such was DJ Melodic. To say DJ Melodic, a.k.a. "Paco" Jennings, was immediately intrigued by this show is an understatement -- "spellbound" might be more apt, as he went from avid fan to show contributor.
"I was like his record boy, so to say," jokes Melodic. "Every time he had a show like in Austin or whatever, [he'd] call me up; I was there at all the shows. I knew all the records that he pulled out. Whenever he played a record, I put it back in the sleeve. I carried his stuff to the car. I'd set up for him." In the decade since, the sorcerer's apprentice has come into his own.
Back then, Soular was tabbed as acid jazz, an imperfect approximation, for sure, but one that remains at least distantly embedded in the style to this day. Besides, when it comes to Soular's genre-bending blend of sound, imperfect approximations are the best you can do. The Soular Web site bills it as the latest "soul, jazz and groove," which is about as noncommittal as John Kerry on the stump.
Chicken George, who was on board with Soular Grooves regularly from 1997 to 2003, before he moved to Austin, balks at the "downtempo" label.
"It's not really that slow," he points out. "It's hard to categorize I call it jazztronica. Basically, it's like jazz and electronic music fused together in basically whatever direction; whether it be uptempo, downtempo, lounge, chill, whatever, all of that fits into one category."
"Jazztronica" does have a nice Venn diagram ring to it. Part of the reason for the show's varied texture, DJ Suma explains, is that each member brings something different to the table. Suma, who got involved with Soular in 1999, says he lends his passion for reggae and dub to the mix. He sees Sun more on "the soulful tip, the groove tip," and says Melodic brings the jazzier, mellow, even abstract elements. He pegs Lil Tiger, who recently moved to L.A., as the show's resident ambassador of broken beat.
Over time, the sound has evolved, though in ways just as eclectic as its amalgamated foundation.
"We go with the times," says Sun, adding that they've tried to incorporate other styles like drum 'n' bass when they've been on the rise, though shading it with a more soulful, jazzy flavor. Chicken George says he's noticed their sampling turn more electronic and computer-based and less organic since its inception. And Suma hears a greater influx of Asian and Latin influences in recent years.
In that way, Soular Grooves serves as a kind of aural Rorschach test -- and not only for listeners. Sure, they'll tune in to the same song and pronounce it either "Great hip-hop!" "Great jazz!" or "Great deep house!" according to their biases, but then the DJs themselves diverge in formula, and thus their interpretations vary.
You'd think, then, that breadth would beget demand, that versatility would create opportunity. Glance at the CD racks spilling over with chillout and Back to Mine compilations and the gorgeous Café del Mar and Buddha Bar mixes, and you'd assume that trend translates locally. Yet Sun has found himself stuck of late -- pigeonholed into ambient, atmospheric affairs at Cafe Brasil and Onion Creek.
"It seems like in Houston there's a struggle to educate people about something different," he says. "I don't see the opportunities as much."
He continues: "I don't get many steady Friday gigs. Or Saturday. Because you got the mainstream out there, and the mainstream is not in tune to DJ Sun or Soular Grooves."
He cites a recurring Thursday-night event he was trying to rev up at Union that just wouldn't get off the ground.
"I just got to asking what's going on. Some of the feedback -- and this is not a scientific poll -- but some of the feedback I got was, well, Union's not like Brasil, nor is it like Onion Creek. You can't sit down, have coffee, have a sandwich, sort of kind of lounge. You know?
"And so I went back to the drawing board and I said, you know what? I'm going to brand-extend what we do," he says. "We want to stay within the aesthetic of what we bring -- soul, jazz, a groovy bass line -- but within that there's some really happening upbeat kind of songs."
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So the Rockford Upbeat Sound System was born. It's a way to distance himself, if ever so slightly, from the downbeat reputation he's earned.
"I don't want to walk with that stigma every night," he says. The name comes, somewhat randomly, from The Rockford Files, the old James Garner TV show that Sun adores. The Jazzanova show, their first outing, was part of an "embryonic stage" for the project, which Sun hopes to expand and evolve -- perhaps in the same way that Soular Grooves has aged.
"It's just a matter of staying flexible, creative-wise," he says. "If we do the same thing over and over, it'll get old."
Even if that thing is very, very different.